Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire

A Symposium on Jonathan Swift and the Politics in his Age

Conducted at The Deanery of St. Patrick's, Upper Kevin Street, Dublin 8, on 18 October 2003, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

'Hand in hand to posterity'? Reading politics in Swift and Pope

Valerie Rumbold, University of Birmingham

[Valerie Rumbold is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Birmingham, the author of Women's Place in Pope's World (Cambridge, 1989) and numerous articles on Pope, and editor of Pope's Dunciad in the Longman Annotated Texts series (1999). She is currently preparing the volume of Swift's Parodies and Related Works for the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift, forthcoming later this decade from Cambridge University Press.]


In February 1727, reporting progress in the printing of their joint Miscellanies, Pope tells Swift that he hopes they will go 'hand in hand to posterity . . . diverting others just as we diverted ourselves' (Corr., II, 426). Both had, after all, been members, along with Arbuthnot, Gay, Parnell and Queen Anne's minister Lord Oxford, of the Scriblerus Club as it had flourished in 1713-14. After the death of Queen Anne in 1714 had put the Tories out of office, the incoming Hanoverian regime was to be in the hands of the Whig Sir Robert Walpole for most of the next forty years; and from the vantage point of this long Walpolean tyranny (as both Swift and Pope perceived it), these Scriblerian meetings would be halcyon days to look back on. Hobnobbing with the principal ministers of state as they negotiated an end to the Whig-supported War of the Spanish Succession, and looking to a renewal of cultural prospects under a gratified Queen Anne, Pope and Swift could in these years, as never since, dedicate their writing to an ongoing, positive assertion of traditional political and cultural values. But the Queen died, the ministers were prosecuted, Swift went to Ireland, and the two friends seldom met again.

In politics, they continued to warm to the same themes and revere the same heroes, notably Oxford and Bolingbroke, the late Queen's ministers, and Bishop Atterbury, now all tainted by accusations of Jacobitism. Pope applauded Swift's defeat of Wood's coinage, which both saw as yet another corrupt piece of Hanoverian wheeling and dealing; and he did so in the provocative context of an address to the very king whose mistress had connived at the scheme in the first place:

Let Ireland tell, how Wit upheld her cause,
Her Trade supported, and supply'd her Laws;
And leave on SWIFT this grateful verse ingrav'd,
The Rights a Court attack'd, a Poet sav'd.
(Epistle to Augustus, lines 221-4)

When Pope elaborated the cumulative project of his own career, the Dunciad, into its three- and four-book forms, from 1729 onwards, it was to Swift that he dedicated it, cheering his friend with the thought that there is at least one English monopoly that benefits the Irish: England has such a monopoly on stupidity that there's none left over for Ireland (Dunciad in Four Books, I. 19-28).

Yet despite all this, the political commitments of the two friends have typically been very differently received by later readers; and in taking up today's topic of Swift and radicalism, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on why that might be.

'Radical' as a political term emerges only in the late eighteenth century to refer to an ideology which, while in some respects it resembled the hatred of empire and oppression that had animated Swift, stood in a clear line of descent from the Whig ideology that Swift and Pope both loathed. Swift snipes at this outlook not just in overtly political works like Modest Proposal but also in satires like Genteel and Ingenious Conversation that, once the connotations of party are left behind, may look like fairly trivial mockery of contemporary taste and manners. To say, therefore, that Swift appeals to radicals, is to build in a rather large historical irony. The irony, and the gap in perception it represents, becomes negotiable mainly because the political configurations in which Swift's (and Pope's) texts originally made sense had effectively ceased to be meaningful by the middle of the eighteenth century.

In 1742, while both were in fact still alive, Sir Robert Walpole finally left office, and the long stand-off between government and opposition ended in a scramble for power from which the leaders of the Patriot opposition emerged with principles in tatters. Swift and Pope turned out to have spent their prime in addressing political values and identities that readers would very soon find it difficult, pointless, and in some cases counterproductive to reconstruct. As England in the second half of the eighteenth century moved on to face an American War, the French Revolution, and the movement to abolish slavery, reviving the party politics of the age of Walpole in all its antagonistic detail became less and less attractive.

