For Jonathan Swift, satire was no laughing matter. This brilliant, savage, biting wit was a warrior, not an entertainer; an activist, not a humorist. As he wrote to his friends the poet Alexander Pope and the politician Henry Bolingbroke: “The chief end I propose to my self in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it.” Disturbing the peace, afflicting others with mockery, is certainly at the core of Swift’s work. And doing so with a vulgar, earthy, even bestial relish in human frailty and folly is his trademark. So when we call any work Swiftian today, we usually mean that it is excoriating and unsettling.
Yet to be true to the essential spirit of the man, a work is properly Swiftian only if it also has a political point to make, an ideological edge to its creation. It’s impossible to understand the true power of Swift’s work without appreciating that it was rooted in his response to the controversies of his time. And his response was not a cool, reflective meditation on the passing scene, but a heated, partisan engagement designed to shape events.
One of the many virtues of John Stubbs’s compendious, deeply researched and absorbing biography is that it illuminates the events not just of Swift’s life, but of the world before and around him. It explains how the turbulent 17th century — the era of civil war in England and atrocities in Ireland — affected Swift’s family.
Swift grew up at a time of factional strife, as the ideological divisions of the civil war, of parliament versus king, developed into Whig versus Tory. He also found himself at the centre of the conflict between England’s interests and Ireland’s, as someone drawn to the heart of London life but, ultimately, driven to defend Dublin’s interests.
His grandfather Thomas Swift had been a comfortably-off clergyman in Herefordshire who sacrificed the family fortune for the royalist cause. Thomas’s sons moved to Ireland in an effort to repair their fortunes, and it was in Dublin that Jonathan was born in November 1667, a few months after his father’s death.
Swift never married, although his intensely passionate friendships with two women — Esther Johnson, known as Stella, and Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he styled Vanessa — inspired two of his most significant works: A Journal to Stella, which records his time at the heart of political life, and the poem Cadenus and Vanessa. The Swift his contemporaries knew was an apparently fastidious and proper cleric of the Church of Ireland who had an abhorrence of dirt and disorder, although a lively sense of humour and a liking for the theatre. Yet, behind the serenely conventional exterior, Swift’s body was regularly racked with pain (as a sufferer of the inner-ear condition Meniere’s disease) and his mind was in revolt at the wrongs of society.
That lively sense of disgust at the world around him is exhibited most vividly in Swift’s most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The work can be — and is — enjoyed by readers who know nothing of the broader context in Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel By John Stubbs Viking, 752pp, $59.99 (HB) which Swift wrote. He has an acute eye for the absurdities and indignities of our existence and he captures the bestial side of man brilliantly with his depiction of the vulgar simian Yahoos. He also vividly punctures mankind’s pretensions to dignity in his accounts of the tiny Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians.
Hugely diverting as Gulliver’s Travels is, like all Swift’s writings it can properly be understood only if we appreciate that he was driven by a desire to involve himself in the political struggles of his time. Swift was the principal propagandist of the Tory administration of Harley and Bolingbroke between 1710 and 1714. He deployed his pen to argue for the policy of ending the War of the Spanish Succession, laying blame for its cost and pain at the door of the Whigs, and arguing for the peace treaty concluded by Bolingbroke at Utrecht.
He did so through the pages of his newspaper, The Examiner, through pamphlets excoriating Whig statesmen, and through masterpieces of polemic such as his essay On the Conduct of the Allies. He was to Bolingbroke as Virgil was to Augustus: the artist who used his genius to legitimise a significant political figure, whose own significance he was destined to trump.
While Swift was a talented Tory propagandist, he did not start as a Tory partisan. His first patron was a Whig grandee, Sir William Temple, and as a young man he was a supporter of the Whig saviour, King William III. He dedicated one of his first significant works, A Tale of a Tub, to the Whig statesman Lord Somers.
However, Whig support for religious dissenters and economic policies that favoured financiers and speculators drove Swift into Tory arms. The Tories were the party of the squire and parson, of rural England and the Church of England. For Swift, whose faith was core to his character and who found in the Anglican Church a sanctuary from the follies and vices of the world, Tory staunchness in support of his religious principles was crucial.
The Tories were also hostile to the new financial interests clustered around the City of London that exploited the commercial opportunities from a war that was piling up debts for the rest of the country to pay. Tory opposition to the War of the Spanish Succession gave Swift an opportunity to denounce the moneyed interests and corrupters of the nation’s morals, whose selfishness in profiting from conflict he abhorred.
He also had a desire to be valued, feted and included in the inner councils of the powerful. Having been cold-shouldered by the Whigs when he was petitioning their ministers on behalf of the Church of Ireland, Swift was embraced by Harley and Bolingbroke as an equal, their intellectual peer and political soulmate. And, for a while, he rejoiced in his proximity to power, writing to the archbishop of London: “I am as well received and known at Court, as perhaps any man ever was of my level.”
Such pleasure, and pride, in playing his part in the politics of his time may be a weakness in Swift’s character. Nonetheless, he was remarkably principled, refusing financial favours and declining to lobby aggressively for promotion.
When the Tory administration fell in 1714 with the death of Queen Anne, Swift lost his role as a propagandist, but he did not stop writing politically. Gulliver’s Travels is, in many ways, a meditation on political power and human passion. Gulliver’s putting out of a fire in Lilliput by urinating on the palace is a metaphor for the underhand intrigues that the Tories had to engage in to bring an end to war. Politics often requires ugly actions to achieve worthwhile outcomes.
And Gulliver’s conversations with the king of Brobdingnag are a dilation on the nature of political corruption, prompting the king to pronounce that “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth”.
Verminous as politics might be, it was also a struggle in which Swift had to engage because his nature was drawn to fighting for causes and his heart was moved by human suffering. So in perhaps his finest writings, Drapier’s Letters (1724) and A Modest Proposal (1729), he took England to task for its grotesque mistreatment of his fellow Irishmen and women. Drapier’s Letters flays English plans to debase Ireland’s coinage, and A Modest Proposal brilliantly satirises the bloodless commercial logic of advanced Whiggery by taking it to its logical conclusion and advocating the hunting and consumption of Irish children.
Swift’s savage indignation on behalf of the suffering was no pose. He also devoted himself to establishing Ireland’s first hospital for the mentally ill and was a generous champion of the poor and outcast. That he could be a political avenger — a no-holds-barred fighter in the arena — and a soul moved by suffering to do everything he could to help the overlooked may seem a paradox. Yet for Swift, who died in 1745, the two were complementary and, in this superb biography, Stubbs succeeds in enabling us to understand the complexities and character of this greatest of writers.
THAT LIVELY SENSE OF DISGUST AT THE WORLD IS VIVID IN
Detail from the cover of an edition of Gulliver’s Travels