Swift

 

 

Jonathan Swift is the one of the greatest satirists English literature has ever seen. (Juvenal an ancient rival.) How many times can one read Gulliver’s Travels and not be bored or not fail to be entertained? The answer: an infinite number of times.

In his prose, Swift has a genius for irony, for stating earnestly one thing when the intended meaning is just the opposite, and where the absurdity of what is being said proves the opposite (intended) point. He delights in making something as plain as day by asserting the ridiculous (such as in his “A Modest Proposal”). He is a consummate stylist and prose writer who can perfectly feign ignorance and appear to make the ridiculous — or the fact of his stating the ridiculous — plausible, as if he were merely sitting down at his writing desk with no hidden intentions. It’s equivalent to what a comic actor who deadpans and plays it straight can achieve.

If the censure of the Yahoos could any way affect me, I should have great reason to complain, that some of them are so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain, and have gone so far as to drop hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the inhabitants of Utopia.

— “A Letter from Captain Gulliver to his Cousin Sympson” (prefatory to Gulliver’s Travels)

 

 

 

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Swift was also a great poet, as I learned once from a friend of mine who was reading his poetry and knew much about poetry in general then I have ever, then or since.

I have tried to get into Swift the poet. I appreciate his genius. Yet, upon reading a poem such as “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” with its scatological content, Swift the misogynist repels me. His wit and genius are still on display, but the content is hard to stomach.

But then, “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift, D.S.P.D.,” a satirical poem the subject of which is the author himself, is brilliant. Every line, every rhyme tells. Strikes home.

 

 

 

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The following are two of my favorite Swift poems, written in 1709 and 1710, respectively, when Swift was in his forties.

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A Description of the Morning

 

Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing, show’d the ruddy morn’s approach.
Now Betty from her master’s bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
The slip-shod ‘prentice from his master’s door
Had par’d the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirl’d her mop with dext’rous airs,
Prepar’d to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep;
Till drown’d in shriller notes of “chimney-sweep.”
Duns at his lordship’s gate began to meet;
And brickdust Moll had scream’d through half a street.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees.
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands;
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.

 

Notes

1) The poem is introduced as follows: “the town has, this half age, been tormented with insects called easy writers …. Such jaunty scribblers are so justly laughed at for their sonnets on Phillis and Chloris, and fantastical descriptions in ’em, that an ingenious kinsman of mine, of the family of the Staffs, Mr. Humphrey Wagstaff by name, has, to avoid their strain, run into a way perfectly new, and described things exactly as they happen: he never forms trees, or nymphs, or groves, where they are not, but makes the incidents just as they really appear. For an example of it: I stole out of his manuscript the following lines: they are a description of the morning, but of the morning in town; nay, of the morning at this end of the town, where my kinsman at present lodges.”

9) broomy stumps: worn-out broom.

9-10) to trace/The kennel-edge: to sweep down the gutter.

14) brickdust Moll: painted prostitute.

16) In return for privileges, jailers demanded fees from their prisoners.

 

 

 

A Description of a City Shower

 

Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Returning home at night, you’ll find the sink
Strike your offended sense with double stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to dine;
You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine.
A coming shower your shooting corns presage,
Old achès throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dulman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen.
Meanwhile the South, rising with dabbled wings,
A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings,
That swilled more liquor than it could contain,
And, like a drunkard, gives it up again.
Brisk Susan whips her linen from the rope,
While the first drizzling shower is born aslope:
Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean:
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop.
Not yet the dust had shunned the unequal strife,
But, aided by the wind, fought still for life,
And wafted with its foe by violent gust,
’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust.
Ah! where must needy poet seek for aid,
When dust and rain at once his coat invade?
Sole coat, where dust cemented by the rain
Erects the nap, and leaves a mingled stain.
Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.
To shops in crowds the daggled females fly,
Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy.
The Templar spruce, while every spout’s abroach,
Stays till ’tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While seams run down her oiled umbrella’s sides.
Here various kinds, by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.
Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.
Boxed in a chair the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clattering o’er the roof by fits,
And ever and anon with frightful din
The leather sounds; he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed,
Pregnant with Greeks impatient to be freed
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do,
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through),
Laocoön struck the outside with his spear,
And each imprisoned hero quaked for fear.
Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud.

 

 

 

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There is a quality about these poems, their accessibility and realism, that delights me. It is a quality one sees in certain paintings. One feels as if he or she can walk into the frame, so to speak. One can totally imagine the scene and the time of day and that it could be the here and now.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2017

 

 

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Addendum: The full title of Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

The full title of “A Modest Proposal,” published in 1729, was “A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.”

 

 

 

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He also hosts a website devoted to the author Theodore Dreiser.
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