“I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals.” — poet/writer/hater Jonathan Swift

jonathan-swift

“[He is] the most vigorous hater we’ve ever had in our literature.” — Edgell Rickword

We’re not supposed to “hate”. “Hate” calls to mind tiki torches. Or “hate crimes.” But there is a productive kind of hate. A galvanizing hate.

Rebecca West once wrote:

A strong hatred is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere.

A resounding YES to that.

Swift’s hatred echoes down the centuries.

His rage was so titanic you can still feel it today. Satire: bastardized versions now, so much so that even the word “satire” has lost some of its essential meaning. We live in an extremely literal age. Watching people – smart people – share bogus news on Facebook, shows the epidemic proportions of the thing (even more so when it was coming from the Oval Office). What is also an epidemic is the reaction I get when I point out something is satire, as opposed to an actual news item. Instead of, “Oops, my bad …” more often than not what comes is a defensive: “Well, it might as WELL be true.”

Yeah. No shit. That’s satire.

How can we learn from the past if we don’t even know about the past? One of the casualties of our current environment has been Satire. And it’s awful, because we need satire now more than ever. Satire is one of humanity’s most effective weapons against tyranny. During the horrorshow reign of 45, someone said on Twitter something along the lines of “with who is in the White House , now is not the time for satire.” Hers was not a solitary voice, but it shows the failure of her education, another way to say ignorance, and – worse – it’s such CONFIDENT ignorance. Now is more than EVER the time for satire. What else do you think satire is FOR? Satire has TEETH. Satire attacks POWER. Satire calls out injustice. If you’re fine with satire when it’s going after things you disagree with, and then balk when it’s going after one of YOUR sacred cows, then maybe your cow should not be so sacred. Every firm belief can use interrogation and/or mockery. The best satire is DISTURBING.

Due to the downfall of satire, readers don’t recognize it when they see it, which adds to the humorless landscape. There’s a section in Gulliver’s Travels so misogynistic, so vicious, so hateful, that when I re-read the book recently I found myself getting defensive. I immediately caught myself and started laughing. I KNOW Modest Proposal is satire, it’s the prime example of satire in Western literature … and still, I read it and can feel how dangerous it is. Because … what if people don’t get that it’s satire? What if they think he MEANS it?? “A Modest Proposal” is STILL dangerous. Swift, still at it, from across the centuries.

He wrote:

I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.

We’re supposed to believe, along with Anne Frank, that most people are good at heart. I never have and I never will. I am glad SHE did and I am glad for her example. But I am not a romantic about human nature. Men are not to be trusted with power. Ever. Women either. Romanticizing women as “better” than men is just another version of Victorian-era moralizing, putting women on a pedestal of goodness. Nobody can be trusted with the keys to the castle. This is called a “cynical” view of human nature, but I prefer the term realistic. (In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Buster says directly to camera, “I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.” Cosign, Buster, cosign.)

I love it when Gulliver is asked to describe Great Britain, and he goes on and on and on. What is funny is that Gulliver is shocked at the contempt towards Europe, and tries to stick up for his country. But … listen to what he SAYS and watch how it builds and builds and builds until …

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century, protesting it was only a Heap of Conspiracies, Rebellions, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments, the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce.

His Majesty in another Audience was at the Pains to recapitulate the Sum of all I had spoken, compared the Questions he made with the Answers I had given; then taking me into his Hands, and stroaking me gently, delivered himself in these Words, which I shall never forget nor the Manner he spoke them in: My little Friend Grildrig, you have made a most admirable Panegyric upon your Country: You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice may be sometimes the only Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator: That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some Lines of an Institution, which in its Original might have been tolerable, but these half erazed, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by Corruptions. It doth not appear from all you have said, how any one Virtue is required towards the Procurement of any one Station among you, much less that Men are ennobled on Account of their Virtue, that Priests are advanced for their Piety or Learning, Soldiers for their Conduct or Valour, Judges for their Integrity, Senators for the Love of their Country, or Counsellors for their Wisdom. As for yourself, (continued the King,) who have spent the greatest Part of your Life in Travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pain wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.

Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 in Dublin (he was firm on the point that he was English, however). He was educated, but not a brilliant student. He did not really distinguish himself in anything. When he wrote, he tried to sound like other poets of the day. He came into his own in his 30s. He started writing in the diverse voices he heard all around him. This was revolutionary at the time. When you read Swift, you can still hear what “people must have sounded like back then” (he’s like Kipling in that regard. Or Langston Hughes. Those who brought the vernacular of their world into poetry, which was “supposed” to sound all highbrow.). Swift’s poems clamor with different dialects. He was obsessed with women’s bodies to a disturbing degree. He was obsessed and grossed out. Like, he couldn’t believe women sweat, go to the bathroom, have clogged pores. He finds it all disgusting. And yet, there are his mysterious “Stella” poems, written for Esther Johnson, and they are lovelorn, aching, gorgeous, some of the best love poems in the English language. We are all a mixed bag.

