Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire
Conducted on 15-16/10/2005 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair
Swift Commemoration Address
Eugene McCabe, Sunday 16th October 2005.
Thirty five 35 years ago I wrote a stage play about Swift. A television and radio documentary followedŠ. It was a a daunting, haunting involvement.
Like most average readers I'd read Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, and here and there... some startling quotations from other works. All of them had the controlled force verging on ferocity, the blackest of black humor and the extraordinary scatology, a satirist on a par with, if not, greater than Voltaire. Clearly, from the work and biographies he was an intellectual giant of enormous energy and creativity with a formidable presence. He was also as described by Bishop Wyse Jackson, an emotional coward, selfish, and pitiable. And no saint. Far from it.
On the credit side he was unstintingly generous to the poor of Dublin... and to this city. The barbed stanza in his will about building "a hospital for fools and mad" is, like his epitaph, too well known to quote. Perhaps not so well known is the effect this will had on Tyrone Guthrie's decision to leave his house and estate (Annamakerrig) to "The Arts Councils north and south" Giving the commemoration address here in September1969 (without notes) I remember he talked about the paradox of Swifts domestic thrift verging on meanness compared with his overwhelming generosity to beggars and the Irish nation. The willing of Annamakerrig was described by Guthrie elsewhere as: "A small crumb towards The Arts but more importantly towards justice, long overdue, and reconcilation".
Shortly before he died he was looking forward to a 30 minute encounter with Mister Paisley on either UTV or the BBC. They had very different views about almost everything. Had that taken place it would have been quite something... the roaring head butter versus the irony of rapier intellect. A great pity it didn't happen. We can only speculate.
There's a great deal of unprovable speculation about Swift... and the fathering of a child with Vanessa, the complicated kinship with Stella and the Temple family, the controversial, unconsummated marriage with Stella, the contrariness about his own family background, all of it a tempting road that leads to a dead end. That triangle and obfuscation is best avoided. We do know that Stella is buried in this Cathederal. Vanessa, more uncertainly (I have read) under a car park somewhere in Celbridge.
Unlike Shakespeare we have an enormous source of biographical Swiftian material. Unlike Shakespeare he had nolyrical gift. He wrote no end of verse but there's no sense of the wonder and beauty created by language or the stunning images that haunt the imagination for a lifetime... and no ear... in fact he disliked music.
A detail in one letter is typical: "In this illogical Kingdom they refer to the remotest parcels of barren mountain without cabin or hovel as a townland when indubitably the word means that land adjacent to a town".
The word Townland - then and now - for us... has a poetic resonance which escaped him. In fact it goes back to the twelth century "Tunland - that land attaching to a manor house" and thereafter was used in state papers precisely as we still use it. Around Tudor times it was dropped in England and Scotland but continued here. Interesting that his little estate near Trim that he loved so much was in the townland of Laracor. Hard to conjure up a more euphonious townland name than - Laracor. It translates plainly to Midhill.
The correspondence runs to three large volumes. It's in these letters you come closest to his personality. Contradictory, almost always tongue in cheek, difficult and uncompromising... apart from The journal to Stella. In that journal he could empathise with extraordinary gentleness albeit with an acceptable measure of self pity. Towards the end in 1741... his letter of condolence to a widow is one of the wisest and saddest pieces of writing I¹ve ever come across. I know portions it by heart since I first read it. I'll keep it till near the end.
What I might do meantime is quote from different sources - an amalgam from the prose, verse and letters - laced with a few observations from contemporaries nothing approaching a portrait or even a sketch - perhaps - at most, a flavour of the man who in his day was as influential, revered and feared as Parnell.
There isn't time to attribute source or comment. Everything from now on is quotation - from Swift - or from those who knew him well.
"A Swift is a long winged swallow a creature of air and brightness. It is also a reptile - a creature of earth and darkness"
"At Marsh's library I once observed a little hen swallow nesting so late that autumn was upon her with her brood scarcely hatched. Then one morning the sky was full of them, migrating, and her little ones - mere fledglings. She came and went, came and went, distraught, torn between two instincts. She stayed. I left out crumbs and seeds, but one hard morning in November I noticed all was quiet. I looked into the nest. They were all dead. The Dean shrugged and shook his head but I could see he was affected, to near tears, by this little tragedy."
"Yesterday I asked the dean how he liked this Kingdom - 'A rat hole' he said 'for the tattered rabble, a bolt hole for rejected English'.."
"I have heard how he'd come into the morning coffee rooms at Windsor, soliciting the Earl of Arran to speak to his brother the Duke of Ormond to find a place for a mister Fiddes, a clergyman lately out of jail, then seeing Gywnn going in with his secret bag to the Queen, he'd call out that he had word for him from the Lord Treasurer; then he'd turn portentously to scribble in a note book, take out a gold watch and complain that time was scarce till someone tells him that his watch is fast- How can I help it he says if courtiers give me a watch that won't go right! Then apropos of nothing: 'Pope the papist is the best poet in England- I won't have him publish till he gets a thousand guineas!' And with that the prime minister Lord Oxford emerges from the Queen and beckons Swift who bows faintly and follows - and for all this comic touting he got bowing once to the Queen; he was never presented - and of course they used him"
"I have lived for years now in London on a diet of promises. Mrs Howardis Mistress to King George the second. She liked me and made promises. These were not kept. I have been betrayed, kicked for a mongrel insulted and shamed throughout my life - by strumpets!"
