Some Modest Proposals

Eugene Hammond, Jonathan Swift: Irish Blow-in, 798pp. $140. 

978 1 61149 606 2


“Jonathan Swift and Vanessa”, 1881, by William Powell Frith

© ART Collection/Alamy

Some modest proposals


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.

Swift’s greatness, according to this taxi driver, was that he was “the one who drove the English out”. Well, Swift didn’t do, or want, that. He wanted the English in Dublin to be rid of the English from London, and he didn’t achieve even that. He didn’t much like the Irish natives either, as de Valera knew. He was no “anti-imperialist” denouncing colonialist exploitation in the rather simple sense apparently intended by Eugene Hammond. Ham-mond belongs to a class of academic Swiftians who like their author to conform to current notions of political virtue, resembling a liberal campus chaplain (or Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King, in Hammond’s escalated version). This sanitizing of Swift originated mainly in the fertile dissertation era of the 1950s and 60s, when Swift reportedly signed up to a so-called “age of compromise” and the concept of the “persona” was flourishing in the critical trade.

The persona is Hammond’s chief critical instrument, a mechanism for separating an author from the tenor of his work, if you happen not to like it. Its effect is to absolve the critic from engaging with the mercurial indirections of the satirist’s voice behind the ironic fiction. One might have hoped that the term, once a useful guard against crudely literal readings, had by now given way to a finer-tuned vocabulary for dealing with intensely ironic works, including A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. Hammond’s coverage of these is heavily persona-driven, determined to separate rigidly conceived non-authorial “voices” and making mini-characters out of them. The discussion of the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity is perhaps the most stiff-necked application of persona-speak since the 1960s, and concludes, incidentally, that by contrast “there are only two points of view” in the Tale and “three” in A Modest Proposal. A question arises not whether the calculations are true or untrue but whether such deadening procedures bear any relation to the ironic energies of either work, whose inventive volatility is ultimately fuelled by the satirist, who is always present though he isn’t the “speaker”.

The old revolutionary de Valera, though speaking in 1967, was no connoisseur of personae. But he understood that Swift’s essential objective, without any great love for the “natives”, was to get London out of Irish affairs. Swift himself could not forgive England for having exiled him, and this personally registered “perfect rage and resentment” was added to the traditional colonial settler’s distrust of the mother country. He would never have wanted an independent Irish Ireland, as distinct from self-rule for the Protestant settler class to which he belonged. He would also have hated a popular democracy, especially one which took account of the wishes of the native Catholic Irish. He wanted not an Irish republic, but an autonomous Protestant kingdom with its own parliament under the English Crown. Yet his voice helped to shape Ireland’s nationhood as we now know it. The titles of two new biographies, John Stubbs’s Jonathan Swift: The reluctant rebel and Hammond’s Jonathan Swift: Irish blow-in, are both suggestive of the conflicted nature of Swift’s character and situation, though Hammond manages to strip “blow-in” of any whiff of eruptiveness. Stubbs, whose understanding is subtler, remarks acutely that in serving as a priest in Ulster in the 1690s, Swift may have been acting on “a patriotism he disguised as best he could in layers of defensive cynicism”. The other side of Swift, more often seen, was an exasperated antipathy to Ireland combined with an angry exile’s grudge against its oppressors.

Swift’s greatest works, with the exception of the unacknowledged but surpassingly brilliant Tale of a Tub, were all written during his Irish years, and mostly after the age of fifty: most of his best poems (he is a marvellous, prolific poet, whom poets, as distinct from critics, often think superior to his friend Pope), as well as the great Irish prose satires, The Drapier’s Letters, Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal. Gulliver’s Travels has a universalizing reach, but is very much an Irish book, comprehensively unflattering to the Irish and everyone else. The humanoid Yahoos of Gulliver’s much-debated last voyage (which Eliot described, in language that Swift’s own contemporaries applied to the epics of Homer and Virgil, as “one of the greatest triumphs that the human soul has ever achieved”) are based on a disparaging English perception of the Irish natives, and the name has sometimes been used subsequently as a synonym for them. They have features “common to all savage Nations”, rather improbably including thick lips and flat noses. This, though not edifying, differs from vulgar “racism”, and not only because conceptions of racial difference and superiority were probably less fraught with the exacerbated malignity with which they would be understood in our own political climate. (The word “racism” itself is first recorded in 1903.) Swift’s distinctive position about despised groups is not that “we” are better than “them”, but that “they” are indeed as bad as they are said to be, while “we” are exactly like them, or worse. The despised features are baldly confronted, and then reappraised as common to humanity, with an additional sting addressed to “us”. The conquest of American Indians is described in the final chapter, in one of the great “anti-colonial” diatribes in English prose, as more barbaric than the Indians themselves, but the work as a whole gives little reason to think well of “savage Nations”, and offers no example of a “harmless” people in any of Gulliver’s many lands. The Yahoos turn out to be, like the Irish and “us”, merely human, down to basic biological kinship (a female Yahoo lusts after Gulliver). Part IV is rare among satires in that its culprits are attacked not for what they do but what, generically rather than racially speaking, they are.

