Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire


Conducted on 18-19/10/2005 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Written in Stone: Swift's Use of St. Patrick's Cathedral as a Text

Ann Cline Kelly (Howard University, Washington DC)

Author CV etc

One thinks of stones as being cold, but three stones in St. Patrick's Cathedral have generated quite a bit of heat - those inscribed with epitaphs written by its Dean, Jonathan Swift. What did he want to express in the few and carefully chosen words that would fit on the stones? Like most of Swift's paper-published texts, the three epitaphs are provocative or, if you will, incendiary. Although we can register the reactions these memorials evoked, we can only speculate as to what Swift intended their meaning and effect to be.

First, a bit of context. As we know, the news in 1713 that Jonathan Swift was to be Dean of St. Patrick's, prompted expressions incredulity, apoplexy, or cynicism, since the name "Swift" at that point was associated with scandal and controversy. The uproar centered on the contrast between the dignified and refined demeanor expected of Dean and the image of Swift projected in the popular prints authored both by himself and his enemies. Rather than publishing sermons, defenses of the church, theological tracts, or classically inspired poetry for an exclusive, genteel audience, Swift associated himself with irreverent jeux d'esprit and bold political tracts consumed by broad readership. The electricity surrounding Swift made texts by and about him best-sellers and constructed Swift as one of the most well-known and powerful figures in England during the years 1709-14, especially after the Conduct of the Allies brought down the formidable Duke of Marlborough by swaying public opinion against him.

We also know that after his move to Dublin in 1714, Swift carefully attended to making sure that the fabric, grounds, and services of his cathedral properly expressed the strength and glory of Irish Church. To that end, he spent much energy repairing, renovating, and improving St. Patrick's as well as putting it on a firm financial footing. These actions defined Swift as a serious, conscientious Dean - an image at odds with the traitorous apostate created by the Whig press in the last years of Queen Anne's reign. In the initial period in his tenure as Dean, Swift--who had been a notorious celebrity until he moved to his new job in Ireland--disappeared almost entirely from the printscape. Formerly a household name, Swift faded from cultural consciousness. One of the few depictions during this period, St. Patrick's Purgatory (1716), depicts a clinically-depressed Swift who declares himself "Dead and Buried" and thus thwarted from writing seditious pamphlets that would set "the whole Kingdom on Fire by one French Spark," a reference to Swift's alleged desire to foment a revolution in England spearheaded by the Pretender exiled in France and his Jacobite followers. In 1719, the false attribution of A Dedication to a Great Man, brought Swift's persona back into the public sphere of print, where he was ruthlessly attacked in a much-reprinted poem called "The Ode Maker," which also reinforced his treasonous inclinations as well as his sympathies with underclass attitudes and behavior.

In 1720, Swift broke his silence and published The Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), which exhibited all the most the inflammatory characteristics of the Swiftian style and reinforced Swift's identity as an enemy of the state by urging the Irish to "Burn every Thing that came from England...except their Coals." Although the Whig ministry might have initially relieved to see Swift sail across the sea, the Universal Proposal showed he could vex them as effectively from afar. His presence in Ireland, in fact, made them even more uneasy than if he'd been under their noses. Swift had changed the course of history with the Conduct of the Allies. What if he used his rabble-rousing skill to rally the Catholic majority of Ireland to join the French-based Jacobites in an invasion of England? What if he succeeded in convincing the Irish that their interests were at odds with those of England and that they needed to liberate themselves from colonial rule?

The Dean of St. Patrick's was expected to be an agent of English rule, but instead of supporting official policy, Swift began to condemn it openly. Instead of maintaining the peace, he seemed to be agitating for a popular resistance in Ireland, especially in the persona of the Drapier. But why? Christopher Fauske argues that the main purpose of Swift's oppositional rhetoric was not to promote Irish rights or nationalism but to defend of the Irish Church against the English Whigs bent on undermining it. Or had he, in fact, become a champion of his adopted country and inspired to thwart the policies that degraded Ireland and the Irish? Or was the Proposal designed to get revenge on the powers-that-be that forced him into exile? Or were Swift's powerful words designed to keep the English press focused on the threat he posed and resurrect him as a player on the national scene? Perhaps all of the above. Perhaps none of the above. Swift's motives, in most cases, are impossible to discern, especially because he embraced a number of contradictory identities.

