Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire

The Tercentenary of A Tale of a Tub (1704)

Conducted on 16-17/10/2004 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

The Pulpit, the Ladder, and the Stage-Itinerant:

Swift's Use of Three Oratorical Machines in A Tale of a Tub

Crystal O'Neal (Georgia State University)

Crystal O'Neal had earlier presented a paper at the 2002 (Northeastern Region) American Conference on Irish Studies: "Searching for the Perfect Text: Swift's Notions of the Problem of Language." In what follows, the numbers are page number references to sources indicated in the text itself.

In the introduction to A Tale of a Tub, Swift writes: "...towards the just Performance of this great Work, there remain but three Methods that I can think on; Whereof the Wisdom of our Ancestors being highly sensible, has, to encourage all aspiring Adventurers, thought fit to erect three wooden Machines, for the Use of those Orators who desire to talk much without Interruption. These are, the Pulpit, the Ladder, and the Stage-Itinerant..." (56). Of these three machines, Swift classifies the Tale as belonging to the Stage-Itinerant, which he refers to in a footnote as the Mountebank's stage. However, after engaging with the Tale that follows, one begins to question the relative ease of classifying Swift's text into only one of his categories. Throughout, we are confronted with style and purpose belonging to both the Pulpit and the Ladder.

One important consideration within all three oratorical machines Swift discusses is the idea that all three were notably used to perpetuate false claims. The Mountebank's stage was, of course, the most obvious place of fraudulence; however, as my paper will present, the two remaining machines also were places of corruption, forgery, and duplicity. Swift was well-aware that his readers would have been familiar with this idea of corruption, and he plays on it partially by deceiving them in this very classification.

Swift chose these three machines primarily because they were the three places of oratory without interruption, as well as being placed above their listeners. He writes, "FROM this accurate Deduction it is manifest, that for obtaining Attention in Publick, there is of necessity required a superior Position of Place" (60). Apparently, words are heavy and must fall downwards into the open mouths of the audience. At this time, many imagined that words literally fell from the speaker and had to be "heard" through the mouth. Thus, these three machines provided the useful rhetorical tools for Swift to compile his anatomy that is A Tale of a Tub If Swift's object were merely catagorisation, perhaps he would not have felt the need to explain the other two machines in his introduction. Because of this, Swift clearly intends his readers to keep in mind both his classification of the Tale as well as the broader taxonomy.

Ordained in the Anglican church in 1695, Swift was familiar with the role of the pulpit by the time of the Tale's writing. Additionally, his seminary training would have included the rhetoric of the sermon. To begin, the overarching story in the Tale resembles a parable, a common rhetorical device in the delivery of sermons. Swift writes in Section II: "ONCE upon a Time, there was a Man who had Three Sons by one Wife, and all at a Birth, neither could the Mid-Wife tell certainly which was the Eldest. Their Father died while they were young, and upon his Death-Bed, calling the Lads to him, spoke thus . . . HERE the Story says, this good Father died, and the three Sons went all together to seek their Fortunes."(73-74)

The rhetoric of Swift's parable resembles, among others, the New Testament parable of the prodigal son: "..And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living" (Luke 15:11-13). Although the father is not dead here, the parallels between the two stories should not be discounted, particularly in light of Swift's insistence in discussing the pulpit as one of the most important oratorical machines.

In Elements of Pulpit Oratory in Eighteenth-Century England Rolf P. Lessenich maintains that there were four types of sermons during the eighteenth century: explicatory, observatory, applicative, and propositional. He writes, "The explicatory sermon usually served for the illustration of a dogma contained in a text. It seized on the dogmatically hardest, most meaningful words or phrases such as 'inspiration' or 'all scripture is given inspiration of God . . .', and sought to define their specific meanings within the text" (84). Anyone well versed in the overarching "story" of the Tale can see where this idea comes into play. Of course Swift uses the method in order to satirise the problems especially inherent in the Catholic Church. For example, when the three brothers want to have embroidery on their coats, "they solved the Matter by saying, that these Figures were not all the same with those that were formerly worn, and meant in the Will. Besides they did not wear them in that Sense, as forbidden by their Father, but as they were a commendable Custom, and of great Use to the Publick" (89). The interpretation of scripture then falls to the brothers as they always look to the Father's will to find what they want it to say.

