If the best advice one can give an aspiring writer of prose is to study the best models, then Jonathan Swift’s prose, as a lot of people who should know agree, provides the best model of all in English.  A sentence by Swift is a miniature work of remarkable art:

But when a man’s fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding, as well as common sense, is kicked out of doors; the first proselyte he makes, is himself.

How true!  But notice the unobtrusive rhythmical echo in those three metaphorical phrases as he holds his sentence in suspension in preparation for the punch of the brief main clause.  That is the work of a master.

Eighteenth-century literature, including its superb prose, is hardly taught at all now in America, and although quite a lot of people may have heard of Gulliver’s Travels, most of them have probably never heard of Swift himself, let alone read him.  If this new biography by Leo Damrosch encourages even a few people to read some of Swift’s writing, that is all to the good.

Jonathan Swift, born of English parents in Dublin in 1667, was brought up and educated in Ireland, but began by looking to England for a career, both as a writer and as a cleric.  Unfortunately, the explosively witty comedy of A Tale of a Tub (1704), published, like all of his books, anonymously, so upset Queen Anne that she refused to give him the kind of preferment he wanted—preferably a bishopric—and he had to be content with being the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.  Back to Dublin, therefore, he went, not very happily, where he was installed as dean in 1713.

Swift now found himself in an interesting situation that offered a measure of real power.  There was the cathedral itself to be administered, with a budget of £10,000, and as dean, with the assistance of the cathedral chapter, he ruled the cathedral neighborhood, which formed an independent “liberty” within the city.  Swift proved to be a natural administrator, as well as a conscientious dean; he did all the right things, and his tenure proved very successful.

Even though he always said he had no interest in music, he maintained a good cathedral choir.  Every fifth Sunday he preached in the cathedral, and on the others kept a sharp eye on his visiting preachers.  In addition to the regular offices of Matins and Evensong, which he never missed when in residence, he celebrated Communion every Sunday, an extremely unusual practice that marked him as a high churchman, and should long since have silenced all those people who cannot believe that the author of Gulliver’s Travels took his religion seriously.

Swift believed, too, that religion should be practiced as well as preached, and as he immersed himself in the life of his cathedral and city, he grew increasingly indignant about England’s treatment of Ireland, and the miserable condition of the Irish people.  He brought out his first pamphlet on the subject, A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, in 1720.  Then in 1724, an English ironmaster called Wood bribed George I’s mistress with £10,000 for a patent to supply £100,000 in copper halfpence to Ireland.  This was a huge sum, and the assumption in Ireland was that the coins would be debased.  But whether debased or not, their introduction would have had a disastrous effect on Irish trade.

Under the pseudonym “M.B., Drapier,” Swift went into action, and wrote a series of letters, The Drapier’s Letters, urging the Irish people of all classes to resist the use of Wood’s halfpence.  The climactic Drapier letter is the fourth, addressed to “The Whole People of Ireland.”  One sentence in it especially enraged the English:


I have digressed a little to refresh and continue that spirit so seasonably raised amongst you, and to let you see that by the laws of GOD, of NATURE, of NATIONS, and of your own COUNTRY, you ARE and OUGHT to be as FREE a people as your brethren in England.

This letter led to the arrest of the printer, and—for the second time in Swift’s career—the government’s offer of a reward of £300 for his identity.

The prosecution of the printer failed, and no one in Ireland stepped forward for the reward.  The Drapier’s Letters were so successful in uniting the Irish people against Wood’s halfpence that the government backed down and withdrew the patent.  Swift became a national hero.  After years of defeat, expropriation, and misgovernment by England, someone had won a victory for Ireland.  Medals were struck in Swift’s honor.  He was offered the freedom of the cities of Dublin and Cork; his birthday was celebrated with bonfires and bell-ringing, and when he attended a commencement at Trinity College, the whole assembly stood up when he entered the room.  Lord Carteret remarked that “When people ask me how I governed Ireland, I say that I pleased Dr. Swift.”

