1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:43-47.



In contemplating the lives and works of the preceding poets in this third volume of Specimens, we have been impressed with a sense, if not of their absolute, yet of their comparative mediocrity. Beside such neglected giants as Henry More, Joseph Beaumout, and Andrew Marvell, the Pomfrets, Sedleys, Blackmores, and Savages sink into insignificance. But when we come to the name of Swift, we feel ourselves again approaching an Alpine region. The air of a stern mountain-summit breathes chill around our temples, and we feel that if we have no amiability to melt, we have altitude at least to measure, and strange profound secrets of nature, like the ravines of lofty hills, to explore. The men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be compared to Lebanon, or Snowdown, or Benlomond, towering grandly over fertile valleys, on which they smile — Swift to the tremendous Romsdale Horn in Norway, shedding abroad, from a brow of four thousand feet high, what seems a scowl of settled indignation, as if resolved not to rejoice ever over the wide-stretching deserts which, and nothing but which, it everlastingly beholds. Mountains all of them, but what a difference between such a mountain as Shakspeare, and such a mountain as Swift!

Instead of going minutely over a path so long since trodden to mire as the life of Swift, let us expend a page or two in seeking to form some estimate of his character and genius. It is refreshing to come upon a new thing in the world, even though it be a strange or even a bad thing; and certainly, in any age and country, such a being as Swift must have appeared an anomaly, not for his transcendent goodness, not for his utter badness, but because the elements of good and evil were mixed in him into a medley so astounding, and in proportions respectively so large, yet unequal, that the analysis of the two seemed to many competent only to the Great Chymist, Death, and that a sense of the disproportion seems to have moved the man himself, to inextinguishable laughter, — a laughter which, radiating out of his own singular heart as a centre, swept over the circumference of all beings within his reach, and returned crying, "Give, give," as if he were demanding a universal sphere for the exercise of the savage scorn which dwelt within him, and as if he laughed not more "consumedly" at others than he did at himself.

Ere speaking of Swift as a man, let us say something about his genius. That, like his character, was intensely peculiar. It was a compound of infinite ingenuity, with very little poetical imagination — of gigantic strength, with a propensity to incessant trifling — of passionate purpose, with the clearest and coldest expression, as though a furnace were fuelled with snow. A Brobdignagian by size, he was for ever toying with Lilliputian slings and small craft. One of the most violent of party men, and often fierce as a demoniac in temper, his favourite motto was "Vive la bagatelle." The creator of entire new worlds, we doubt if his works contain more than two or three lines of genuine poetry. He may he compared to one of the locusts of the Apocalypse, in that he had a tail like unto a scorpion, and a sting in his tail; but his "face is not as the face of man, his hair is not as the hair of women, and on his head there is no crown like gold." All Swift's creations are more or less disgusting. Not one of them is beautiful. His Lilliputians are amazingly life-like, but compare them to Shakspeare's fairies, such as Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardseed; his Brobdignagians are excrescences like enormous warts; and his Yahoos might have been spawned in the nightmare of a drunken butcher. The same coarseness characterises his poems and his Tale of a Tub. He might well, however, in his old age, exclaim, in reference to the latter, "Good God! what a genius I had when I wrote that book!" It is the wildest, wittiest, wickedest, wealthiest book of its size in the English language. Thoughts and figures swarm in every corner of its pages, till you think of a disturbed nest of angry ants, for all the figures and thoughts are black and bitter. One would imagine the book to have issued from a mind that had been gathering gall as well as sense in an antenatal state of being.

