Passing through Dublin today we paused in St Patrick’s Cathedral to see the purported origin of the phrase “chancing one’s arm”, but also to pay homage to Jonathan Swift, resting where wild indignation can no longer tear at his heart. I’ve had this collection of his satirical and other writings (first published by OUP in 1932) on the shelves for years, and finally worked round to it this week.
I have to say that very little of it survives the three centuries since original composition particularly well. There were no more than half a dozen pieces that I felt really shone at the same level as Gulliver’s Travels: “A Modest Proposal” and the last Drapier Letter, of course, but also “A Meditation upon a Broomstick” (a brief but effective parody), and “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Entered into Holy Orders” (which has some excellent direct advice on writing sermons, or any public presentation); and also the random thoughts such as “Resolutions When I Come To Be Old” (which concludes that he also should not resolve to keep all the resolutions) and “Thoughts on Various Subjects”, the first of which is:
We have just enough Religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
Though actually that quote also illustrates some of the problems with Swift which make him unattractive to today’s reader. The sense is cynical, pessimistic and misanthropic (often misogynistic as well); also we are at risk of category errors – by “religion” and “we”/”us” does he mean any belief, and all of humanity? or just the Established Protestant Church of Ireland, and the Chapter of St Patrick’s Cathedral? The truth is probably somewhere in between but one can’t be certain about where.
Some of the choices of text are also rather odd. The extracts from the “Journal to Stella” are rather dull and exclude the most interesting political act Swift ever did, when he foiled an attempt to assassinate the prime minister of the day by means of a booby-trapped hat-box. (I am not making this up; his letter to Stella about it is online here, but not in this book.)
I probably paid about £2 for this, which would be about right. There is surely a market out there for a better, shorter collection of the Best of Swift, preferably with more useful explanatory and biographical material.