A stunted soul that housed an enor­mous tal­ent

JONATHAN SWIFT: THE RE­LUC­TANT REBEL By John Stubbs Nor­ton, $39.95, 739 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gastronomy and the arts.

Many books fail to live up to their ti­tles. Only oc­ca­sion­ally does the ti­tle fail to live up to the book. A cur­rent ex­am­ple is Ox­ford and Cam­bridge scholar John Stubbs’ mas­sive, mag­is­te­rial “life and times” bi­og­ra­phy of Jonathan Swift (16671745). While the ti­tle is “Jonathan Swift: The Re­luc­tant Rebel,” Swift was ac­tu­ally a more com­plex fig­ure. “Re­bel­lious Re­ac­tionary” prob­a­bly comes closer to the mark for a man who, for most of his ca­reer, was more widely read and dis­cussed as a con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal pam­phle­teer and so­cial satirist than as a poet or pure man of let­ters.

Part of it was a mat­ter of tim­ing. While English po­etry and drama had flow­ered since the El­iz­a­bethan Age, the to­tally evolved English novel was only be­gin­ning to take shape as Jonathan Swift sank into se­nil­ity in the mid-18th cen­tury. It fell to a younger gen­er­a­tion of British au­thors, three in par­tic­u­lar, Henry Fielding (best known for “Tom Jones”), To­bias Smol­lett (“Rod­er­ick Ran­dom”) and Lau­rence Sterne (“Tris­tram Shandy”), to pro­duce the first full-fledged, full-length English nov­els. Their work laid the foun­da­tion for later, greater 19th cen­tury nov­el­ists like Jane Austen, Charles Dick­ens, Wil­liam Make­peace Thack­eray, Ge­orge Eliot and — just a notch be­low them — the in­de­fati­ga­ble An­thony Trol­lope.

Swift’s in­vari­ably dark view of hu­man na­ture — he was an or­dained Angli­can cler­gy­man, dean of St. Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral in Dublin, and a great be­liever in orig­i­nal sin — was some­times ex­pressed with scat­o­log­i­cal cru­dity, one of many rea­sons he fell out of fash­ion with the Vic­to­ri­ans. De­spite a near-ob­ses­sion with per­sonal clean­li­ness, Swift’s writ­ing was al­most co­prophil­iac at times, dwelling on such things as soiled ladies’ un­der­gar­ments. One half sus­pects that he had a col­lec­tion of them. All in all, he was a stunted soul hous­ing an enor­mous tal­ent, fur­ther con­flicted by com­pet­ing loy­al­ties as an Ir­ish-born son of English par­ents. But, if Fielding, Smol­lett and Sterne were the pre­cur­sors of the golden age of the English novel, a case can be made that Jonathan Swift, one way and another, was the pre­cur­sor of Fielding, Smol­lett and Sterne. Cer­tainly, the in­tel­lec­tual and artis­tic qual­ity of his work was a great leap for­ward from the pulp fic­tion ap­proach of con­tem­po­raries like Daniel De­foe (of “Robin­son Cru­soe” fame), and was aimed at a more ed­u­cated au­di­ence.

With the pass­ing of the Vic­to­ri­ans, Swift’s use of satire and fic­tion to de­pict and of­ten evis­cer­ate the so­cial foibles of his time — and his un­sen­ti­men­tal mix­ture of laugh­ter, scorn, sar­casm and even rage in do­ing so — found kin­dred spir­its among 20th cen­tury satir­i­cal nov­el­ists as dif­fer­ent from each other as Ge­orge Or­well and Eve­lyn Waugh. In that sense, the an­gry old An­glo-Ir­ish cler­gy­man who, in a self-mock­ing, rhyming epi­taph, had de­clared his writ­ing ob­so­lete in his own life­time, is more “mod­ern” in out­look than many of his more cel­e­brated suc­ces­sors.

Yet, ex­cept for “Trav­els into Sev­eral Re­mote Na­tions of the World by Le­muel Gul­liver” (bet­ter known to mod­erns as “Gul­liver’s Trav­els”), Swift is much more writ­ten about than read to­day. In­deed, when I tried to think of the last time I had a lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tion about Jonathan Swift, I had to go back about 40 years to the late 1970s. It was dur­ing a visit to Lon­don. I was walk­ing through St. James’ Square when I rec­og­nized the un­mis­tak­ably shabby, snowy-maned fig­ure of Michael Foot, a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the La­bor Party’s mil­i­tant left-wing fac­tion. Though we had noth­ing in com­mon po­lit­i­cally, I had read and en­joyed his in­tel­li­gent, en­ter­tain­ing lit­tle book, “The Pen and the Sword” some time be­fore. In it, Foot de­scribed the key role Swift had played as a Tory pro­pa­gan­dist in top­pling the Whig fac­tion that had dom­i­nated most of Queen Anne’s reign and made pos­si­ble the great al­lied vic­to­ries of the Duke of Marl­bor­ough over the French dur­ing the War of the Span­ish Suc­ces­sion. I told Foot how much I ap­pre­ci­ated his book, al­though my sym­pa­thies were more with Marl­bor­ough than with Swift, a con­fes­sion he ac­cepted with good grace. We chat­ted for about 10 min­utes and then he am­bled off to the Lon­don Li­brary while I headed for a whiskey and soda at the Re­form Club. Jonathan Swift, I think, would have ap­proved.

John Stubbs, as one might ex­pect from his ear­lier, widely ac­claimed bi­og­ra­phy of the 17th cen­tury English poet John Donne, has done a mas­ter­ful job of cap­tur­ing Swift’s rest­less, some­times tor­tured spirit, il­lu­mi­nat­ing his work, and plac­ing both the man and his writ­ing in the con­text of their time.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.