This realization drives Gulliver mad, with a righteous but unbalanced derangement, as at an unbearable truth. This is not a character change, in any novelistic sense, to an “out-of-control Gulliver that Swift is so critical of”, in Hammond’s words, expressive of a view not encountered much until the post-war era of the galloping PhD, and largely if incompletely abandoned since its 1960s heyday. Gulliver’s misanthropic rage is validated by the story’s recital of human doings, but it is also disarmed by its own excess, a characteristic defensive ploy that distances Swift from Gulliver’s enraged denunciations without disowning their substance. Gulliver’s is the last lingering voice in the book, with no counteracting signal. It leaves a blocking impasse for the gentle reader who has nowhere to turn for a consoling or moderating perspective, which is withheld as inappropriate to the gravity of the indictment. This creates a trap that typically gets Swift himself off the hook while it conversely closes in on readers unprotected by classroom complacency.

The stark alternative to the Yahoos, lovingly modelled on the ideal societies in two of the works Swift most admired, Plato’s Republic and More’s Utopia, is, in the form of the Houyhnhnms, insultingly unavailable to humans. Hammond’s view that the Houyhnhnms are instead satirically condemned for a fanatical utopianism, like the dissenting zealots whom Swift portrayed as Mechanical Operators of the Spirit, is the dottiest idea yet advanced on this subject. Their project to exterminate the Yahoos “from the Face of the Earth” is discounted as “simultaneously horrific and funny”, with no mention of the fact that these are God’s words about “mankind”, who deserved the punishment, in Genesis 6:7 (less aptly invoked in a later chapter). He takes at face value Swift’s “I do not hate mankind” letter of November 26, 1725, omitting to quote (an old “soft-school” dodge) the ensuing sentences suggesting that the creatures ought to be shot. It is as though the conclusively documented rectifications by R. S. Crane and Irvin Ehrenpreis on these matters had never existed. But it has the virtue of bringing into the critic’s comfort zone a work which T. S. Eliot considered, along “with King Lear as one of the most tragic things ever written”.

It seems likely that Swift’s “misogyny” is explicable, or inexplicable, in much the same way as the “racism”. Women are not exonerated from traditional slurs conferred on the “despised” group. Swift did think them falsely idealized by poets as well as by the whole system of social “fair-sexing”. But when their flaws are on display, men are routinely redefined as being more or less like them. This is to some extent a separate issue from Swift’s own variously complicated friendships with women. Stubbs explains with intuitive and clear-eyed sureness the brutality of Swift’s rejection of his early female attachment, Jane Waring (Varina), as proceeding from a surliness of injured pride. He adds tartly that Jane’s short life would have been shorter if Swift had married her. Hammond’s glib observation that “The record that survives of the marriages of Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Tolstoy and Dickens suggests that Hetty [Stella] made a prescient choice in not marrying this man of genius” shows up less well.

