J. Swift: Gulliver, Modest Proposal, Tale of Tub, Poems, Letters, More


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
Has it ever happened to you that you suddenly realized: "Why, X is one of my favorite authors!" when you hadn't been in the habit of thinking of that writer as such?

That just happened to me, and so here's a place to discuss the author I had in mind, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). I've been reading Gulliver's Travels as student and teacher for over 40 years, and I suppose it was because I rarely took up his work except in connection with a studently or teacherly obligation that it's taken me so long to realize he's one of my favorites. (But studently or teacherly obligation had me taking up Swift pretty much every few years, as it's happened.)

I'm reading the whole book for about the sixth time at the moment. I've also read the First Voyage (Lilliput) a couple of extra times and the Fourth Voyage (Houyhnhnms) perhaps three extra times. And once again I'm delighted be the fecundity of Swift's imagination. He truly is an important forbear of the famous science fictionists such as Wells. This hit me, for example, in reading again the Second Voyage (Brobdingnagians), in which Gulliver's description of the thunderous voices of the giants towering above him reminded me of the hapless humans terrified by the cries of the Martian tripods. Again and again in the first two Voyages you see Swift employing "science-fictional" effects. C. S. Lewis says (in The Discarded Image) that prior to Swift, authors might write of giants but they don't give a sense of scale. (For example, in Spenser's Faerie Queene the dragon fought by the Redcross Knight is as big as a hill, but may be mortally wounded by a sword.) Thus, Lewis says, "Gulliver was a great novelty." Swift lavishes much care on such details. Science fiction often gives us the oddity of human beings seen through alien eyes. You get this with Gulliver when, after a sojourn among some unknown people, he returns to humanity and sees us with "alien" eyes.

I suppose the Third Voyage (with the flying island of Laputa, the Land of the Sorcerers Glubbdubdrib, etc.) is the least-read of the four, but that's what I'm reading now. It is full of ingenuity.

Sure, Swift is a satirist -- and if you haven't read Swift you've perhaps avoided him because you thought he would be loaded with outdated satire of figures of his day whose names would mean nothing to you, etc., and what's more boring than a joke that has to be painstakingly explained? In Gulliver at least this element is hardly a problem, in my opinion, because the satirical inventions make good sense without one having to look up a bunch of tedious notes. Swift's style is vigorous.

Maybe you've been put off Swift because you've heard he hated humanity. I'm not at all sure that's the case, though it could be discussed here. But perhaps the key is to see if Swift doesn't like to tease and to "vex" his readers. Certainly he is like Lovecraft in this (as in other things that I might mention later), that he is sometimes rather aggressively disposed towards human beings as incorrigibly self-important. But my sense is that Swift and Lovecraft combined with that trait a great fondness for a circle of intimates.

Any thoughts to share on Swift or his writings, even particular passages in one or other of them?
True fact - he was dean of my parish and wrote Tale of a Tub about 1/2 a mile away from where I'm sitting. The ruins of his church are called The Bishop's Palace and my kids were christened in its baptism font. (He also built a round house because he believed evil lurks in corners but it was burned down when I was very young.)

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