He had a high-level job as a secretary to Sir William Temple in Surrey, but he left and got ordained. He lived in Ireland for a bit, despised it, moved back to England, moved back to Ireland again, and wherever he went he left a trail of scandal behind him. He had a couple of close lifelong friends, but he also made lifelong enemies. He would never have fit into any court community or royal hierarchy. A staunch individualist.

He eventually became Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, but the upheaval in England after Queen Anne died ruined his chances of advancement. Woe to those who elude easy political classification. Since Swift’s politics seemed ambiguous and certainly not party-line doctrinaire, he was viewed with suspicion. Same shit, different day.

He reminds me of many of the Founders, with their deep distrust of Man’s ability to hold power responsibly. Swift believed no one was trustworthy. Everyone was corruptible, and those who believed they were NOT corruptible were the MOST susceptible to corruption. I agree with him. wift was not a “joiner”, always an extremely unpopular position to take (especially in stressful times). As dean of St. Patrick’s, he did a lot of good, and helped the Irish. He was obsessed with the Irish situation, writing about it incessantly. His view of things was Macro as opposed to Micro (the wide view is a key quality of satire, one of the many reasons why narrow minds are so poor at perceiving it). Swift saw things as they were, and he had no romantic ideals about Utopias or the inherent beauty of man or whatever ideology was dominant. I’ve said it before: anyone who tries to sell you on a Utopia, especially in the political realm? RUN. Your Utopia is someone else’s Nightmare. Always.

Jonathan Swift described style as “proper words in proper places”. He himself mastered this in his prose and poems. There isn’t an extra word in evidence, it is language pared down. The verses come to us as though they were born complete, or spoken out loud into a tape recorder in one draft.

Here’s one of his poems about a woman getting ready to go to bed. Notice his almost psychopathic obsession with her different parts, and how changed they are once she takes off her clothes. The artifice, the public face, what she showed the world, was a lie (to him). He sounds like a germaphobe. And women’s bodies are just so damn MESSY, right? All those damn FLUIDS. I mean, I can’t argue with this, really! I’ve got one of those bodies and they are complicated. Dealing with FLUIDS is a daily part of existence. Still: I want to say: Jonathan: CHILL.

A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed

Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a battered, strolling toast;
No drunken rake to pick her up,
No cellar where on tick to sup;
Returning at the midnight hour;
Four stories climbing to her bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legged chair,
Takes off her artificial hair:
Now, picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eye-brows from a mouse’s hide,
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a play-book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dexterously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws.
Untwists a wire; and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes.
Pulls out the rags contrived to prop
Her flabby dugs and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely goddess
Unlaces next her steel-ribbed bodice;
Which by the operator’s skill,
Press down the lumps, the hollows fill,
Up goes her hand, and off she slips
The bolsters that supply her hips.
With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.
But must, before she goes to bed,
Rub off the dawbs of white and red;
And smooth the furrows in her front
With greasy paper stuck upon’t.
She takes a bolus ere she sleeps;
And then between two blankets creeps.
With pains of love tormented lies;
Or if she chance to close her eyes,
Of Bridewell and the Compter dreams,
And feels the lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless bully drawn,
At some hedge-tavern lies in pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported,
Alone, and by no planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy brinks,
Surrounded with a hundred stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lie,
And snap some cully passing by;
Or, struck with fear, her fancy runs
On watchmen, constables and duns,
From whom she meets with frequent rubs;
But, never from religious clubs;
Whose favor she is sure to find,
Because she pays ’em all in kind.
Corinna wakes. A dreadful sight!
Behold the ruins of the night!
A wicked rat her plaster stole,
Half eat, and dragged it to his hole.
The crystal eye, alas, was missed;
And puss had on her plumpers pissed.
A pigeon picked her issue-peas;
And Shock her tresses filled with fleas.
The nymph, tho’ in this mangled plight,
Must ev’ry morn her limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her arts
To recollect the scattered parts?
Or shew the anguish, toil, and pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again?
The bashful muse will never bear
In such a scene to interfere.
Corinna in the morning dizened,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.

Of course, no discussion of Swift is complete without mention of his epitaph, which he wrote himself. It is in Latin. He is buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and I have been there, a pilgrimage to see his plaque, and his epitaph. He is buried beside Esther Johnson, aka his Stella. Just FYI.

Hic depositum est Corpus
IONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Decani,
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Ulterius
Cor lacerare nequit,
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem.
Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78º.