Swift, in all his writings — sermons, political tracts, poems, and fictions — is essentially a satirist. He consisted originally of three principal parts, — sense, an intense feeling of the ludicrous, and selfish passion; and these were sure, in certain circumstances, to ferment into a spirit of satire, "strong as death, and cruel as the grave." Born with not very much natural benevolence, with little purely poetic feeling, with furious passions and unbounded ambition, he was entirely dependent for his peace of mind upon success. Had he become, as by his talents he was entitled to be, the prime minister of his day, he would have figured as a greater tyrant in the cabinet than even Chatham. But as he was prevented from being the first statesman, he became the first satirist of his time. From vain efforts to grasp supremacy for himself and his party, he retired growling to his Dublin den; and there, as Haman thought scorn to lay his hand on Mordecai, but extended his murderous purpose to all the people of the Jews, — and as Nero wished that Rome had one neck, that he might destroy it at a blow, — so Swift was stung by his personal disappointment to hurl out scorn at man and suspicion at his Maker. It was not, it must be noticed, the evil which was in man which excited his hatred and contempt; it was man himself. He was not merely, as many are, disgusted with the selfish and malignant elements which are mingled in man's nature and character, and disposed to trace them to any cause save a Divine will, but he believed man to be, as a whole, the work and child of the devil; and he told the imaginary creator and creature to their face, what he thought the truth, — "The devil is an ass." His was the very madness of Manichaeism. That heresy held that the devil was one of two aboriginal creative powers, but Swift seemed to believe at times that he was the only God. From a Yahoo man, it was difficult to avoid the inference of a demon deity. It is very laughable to find writers in Blackwood and elsewhere striving to prove Swift a Christian, as if, whatever were his professions, and however sincere he might be often in these, the whole tendency of his writings, his perpetual and unlimited abuse of man's body and soul, his denial of every human virtue, the filth lie pours upon every phase of human nature, and the doctrine he insinuates — that man has fallen indeed, but fallen, not from the angel, but from the animal, or, rather, is just a bungled brute, — were not enough to show that either his notions were grossly erroneous and perverted, or that he himself deserved, like another Nebuchadnezzar, to be driven from men, and to have a beast's heart given unto him. Sometimes he reminds us of an impure angel, who has surprised man naked and asleep, looked at him with microscopic eyes, ignored all his peculiar marks of fallen dignity and incipient godhood, and in heartless rhymes reported accordingly.

Swift belonged to the same school as Pope, although the feminine element which was in the latter modified and mellowed his feelings. Pope was a more successful and a happier man than Swift. He was much smaller, too, in soul as well as in body, and his gall-organ was proportionably less. Pope's feeling to humanity was a tiny malice; Swift's became, at length, s black malignity. Pope always reminds us of an injured and pouting hero of Lilliput, "doing well to be angry" under the gourd of a pocket-flap, or squealing out his griefs from the centre of an empty snuffbox; Swift is a man, nay, monster of misanthropy. In minute and microscopic vision of human infirmities, Pope excels even Swift; but then you always conceive Swift leaning down a giant, though gnarled, stature to behold them, while Pope is on their level, and has only to look straight before him.

Pope's wrath is always measured; Swift's, as in the "Legion-Club," is a whirlwind of "black fire and horror," in the breath of which no flesh can live, and against which genius and virtue themselves furnish no shield.

After all, Swift might, perhaps, have put in the plea of Byron—

All my faults perchance thou knowest,
All my madness none can know.

There was a black spot of madness in his brain, and another black spot in his heart; and the two at last met, and closed up his destiny in night. Let human nature forgive its most determined and systematic reviler, for the sake of the wretchedness in which he was involved all his life long. He was born (in 1661) a posthumous child; he was brought up an object of charity; he spent much of his youth in dependence; he had to leave his Irish college without a degree; he was flattered with hopes from King William and the Whigs, which were not fulfilled; he was condemned to spend a great part of his life in Ireland, a country he detested; he was involved — partly, no doubt, through his own blame — in a succession of fruitless and miserable intrigues, alike of love and politics; he was soured by want of success in England, and spoiled by enormous popularity in Ireland; he was tried by a kind of religious doubts, which would not go out to prayer or fasting; he was haunted by the fear of the dreadful calamity which at last befell him; his senses and his soul left him one by one; he became first giddy, then deaf, and then mad; his madness was of the most terrible sort — it was a "silent rage;" for a year or two he lay dumb; and at last, on the 19th of October 1745, "Swift expired, a driveller and a show," leaving his money to found a lunatic asylum, and his works as a many-volumed legacy of curse to mankind.