The Varina case is not typical, and differs from the infinitely nuanced and more extended friendships with Stella and Vanessa, which still resist full understanding, and on which Stubbs generally writes with eloquent insight and refreshingly unopinionated tact. Swift’s portrayal of these women differs, at the opposite extreme, from the scabrous female portraits in the poems and the prose satires, which are often comically undercut, like Gulliver’s misanthropic rant, by their own extravagant grotesquerie, a self-parody of excessive utterance. Swift also displays, in the Tale and Gulliver’s Travels at least, an instinctive impulse to cap them with a male counter-example. Swift entertained “modern” ideas in support of female education, though he wanted the outcome to produce a companionable wife. Vanessa, in Swift’s sheepishly coy poem about their friendship, was a paragon of feminine graces, but had to be additionally furnished with the intellectual virtues of a boy. In real life, Swift opposed leniency to a convicted rapist, who exclaimed that he had lain with the woman freely “a hundred times before”, by saying even a “whore” was entitled not to be raped. This, as Stubbs says, is a “point still raised in modern rape trials”. But Stubbs points out that Swift also “informed Stella contentedly” that he intervened personally to ensure the culprit would “swing”. Hammond omits this last explosive flourish, and thinks the issue ironed out by a misplaced comment about Swift’s supposed sympathy for his Corinna going to bed. Swift’s opinion of “whores” was often very harsh, though, as Stubbs says, he did attentively help “ailing unprotected women”, just as he often expressed compassion for the Irish poor. But these are contending feelings, not to be ironed out, and Hammond’s account muffles their confrontation, which is not amenable to “moderate” interpretations, or to the bland exposition of Swift as an even-tempered man of tolerant views.

These matters seem to me to be better understood by Stubbs than by Hammond. Swift does not conform easily to prevailing ideas of political virtue, least of all those that were thought modern in his day or ours. Hammond’s observation that Swift’s writings “prepare his readers for a healthier life” is full of feel-good factor, but neither true nor untrue as to meaning, and seems grotesquely misapplied to Gulliver’s Travels – or, indeed, the poem about Corinna. Swift did not write to be liked, offering no way out of disquiet in his comprehensively entrapping anatomy of the human species. Neither shocked indignation, nor complacent ironing out, does justice to Swift’s more disturbing writings. But non-academic readers who, like Thackeray in a famous essay, found Gulliver’s Travels shocking or even unbearable, were closer to Swift than readers who read it as the liberal fable of Hammond’s imagining.

Hammond’s whole discussion of A Modest Proposal is a typical example of the general laxity of his method. He thinks the Proposal “literarily [sic] stunning” (who was it who once described Nureyev as a “staggering dancer”?), an “ethically admirable” work against colonialism, spoken by a persona, who reportedly says the poor are the nation’s “principle [sic] Breeders”. This incidentally occludes the fact that Swift’s Proposer was specifically referring to Papists. The Proposal is a work in which the victims of oppression are almost as culpable as the oppressor. Hammond assumes it is predominantly directed against English exploitation, though it has been shown (by Oliver Ferguson and others) to be mainly attacking the Anglo-Irish settlers of Swift’s own class, who are the presumed consumers of the proposed cannibal trade. The proposed reversion to cannibalism, traditionally imputed to the Irish natives, is wittily transposed to their Anglo-Irish rulers and then, only in a late afterthought, also the English.

In the context of Swift’s portrayal of the degraded Irish natives, Hammond also occludes the fact that this cannibal imputation was in long-standing circulation, going back long before Spenser. There was a historical famine-related case, about which we know Swift knew, because it was recalled in a special issue for Swift’s birthday of the Intelligencer (a journal he co-authored), the year before the Proposal’s publication. This makes it hard not to see a tacit reminder of the defamatory commonplace in Swift’s harsh portrayal of the Irish natives, as though suggesting that the Irish were reverting to type, except that, in a typical stinging twist, it turns out to be the settlers who are programmed to do the eating, while the natives, idle, depraved and thieving, remain venally complicit in the commercial infanticide, and unexonerated. In the end, everybody is implicated in the cannibal fable.

Swift’s fiction stops short of reporting an actual anthropophagous act, just as Montaigne refrained from saying, what we also know he knew, that Europeans ate people, too, even when he famously said “we” were worse than the cannibals. In the last analysis, European cannibalism, when the act is dangerously close to home territory, had for both authors to be kept safely figurative (whether of exploitation or of self-destruction, as when, echoing Swift, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called Ireland “the old sow that eats her farrow”). These questions seem largely outside Hammond’s scope, as are Montaigne, or the writings on Ireland of Spenser, Camden, Fynes Moryson, or for that matter Rabelais, or Erasmus, or More, who loom massively in Swift’s intellectual life but figure skimpily in Hammond’s volumes. His numbing determination to define A Modest Proposal principally as a blandly “ethical” work comes with no attempt to understand why it became an exemplar in the literature of “cruelty”, and an opening exhibit in André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour (1939). Hammond does, however, report somewhat bemusedly that the Proposal caused some frissons of discomfort among Swift’s contemporaries, as Swift doubtless intended.

