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David Joseph Leigh WOLLASTON AND SWIFT: A SOURCE FOR THE HOUYHNHNMS? In one of Swift's more savagely indignant attacks in his Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, he lashes the vice of rationalism but spares the name only because of a confusion in spelling. When his friends read that Courtiers and Maids of Honor were using "Wolston's" tracts for theircreed, the readers, like Dr. William King, Swift's Oxford adviser, no doubt thought the Dean had reached his dotage. For King, on the advice of Pope, immediately had the London publisher, Bathurst, omit the lines on "Wolston" because the passage seemed to confuse the extreme rationalist Thomas Woolston (1670-1732) with the mild "deist" William Wollaston (1659-1724). As King wrote on March 6, 1738 to Mrs. Whiteway: The lines which begin, Here's Wolston's Tracts, the twelfth edition, etc. are plainly a mistake, and were omitted for that reason only; for Wolston never had a pension, on the contrary, he was prosecuted for his blasphemous writings; his books were burnt by the hands of the common hangman; he himself was imprisoned, and died in prison. Wollaston, the author of a book called, The Religion of Nature delineated, was indeed much admired at Court, his book universally read, his busto set up by the late Queen in her grotto at Richmond with Clarke's and Locke's; but this Wollaston was not a clergyman. King was correct in spotting Swift's error about Thomas Woolston's pension but was himself in error about Wollaston's clerical status. Later editors and critics have clarified the situation, but the early confusion raises a question that goes to the heart of Swift's lifelong debate with various types of rationalists. The question concerns the source of the Houyhnhnms. Although critics on both sides of the debate over the Houyhnhnms have cited historical sources, no one, to my knowledge, has given clear textual 92 DavidJoseph Leigh93 evidence that Swift borrowed precise ideas and phrases from an author of his day. Thus, the 1960 debate between the iconoclasts (positing the Houyhnhnms as deists) and the traditionalists (upholding the Houyhnhnms as rational ideals) even at this late date may stand to profit from sound historical evidence that can account for both sides of the debate. Such evidence will, as Curt A. Zimansky asked of us, "give us a firm foundation on which we can build further, but build without losing the principal outline."4 I tentatively offer the following as helpful evidence and interpretation that may suggest a tertium quid in the conflict between what Milton Voigt has called "the oppressive didacticisms of right and left." It goes without saying, as Sherburn reminds us, that the primary objects of satire in Gulliver IV are the irrationalities of the English and all mankind. But this presumption does not allow us to conclude that either Gulliver (as most critics agree) or the Houyhnhnms are immune from ridicule. Swift's complex use of irony should prevent us from viewing the Houyhnhnms as exclusively either flawless models of rationality or mere caricatures of the deists. Irvin Ehrenpreis, even after backing down from his earlier pro-deist position in the debate with Crane, Landa, and Sherburn, was careful to avoid the stricter position of the traditional Swiftians. As Ehrenpreis cautiously concludes in his later article: "I think one can accept [the Houyhnhnms] as ideal patterns where Swift is setting them off against man's irrationality, and as comic figures where he is smiling at the whole prospect of bestowing concrete life upon unattainable abstractions."6 I would offer for consideration the likelihood that in Houyhnhnmland Swift not only was smiling at this rationalistic project but was even attacking various exaggerated claims for "reason" embodied in one particular "deist" popular at the very time of the creation of Gulliver's Travels. In his earlier criticism, Ehrenpreis had located Bolingbroke as the most likely exponent of the Houyhnhnms' "emotionless serenity, benevolence, and reliance on reason." He demonstrated that Swift was corresponding with Bolingbroke from 1719 to 1726, the years of Gulliver's composition. Although Bolingbroke may have been one of the so-called "deists" Swift hoped to satirize in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 92-106
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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