Dean Swift: The Satirist and his Faith

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and Christianity, St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, October 19 2002

On Jonathan Swift's 'On the Day of Judgement'

WJ McCormack (Goldsmiths' College, University of London)

Professor McCormack's command of Ireland's literary history ranges inclusively from the seventeenth century to the present; he is the author of over a dozen books in this field, editor of as many more, and founder of the Jonathan Swift Summer School at Celbridge.

In seeking to understand this poem by the Dean of Saint Patrick's, we might adopt any of several approaches. If we were to seize on its theme, then it would be possible to place it in a reading of the remarkably few religious poems which Swift composed. Modifying this rather limiting perspective, we might concede that in Swift's Ireland, religion was never wholly separable from politics. Read in this light, 'On the Day of judgement' would be judged in connection with its author's expressed views on the relative claims of Catholics, Protestants and Presbyterians within the state.

There again, if we refresh our memory of the poem itself, two further possibilities are opened up. First, the opening lines conjure a situation which for long was regarded as peculiarly distinctive in this poet - that of obsessive, involuntary terror, delusions amounting almost to madness, more specifically in this case, the terror of nightmare:

With a whirl of thought oppressed
I sink from reverie to rest.
A horrid vision seized my head
I saw the graves give up their dead.

Through the power of intervening tradition concerning Swift's mental state, these lines lure us to read the poem biographically. Given that there is scant evidence to associate it with Swift in his lifetime - it was first published in 1773, and no author's holograph has ever been found - it has about it an odd air of hindsight directed at the putative author.

Finally, there is the question of Swift's poetic style, his use of the higher doggerel as a vehicle for serious work.

A second detail of the text, however, rescues us from that temptation, without leading us out of all others. The repetition of Jove's name in the course of its twenty-two lines serves to remind us of the classical-pagan framework in which the Christian theme of Judgement Day is pursued. Indeed, more than half of the poem is spoken in Jove's voice.

A crucial moment in the history of Irish denominational conflict came in 1733 with the proposal to repeal the Test Act, a part of the legislative code by which members of the non-established reformed churches were controlled by government. As Christopher Fauske points out in the latest study of Swift's engagement in ecclesiastical politics, the issue had preoccupied him much earlier.

In 1708, he had circulated a pseudonymous pamphlet, Letter from a Member of the House of Commons in England, Concerning the Sacramental Test, this at a time when his official business on behalf of the Irish Church should have counselled greater discretion. In 1733, the question prompted the poet rather than the pamphleteer, and the result was 'On the Words Brother Protestants and Fellow Christians', a piece of invective which impressed WB Yeats two hundred years later in the hate-filled 1930s.

Reading it now in conjunction with 'On the Day of Judgement', we can readily identity the notions of theological universalism and political toleration at work behind the rhymes. This is not to conclude Swift endorsed either notion, quite the contrary. But in a manner which takes us closer to him, a third question can be addressed. Acting as a kind of vanishing mediator between the two already mentioned is the doctrine of predestination, central to the Calvinist Presbyterian churches whom Swift so particularly distrusted and disliked.

Yet, rather than explore the 1733 poem for these weighty themes, I'd like to draw your attention to an odd moment of verbal convergence between the two poems. Each poems ends with the same rhyme - wit/bit - and it is instructive to consider each:

'On the Words...'

Let folks in high, or holy stations,
Be proud of owning such relations;
Let courtiers hug them in their bosom,
As if they were afraid to lose 'em:
While I, with humble Job, had rather,
Say to corruption, 'Thou'rt my father.'
For he that has so little wit,
To nourish vermin, may be bit.

'On the Day of Judgement'

The World's mad Business now is o'er,
And I resent these pranks no more.
I to such Blockheads set my Wit!
I damn such Fools - Go, go you're bit.

The identity of rhymes should not distract us from noting the contrast in sentiment. In the first poem, it is an absence of wit among the contending factions of religion which exposes them to satiric condemnation and the further humiliation of not even knowing their condition - to be 'bit' is to be deceived, taken in by their own fine distinctions. 'Bit' in this sense is a verb which can only be used passively. But in 'On the Day of Judgement' the speaker (Jove) actively directs his wit against such blockheads, revealing to them how they have been deceived - 'bitten'. Between identity and difference in the two pieces, one might note Swift's bitter implication that the typical pale sinner who will face his Maker is an Irish bigot.