These biographies are unlikely to replace Irvin Ehrenpreis’s magisterial three-volume masterwork (1962–83), which combines fundamental archival information with an energetic if eccentric critical acumen. Among several intervening attempts Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift: His life and his world (2013) stands out as somewhat more abreast of recent scholarship than Stubbs but lacking Stubbs’s zest of critical engagement. It is Stubbs’s only rival for that rarefied piece of furniture between the coffee table and the scholar’s desk. Hammond, who has pretensions to supersede Ehrenpreis, is largely without Ehrenpreis’s intuitive understanding and responsiveness to tone. His book belongs to the toolshed, with a health warning.

Stubbs has a surer judgement and writes with intelligence and flair. He is very well read in Swift’s works and in political and ecclesiastical history. He pays vivid attention to political contexts, including especially the civil conflicts of the seventeenth century and their fall-out. The political environment of Swift’s mature years is only a little less strongly brought out. He offers some finely sketched glimpses of the impact of religious divisions on social conditions and intellectual life. There is a slight tendency to freewheeling guesswork, partly owing to the paucity of documentary sources, but also accompanied by sympathetic insight.

Stubbs captures atmospheres well, with a lively sweep of impressionistic phrase, like the comment, in relation to Swift’s prickly friendship with Francis Atterbury, that “Wit had its own laws of collateral damage”, or the account of Swift’s “embattled tenderness” towards his friends. Swift’s crucial relationship with Sir William Temple is captured with engaging if cursory acumen. He seems to pay scant attention to A. C. Elias’s Swift at Moor Park (1982), the standard work on the subject, listed in his bibliography. But he writes very finely about Swift’s remarkable early poem on the restoration of Temple’s health, in which he describes the poet’s farewell to his muse as a conflicted rebellion against a maternal figure, in a sympathetically imagined feminine environment, where traditional perspectives focus on a “filial” conflict over Temple’s “fatherly” role.

Stubbs is capable of oddities of judgement, as when he says it is “something of a biographical mystery” that Swift expended satirical energy on the abstract forms of scientific enquiry rather than its destructive technologies, a view hard to square with the accounts of gunpowder warfare and the instruments of totalitarian control in Gulliver’s Travels. Confidence in the detailed accuracy of Stubbs’s documentation is dented by his “Note on the Text”, which declares that although he has “selectively modernized” his quotations, he has “tried to preserve the feel of an early edition of Swift as much as possible”. His introduction misquotes the most famous dictum from Hobbes’s Leviathan, recklessly adding to the “feel” by capitalizing every word where the original words happen all to be in lower case. He almost invariably cites Swift in decent but outdated modern editions, like Williams’s superseded edition of the Correspondence. The Conduct of the Allies and other political works are cited from Herbert Davis’s edition, though more recent and historically annotated texts are available. Stubbs’s account of Swift’s Bickerstaff papers would have benefited (as Hammond’s does) from Valerie Rumbold’s magisterial edition of Swift’s Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises (2013). Had Stubbs used current scholarly editions more effectively, he would not have reported that Swift “fastidiously” used the name Presto “throughout” the Journal to Stella. The name was editorially inserted in place of Swift’s private notation “pdfr” only after Swift’s death. It means “swift” in Italian, and, as Swift noted once, had jokingly been conferred on him by an Italian friend, the Duchess of Shrewsbury, who found the English name hard to pronounce. Such lapses, though not unusual, do not diminish the readability and devoted perceptiveness of the narrative.

In these respects, Stubbs, though surer and more acute in judgement, is sometimes less reliable on details than Hammond. Hammond mostly uses the appropriate scholarly editions of Swift, but not of other writers. As a chronicler of documented evidence (genealogy, family networks, financial accounts, day-to-day doings), and when not pronouncing his breezy assessments of Swift’s character, Hammond’s work is fairly thorough, and at its best when covering periods that don’t include major writings. But as soon as he resorts to inference or interpretation, he brings a “no-problem” complacency, often flaunted in the teeth of his own evidence, which makes one turn with relief to Ehrenpreis’s maverick Freudian toolkit. When Swift remembers in a particularly downbeat letter (slightly misquoted) that a childhood setback in fishing “vexes me to this very day, and I believe it was the type of all my future disappointments”, Hammond believes this tells us simply that Swift “enjoyed fishing”. To think otherwise, in the patois of the days of personae, is to mistake “vehicle for tenor”, but his Swift must stay cheerful.

