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Jonathan Swift, Irish writer

By Claude Rawson


Jonathan Swift, whom T. S. Eliot called “colossal,” “the greatest writer of English prose, and the greatest man who has ever written great English prose,” died on 19 October 1745.  Every year on a Saturday near that day, a gathering of admirers meet for a symposium in his honour, in the Deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where Swift lived and worked for the last thirty years of his life.  The event is hosted by Swift’s present-day successor as Dean of the Cathedral, and is followed on Sunday by a lay sermon by a well-known Irish person, a distinguished writer, for example, like the novelist Anne Enright, or, more recently in 2012, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins.

This great English writer, dean of an Anglican church in a Roman Catholic country, who regarded Ireland as a place of exile, is nowadays honoured as one of the political as well as literary giants of Irish history.  When the three hundredth anniversary of his birth was commemorated in Dublin in 1967, an earlier President, Eamon de Valera, gave the opening address, accompanied by several members of the government.  In no other English-speaking country is it usual for a writer to be officially honoured at the highest political level, by national leaders who in addition give every indication of having read his works.  Swift is also a hero of the streets, even to people who haven’t read him.  Dublin taxi-drivers who ask you what brings you to the city give you brownie points if you say you are working on Swift.  “Oh Swift, that’s great, Swift is great.  He’s the one who drove the English out.”  Well, he wasn’t.  He wanted the English in Dublin to be rid of the English from London, and he didn’t much like the Irish natives, but as de Valera (an old revolutionary fighter) understood, Swift knew that the essential thing was first to get London out of Irish affairs.

Gulliver in Brobdingnag by Richard Redgraven
But there is more.  Ireland honours its writers, including the Protestant writers, more naturally and profoundly than England or the United States.  Both Yeats and Shaw were invited to serve in the Irish Senate at its inception.  Shaw said he would only come if the Senate moved to London, but Yeats became a distinguished Senator, of admired wisdom and eloquence.  “We are the people of Swift,” he said of the heroes of the Protestant Ascendancy, “one of the great stocks of Europe.”  He was responding to Catholic senators who objected to a Protestant speaking in favour of divorce.  They did not vote for divorce, but beyond the most passionate partisanship, there is a natural feeling throughout Irish society, percolating down to the unlettered street, that literature matters, and that their writers, whether English or not, are national treasures.  My taxi-driver, who took it for granted that “Swift was great,” asked me, “if there was one book by Swift he should read, what would it be?”  When I suggested Gulliver’s Travels, he exclaimed, “Did he write Gulliver’s Travels?” The name alone of the great Swift had hitherto been enough.

Gulliver’s Travels is an Irish book, and not flattering, either to the Irish or to anyone else.  The humanoid Yahoos of Part IV are based on a common view of the Irish natives, and the name has subsequently been used as a synonym for them.  The Yahoos are given features “common to all savage Nations,” including, improbably, thick lips, flat noses, and hairy bodies, which were stereotypes of the imperial imagination.  This is not, despite appearances, an expression of vulgar “racism,” even allowing for the fact that conceptions of racial difference, and superiority, though not edifying, were less charged with the kind of exacerbated malignity that would be assumed in our own political climate.  Swift’s position about despised or pariah groups differs from most others, however, is that he is not saying “we” are better than “them,” but that they are indeed as bad as they are described to be, while “we” are exactly like them.  The features of the despised race are baldly confronted, and then reappraised as common to humanity, with an additional sting to the effect that we, their civilized or Christian betters, are if anything worse, not better.  The conquest of American Indians is described in the final chapter as more barbaric than the Indians themselves, but the book as a whole gives us little reason to think well of the latter.  The Yahoos, “all savage Nations,” are in fact not Irish but, like the Irish and “us,” merely human.

The message is bleak, but it is not “racist.”  Unsurprisingly, some readers have shrunk from it, especially in the benignly conformist climate of university literature departments, which prefer their authors to be sanitized to the prevailing idea of political virtue.  Swift did not write to be liked, however, and non-academic readers, exemplified by Thackeray in a famous essay, who found Gulliver’s Travels disturbing or even unbearable were closer to Swift than readers who welcome it as a tolerant and broadminded fable written by a Guardian or New York Times columnist.  Neither shocked indignation, nor complacent approval, does justice to a great masterpiece, which subjects humanity to a raw exposure of its degraded animal bleakness.  T. S. Eliot got it right, as so often, when he said he considered Gulliver’s Travels, “with King Lear as one of the most tragic things ever written.”

Claude Rawson is Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of several books on Swift, Fielding and other eighteenth-century authors, and of numerous articles and reviews both in specialist journals and in the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review and London Review of Books. He has edited Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift for Oxford World’s Classics.

For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford’s commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more. You can follow Oxford World’s Classics on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image credit: Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels, by Richard Redgraven [public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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