Post-1720, after the attention-getting publication of Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, news about Swift was in high demand in England, especially juicy tidbits demonstrating his shameless contradictions and his lack of propriety. He was guilty of sedition and needed to be destroyed. One tract, A Defence of Irish Commodities (1720) published both in London and Dublin, describes Swift as an "evil Genius that set the People of England against their best and most faithful allies [with the Conduct of the Allies]....He has a variety of Shapes; sometimes he is a Priest, sometimes a Philosopher, and at other times a Tradesman; but for the most part, a Ballad-maker, a Punster, and a Merry-Andrew; unchangeable in this alone, that his constant end is to do Mischief." Swift's seeming empathy with the Irish underclass and their values was particularly disturbing. Swift's ability to create a unity of opinion among the diverse factions was particularly ominous, for English had always counted on the Irish dissipate their energies by fighting one another. Previous condemnations of Swift's low Grub Street style as well as the strong reactions to "Mrs. Harris' Petition" revealed the frisson produced by the failure to observe the decorum of class lines and post-1720 attacks made clear the hysterical paranoia about Swift anti-English/pro-Irish stance.

In 1722, Swift's decision to erect a monument to his Irish servant, Alexander McGee, in St. Patrick's cathedral underscored the worst fears of his detractors. Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" dramatizes the protocols of burial that Swift violated - the "common people" should be out in the churchyard, and their "betters" in the church proper. Because of his deep attachment to McGee; and/or because he wanted to model Christ's egalitarian teachings; and/or because he wanted to put certain people's noses out of joint, Swift order that a stone be placed to honor McGee with the following epigraph: "Here lieth the body of Alexander McGee, servant to Dr Swift, Dean of St Patrick's. His grateful friend and master caused this monument to be erected in memory of his discretion, fidelity, and diligence in that humble station." Editorial censorship occurred immediately, for Delany reports that Swift was persuaded by "a gentleman more distinguished for vanity than wisdom" to change "friend and master" to simply "master." A few years afterwards, Jonathan Smedley, in Gulliveriana, itemizes Swift's blasphemies, among them "His peculiar Humour of despising his Superiors, and putting Respect on his Inferiors, to make his Contempt the more Remarkable." Smedley views Swift's honoring McGee as the sin of "putting Respect on his Inferiors" and calls it a "Burlesque Apotheosis." Mocking the gesture, Smedley trivializes both McGee,--whom he describes as a "deceased Servant, who used to squeeze [Swift's] lemons"--as well as Swift's memorializing of McGee - "for his faithful Discharge of that important Trust, [Swift] had an Inscription engraved to his memory on his....large punchbowl." Smedley sneers that Swift's "Servant's Monument and Epitaph are set up in St. Patrick's Church, Dublin, to Banter all things of that sort," that is, class distinctions. [Gulliveriana 10, 3].

Seven years later, Swift embarked on a campaign to repair the Cathedral's damaged monuments and to provide monuments for unmarked remains. All on May 22, 1729 Swift wrote letters to Lady Catherine Jones, the Earl of Burlington, and Lady Holderness to request that their families supply funds for their relative's burial sites in St. Patrick's. Lady Catherine agreed readily, but Swift heard nothing from Burlington or Lady Holderness. Of the two holdouts, Swift, though, obsessively focused his ire Lady Holderness, who refused to send 50 pounds for a stone to memorialize her grandfather, the Duke of Schomberg, a general killed at the Battle of the Boyne, whose corpse was then housed in an unmarked vault. In April 1730, Swift asked Lord Carteret to nudge the relatives of the Duke to do the right thing, hyperbolically adding that "if, for an excuse, they pretend they will send for his body, let them know it is mine; and rather than send it, I will take up the bones, and make of it a skeleton, and put it in my registry-office, to be a memorial of their baseness to all posterity" (C:390). Swift's extraordinary emotional investment in pursuing Schomberg's family may have been motivated by high minded concerns about proprieties due a war hero or as Ehrenpreis suggests, a displacement of Swift's grief over the recent death of Stella, who also lacked a monument, but Swift's correspondence also suggests that he had a strong desire to punish the Duke's family for their Whiggish allegiances and court connections. During time Swift was pursuing Lady Holderness, he published a shocking poem - the "Libel on Dr. Delany and Lord Carteret"-- that underscores the idea, as Smedley phrased it, that Swift had a "peculiar Humour of despising his Superiors." This time, many felt Swift had gone too far, for he explicitly contends that rank and merit are inversely proportional - but worse - compares the relationship of King George and his Irish Lord Lieutenant with that of Beelzebub and an under-devil. The traitorous insults are emphasized in the final lines of the poem:

...No imaginable things
Can Differ more than God and [Kings]
And, Statesmen, by ten thousand odds
Are Angels, just as devils are Gods.