In Pope's case, the blurring of political contexts was arguably hastened by his appointed editor, William Warburton, a clergyman of humble origins with a career to make, who had in Pope's last years encouraged him towards high-minded ethical and religious conservatism rather than Tory or Patriot partisanship. Warburton's orthodox zeal and political caution no doubt helped him rise to become a bishop; but it decisively alienated, for example, the radical satirist Charles Churchill, for whom Pope seems to have been decisively smeared by association. Swift's works arguably benefited from lacking such a doorkeeper. His politics too had become difficult to grasp once their original context had disappeared, but with the crucial difference, as Professor Mahony has pointed out, that 'Swift grew the more useful as the passage of time eroded historical anomalies to fit the simpler standard of British-Irish antagonisms characteristic of nineteenth-century nationalism, and seemed thereby to resolve his own inconsistencies' (xv).

Just how dangerous it might be to Swift's reputation to have the original context of his politics put back on the agenda was illustrated in 1816 by the response of the Whig reviewer Francis Jeffrey to Walter Scott's edition of Swift. For Jeffrey, Swift is damned as a Tory, and a venal one at that: nothing about him can serve as any kind of inspiration to progressive thought. As for the Drapier: 'His Irish politics may all be referred to one principle a desire to insult and embarrass the government by which he was neglected, and with which he despaired of being reconciled' (22). Moreover, 'every body is now satisfied of the perfect harmlessness, and indeed of the great utility, of Wood's scheme for a new copper coinage' (23). Perhaps most damagingly, Jeffrey points out that by the standard of early C19 Whigs, Swift was indifferent to Ireland's greatest problem: 'to the last we hear nothing of its radical grievance, the oppression of its Catholic population' (22). Jeffrey's fervour for the Whig tradition casts Swift into the outer darkness of self-interested Tory bigotry.

William Hazlitt, a man of more radical views than Jeffrey, but an admirer of Swift, sees that Swift can only be recuperated for progressive readers by minimising the significance of his politics:

I do not, therefore, agree with the estimate of Swift's moral or intellectual c\haracter, given by an eminent critic, who does not seem to have forgotten the party politics of Swift. I do not carry my political resentments so far back: I can at this time of day forgive Swift for having been a Tory. I feel little disturbance (whatever I may think of them) at his political sentiments, which died with him, considering how much else he has left behind him of a more solid and imperishable nature! (267-8)

In the case of Pope, there was an additional problem, namely a huge shift in poetic taste. Half a century on, Pope seems to Hazlitt an artificial and limited poet. Notably, Hazlitt makes no appeal to Pope's politics to revive the passion with which his work had been consumed within its own context of controversy. He prefers to read even his most politicised passages in terms of a lofty moralism: 'The finest burst of severe moral invective in all Pope, is the prophetical conclusion of the epilogue to the Satires' (235). He quotes with admiration Pope's injunction to 'Disdain whatever Cornbury disdains', commenting 'One would think (though there is no knowing) that a descendant of this nobleman, if there be such a person living, could hardly be capable of a mean or paltry action'. Thus distinctive connotations of Cornbury's career in a rhetoric of Patriot virtue are entirely lost. Even Byron, a more openly subversive figure and one unusual in his passionate advocacy of Pope, pitches his claim at a level of ethics so general as to transcend even nationality: 'He is the moral poet of all Civilization and as such let us hope that he will one day be the National poet of Mankind' (Nicholson, 150-51). As Swift's example showed, resuscitating the Toryism of dead Tories was no way to commend their work to progressive taste.

Once Swift and Pope had been surgically separated from the Whig/Tory matrix of their time, Swift proved better equipped to survive the operation than Pope. While Pope had written mainly in heroic couplets, a form that fell into relative disfavour from the mid century, Gulliver became a standard work, and would, in time, qualify Swift to be read as more a novelist than a satirist. This is, of course, a reading of Gulliver that rests on considerable anachronisms; and one of the distinctive contributions made by Professor Donoghue's 1969 Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction is the critical pressure it applies to the by then well established assumption that Gulliver was to be read as a novel, particularly as a novel as conceived in the wake of Henry James. On the other hand, to be read as a novelist in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was arguably the best thing that could have happened to Swift, because it kept him, however oddly, on the right side of a hierarchy of genre that was shifting decisively in favour of prose fiction.

