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Swift and Pope: Satirists in Dialogue by Dustin Griffin (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 230-233 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0029

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The argument of this scholarly and nuanced book is that Pope and Swift were in a continuous dialogue with one another throughout most of their writing lives; that one of the most significant determinants of their respective literary forms and meanings was that conversation. The conversation, though, became increasingly testy and, especially on Pope’s side, manipulative, as they aged. Whereas, in older thinking about Swift and Pope, they have sometimes been taken to stand together as representative of Augustanism, emblematizing the values of eighteenth-century neoclassicism and pre-Enlightenment rationality, Swift and Pope argues that such a coupling is unwarranted. Modern writers who have been the victims of such critical elision—Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge as “Bradbury Lodge”; Howard Brenton and David Hare as “Howard Hare”—have strenuously asserted their individualism. Mr. Griffin’s argument is that mutual awareness of each other’s writing, in the case of Swift and Pope, assisted the two writers in their self-definition—precisely to resist becoming Jonathan Pope or Alexander Swift.

Blending “a joint biographical narrative (derived from their letters to each other) with comparative analysis of some of their works, both major and minor,” Mr. Griffin’s single-minded pursuit yields surprising results, making the book far more than a mere footnote to the standard biographies by Ehrenpreis and Mack or the standard editions of the correspondence. Inter alia, the book vindicates David Woolley’s edition of the Swift correspondence, negatively reviewed in some high-profile places. Mr. Griffin draws repeatedly on Woolley’s notes, less familiar to specialists than are the Harold Williams glosses, and this imparts a certain freshness to a study so heavily dependent on the letters. Too often for entire comfort, perhaps, the formula “the story . . . is well known to specialists, but is worth reviewing” is deployed. Certainly, there is very little material that is new and much that is entirely familiar. Mr. Griffin’s “big picture” will not surprise Pope and Swift scholars who have been helping to create a conception of the two writers as working in entirely different literary and political environments. The real interest, though, lies in the fine detail.

In brief, the big picture is that in their earlier days, Pope and Swift are divided by the question of whether literature should be politically engaged (Swift) or the product of apolitical retirement (Pope). Mr. Griffin’s absorbing account of the correspondence prior to Gulliver’s Travels turns on their differing objectives for imaginative writing. The Dunciad represents something of a watershed. Pope tried to recruit Swift for that project by inscribing him in the text, but Swift was disappointed and unhappy with the result. That disappointment fuelled a decade-long campaign on Swift’s part to have an epistle dedicated to him alone and by name, an Epistle to Jonathan Swift. Aware of this vain but understandable desire, Pope addressed verse epistles to Uncle Tom Cobley and all, but pointedly not to Swift. Rather, Pope teased Swift with the possibility, baiting his hook with it as a means of retrieving his letters to Swift for the bad faith 1737 edition of the Letters of Mr. Alexander Pope.

After 1730, as Mr. Griffin’s detailed readings show, their literary endeavors suggest “the increasing complexity of their relationship: affinity and difference, admiration and wary distance.” Building on the work of James McLaverty and others, Mr. Griffin shows how the four volumes of the Pope-Swift Miscellanies project became a dumping ground for second-rate Pope propped up by some first-rate Swift, though not actually the first-rate Swift that Swift himself wanted to publish, since Pope would not print the Libel on Dr. Delany. This poem is an epitome of the differences over poetic form and content that separated the two writers for much of the 1730s. Both published verse autobiographies—Swift’s Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift (that is here argued to be based on a broad hint in a letter from Pope) and Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot—that are in subtle opposition to one another, as are the rival publications of complete works in 1735. When Pope did finally turn to politics in the two dialogues...

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