The second type of sermon is called observatory, "so called because its argumentative part consisted of exegetical remarks rather than a strictly cast uniform exegesis" (87). Some of Swift's many digressions during the Tale fall into this category. For example, A Digression Concerning Criticks is particularly useful to find the occasional explanatory remark in an essay that is primarily Swift's observation of the critics.

The third type of oratory Lessenich discusses is the applicative sermon, wherein "the preacher did not discuss the text itself, but used it as a mere starting point, either for a perpetual application of its call to piety, or for the systematic treatment of some subject which it touched upon" (89). As the will becomes a central point in the Tale, the three brothers each often refer to it, and their stories seem to fall in a parable, as I have mentioned. The will, then, becomes the starting point of the overarching sermon that the Tale is, but its contents become less and less the primary focus as the parable continues. Additionally, one might argue that some of the other digressions might fall into this type of rhetoric, such as the Digression Concerning the Original, the Use and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth.

The last category is the propositional sermon. Lessenich explains that this type of sermon "was mainly concerned with religious dogmas subsequently applied for practical piety. But instead of explaining single words or phrases of the text, its argumentative part freely discussed several propositions drawn out of the text, without any restriction to the particular biblical statement" (94). Certainly we see the use of this oratory spread throughout the Tale. Much like the explicatory, the propositional sermon can often be corrupted by the priest, as he manipulates the text as he sees fit; and, indeed, the brothers eventually lock the Will away, and simply refer to its existence. Additionally, they draw on extratextual sources, such as stories they remembered hearing from those who knew their father. This idea of the corruption of the text is consistent with Swift's ideas of the pulpit put forth in the introduction, but it is also true of the rhetoric of all oratory.

Swift maintains that "By the Pulpit are adumbrated the Writings of our Modern Saints in Great Britain, as they have spiritualized and refined them from the Dross and Grossness of Sense and Human Reason. The Matter, as we have said, is of rotten Wood" (61-62). Although Swift is obviously taking digs at the Dissenter pulpit, he is at the same time aware that the pulpit is also the place for his own sermons. James Stathis reminds us that: "Swift's sermons, his many religious and political tracts, and his major satires reveal that he did not go along with a sizeable chuck of the common stock of his own time, including the movement to grant further toleration to dissenters, individual participation in scientific speculation, emphasis upon and delight in the imagination, the concept of benevolence with its offsprings – sentimentalism and soft morality. (51)"

Stathis goes on to pose the question to his readers "What [....] are The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub but masterpieces of diminution, through ridicule and parody, of many of these ideas and those who expounded them?" (51). Since the Tale is predominantly a highly critical look at Catholics and Dissenters alike, it is difficult to separate Swift's knowledge of pulpit oratory from the rhetoric used throughout A Tale of a Tub, due to the intersections among each machine. In fact, one frontispiece used in an early edition of the Tale pictured all three machines, giving readers a visual image of the connections and similarities among them.

We should recall that Swift tells us that the pulpit is increasingly problematic. "The Matter, as we have said, is of rotten Wood, and that upon two Considerations; Because it is the Quality of rotten Wood to give Light in the Dark: And secondly, Because its Cavities are full of Worms" (62). Firstly, regarding the light of rotten wood, we understand today that rotten wood "glows" due to the presence of luminescent microorganisms; however, Swift and his readers of the 18th century wer not. What is important here is the notion that the glow associated with rotten wood is not drawing its light from the proper source, i.e. the sun/Heaven/God; it gets its light from something internal, i.e. self-serving and ultimately false. Interestingly, it is often the "worms" that are the source of this light. Secondly, regarding the worms, Swift notes that he is speaking primarily of fanatic, dissenter preachers, but it is certainly true that Swift saw this issue of the machine in the Catholic church as well, as it is Peter who regularly needs a "Sovereign Remedy for the Worms" (107). Swift also tells us that, in using his prescriptions, "the Worms would void insensibly by Perspiration, ascending thro' the Brain" (107). This is a very similar image to the idea of the dissenter preachers, with their heads full of maggots.