William Butler Yeats was obsessed with Swift’s epitaph. He wrote once that it made him question his sanity, he felt the earth beneath him shift when he thought about it for too long. “Served human liberty.” This was key. Liberty. Yeats wrote copiously about the choice of the word “liberty” and what he thought Swift meant by it. It certainly wasn’t liberty for the unwashed masses. Liberty was a concept to serve, to devote one’s life to.

Here is Yeats’ famous poem on all this:

Translation of Swift’s Epitaph, by William Butler Yeats

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

This is Yeats’ meditation on those Latin words in the epitaph, and how Swift’s life spoke to him across the centuries.

Jonathan Swift continues to speak to us.

We need his example now more than ever.

QUOTES:

Wyndham Lewis, from the Blast Manifesto (1914):

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

Swift, the great master of disgust.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Swift is a brilliant savage who understands – though he cannot control – the political and literary jungle in which he lives.

from “The Vanity of Human Wishes”
by Dr. Samuel Johnson:

From Marlborough’s eyes the streams of dotage flow,
And Swift expires a driveller and a show.

Robert Graves on Swift’s poems:

“Trifles, but these trifles, though darkened by a morbid horror of man’s physical circumstances, demonstrate the proper use of English: they are clear, simple, inventive, pungent, unaffected, original, generous, utterly outspoken.

Jonathan Swift, letter to his great friend Alexander Pope, 1725:

I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians – I will not speak of my own trade – soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion. By consequence you are to embrace it immediately, and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit of no dispute; nay, I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point.

Ford Madox Ford:

Most unusual power of conveying scenes vividly … scenes rather of the sensibility than of material objects and landscapes.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

anima Rabelaisii habitans in sicco, — the soul of Rabelais dwelling in a dry place.”

F.R. Leavis:

Lacking the Augustan politeness, he seems with his dry force of presentment, both to make the Augustan positives … look like negatives, and to give the characteristic Augustan lacks and disabilities a positive presence.

Michael Schmidt:

Swift is hard to recommend as a poet because he is hard to quote out of context. There are few purple passages, detachable maxims; the poetry is drawn evenly through the poem in ways that out-of-context quotation violates. The epitaphs, the spoofs, the eclogues, the anecdotes spoken by various voices, the ironic love poems, the first-person poems, will not be broken up into tags like the rich couplet bric-a-brac of Pope. In Swift we come upon a writer who might have preferred to be called versifier rather than poet. There is a difference in kind in his work from that of his predecessors; and he is not “polite” enough to have beguiled his contemporaries into imitation. He stands alone, he doesn’t sing, he never ingratiates himself. He speaks, and he understands how the world wags.

John Gay to Jonathan Swift, 1728, after Beggar’s Opera opened:

For writing in the cause of Virtue, and against the fashionable vices, I am lookt upon at present as the most obnoxious person almost in England.

Michael Schmidt:

His vexed relations with women, especially “Stella” and “Vanessa”, and his disgust with physical functions, have given much latitude to Freudian interpretations. Disgust informs much of the prose and verse, but so does a real interest in common people, their language, actions and concerns. The verse opens on this area of his genius, and on his darker musings. It possesses the satiric virtues of the prose with an additional element: the “I” speaks, speaks as itself, with an uncompromised acerbity that few poets have masterd. When he died in 1745, Ireland and England were in his debt. The topicality that limits the appeal of some of his prose is itself the appeal of the verse: it catches inflections and remembers small actions now lost — the voices of gardeners, street vendors, laborers … the tone of a cryptic man of conscience speaking of his world, his bitter, life, his wary loves.

Jonathan Swift:

I take it to be part of the honesty of poets that they cannot write well except they think the subject deserves it.

Lord Bolingbroke to Swift:

If you despised the world as much as you pretend, and perhaps believe, you would not be so angry with it.

Michael Schmidt:

He is merciless not to those below him on the social ladder but to those above, the empowered, and to the vain who persist in self-deception.

Edgell Rickword:

A poetry of negative emotions, of those arising from disgust with the object. Swift is a great master of this kind of poetry. His verse has no pleasure-value beyond that of its symmetry and concision, but it is the most intricate labyrinth of personality that any poet has built around himself, not excepting Donne.

Michael Schmidt

In the more ambitious pieces Swift challenges the reader … There is a unique irony at work, not normative, like Dryden’s, but radical: thematic rather than stylistic. This is why his poems, even the most topical, retain force today.

Doctor Johnson, The Life of Swift:

There is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers. They are often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety… Perhaps no writer can be found who borrowed so little, or that in all his excellences and all his defects has so well maintained his claim to be considered as original.

From Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte:

I put both plate and tart away. Bessie asked if I would have a book: the word book acted as a transient stimulus, and I begged her to fetch Gulliver’s Travels from the library. This book I had again and again perused with delight. I considered it a narrative of facts, and discovered in it a vein of interest deeper than what I found in fairy tales: for as to the elves, having sought them in vain among foxglove leaves and bells, under mushrooms and beneath the ground-ivy mantling old wallnooks, I had at length made up my mind to the sad truth, that they were all gone out of England to some savage country where the woods were wilder and thicker, and the population more scant; whereas Lilliput and Brobdingnag being, in my creed, solid parts of the earth’s surface, I doubted not that I might one day, by taking a long voyage, see with my own eyes the little fields, houses, and trees, the diminutive people, the tiny cows, sheep, and birds of the one realm; and the cornfields forest-high, the mighty mastiffs, the monster cats, the tower-like men and women of the other. Yet, when this cherished volume was now placed in my hands – when I turned over its leaves, and sought in its marvellous pictures the charm I had, till now, never failed to find – all was eerie and dreary; the giants were gaunt goblins, the pigmies malevolent and fearful imps, Gulliver a most desolate wanderer in most dread and dangerous regions. I closed the book, which I dared no longer peruse, and put it on the table beside the untasted tart.

H.L. Mencken, “The Artist”:

Swift, having finished the Irish and then the English, proceeded to finish the whole human race.

This entry was posted in Books, On This Day, writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals.” — poet/writer/hater Jonathan Swift

  1. PaulH says:

    I never get over how modern Swift sounds, far more so than some poets that came after him (ahem…Keats) and in the wonderful poem you quote, there are definite chimings with someone like Philip Larkin – in the use of language, if not in tone.

    //Many professional haters have ZERO senses of humor. Oh, they think they do, and I see them chortling on political talk shows, throwing zingers at their opponents and their witless followers guffaw “Ho ho ho” in response, but there is no actual humor there. The humor is decadent and corrupt, a joyless leer as opposed to something gleefully accurate//

    I think you’re spot on there; irony is a scalpel, and these fools can only wield sledge-hammers – they exhaust themselves with the ‘humour’ of the playground: nasty and nihilistic.

    • sheila says:

      Ugh – true satire requires sophisticated witty listening. How many times is satire missed now because people no longer recognize it? Also, it goes both ways. Some people think they’re doing satire now (and their minions refer to them as “Swiftian” – a total sacrilege) – when what they’re doing is a version of Whack a Mole, with blunted instruments. Dumbasses.

      // The only comfort they propose,
      To have companions in their woes; //

      His love poetry is so open and contemporary.

  2. SouthernBoSox says:

    Happy late Birthday Sheila. I share Swift’s-

  3. michael Thomas says:

    I say again: why go to university when one can read Sheila?

  4. Brooke A L says:

    /Rebecca West once wrote:

    A strong hatred is the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere./

    Ooof! Cosign eeeeeverythiiiiiing. Also, I love the comment above. “Oh so where did you say you went to school?” “SU. It’s very exclusive.”

  5. Jack says:

    There’s a fantastic reference to Swift in The Favourite…

  6. Scott Abraham says:

    Can you point me towards that misogynistic hateful part of Gulliver?
    Haven’t dipped into it in decades and only remember the highlights, unfortunately.

    • sheila says:

      There’s the part where he goes to the land of giants – Brobdingnag – and he’s trotted out as a freak show – this little tiny man – and he is so repulsed by the giant women, especially their breasts, and the gross pores of their skin seen up close, and he goes on and on and on about it. He finds the female body literally nauseating. It’s tough to get through, honestly, but it comes up a lot in Swift’s work.

      Of course he was using satire to make a point. Gulliver says something like, “Our English women are so beautiful but that’s just because we don’t look at them with a magnifying glass.” :)

  7. william green says:

    I’ve been thinking the same thoughts regarding satire in modern life, but was not able to articulate them till I read this. I wonder if the way satire is supposed to “work” is that at first one doesn’t get it. (I’m thinking of the moment you describe when reading Gulliver’ travels. ) maybe for satire to be most affecting the reader isn’t in on it at first, and the moment it hits you is the thing.

    • sheila says:

      Hey Bill! Nice to see you over here!

      Interesting thoughts about satire! I think you might be right. I think satire is the most powerful when you yourself feel implicated – you can feel the finger pointing at YOU. Or, you can’t be “above” it – you’re a PART of it, whatever it is. When the Onion really nails it – or when a piece on McSweeney’s really lands – I think it’s because of that feeling, that feeling of uneasy identification. You can’t say “Oh no no he’s not talking about ME.” You know you’re part of the absurdity of the human condition. Nobody is above it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.