Finally, we should perhaps ask whether, intrinsically as opposed to occasionally, Swift's work really does constitute an exemplar of anti-establishment satire. In Swift's later life the establishment was Whig, and he opposed it. It is potentially inspiring to deduce from this that he was essentially, rather than accidentally, an anti-establishment writer. This makes him easy for later opponents of established power to appropriate. To insist, on the contrary, that Swift's opposition to Walpole's Whig regime was based on specific beliefs and commitments as they were uniquely inflected in the England and Ireland of his time may seem unhelpful and even dog-in-the-mangerish.

On the other hand, the inspiration that might be drawn from Swift is not necessarily or even obviously liberal and progressive. There is plenty in Swift, after all, to comfort those who believe that most of the trouble in life is caused by new-fangled nonsense. A.L.Rowse's Jonathan Swift: Major Prophet, its universalising moral agenda blazoned boldly in its subtitle, was published in 1975: on the title-page of the Birmingham University Library copy a student has ringed the date and written, 'this book should have stayed there' -- in the context of the present discussion a somewhat plaintive appeal to the historical particularity from which Rowse works to liberate his subject for service in the present.

Although Rowse identifies Swift as a Whig and does describe aspects of early C18th politics, he proclaims at an early stage, without qualification or nuance, the universal applicability of the principles that Swift inherited from his royalist grandfather, commenting 'All his life Swift hated fanatics and doctrinaires and illusionists quite rightly, for the troubles they bring down on sensible people' (10). Later he declares, 'Swift was no great favourite with Victorians, and never with liberals, with their childish illusions but we have contemporary Ireland in ferment once more, like him, to enlighten us' (32-3). He cites Swift's evocation of what he calls 'the authentic Puritan twang, a nasal whine, which passed over with the elect into New England'; and he adds: 'Bad as it is today to live in a society of Leftist liberal cant about the educability of everybody, and everybody being not only equal but the same, and what not it must have been appalling to live in the England of the Civil War and Commonwealth, when these hypocrites were on top' (33-4).

Rowse's bugbears of the 1970s are thus uncritically identified with their remote ideological ancestors: Swift's original contexts are acknowledged in name only, with no emotional distance left in which his texts' remoteness from what we can readily identify with might come into focus. In comparison with progressive readings of Swift, however, with their vested interests in seeing him as defender of the weak, exposer of corruption, prophet against empire, even proto-feminist, this unashamedly conservative approach has at least one merit: it brings us sharp up against much that is harsh in Swift. The narrow and doctrinaire exclusiveness of much of his political and religious writing, for instance, is problematic if we want to make Swift a liberal: it is all grist to the mill if our agenda is to maintain distinctions and hierarchies, to insist on discipline. Yet, like readings that make Swift a patriot or a radical, those that make him a conservative disciplinarian also require a degree of selectivity and of special pleading to bring him round to their agenda. Trying to co-opt Swift's fascinating exasperations for the agendas of a later age has proved an activity as questionable as it is, apparently, irresistible.

Works Cited

Donoghue, Dennis, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)
Jeffrey, Francis, review of Walter Scott's edition of Swift, Edinburgh Review 27, no. 53 (September 1816), 1-58
Laver, James, ed., Poems of Charles Churchill, 2 vols. in one (London, Methuen, 1970; reprint of New York: Barnes and Noble, 1933)
Mahony, Robert, Jonathan Swift: The Irish Identity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995)
Nicholson, Andrew, ed., Lord Byron: The Complete Miscellaneous Prose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)
Rowse, A.L., Jonathan Swift: Major Prophet (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975)
Wu, Duncan, ed., The Selected Writings of William Hazlitt, 9 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1998) (Lectures on the English Poets in Vol. 2)


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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 2003; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.