"I can remember once as a schoolboy feeling a great fish at the end of my line which I drew up almost on the ground but it dropped in - and to this day it vexes me to remember it - I believe it was the type of all my future disappointments.."
"Today the temple gets a dean
This place he got by wit and rhyme
"You ask am I happy? - happy as any Englishman in orders here - sailing our protestant ship to paradise in a poor and superstitious sea."
"An argument broke out in Germany as to whether bread was flesh - or flesh was bread - whether the juice of a grape was blood or wine, and such profundities that in Europe it cost millions of lives. Here the wretched old hag of war reared up screeching for land, revenge, and the true religion - flayings, rapings, burnings, mutilations - the fields, bogs, lakes and rivers of this Kingdom full of the carcasses of murdered Irish - catholic and protestant; a distressing sight for Almighty God - who may in truth be neither!"
"Happiness - I have always believed - Is the perpetual illusion of being well deceived. It belongs to other people and the other people imagine it belongs to other people - and so it goes - it's a word should be struck from the language. Faith is a prop if you can get it and keep it though mine's been shaken recently by some divines who anticipate a heaven full of copulating couples. What they do in heaven we do not know .. what they do not do - we are told expressly. They neither marry - nor are given in marriage"
"I knew a clergyman in Carrickfergus was buried standing up, ready he maintained for his resurrection"
"The truth is twenty London merchants could buy the whole wealth of this nation and most of that's gobbled by lackeys - from Master of the Kings Irish tennis courts to the dishonourable member of the King¹s Connaught Chamber Pots"
"The Prime minister sets an example and is generally the most gifted liar in the nation He never tells the truth but with the intent that you take it for a lie; nor a lie but you should take it for the truth... Those he backbites most bitterly are surest of advancement - those he praises are of no consequence - aped by all lesser men he retires laden with the spoils of the nation."
"For this reason we must pray for a commonwealth where common sense prevails; where care should be taken to limit men's possessions, for when the bounds are set to the natural greed of man, and when he hath acquired as much as the law allows, his private interest comes to an end. He has nothing then to do but take care of the public. It is our duty to pray that this common wealth will on day come to pass."
"A man who can grow two blades of grass where one grew formerly deserves more honor than the whole hierarchy of clergy and politicians put together..."
"..How is it that we are free men in England and slaves in six hours by crossing the channel. By the laws of God, nature and nations we are and ought to be as free as our brothers in England. A people long used to hardship lose by degrees the very notion of liberty and regard all impositions by a stronger hand as legal, obligatory. Do they not know or have they forgotten that that Government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery?"
"He's an idol here, his health toasted in every tavern and when he passes in the street the poor stand bareheaded and cry out 'God bless you Mister Dean'.." "I have seen him in a towering rage with a slovenly servant then minutes later talking and laughing in the street with some poor, tattered journeyman..."
"I shall die first at the top like that tree."
"With my reason upended what have I left but a little skiff for my last travel - alone"
"Every day he asks me 'What age am I John'.."
"To protect the dean we hereby appoint ourselves as guardians until a writ of lunacy can be taken out against him. He says he ate a hundred apples at a sitting fifty years ago and caught a coldness in his stomach which has never left him..."
Here now is the letter I mentioned earlier when condoling with a recently widowed friend:
"I am heart sorry for the affliction you have undergone and those which in the course of nature and providence you have reason to expect. With regard to myself if I do not blunder it is January 1741 and I am 74 and hour by hour I feel infirmity clawing at my brain. By day I feel easier and sleep a little but I fear the dark where I am plagued by nightmares which have quite broken my spirit, voices ringing in my ears till I cry out to God and the ghosts of those I ever loved or lashed come back to weep and gape and mouth at me and make my present life a burlesque of my middle age. But then God in his wisdom has been pleased to load our declining years with suffering and the death of friends, the ingratitude of more, all this to wean us from our fondness of life,,,, the nearer we approach the end of it. For myself I have ever loved the winter and expect to die before this one is out.."
"Perish the day I was born.."
"Why did you bring me forth from the womb and abandon me? Oh that I had been consumed, that the eye might not see me I should have been as if I had not been carried from the womb to the grave..."
"Suffer me therefore, that I may lament my sorrow a little, before I go and return no more to a land that is dark and covered with the mist of death."
"I am that I am - a jackass braying in the wildernesss - whither whither, whither..."
And his last recorded words: "I am a fool."
What can we say now - 300 years later - but "Peace to his tormented soul".
(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.