1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

John Nichol, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:34-38.



Dryden, then the veteran of our literature, sitting in the dictator's chair left vacant by Ben Jonson and waiting for Samuel Johnson, having perused an ode on the Athenian Society dating from Moor Park, February 14, 1691, hazarded the prediction, "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet." The unforgiven criticism has received from the judgment of posterity an assent qualified by respect for the strongest satirist of England and for an ability which cannot help making itself here and there manifest even in his verse.

Swift's satire is of two kinds: the party polemic of his earlier years, which culminated in 1724 in the Drapier's Letters, and the expression of a misanthropy as genuine as that of Shakespeare's Timon, of a rage directed not against Dissent or Church or Whig or Tory, but mankind, finding mature vent in the most terrible libel that has ever been imagined — a libel on the whole of his race — the hideous immortal mockery of the closing voyage of Gulliver. Such a work could only have been written by one born a cynic, doubly soured by some mysterious affliction, and by having had

To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,

To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.

till he had lost any original capacity he may have had for becoming a poet. His genius, moreover, was from the first as far removed from that peculiar to poetry as it is possible for any genius of the first rank to be. The power of Swift's prose was the terror of his own, and remains the wonder of after times. With the exception of a few clumsy paragraphs thrown off in haste, he says what he means in the homeliest native English that can be conceived. Disdaining even those refinements or shades of expression to which most writers touching on delicate or dangerous subjects feel compelled to resort, he owes almost nothing to foreign influence. "I am," he wrote, "for every man's working on his own materials, and producing only what he can find within himself": he consistently carved everything he had to set before his readers out of the plain facts with which he professed to deal. In his masterpieces there is scarce a hint from any known source, rarely a quotation his sentences are self-sufficient, and fit the occasion as a glove the hand. In the Tale of a Tub he anticipates Teufelsdrockh in his contempt for trappings of speech as of person; he regarded fine language as leather and prunella. Though Swift's Allegories are abundant, he disdained ordinary metaphor, in the spirit in which Bentham defined poetry as misrepresentation. But towards the close of the seventeenth and during the end of the eighteenth centuries, almost every English writer — apart from those purely scientific — had to pay toll to what he called the Muses. Bunyan seems to have written his bad lines to italicise the distinction between the most highly imaginative prose and poetry. In the next age no one who addressed the general public could escape the trial; and Swift's verses are at least as worthy of preservation as Addison's. In following a fashion he also gratified a talent, — nor Pope nor Byron had a greater, — for random rhyme. Generally careless, often harsh, his versification is seldom laboured: his pen may run till it wearies the reader; but we see no reason in fall of energy why Swift's Hudibrastic jingle should cease, any more than why the waves of Spenser's stanza should not roll for ever. The other merits of our author's verse are those of his prose — condensation, pith, always the effect, generally the reality, of sincere purpose, and, with few exceptions, simplicity and directness. The exceptions are in his unhappy Pindaric odes, and some of his later contributions to the pedantry of the age. The former could scarcely be worse, for they have almost the contortions of Cowley, without his occasional flow and elevation. Take the following lines from the Athenian Ode:

Just so the mighty Nile has suffered in its fame
Because 'tis said (and perhaps only said)
We've found a little inconsiderable head
That feeds the huge, unequal stream.

And again:

And then how much and nothing is mankind,
Whose reason is weighed down by popular air,
Who by that vainly talks of baffling death:
And hopes to lengthen life by a transfusion of breath,
Which yet whoe'er examines right will find
To be an art as vain as bottling up of wind.

As in Congreve's Address to Silence, the force of cacophony can no further go. It may be said that these lines were the products of "green, unknowing youth," but during the same years the same writer was maturing the Tale of a Tub. Swift had no ear save for the discords of the world, and in such cases a stiff regular measure, which is a sort of rhythmic policeman, is the only safe guard. Pindaric flights, unless under the guidance of the genius that makes music as it runs, invariably result in confusion worse confounded. Not least among our debts to Dryden may be ranked his fencing the ode from his cousin Swift. Of the pseudo-classic efforts of the latter, Cadenus and Vanessa, published in 1723, probably written about ten years earlier, may be taken as a type. No selection from his verses would be esteemed satisfactory that did not exhibit a sample of this once celebrated production but, apart from the tragic interest of the personal warning it conveys, it is, as M. Taine says, "a threadbare allegory in which the author's prosaic freaks tear his Greek frippery." The same critic justly remarks that Swift "wore his mythology like a wig: that his pleading before Venus is like a legal procedure," and that he habitually "turns his classic wine to vinegar." The other writers of the time had turned it into milk and water, but Prior and the rest had a grace to which Swift was a stranger. Their laughter is genuine though light; his was funereal and sardonic. His pleasantry is rarely pleasant, and he is never at heart more gloomy than when he affects to be gay. Most of his occasional verses, written at intervals from 1690 till 1733, are either frigid compliments or thinly veiled invectives, many of which, like the epigrams that disfigure the otherwise exquisite pages of Herrick, have all the coarseness with only half the wit of Martial. His addresses to women are, as might be expected, singularly unfortunate. He says truly of himself that he

could praise, esteem, approve,
But understood not what it was to love.

He can never get out of his satiric pulpit, and while saluting his mistresses as nymphs, he lectures them as school-girls. His verses to Stella, whom he came as near to losing as was for him possible, and whose death certainly hastened his mental ruin, are as unimpassioned as those to Vanessa, with whose affections he merely trifled. Swift's tendency to dwell on the meaner, and even the revolting facts of life, pardonable in his prose, is unpardonable in those tributes to Venus Cloacina, in which he intrudes on a lady's boudoir with the eye of a surgeon fresh from a dissecting-room or an hospital. His society verses are like those of a man writing with his feet, for he delights to trample on what others caress. Often he seems, among singing birds, a vulture screeching over carrion.

Of Swift's graver satiric pieces, the Rhapsody on Poetry has the fatal drawback of suggesting a comparison with The Dunciad. In The Beast's Confession, vivid and trenchant though it be, the author appears occasionally to intrude on the gardens of Prior and Gay. Had he been an artist in verse, he might have written something in English more like the sixth satire of Juvenal than Churchill ever succeeded in doing. But Swift despised art: he rode rough-shod, on his ambling cynic steed, through bad double rhyme and halting rhythm, to his end. War with the cold steel of prose was his business: his poems are the mere side-lights and pastimes of a man too grim to join heartily in any game. Only here and there among them, as in the strange medley of pathos and humour on his own death, there is a flash from the eyes which Pope — good hater and good friend — said were azure as the heavens, a touch of the hand that was never weary of giving gifts to the poor and blows to the powerful, a reflection of the universal condottiere, misanthrope and sceptic, who has a claim to our forbearance in that he detested, as Johnson and as Byron detested, cowardice and cant.