Jonathan Swift: A book review by Bob Morris

Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel
John Stubbs
W.W. Norton (February 2017)

A “reluctant rebel” who was “large,” who “contained multitudes”

There is no shortage of biographical material about Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) so for most people, what Robert DeMaria, Jr. provides on Amazon will probably suffice: “Born in 1667, Jonathan Swift was an Irish writer and cleric, best known for his works Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, and A Journal to Stella, amongst many others. Educated at Trinity College in Dublin, Swift received his Doctor of Divinity in February 1702, and eventually became Dean of St. Patrick s Cathedral in Dublin. Publishing under the names of Lemeul Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, and M. B. Drapier, Swift was a prolific writer who, in addition to his prose works, composed poetry, essays, and political pamphlets for both the Whigs and the Tories, and is considered to be one of the foremost English-language satirists, mastering both the Horatian and Juvenalian styles. Swift died in 1745, leaving the bulk of his fortune to found St. Patricks Hospital for Imbeciles, a hospital for the mentally ill, which continues to operate as a psychiatric hospital today.“

Here are John Stubbs’s concluding remarks in the Introduction:

“Swift came to equate the government of his day with a systemic betrayal of its duty. Accordingly, his work sought revenge. In this respect his creativity reached its pinnacle with a nonpareil work of political horror: the Modest Proposal of 1729, in which a deranged yet icily rational social pragmatist suggests that the babies of Ireland’s poor might be butchered for food. A source of despair for Swift was that he could have no vengeance for his own unhappiness, a misery largely corresponding to that expressed so copiously and humorously in the Travels: the distress, namely, of a man who never quite belonged where he found himself. The first and worst cause of this suffering, in Swift’s mind, was the place where he was born, and where – despite his best efforts – he would live out his days.”

Although Stubbs never suggests this correlation, I think that there is a dominant theme (dislocation) for Swift’s life and work just as there is another dominant theme (suffocation) for the life and work of James Joyce. Before re-reading the Swift biography, I re-read Dubliners and felt almost suffocated myself while doing so. I wonder what Stubbs thinks about all this.

These are among the subjects and related issues discussed by Stubbs that are of greatest interest and value to me, also shared to suggest the scope of his coverage:

o The extent to which Swift’s childhood had a permanent impact (for better or worse) on his life and work in years to come
o Who and what had the greatest influence on his personal growth
o And on his professional development, both as a clergyman and as an author
o What Swift cherished most…and why
o What Swift hated most…and why
o The defining characteristics of his adult (personal) life
o And of his adult (professional) life
o Swift’s evolving relationships with various cities, notably Dublin and London
o The most significant reasons for his “reluctance” to rebel (suggested in the biography’s subtitle)
o His closest friends and most important allies (e.g. Alexander Pope, William Congreve, John Boyle Orrery, Reverend Patrick Delaney, and Sir William Temple)
o The relationships with women (notably his mother Abigail and the two Esthers,) and what they reveal about his views of women
o Swift’s perspectives on classical and modern learning
o How he viewed his own mortality
o For what he wished to be remembered
o The literary work of which he was proudest to be its author…also why.

Centuries after Swift’s death, Walt Whitman claimed that he was “large” and “contained multitudes.” The same can also be said of Swift. From a 21st-century perspective, he seems to personify a number of major contradictions that, for me, are most evident in Gulliver’s Travels when, for example, he juxtaposes a giant Gulliver in Lilliput with a miniature Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Stubbs suggests that Swift’s faith “left him free to partake in the exchanges of stoic apothegms he enjoyed with his learned friends.” He could be blithely un-Christian but “the theatrical metaphor [‘life is a ridiculous tragedy’] preserves the essence of Swift’s very conventional belief.”

Recently, as I reviewed highlighted passages, I began to think about co-hosting with Stubbs a “fantasy dinner” and those who would be invited. My own choices would be Eleanor of Aquitaine, Shakespeare, Swift, Montaigne, Dickens, Richard Feynman, Jonathan Winters, and Katherine Hepburn.

I defer to John Stubbs for remarks that conclude his brilliant book as well as this modest commentary: “Much as he relished the fray, Swift would always deny that he had turned renegade. The degenerates who had taken over government, Parliament, the Crown – it was they who had left him no option but resistance. This was Swift’s line of argument; and this, as well he knew, was the reasoning of a rebel, however reluctant.”

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