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Sympathy for the Satirist: The Softer Side of Jonathan Swift

Rick Pyrrh By Rick Pyrrh Published on November 21, 2016
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On hearing the name, “Jonathan Swift,” the vast majority of people will immediately think, A Modest ProposalIt’s somehow bittersweet that A Modest Proposal, often considered to be among the finest examples of sustained irony in the English language, should constitute so much of what remains of Jonathan Swift in the popular imagination. While it's emblematic of his acerbic style, A Modest Proposal offers very little insight into Swift himself.

Of course, there will be those among you who immediately think of Gulliver’s Travels, or even A Tale of a Tub. While you are to be commended for your quick recollection of Swift’s less direct satires, they’re also off the menu today. The assembled mass of his satirical works paints a picture of Swift that fails to include much of the man himself. 

Given the ubiquity of A Modest Proposal, it may come as a surprise that Swift, a man renowned for the scintillating wit and savage brutality of his prose, was also capable of a tremendous delicacy and compassion. On the anniversary of Swift’s birth, we examine the under-appreciated side of one of literature’s great humorists. 

It’s worthwhile to consider Swift as a genuine, sensitive individual, rather than as a kind of boundless engine for the production of incisive commentary. Reducing his literary output to his satires alone entirely removes the genius from the humanity of the man, and does both a disservice in the process.

While it might seem to fly in the face of all we've just said, the place we must begin in our effort to appreciate the tenderness of Swift is with the callousness of A Modest Proposal itself. 

“It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.”

Obviously, we’re talking about the tenderness of a man whose best known work is remarkably specific in the details of how best to approach the preparation of human children as food, but what is important here is that Swift is uproariously funny in that context. Indeed, it’s that sense of easy humour, delivered through the use of cold and scientific terminology like “for a solar year,” that characterises much of Swift's work regardless of his subject.

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Swift’s sense of immense distance, conveyed through his language, ensures that his wit is more often cold than passionate. The humour of much of his work flows from language that so often dips into the registers of scientific terminology, engineering, or stuffy academic writing, as in the case of the frankly superb, A Full and True Account of the Battle Fought Last Friday Between the Ancient and the Modern Books in Saint James’s Library.

Though the whole is dripping with mean-spirited commentary, the latter includes such choice paragraphs as, 

“Now, it must be here understood, that ink is the great missive weapon in all battles of the learned, which, conveyed through a sort of engine called a quill, infinite numbers of these are darted at the enemy by the valiant on each side, with equal skill and violence, as if it were an engagement of porcupines. This malignant liquor was compounded, by the engineer who invented it, of two ingredients, which are, gall and copperas; by its bitterness and venom to suit, in some degree, as well as to foment, the genius of the combatants.”

If there is an element of self-deprecation here, a straightforward jab of the idea of ink as a “malignant liquor” and at acerbic writing in general, it is borne out more thoroughly in what might just as easily be Swift’s greatest work, but could just as easily be considered not to be a “work” of Swift’s at all.

Swift’s political career, such as it was, necessitated a number of trips back and forth between Ireland and England. In the course of those trips, he first tutored, later befriended, and eventually returned home with Esther Johnson, the woman who may or may not have been his wife, depending on whose biography of Swift you believe. Early in their association, Swift took to calling her “Stella,” and the name stuck so well that when Swift returned to England later he would address letters variously to “Stella” and “MD” (my dear[est]). Swift refers to himself as “Presto,” which we’re reliably informed is the Italian for “Swift.”

In a move that is more reminiscent of his fiction than of anyone’s real life, Swift would later return to England only to tutor, befriend, and eventually return home with another woman. As luck would have it, she was another Esther, this time Esther Vanhomrigh. If this seems as though it might get confusing, don’t worry, he also gave her a nickname, though this time it was “Vanessa.”

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Having been born without a fortune to call his own, Swift grew up spectacularly frugal. Despite his constant commentary on the costs of living and doing business so far from home, Swift maintained a constant stream of letters back to his wife. Over time, those letters took on the form of a diary, cataloguing Swift's time overseas. In its offhand comments, The Journal to Stella contains some of Swift’s best work, but it also sheds light on the man behind the scathing commentary.

“Henceforth I will write something every day to MD, and make it a sort of journal; and when it is full, I will send it, whether MD writes or no; and so that will be pretty: and I shall always be in conversation with MD, and MD with Presto.”