Swift’s reputation in Ireland explains the appearance of three biographies within ten years of his death in 1745, inaugurating a series of which this one is the latest, and probably the best.  Although evidently not a researcher himself, Leo Damrosch has drawn upon the whole body of published scholarship about Swift to tell a fascinating story, from its beginnings with Swift’s still-mysterious family circumstances to its inevitably sad ending with his death at 77 in senile old age.  Although Professor Damrosch cannot solve the puzzles of Swift’s life (Who was his real father?  Did he marry Hester Johnson, whom he called Stella?  Were they related?), he lays all the possibilities on the table, and refrains from pushing his own theories.

Even more admirably, while conceding that there was definitely something off-center in Swift’s makeup, he disposes of a long tradition of amateur psychologizing at Swift’s expense that began very early with speculation that only incipient madness could explain the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, and culminated more recently with the rhapsodies of the Freudians for whom Swift, an obsessively clean man in a very unsanitary age, was a sitting duck.

Leo Damrosch’s Swift is an entirely sane, ambitious, and clever man with a passion for truth and justice.  Although prickly and quick to develop a grudge, he’s generous and sociable, and has a gift for inspiring loyalty in his friends and servants.  He has a powerful if unnervingly pugnacious sense of humor.  All these qualities find expression in a life of political action in England and Ireland, in his writing, and in the daily business of a very active life.

We discover that, although he suffered all his life from Menière’s syndrome and its attendant vertigo, nausea, and tinnitus, he believed in the value of vigorous physical exercise, and so he swam, ran, walked, and rode horseback.  “He ran like a buck from one place to another,” says his younger kinsman Deane Swift, “Gates, stiles, and quicksets he no more valued than if they had been so many straws.”  Since he thought that wine helped his condition, his guests were always treated to good wine, even if his cook’s food was not so good.

This is a biography that does justice to the range of its subject’s life.  It is notably well written, and Professor Dam­rosch evidently likes Swift.  Nonetheless, one wonders just how sympathetically he understands Swift’s views of the world, in particular his religion and his politics.  For instance, he cannot rid his mind of a conviction that Swift’s conscientious and sincere practice of his clerical duties, attested by all his friends, was the elaborate performance of an instinctive skeptic.  Consequently, even though he quotes John Wesley’s agreement with passages from Gulliver, the thought never really occurs to him that the underlying moral basis of Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal is Swift’s perfectly orthodox religious belief.

As for Swift’s politics, although Damrosch notices Swift’s dislike of war, slavery, English imperialism, Whig economics, and the incipient materialism of the Royal Society, he thinks that the only reason for Swift’s “sternly conservative views” was a fear of anarchy, and an awareness of “anarchic impulses in himself.”  On that reasoning, liberals and progressives must be people of equable, easygoing temperament, and in quieter times a man as intelligent as Swift would have been one of them.  No: Swift was conservative on principle.

Then there is the question of Swift’s Irishness.  He was an Anglo-Irishman, a member of the governing Protestant minority in Ireland established under the Tudors and Stuarts.  Professor Dam­rosch knows this and mentions it frequently.  What he seems not to know—why should he?—is that the progress of Swift’s relationship to Ireland set a pattern for his successors.  After Swift, an Anglo-Irishman—or woman—of conscience and imagination has had to decide, eventually, whether to be Irish or English.  Some, including the great soldiers (Wellington, Montgomery) and some writers (Congreve, Sterne) opt for England.  Others, like Henry Grattan and W.B. Yeats, have chosen Ireland.  It is a real choice, and unless one understands that, one will not really understand either Swift’s life or the passion powering his later satires and his famous epitaph.

When Swift asked a friend “whether the corruptions and villainies of men in power did not eat his flesh, and exhaust his spirits,” he was speaking as an Irishman, not an Englishman; and the “savage indignation” of his epitaph, from which death released him, was the indignation of an Irishman, too.  Swift did not happily accept his Irishness, but he accepted it nonetheless, and in doing so marked a stage in the growth of Ireland’s understanding of herself as a nation, and finally defined himself.

One of the sadder developments out of recent Irish nationalism, not noticed in this book, has been a refusal to allow either Swift or Yeats, as Anglo-Irishmen, the right to speak as Irishmen, and a concomitant, retroactive limitation of their sympathies to their own minority sect of intruders.


[Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, by Leo Damrosch (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) 573 pp., $21.95]