Some modest proposals - Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, whom T. S. Eliot called “colossal”, will be 350 this year. He is a giant among satirists, but also among political writers, and a poet of distinction admired and imitated by Byron, Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Eliot also called him “the greatest writer of English prose, and the greatest man who has ever written great English prose”. F. R. Leavis, who didn’t like him, called him “a great English writer”. He is often nowadays claimed for “Irish literature”, to which he would have objected. Swift considered himself English, and Irish only in the sense of having been “dropped” there.
He was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, and Ireland will be marking the anniversary with multiple celebrations, in Dublin, Trim and elsewhere, while England will respond more modestly, if at all. He died, also in Dublin, on October 19, 1745, and every year a symposium commemorates this in the Deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift lived and worked for the last thirty years of his life. The event is followed on the adjoining Sunday by an oration in the Cathedral by a distinguished writer or public figure, including, in 2012, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.
This great English writer, dean of an Anglican church in a Roman Catholic country, who regarded Ireland as a place of exile, is nowadays celebrated as one of its political heroes. When the tercentenary of his birth was commemorated in Dublin in 1967, an earlier President, Eamon de Valera, gave an inaugural address at Trinity College. De Valera, then in his eighties, spoke vividly at the end of a three-hour ceremonial, in clear-eyed acknowledgement that Swift was a powerful force in Ireland’s history, though not altogether friendly to its people. In no other English-speaking country is it usual for a writer to be officially celebrated at the highest political level, by national leaders who give every indication of having read his works.
Ireland honours its writers, including “disloyal” or Protestant writers, and even expatriates like James Joyce or, most recently, Samuel Beckett. Both Yeats and George Bernard Shaw were invited to serve in the Irish Senate at its inception. Shaw said, in an impish sally, that he would only join if the Senate moved to London, but Yeats became a prominent Senator, of admired wisdom and eloquence. “We are the people of Swift”, he said of the luminaries of the Protestant Ascendancy, “one of the great stocks of Europe”, responding to Catholic senators who objected to a Protestant advocating divorce in their Catholic legislature. The senators did not vote for divorce, but they were not unresponsive to Yeats’s oratory and genius. There is a natural feeling in Irish society, percolating down to the unlettered street, that literature matters, and that their writers, whether English or not, are national treasures. Swift is also a hero of the Dublin streets, even to people who haven’t read him. A taxi driver, who took it for granted that “Swift was great”, asked me, “if there was one book by Swift he should read, what would it be?” When I suggested Gulliver’s Travels, he exclaimed, “Did he write Gulliver’s Travels?” The name alone of the great Swift had hitherto been enough, but Gulliver, too, had a status of his own.
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