When Peter O’Toole died in December, the obituaries dutifully mentioned his starring role in Lawrence of Arabia as well as his other achievements on screen and stage. Most overlooked one of the stranger episodes in his career. In 1984, he read “A Modest Proposal,” the famous essay by Jonathan Swift, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. The performance startled many in the audience, as O’Toole urged them to solve the problem of Irish poverty by eating the children of the poor. A few dozen listeners walked out. More heckled. They didn’t know they were hearing a satire.
Swift would have laughed at the confusion, partly because he held a low opinion of the Irish but mostly because he held a low opinion of everyone. He was also a comic genius who made a career of puzzling people. In this excellent new biography, Leo Damrosch calls him a “man of mystery.” It’s amazing how much we don’t know about Swift, who lived from 1667 to 1745. His father may have shared his name and died before he was born (the official story), or he may have been a prominent British politician who sired a son out of wedlock (a persuasive theory). Swift may have married a lifelong friend in secret, or perhaps not. He may have romanced a different woman, with whom he maintained a coded correspondence that has perplexed everyone who has tried to peek into his private affairs. Swift didn’t even like to put his own name on his writings: Most of his work appeared in print anonymously or with aliases. He was so determined to hide his authorship of Gulliver’s Travels that he had the manuscript tossed to the printer from a hackney coach in the dark. Among the personal facts that we know for certain about Swift is that, as a friend put it, he had “blue eyes very piercing.” Just like Peter O’Toole!
He was a conservative as well — another certainty. Applying modern political labels to figures from the past can be tricky. With Swift, however, it’s a cinch: Damrosch describes him as “sternly conservative” in his prologue. That’s fair, though Swift was more irreverent than stern, and he drew from a set of bedrock beliefs that most of today’s conservatives would recognize and appreciate. He regarded human nature with pessimism, viewed the idea of moral progress with suspicion, and preferred the tried and true to the new and untested. One of his early forays into the culture wars of his time was “The Battle of the Books,” a humorous essay on why classical writers such as Homer were better than modern writers like Milton, offered in response to prideful contemporaries who insisted on the reverse. Damrosch says “The Battle of the Books” displays “a reactionary commitment to an idealized past,” but it might also be called a creative manifesto on the importance of tradition.
Healthy traditions constantly replenish themselves, and Swift both honored the traditions he inherited and carried them forward with his unique contributions. His poems, essays, and satires shaped the way we speak. The word “yahoo” is his invention, and the phrase “blood and treasure” probably is as well. The feminine name “Vanessa” would not exist but for him. Teachers and professors continue to assign Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” but Swift’s accomplishments run much deeper. A Tale of a Tub, his first major work, is “the most powerful prose work in the language,” claims Harold Bloom. His essays on behalf of Ireland made him a national hero. “The Lady’s Dressing Room” contains the best poop joke in all of English literature.
Swift’s Tory political writings have their admirers, too: “Nobody could buy his services; everybody feared his pen,” wrote Virginia Woolf. He pumped out pamphlets and periodicals in a time of great turbulence, with wars abroad and intrigue at home. In 1712, Robert Harley, the chancellor of the exchequer, received a suspicious package. Swift asked to examine it and discovered a booby trap: a pair of loaded pocket pistols, ready to fire. He disarmed the device. “I wonder how I came to have so much presence of mind, which is usually not my talent,” Swift wrote. “But so it pleased God, and I saved myself and him, for there was a bullet apiece.”
As an Anglican priest, Swift always yearned for a prominent church appointment in England, but the best post he could attain was dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in his native Dublin. This was mainly an administrative job, and apparently he was quite good at it. Yet his true vocation was as a writer, and he would compose his most enduring works in Ireland, during the final phases of his career. His years as a polemicist in London had sharpened his wit, and at last he had the freedom to devote it to something other than partisan skirmishes between Tories and Whigs.
His great triumph, written in the 1720s, was Gulliver’s Travels — a tale so well known that even non-readers are familiar with its most celebrated scene, in which the tiny Lilliputians rope down the shipwrecked Lemuel Gulliver. Damrosch proposes that Swift borrowed his narrator’s surname from an innkeeper he knew, but Swift scholar Dutton Kearney has offered a more compelling explanation: In the 18th century, “‘Gulliver’ would have been pronounced with a long e, making the Latinized version of the name ‘to trick (gull) by means of the truth (vere).’” Whatever the case, the book blends fantasy, travelogue, and satire in what might be described as the world’s first science-fiction dystopia. Its dwarves, giants, floating cities, and talking horses all warn against intellectual abstraction and the delusions of human perfection.
Soon after the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift wrote the other piece of work that today’s readers are most likely to have encountered: “A Modest Proposal.” Its subject remains fresh, as the poor are still with us. Its notorious solution to the dilemma of poverty achieves a kind of hybrid vigor through the violation of two taboos, infanticide and cannibalism. Swift meant to shock his readers from their apathy as well as to mock the “projectors” (social engineers) who thought societies could plan their way out of any problem. Its humor is dark and unsettling: “We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market.”
Lines like these earned Swift a reputation for misanthropy and, as Damrosch writes, “he didn’t altogether disagree.” Yet it would be a mistake to leave it at that. “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth,” he wrote in 1725. Swift was generous in his private dealings and opposed slavery at a time when few people did. After witnessing the horrors of London’s Bethlehem Hospital — popularly known as Bedlam — he resolved to devote his fortune to the humane treatment of the mentally ill in Ireland. Swift rarely could resist a good joke, and in a poem that imagines his own death, he turned his bequest into a taunt at the expense of the Irish: “He gave the little Wealth he had / To build a House for Fools and Mad / And shew’d by one satiric Touch / No Nation wanted it so much.” Yet in the next two lines — the poem’s final words — Swift aimed his humor at himself and revealed his true humility: “That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor / I wish it soon may have a Better.”