‘Would we have liked to live with him?’ asked Thackeray, contemplating Swift, a question he immediately ducked by supplying a long list of other writers with whom we might prefer to spend our time. Samuel Johnson, similarly recoiling from the evidence of Swift’s character as manifested in his works, thought him ‘a man of rigorous temper’, whose ‘vigilance of minute attention’ must have made him unbearable. Even his best friends, on whose testimony Johnson relied, depicted him as cold, frugal, petulant and severe.
None of this would have surprised the man himself. In his autobiographical ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’ (1731), he imagined widespread indifference to his demise and posthumous distortions of his name. The poem gives neither his vilest enemies nor his closest friends much credit for the sincerity or persistence of their feelings. Instead, it is the public Swift who endures, the man who unmasked cheats and frauds, who stood up for the financial and constitutional independence of Ireland, and who left his money
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satiric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.
By ‘That Kingdom’, Swift meant, as he explained in a note at once bitterly resigned and still hopeful of escape, ‘Ireland, where he now lives, and probably may dye’. He might have been dubbed the ‘Hibernian Patriot’ and grudgingly accepted the adulation of thousands, but he never got over the idea that he was destined for bigger and better things in England. His life could be summed up by the experience, as a boy, of having almost caught a very big fish on his line, ‘but it dropt in, and the disappointment vexeth me to this very day’.
It was a matter of pride to Swift, and has always been an exasperation to his biographers, that he never wrote anything that was easy to understand. ‘Easy’, like ‘genuine’, is a treacherous word in his nimble hands, generally indicating that a suspect proposal is brewing. If there are too many poor Irish people to feed, for instance, why don’t rich people buy and eat some of their children? What could be more ‘innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual’? The speaker of A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729) aspires to a coolly rational, economic survey of cannibalism. Children, after all, may be ‘delicious, nourishing, and wholesome’; they can be ‘Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boiled’; and have you thought, by the way, about turning them into ‘a Fricasie, or a Ragout’? The intricately practical details of his plan are, in the proposer’s mind, the best and surest way of forestalling any weak-minded person’s instinctive objections to a bold new scheme. He has simply thought of everything already.
The superficial accessibility of this style belies its author’s gift for trickery, vexing, teasing and distortion. Swift’s writing is flexible and slippery, embodying a principled distrust of human ambition. One of his greatest achievements is the ability at once to inhabit and to part company with the speakers whose frequently unhinged views of the world he adopts.
Those speakers are a ragbag of thieving upstarts and deluded schemers, chattering servants, cruel children, honest horses and rotting prostitutes. Swift was a master of satire’s many and various levels of awareness, of suggestion and implication. His chronic, acidulous discontentment with life resulted in a brilliantly discombobulated vision of the world. Here, the little gives way to the big, height consorts with depth and decorum rubs shoulders (and more) with indecorum. Nothing stays still for long. In these texts, at once violently disordered and closely regulated, we continually lose our footing.
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