T. A. Jackson

Old Friends to Keep



JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745): author, pamphleteer and clergyman; Dean of St. Patrick’s Dublin, from 1713. His writings include A Tale of a Tub (1704), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), A Short View of the State of Ireland (1728) and many other pamphlets on Irish affairs.

From its title, the immortal Gulliver's Travels—or, to give it its formal title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon then a Captain of  several Ships—might be expected to be just such a book as Robinson Crusoe is.

Like Defoe’s masterpiece, it purports to be no more than a matter-of-fact narrative of travel such as found a ready sale in the first quarter of the 18th century. But there, however, resemblance ends.

Everything in Robinson Crusoe could easily be believed to have happened—so easily that the literal-minded who took it as “true” were furiously indignant when they learned it was “nothing but a pack of lies”.

But the narrative in Gulliver, with its little men and its big men, its flying island and its talking horses, is such that even the most credulous and literal-minded could not possibly believe it to be other than a fiction.

Yet the story is told in such a smooth-faced matter-of-course way—with a wealth of minute details all drawn exactly to scale—that common-sense is baffled and, in spite of reason, one begins to wonder whether the tale might not after all, be true.

Amused derision of the literal-mindedness which took Robinson Crusoe at its face value prompted Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, to produce a narrative which even the most literal-minded would find “took a lot of believing”. Yet at the same time it was, artistically, perfectly true.

Defoe in the little-known and never-reprinted third part of Robinson Crusoe defended himself against the literalists by pleading that his story was an allegory of his own life.

Swift, anticipating this defence, produces what even the “dumbest” must see is a blistering and blasting satire on the society, the convictions and the illusions of his own time a satire that deepens into the most terribly pessimistic condemnation ever written.

Even more than Crusoe this masterpiece has suffered from being treated as a nursery tale. Certainly it has a quality which delights children, and that is no small merit. Its matter-of-fact minuteness of detail, its brisk passage from one surmounted difficulty to the next, its hero’s never-failing self-possession—not untinged with self-satisfaction at his own resourcefulness—

these things make it for children a delightful adventure into well-understood make-believe.

For adults its charm is lessened by the author’s evident determination to leave mankind—whatever its rank or station—without the remotest shred of justification or excuse.

In English which, for virile force and for the mastery which conveys the maximum of meaning in the fewest and simplest words has never been excelled, Swift makes plain his conclusion that it would have been a good deal better for the world if human beings had never existed at all. It is customary with critics to explain away this pessimism as no more than the exaggerated spleen of a bad-tempered and deeply disappointed place-seeker, not seriously meant.

There are many passages in Gulliver however which are far too true to be brushed aside in this way.

     The King of Brobdignag’s horror, for example, at Gulliver’s proposal to teach the king’s people how to make gun          powder, cannon and bomb-shells evokes an echo in the heart of all who have not yet been de-humanised by atom-bomb propaganda: —

“The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible Engines, and the Proposal I had made. He was amazed how so impotent and grovelling an Insect as I (those were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of Blood and Desolation which I had painted as the common Effects of those destructive Machines; whereof, he said, some evil Genius, Enemy to Mankind, must have been the first Contriver. . . As for himself, he protested. . . he would rather lose Half his Kingdom than be privy to such a secret; which he commanded me as I valued my life, never to mention any more”.

Gulliver finds it amazing that a King, should “from a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception”, let slip such an “Opportunity”.

This gives point to another expression of the King’s opinion: —

"whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together”.

This opinion, also, Gulliver regards as proof of the King’s childlike lack of the “statesmanlike wisdom” of a trained “man of affairs”—just to the very life as Bevin’s Under-Secretary or Sir Hartley Shawcross would treat in parallel circumstances any proposal made by the U.S.S.R.

Swift had far too good a brain and far too much knowledge of the world to be imposed upon by the conventional excuses for what then passed for “civilised” society. And he was far too sensitive an artist to be indifferent about it.

Yet as he lived too soon to make it possible for him to rest his faith in the creative power of proletarian revolution, he was unable to find any escape from the most terrible and unendurable pessimism.

He did what he could to foment a struggle against the “London” Government by the English “garrison” in Ireland,— a struggle that was bound, once it got well‑going, to acquire a revolutionary significance. His work has earned him, justly, the title of “Father of Irish Nationalism”.

In this connection it may be useful to note that an explanation of the otherwise inexplicable flying island in Gulliver’s Third Voyage, and for the revolting animality of the Yahoos in the terrible Fourth Voyage, is to be found in Swift’s identification with the Irish struggle.

Once the clue is given it is easy to see that the island which is so situated in relation to another island that it can, at will, cut the latter off from rain and sunshine—thus plunging it into starvation—or can, if it chooses, descend upon its victim and crush its people to a pulp, is obviously Britain as related to Ireland.

It is notable here that there is a hint that the crushing operation might not, in practice, turn out so fortunately for Laputa (a Spanish name, whose English equivalent is “The Whore”) as its rulers in their complacency suppose.

A reading of Swift’s blistering Modest Proposal (one for preventing the children of the poor in Ireland from becoming a burden to their parents by rearing them as butcher’s meat for the rich) shows that in his Yahoos he has depicted the condition to which British rule was fast reducing the native (Gaelic) Irish population. At the same time he indicates, in Gulliver, that those who have so debased them are also all yahoos in grain.

Long brooding on the condition to which British rule and alien landlordism had reduced the masses of Ireland roused Swift’s “savage indignation” to a blazing pitch. The apparent supineness and helplessness of the degraded Irish infuriated him so unendurably that his reason gave way. He died heart-broken and insane.

Enjoy Gulliver all you can, but spare a kind thought for one of the world’s greatest tragedies—Jonathan Swift.

SOURCE: Jackson, T. A. (Thomas Alfred). “Gulliver”, in Old Friends to Keep: Studies of English Novels and Novelists (London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd, 1950), pp. 30-34.

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