The poem - needless to say - stirred up a storm, with at least four editions within the year and many critiques. There were calls to indict Swift and his printer. Expressions of shock and sorrow flooded the press. One author laments great change in Swift's attitudes - in the past he "despis'd the Beast with many heads/And damn'd the Mob, whom now he leads."

While the furor over his "Libel on Dr. Delany" was going on, Swift decided that he himself, with the nominal support of his Chapter, needed to supply a monument for the Duke of Schomberg. He put much thought into the phrasing of the epitaph, making minute editorial changes. He tells one of his correspondents, for example, "I have changed the word erigi for erigendum." He replaces Hunc ipsi lapidem with Hunc demum lapidem in order, he says "to avoyd being equivocal, ipsi meaning the chapter." He niggles about the phrase Quantilla in cellula," saying, "these diminutives I was wrong advised in." His care, he says, comes from his recognition that "It is dangerous writing on marble, where one cannot make errata, or mend in a second Edition....I shall have all the scandal upon any slip" (C: 468-9, to Rev. Philip Chamberlain). Slips of Latin grammar were not the cause of the scandal raised by Swift's inscription. The scandal swelled from the vengeful words designed to humiliate the Duke's family as well as the wide publication of those words in the popular prints. In English translation, the original epitaph read as follows:

Beneath this stone lies the body of Frederick, Duke of Schomberg, who was killed at the Boyne AD 1690. The Dean and Chapter earnestly and repeatedly requested the Duke's heirs to undertake the erection of a monument in memory of their father. Long and often they pressed the request by letter and through friends. It was of no avail. At long last they set up this stone, in order that the visitor loaded with indignation may know that the ashes of so great a leader are concealed in a little room. The renown of his valour had greater power among strangers than had the ties of blood among his kith and kin.

Patrick Delany takes credit for getting his friend to omit the phrase describing the visitor "loaded with indignation" being informed that "the ashes of so great a leader are concealed in a little room." Delany also alludes to "other satiric severities" he prevented from seeing the light of day (274). Delany's modifications, though, did little to lessen the offence of the epitaph or subdue the reactions to it. [Thanks to Leland Peterson for finding the original inscription in Craik and helping me with the Latin.]

Probably fed to Faulkner by Swift, the Dublin Intelligencer printed an English translation of the epitaph on Apr 14, 1731 (C 3:480) and according to Swift, it also appeared in seven London newspapers, thanks to his efforts (C 4:410). In his letter to Pope in July of 1731, Swift exudes delight in reports of the Queen's displeasure and the international ramifications of his actions. He reports that when the Prussian envoy complained to the King "that I had put up the stone out of malice to raise a quarrell between His M and the K of Prussia. This perhaps may be talk, because it is absurd, for I thought it was a Whiggish action to honr D. Schomburg, who was so instrumental in the Revolution and was Stadholder of Prussia, and other in the Service of that Electorate which is now a Kingdom." He concludes by saying, "I have had the happyness to be known to You above 20 Years; and I appeal whether you have known me to exceed the common indiscretions of man kind" (C 3:480). It must have been hard for Pope not to choke as he read those words.

A week after his letter to Pope, Swift continues to maintain his ingenuous pose in a letter to Lady Suffolk, telling her how surprised he was about the uproar the caused by epitaph and how wounded he is to have his intentions mistaken by the King and Queen. He assures her that "The public prints and the thing itself will vindicate me...." (27 July 1731, C 3:483). Lady Suffolk lets Swift know how ridiculous she finds his professions of wronged innocence: "I every day thank Providence that there is an Epitaph in St. Patrick's Cathedral that will be a lasting Monument of your imprudence. I cherish this extremely, for say what you can to Justifie it; I am convinced I shall not easily argue the world into the beleif of a Courtiers Sencerity, as you (with all your wit and Eloquence) will be able to convince Mankind of the Prudence of that Action" (C 3:498).