Hammond’s belief that Swift had a happy childhood defies all literal affirmations. Thus he says Swift enjoyed “playful but well-disciplined” schooldays, and an average if boyishly unruly university career, whereas what Swift remembered was that “by the ill Treatment of his nearest Relations, he was so discouraged and sunk in his Spirits, that he too much neglected his Academical Studyes”. Hammond further contends that Swift enjoyed a good relationship with his “warm and fun-loving mother” and “generous uncles and cousins”, who brought him up lovingly in Dublin instead of, in his mother’s case, living in England for most of his childhood, as is usually supposed, though she nevertheless keeps showing up in England in the body of the narrative. On the basis of some light-hearted Horatian gesturing in a poem, Hammond is convinced that Swift considered himself, and was, “cheerful and easy-going”, and is perversely determined to unpick any contrary portrayal. In place of Ehrenpreis’s Freudian Swift, Hammond offers his own counterintuitive portrait of a well-adjusted unproblematic Swift, with “playfully relaxed heterosexual inclinations”, whose “lifelong comfort with women of all ages and social classes” would be interesting news to Varina, Vanessa, Stella, or Swift’s fictional Celias and Phyllises. Hammond’s own accounts of Swift’s disengagement from Varina, or of Swift’s closer friendships themselves, actually display Swift as notably unrelaxed. The same obdurate revisionism is at work in an effort to minimize Swift’s friendship with Pope (a “tenuous connection”) often against the evidence supplied in this book, and conducted with an ill-directed malice reminiscent of some erstwhile Boswell deniers in Johnson studies. But the worst example is the simple-minded insistence on a moral and political correctness in Swift’s works which Swift would have relegated to the Academy of Lagado.

Hammond says he is less interested in Swift’s life as an aid to understanding the writings than in the writings as an effort to “live the life he wanted to live”. It is not clear what that means, since his discussion of the writings shows no particular deviation from customary procedures of paraphrase and exposition, though it does signal a lack of understanding of the writings. His volumes (physically unhandsome, in a rebarbative print-on-demand format, with cramped typesetting) are reader-unfriendly. There is no consolidated index, and the separate indexes are thin (compare Ehrenpreis’s). Letters and writings are cited by volume and page of the edition used, rather than date or section, which is unhelpful to those who use other editions. The arrangement is very mannered. The biography is divided into 102 and 106 short chapters, as if in an overdetermined access of Dantean emulation. One chapter is headed “Rethinking Dante’s Divine Comedy”, but don’t expect any revelation about Swift’s knowledge of Dante’s poem, only that Swift’s Tale of a Tub is its “intellectual equivalent”. Other chapters have titles like “Your First Job Is Almost Always a Bad One” and “Everybody Poops”. The jumpy headlining is of a piece with the coarseness of literary judgement.

Hammond’s gratuitous and embarrassing decision to call Swift’s two principal women friends Hetty and Hessy creates confusion, and this is compounded by an offputting style of documentation including (but not confined to) baffling abbreviations unfamiliar to most likely users. “WO”, for example, refers to the Prose Writings, edited by Herbert Davis, published by Blackwell, which is in Oxford. “WC” is the Cambridge Edition, but only for some volumes. The notation of British currency is erratic. The prose is awkward, much given to tortuously self-interrupting sentences and multi-word adjectival compounds, like the description of Lord Oxford’s “not-willing-to-do-anything-about-it temperament”. The proofreading is very sloppy. The five-line prose epigraph to one chapter is repeated verbatim in the ensuing first sentence. “Van Brugh” and “Vanbrugh” occur on the same page. Typos and mistranscriptions abound, and “French letters” (in Hammond’s own unblinking phrase) are clumsily handled. Swift’s “assez endurcy” means “sufficiently hardened”, not “strong enough myself”. Among the typos is the multiple grotesquerie of “St. Germaine de Pres” (where almost every word is wrong, but “near Paris”, in case you weren’t sure).