From the earliest pages of the journal, we see more of Swift deriding himself, at least in his private correspondence, he recounts the story of his leaving for London, saying that shortly after he left,

“I got a fall off my horse, riding here from Parkgate, but no hurt; the horse understanding falls very well, and lying quietly till I get up.”

Obviously, this is a small thing, but reading something so unflattering about Swift at the beginning of a journal of his own letters to his sweetheart gives us a fantastic impression of the man himself. Similarly, he doesn’t shy away from moaning (at great length) about the amount he spends on coaches to taxi himself around when the weather is bad. It’s a strange tone to set, but one that portrays Swift as a man who was, in his private correspondence at least, forthright and honest, even when it cast him in a poor light.

All of this serves to make Swift’s abundant flattery of Stella seem even more endearing. Embedded in a text so often filled with harsh words for himself, Swift practically gushes about his wife. 

“Stella writes like an emperor: I am afraid it hurts your eyes; take care of that pray, pray, Mrs. Stella.”

And again,

“So Stella puns again; why, ’tis well enough; but I’ll not second it, though I could make a dozen: I never thought of a pun since I left Ireland.”

The doting tone of the letters only ever lasts long enough for Swift’s comments on Stella herself, or her writing. Otherwise, his letters are filled with dry commentary on his networking and making political connections, as well as notes on the days he was too tired to prepare something to eat for himself and so dined with neighbours. 

Indeed the biggest concern Swift had, despite being such a renowned writer of clever and funny prose, seems to have been that his letters might bore his young wife. He repeatedly asks Stella whether his letters have been received well, and bemoans the slowness of her responses (though he acknowledges that this is likely just the fault of the postal service of the day). Thanks to Swift's habitual writing, he often comments that he has sent a number of letters since he last received one, asking Stella to forgive him for inundating her.

It’s strangely sweet that The Journal to Stella is punctuated by unsure-of-himself questions like, “Tell me, do you like this journal way of writing? Is it not tedious and dull?” and “I cannot tell whether you like these journal letters: I believe they would be dull to me to read them over; but, perhaps, little MD is pleased to know how Presto passes his time in her absence.”

It would be easy to mistake Swift’s constant second-guessing of his letters as a general lack of confidence, but it seems that he otherwise had a very high opinion of himself. Indeed, he often compares himself favourably to other figures he encounters in the course of his political dealings.

“To-day I dined at Molesworth’s, the Florence Envoy; and sat this evening with my friend Darteneuf, whom you have heard me talk of; the greatest punner of this town next myself.”

The combination can leave the reader with the feeling that Swift is a little mercurial, but on closer reading the reality seems to be that there was no amount of confidence in his own abilities that would prevent him from fearing disappointing Stella. The journal paints him as a man who hoped, almost desperately, that she would find him as interesting as he found her.

The Journal to Stella may tell us more about the man himself than the rest of his work combined. After all, his satires were often politically (rather than personally) motivated. For the most part, his protagonists exist solely to facilitate the satire itself. By contrast, the journal gives some insight into what was truly important to Swift as a man. Despite all the work he had to do in England, Swift always found time to write his letters home, and even the time to joke about his making time for letters,

“Tis now morning, and I did not finish my papers for Mr. Harley last night; for you must understand Presto was sleepy, and made blunders and blots. Very pretty that I must be writing to young women in a morning fresh and fasting, faith.”

There’s something comforting in the knowledge that a man with the legendary wit of Jonathan Swift was just as concerned as the rest of us that he might have written something that would bore a beautiful woman. For all his fear, the one regard in which his letters to Stella risk actually being boring is when he’s simply giving her the updates of the day, who he dined with and why. Doubtless these would have been of more interest to Swift and Stella than to the modern reader.

At its core, The Journal to Stella offers a glimpse at the man Jonathan Swift was when he wasn’t taking the most cynical view possible, whether that view was cynical of the handling of the poor in Ireland (as in A Modest Proposal) or of humanity in general (as in Gulliver's Travels). Instead, it introduces us to a Jonathan Swift far softer than his public work might lead you to believe, a man who was at once lovestruck and likeable. 

Moreover, it gives us some indication of how Swift came to be so well liked that he could write the way he did and not attract the ire of those he so often satirised.

A former military man, Rick would say that he specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.