Swift's pride in his deed is revealed when he asks Lord Bathurst to tell his neighbor, Lord Burlington, "that if he does not repair his Ancestor's monument, I will use him worse than I have done Duke of Schomberg's grand daughter" (C 3:475-6). He comes back again to his triumph in a subsequent letter to Bathurst, where he explains how he uses the press to pillory merchants who have cheated him: "I began this scheme with a long record upon a large peice of black marble in my own Cathedral, on the north side of the Altar, whereupon I put a Latin inscription, which I took care to have published in 7 London news papers. The granddaughter of the old Duke of Schomberg wd not send me 50 ll to make him a Monument over his burying-place; upon which I ordered the whole story to be engraved, and you must have seen the writing several years ago to the scandall of the family; particularly because his present M[ajesty] said, G[od] D[amn] D[ean] S[wift]. whose design it was to make him quarrell with the K. of Prussia. Thus I endeavor to do justice to my station, and give no offence [!!!!]" (October 21, 1735, C 4:410). Not only does the epitaph eternally testify to ignobility of the Duke's family, but--as Lady Suffolk notes, is also testifies to Swift's bold "imprudence" in baiting the crowned heads of Europe from his remote outpost in Ireland.

The last major text Swift wrote in stone in St. Patrick's is his own epitaph. The public first learned of the strange words Swift wrote for to memorialize himself when his will was published after his death in 1745. Because Swift was a well known celebrity, there was great public interest in this document, which went through multiple editions and generated numerous reactions. Swift's will stipulated in very particular detail the design and placement of his monument, saying it should be " a Black Marble of ----- Feet square, and seven Feet from the Ground, fixed to the Wall, ...erected with the...inscription in large letter, deeply cut, and strongly gilded." In the will, Swift also specifies protocols for his interment: "I desire that my body may be buried in the great Isle of the said Cathedral, on the South Side, under the pillar next to the monument of Primate Narcissus March, three Days after my Decease, as privately as possible, and at Twelve o'clock at night." When Swift died, Mrs. Whiteway complained to one of Swift's executors that an ungenerous interpretation of Swift's minimalist directives was being used as a shabby excuse to avoid giving him a funeral worthy of his position. She demands "whether ever you knew a Gentleman's who's corpse was not in danger of being arrested for debt, treated in such manner" and says that Swift "himself thought decency requisite at a funeral [as] may be known by what he did for his honest, trusty servant, Alexander McGee." She concludes sardonically by offering to pay for the funeral herself, "if this expence be thought too much to be taken from the noble Charity he hath bequeathed" (C 5:215-6).

The inscription that Yeats called "the greatest epitaph in history" makes clear Swift's aversion to "resting in peace" or letting anyone else "rest in peace." It agitates the mind with provocative assumptions as well as unanswered and unanswerable questions. The unsettling absence of Christian references in the epitaph, and the presence of the clause, "he has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more," fill the mind with lurid possibilities concerning the source and object of that anger. Travelers passing by are taunted by their inadequacies and admonished "to imitate, if you can, one who strove his best to champion liberty," with the "if you can" phrase," raising concerns about his about his self-perception. Most of all, the word "liberty" is puzzling and disquienting. Liberty to do what? Liberty for whom?

In the "Verses" on his death, Swift imagines that his antithetical identities will cause confusion because the public would be unsure whether "To Bless the Dean, or Curse the Drapier." In practice, though, Swift synthesized the two personae by using his authority as Dean to promote Drapier-like opposition to the English Whig policies. Swift dramatically united Dean and Drapier in March 1733 when he used St Patrick's to stage a protest against a recent devaluation of gold, reports of which - suspiciously like the Schomberg's epitaph - were widely reported in the London newspapers. Among the details mentioned are a "display of a black flag on St. Patrick's steeple, the muffling of the bells, which rang mournfully all day, and...the retiring of the merchants to a tavern, and their drinking long life to Dean Swift and confusion to the enemies of Ireland." While this oppositional gesture lasted only a short while, the three challenges to the status quo that Swift carefully wrote, had chipped into stone, and placed on the walls of St. Patrick ‘s Cathedral continue to speak to us today of the powers of the Dean AND the Drapier combined in Jonathan Swift.

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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 2005; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.