The second oratorical machine that Swift brings to his reader's attention is the ladder, which criminals were forced to use to walk up to the gallows. Certainly, it was not lost on Swift's readers that preaches also had to use a ladder to reach their pulpit, given its height above the audience. Additionally, it was convention during the eighteenth century for those who were about to be executed to give a small speech, usually confessing their crimes and repenting of their sins. Usually the criminals would acknowledge the validity of their trial and sentence. Swift maintains that: "OF Ladders I need say nothing: 'Tis observed by Foreigners themselves, to the Honor of our Country, that we excel all Nations in our Practice and Understanding of this Machine. The ascending Orators do not only oblige their Audience in the agreeable Delivery, but the whole World in their early Publication of these Speeches; which I look upon as the choicest Treasury of our British Eloquence." (58-59)

During the eighteenth century, it was common practice for the confessions of criminals to be published in pamphlets both before, during, and after the execution. The execution, like the stage, was essentially a spectacle – thousands would gather to witness. It would have been difficult to hear the oration of the criminal from far back, and so the pamphlets were popular ways to "hear" the speaker, even though these printings (and confessions themselves) were more often corrupted versions of what any of the criminals actually thought.

One of the more popular and noted collections was entitled The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn. Peter Linebaugh maintains in his book The London Hanged that "the Ordinary's Account belonged to a recent medium of communication, print, and its form introduced several elements distinguishing it from traditional ballads that supported a mythic presentation of the malefactor" (89-90). Although there was some censorship involved in what these types of pamphlets could print, the idea that the criminal's dying words were popular enough and important enough to put into press certainly led Swift to consider the ladder as one of the major oratorical machines of his time.

However, the execution was not the only thing that Swift attributes to his category of ladder. He extends this to say that "THE Ladder is an adequate symbol of Faction and of Poetry, to both which so noble a Number of Authors are indebted for their Fame" (62). Swift has very little to say about the idea of faction, but there are possibly political and religious implications by his use of the term, especially considering that part of his overarching satire involves the dissenters of the Anglican church. As for poetry, Swift seems to imply the ballads that were created during executions that inevitably led to the mythologisation of particularly popular criminals.

The Stage-Itinerant is a little more difficult to parse because of its multiple meanings. Firstly, Swift gives his readers a gloss, stating that he means the mountebank stage. Given the text that follows, can we ultimately say that it falls in the realm of quacks and tricksters? The mountebank stage was a raised platform in the marketplace for merchants to hawk their wares. For the most part, this consisted of quack cures and medicines among other types of scams. No. 572 of The Spectator addresses its readers of the problem of the Mountebank, saying: "Though Impudence and many Words are as necessary to these Itinerary Galens as a laced Hat or a Merry Andrew, yet they would turn very little to the Advantage of the Owner, if there were not some inward Disposition in the sick Man to favour the Pretensions of the Mountebank. Love of Life in the one, and of Mony in the other, creates a good Correspondence between them." (V. III, 490)

In some ways this fits the text, but in other ways, not exactly. We can easily substitute religious dogma for the medicinal potions hawked by the Mountebanks, and therein locate the satire against the Catholic church and the Dissenters prevalent in the Tale. But this isn't the complete idea of what a stage-itinerant is.

Throughout the Eighteenth-century, the travelling stage was part of the theatrical culture. During the high middle ages and the Renaissance, what was virtually a wagon that converted into a raised stage platform was commonly used for passion plays and other purposes as well. Additionally, The London Stage makes reference to A Tale of a Tub in its introduction to the 1700-1729 volume, affirming that "Swift made a panoramic sweep of the playhouse scene" (xlv). He quotes a section of Swift's introduction which talks about the layout of the stage. If Swift is only mentioning the Stage-Itinerant as the mountebank's stage, why would he bother with a fairly accurate description of the actual theatre? Certainly, plays performed on permanent stages were published, and, in a sense, became itinerant in their book form. Obviously, Swift intends to include all the elements of stage-craft in his category.

