By Chet Yarbrough
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World
By: Leo Damrosch
Narrated by David Stifel
Leo Damrosch (American author and professor of Literature at Harvard)
Leo Damrosch’s biography of “Jonathan Swift” illustrates the power of the pen.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745, Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and cleric.)
Jonathan Swift is principally remembered for “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World”, better known as “Gulliver’s Travels”. What is less known of Swift is that he was and is a revered Irish hero.
Damrosch has written a comprehensive biography of Jonathan Swift’s life. Damrosch searches for what is known, while expressing reservation about what others speculate about Swift’s life. Jonathan Swift is recognized as an ordained Anglican priest that reluctantly accepts a position as Deanery of St Patrick’s church in Ireland.
Swift lives an ironic life. He was born in Ireland but preferred living in England. His life reflects humanity’s ambivalence about money, power, and prestige.
Irony lies in Swift’s desire to become rich, powerful, and respected while skewering the rich, powerful, and respected.
Swift reveres the Anglican Church while he hates the memory of King Henry VIII’s duplicitous murder of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in the 12th century. Irish Catholics are tolerated rather than accepted as religious equals by Swift. Swift’s appellation for Irish Catholics is “those Irish”.
England’s leaders grew to fear Swift’s power of the pen. He became a respected, if not rich, Irish cleric. Religious satire was Swift’s sword but it had two edges.
Just as Swift is endearing himself to English leadership, he writes a satiric book about western Christianity. The book is called “A Tale of a Tub”. It is widely read by literate England. Queen Anne considers the book blasphemous because of its parodies about religion and religion’s use and abuse in politics.
Damrosch believes “A Tale of a Tub” burns Swift’s chance for ever becoming an English Bishop, a well-paying and respected position in the Anglican Church. Without Royal endorsement, Swift has little chance of promotion in England.
An irony of Swift’s life is that he gained a reputation as a maker and breaker of English’ politicians and noblemen by writing “A Tale of a Tub”; i.e. Damrosch notes several examples of English’ leaders that either solicit mention in Swift’s writing or fear pillory by Swift’s pen. The good consequence is respect for Swift’s writing skill; the bad consequence is English Royalty’s disdain for Swift’s writing substance and his ultimate lesser-posting in an Anglican Church in Ireland.
In today’s news, Pope Benedict implies deterioration of the church is caused by 1960’s sexual liberation.
Swift embraces religion but denigrates its leadership.
Irony follows irony in Swift’s life. Swift is a Tories’ sympathizer that evolves into an Irish hero that decries Tory treatment of Ireland in the early 18th century. He hated Ireland but became Ireland’s hero. Swift promotes Ireland’s boycott of British goods when England forbids export of Irish wool to anywhere but England. Swift decries Irish poverty but suggests poverty is an Irish moral failing.
The climax of Damrosch’s biography is Swift’s publication of “Gulliver’s Travels”. Swift’s dissection of societies’ follies is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century. One might argue that “A Tale of a Tub” is equally important but “Gulliver’s Travels” resonates with all who read for pleasure, politics, or enlightenment; whether young or old. “A Tale of a Tub” is more relevant to the time of its writing.
There are other biographical details about women in Swift’s life, his stories, and Swift’s idiosyncratic habits but power of the pen is the thematic giant in Damrosch’s book. Damrosch shows how Swift became a feared satirist by England’s leaders.