1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Swift" Literary Speculum 2 (July 1822) 34-35.



Perhaps no author ever did less for the applause and recollection of posterity than Swift. His high character as a writer is universally admitted, and yet it would be no easy matter to turn to that portion of his works which fairly entitles him to such distinction. Nothing can be more unamiable and repulsive than the general tone of his prose; and dreadfully vitiated indeed must that mind be, which can relish his obscene and disgusting attempts at poetry. His productions are chiefly remarkable for their striking originality; the dullest critic can be at no loss to ascribe all his effusions to their real parent: the elegance of Addison, the harmony of Pope, and the playfulness of Gay, have been successfully imitated, but the hard, dry, caustic style of Swift, though often caricatured, is without parallel in the language. Do we regret this? Surely not. For if ever mortal was actuated by the malevolence of a demon, it was the Dean of St. Patrick's, who seems to have dipped his pen in gall rather than ink, and has communicated to all his heterogeneous compositions the poison of his angry and malicious feelings. The greater part of his writings consists of political of controversial tracts on subjects of much interest at the time, but now either forgotten or despised, virulent attacks on men of all parties (for Swift was the Cobbett of his day) who are now above or below censure, and flimsy sophisms, fostered into importance by the prejudices of the age, but now rejected with contempt by the veriest smatterer in political economy, that ever misunderstood Adam Smith. And what is there in all this to excite our admiration and delight? The language of this clerical Proteus, particularly in the Draper's letters is no doubt nervous and truly English, without any of the fopperies of foreign or artificial refinement. He is content to embody the suggestions of his ill-nature and malice in plain, unaffected, and therefore forcible terms, without seeking to adorn his periods with vainly ambitious epithets, or far-fetched illustrations. He abuses his friends and foes in the tone of every-day conversation, freed from its incorrectness, and bespatters his quondam favorites, and his avowed enemies, with the filth of his coarse satire, as the scavenger of Literature, without evincing any desire to assume the stately airs of a Spanish grandee, or the idle prettinesses of a French dancing master. And can this give so high a claim to our notice and commendation? Do we praise the bravo, who handles his stiletto fearlessly, or the unblushing scoundrel who rails at his benefactors with ease and self-satisfaction? But Swift may have done better in his other works. The Tale of a Tub, considered merely as a work of genius, is entitled to all the notice it once exited, its keenness of sarcasm and bitterness of humour are quite overpowering; but while we confess its merits, its faults are too glaring to escape notice. It is merely a political squib, obscure, because addressed to the feelings and conceptions of a day, and unsatisfactory, because designed to gratify the exasperated prejudices of a few party zealots, whose creed was as ephemeral as their influence. The Voyages of Captain Lemuel Gulliver is the corner-stone of Swift's reputation, for though it is in many parts scandalously immoral, and is in its plan evidently intended to afford scope for the unrestrained outpouring of "envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness," it nevertheless appeals strongly to that ever active principle of our nature, — curiosity, and maintains throughout an influence over our imaginations, abundantly sufficient to ensure its popularity with every reader, from the uncombed slattern in the scullery, to the languid miss in the drawing-room. With the personal character of Swift we have nothing to do; yet it is impossible in his case to avoid identifying the man with the author; and when perusing his works, while the shades of statesmen and heroes, poets and philosophers, pass in review, while we mourn the infatuation of James, and hail the advent of the conservator of our liberties, William the Third, we, cannot but feel that the Dean of St. Patrick's, who planted daggers in the hearts of the only beings that ever loved him, who trusted by all, and betraying all, was finally despised by all, disgraced his age, an age rife with every virtue, and is, "Like Cromwell, damned to everlasting fame."