Michael Gove

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.


De­tail from the cover of an edi­tion of Gul­liver’s Trav­els

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