And so what more does Swift tell us about this elusive stage-itinerant? In part, he begins to blur the boundaries between these three forms of oratory, after he has gone through great trouble to separate them. Swift writes that: "...THE last Engine of Orators, is the Stage-Itinerant, erected with much Sagacity, sub Jove pluvio, in triviis & quadriviis. It is the great Seminary of the two former, and its Orators are sometimes preferred to the One, and sometimes to the Other, in proportion to their Deservings, there being a strict and perpetual Intercourse between all three...". (59-60)

In the last phrase, Swift skirts the issue of distinctions among the three categories, saying that they are all connected.

Pete Steele, in his book Jonathan Swift: Preacher and Jester, maintains that Swift, like his Renaissance predecessors saw life as a "theatre or show," but to different ends (60). Firstly, Steele maintains, Swift "withdraws consent from the show of life, and sets to, stripping disguises from the actors" (61). At the same time, however, Swift also believed that "life must involve a large element of show, and even of charade" (61). These two opposing ideas bring together the concept of what Swift is really doing with the idea of the Stage-Itinerant.

Additionally, we cannot forget that Swift has connected each of these types of oration to their physical machines, but he also connects each of them to published writing. It was quite common during the eighteenth century for people to pirate sermons and publish them. It was also common for other preachers to pick up these sermons and use them for their own congregations. Swift also mentioned that the speeches of the executed were often collected and published. Certainly, we are aware that plays were published. Swift tells us: UNDER the Stage-Itinerant are couched those Productions designed for the Pleasure and Delight of Mortal Man; such as Six-peny-worth of Wit, Westminster Drolleries, Delightful Tales, Compleat Jesters, and the like; by which the Writers of and for GRUB-STREET, have in these latter Ages so nobly triumphed over Time. (63)

Most of what he mentions are not plays at all, but often collected songs or poems that were sung or recited outside of and before theatrical productions.

Veronica Kelly, in her essay Following the Stage-Itinerant: Perception, Doubt, and Death in Swift's Tale of a Tub, argues that: "...The narrator, as he takes on persona after persona, personifies the stage-itinerant: he becomes the stage, the players, and the audience of that microcosmic theater that plays just at the perceptual threshold, whose stage could be either of the mind or of the world, whose players can distinguish neither among themselves nor between their putative selves and the putative world, and whose audience enacts the most intimate and most hopeless struggle to distinguish truth from fiction...".(250)

Although she does make reference to the connection between Swift's stage-itinerant and the Grubstreet hacks, she does not bring into her discussion the note of Swift's glossing it as the Mountebank stage. In fact, it seems that most critics are quick to bring up the Swift's classification as it pertains to Grubstreet writings, but fail to recall what is meant by the Mountebanks.

That Swift was a mastermind at playing with his readers is no surprise to anyone who has even read one of Swift's poems or tracts. However, by invoking three major oratorical machines in a tour de force of changing rhetoric, Swift furthers our inability to take him at his word. Just as we read the apology that was added to the fifth edition of A Tale of a Tub, we understand that it is not apologetic at all, and that we did read it as it was intended, or rather, we saw the multiplicity of meanings behind the multiplicity of intentions Swift presented for us.

Works Cited:

Avery, Emmett L., ed. The London Stage 1660-1800. Vol. 2 (17800-1729). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1960.

Kelly, Veronica. "Following the Stage-Itinerant: Perception, Doubt, and Death in Swift's Tale of a Tub." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture. Vol. 17. Ed. John Yolton and Leslie Ellen Brown. East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1987.

Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

The Spectator. No. 573. 1714.

Stathis, James J. "Diminution in the Pulpit: Swift's Sermon Upon the Martyrdom of King Charles I." Tennessee Studies in Literature. Vol. 12. Ed. Richard Beale Davis and Kenneth L. Knickerbocker. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1967.

Steele, Peter. Jonathan Swift: Preacher and Jester. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1978.

Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Ed. A.C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.

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