If, for Swift, there was such a worrisome thing as 'the sin of wit', then it is possessed by the presiding Deity of the poem, albeit a pagan one, or the Christian God here passing under a pagan name. And at this point we might note a deeply concealed rhyme, of a kind scarcely recognised even by the industrious and ingenious Jakobsen. By utilising the principal Roman god as spokesman in his poem, Swift achieves an audacious absent rhyme on the shortest sentence in the Bible. God is J/Love (cf 1st Epistle of Saint John 4:16).

The belief that the Christian God was all forgiving and merciful has been difficult to reconcile with those of hell-fire and eternal punishment. Calvinist teaching on the subject of predestination, though more complex than many of its detractors think, presents a God who is far from Jovial. If, as some readers feel, Swift's poem leans towards universalism - the notion that, eventually, no-one is damned - then it can be seen as directed particularly against his Irish non-conformist contemporaries. However, Jove does not simply dismiss the congregation of Irish bigots who monopolise his Judgement Day, he says with colloquial exaggeration -'I damn such Fools'. In a poem titled as this one is, however, the particular curse can hardly be dismissed as empty. In such a reading, Swift's poem hints at a negative universalism, at least in so far as the Irish bigot is truly representative of all sinners.

Is it possible to deduce anything of Swift's theology frorn the poern?

The dramatic use of Jove holds Christianity at arm's length, and additionally introduces a chasm between author and speaker which we ignore at our peril. And even if one concludes that the final lines imply a rejection of every kind of future state - you are all blockheads for fighting about this vacuous issue - nothing can diminish the ample prosaic evidence of Swift's support for the sacramental test and his hostility towards presbyterianism. Universalist he just might be, political liberal he sure wasn't. And if there is a universalism implied in the closing lines, then it is one of comprehensive damnation, not comprehensive salvation.

There remains one further approach to the poem which re-asserts its literary character. This would approach the poem as one which locates Jove within the speaker's unconsciousness and emphasises an unbroken continuity between the first ten lines and the twelve which follow. If the opening lines are, in some straight forward way, addressed to the reader, then so are the other lines which - by dramatic conceit - are ostensibly addressed by Jove to the full house attendance on the Last Day. To sin is, by implication, to read - or rather to mis-read in the contentious manner of sectarian rivals with their self-serving classifications of the damned and the elect.

Jove in fact observes four groups, the first of which incorporates the other three. The entire 'offending race of humankind' is said to be 'By nature, reason, learning, blind.' Swift's compact syntax leaves indeterminate the question as to whether mankind is blinded by nature or blind by the standards of nature; the same can be said in relation to reason and learning. Has humankind blinded itself by learning; or - more difficult to imagine - is it blind to learning in some true sense of that last term?

The strong rhyme of humankind/blind underscores a condition which absolutely prohibits or prevents an act of reading. To sham reading when one is blind would be the most ludicrous act of delusion, just as aiming to see one's rivals damned is madness in a physically blind bigot. There is a sustained and consistent imagery of sight/blindness running right through the poem, from 'the horrid vision' of line three onwards, an imagery again consistent with the idea that the reader and the act of proper reading constitute the real subject of the poem.

The three sub-groups or instances of offensive mankind are, first, those who stepped aside, that is, adopted a passive attitude towards life. Ironically such a condition places them at the mercy of wit and - ironically again - wit knows no mercy.

Second are those who 'never fell ~ through pride';

And then climactically, the groups of those who 'in different sects have shammed'.

These are a complexly structured triad of sinful human types. The passive and the shammers represent the two extremes of one polarity. The middle ground is occupied by those who never fell, but resisted sin only because it was injurious to their own pride. Or, in an equally tenable reading, those who fell, but not through pride, are lacking even the Satanic qualities described at positve length by John Milton.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that it is the reader, especially any reader blinded by learning or sectarian passion, who is curtly dismissed by Swift's Jove. Commencing to study a poem solemnly entitled, 'On the Day of Judgement', he is rash if he expects to learn of that transcendent event which lies beyond all the properties and powers of human language. One can hardly go further than the words of the Litany preserved in that Book of Common Prayer which Swift used in these precincts - 'In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our wealth; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgement, Good Lord deliver us.'

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(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2002; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.