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Swift as Priest and Satirist ed. by Todd C. Parker (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 245-247 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0027

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A single premise underlies the nine essays (two of which are unacknowledged reprints) in Swift as Priest and Satirist, namely that the link between “Swift the priest” and “Swift the satirist” should be taken seriously, a key to what makes Swift “problematic and compelling.” Mr. Parker’s Introduction, an overview of the debate pertaining to Swift’s religious positions and a “practice reading” of two sermons, is followed by essays that can be grouped into three broad categories: essays on the Church of England and theology; essays on religious figures and controversies in his work; and essays that link Swift’s sermons and his satirical texts, notably A Tale of a Tub.

In the first category are essays by Brian A. Connery and Christopher Fox. Examining the reasons for Swift’s opposition to freedom of opinion, via an engaging reading of Swift’s answer to Collins’s Discourse, Mr. Connery shows Swift’s “absolute and fundamental belief” that words and ideas have real consequences and that society cannot survive without enforcing a distinction between freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion. Mr. Fox convincingly demonstrates that, contrary to the claims of mainstream critical discourse, it is not only the crisis created for the Church by English Presbyterianism that matters for a proper understanding of Swift’s Tale, but Scottish and Irish Presbyterianism as well.

In the next section, Anne B. Gardiner presents Swift in the Tale alarmed against Cartesianism and Calvinism—forms of madness induced by the rampant materialism and irreligion Swift felt were beginning to dominate his age. She reads the Tale as a satire from a High-Church viewpoint, since it points to “a cryptic confession of Laudian High-Church belief.”

Five essayists link Swift’s religious and nonreligious works; two, John Shanahan and Daniel Lupton, offer readings of Gulliver’s Travels. Mr. Shanahan analyzes the “Georgic impulse” in Part III as a particularly significant example of the linkage between “priest” and “satirist,” a synecdoche of Swift’s worldview. Mr. Lupton thought-provokingly discusses Part IV in terms of Swift’s ecclesiastical writings, concentrating on how Swift’s Christianity informed Gulliver’s perception of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos and, thus, his decision to choose the Houyhnhnm community over the Yahoo. In an innovative essay on Swift’s poetry, James Ward argues that the “pastor,” understood both in its religious sense and as the figure of the shepherd in pastoral poetry, embodies a symbolic relation between Swift’s literary and clerical careers: pastor “connects Swift the priest’s social mission to Swift the political writer’s sense of ideological commitment.” Robert Mahony convincingly reads priest and satirist vis-à-vis the notion of indeterminacy; his conclusion, with its apt reminder of the unfortunate human tendency to prefer narratives to facts, goes a long way toward explaining why, despite many efforts to define Swift’s faith, most readers still prefer to see Swift as an unbeliever rather than a convinced Christian: “Swift the believer is more difficult by far to fathom than Swift the ecclesiastical dignitary or politician or, indeed, moralist.” Finally, Mr. Parker’s own contribution tries to answer the question of why Swift famously deemed his sermons “the idlest trifling stuff that ever was writ.” His premise, that the satirist is incomplete without an understanding of the effect the divine had on Swift’s authorial persona as a whole, is soundly argued; he shrewdly notes that “it is not the content of his sermons that Swift belittles as trifling, but rather their position and context within the totality of his writings.” Other statements, however, are more debatable, such as his claim that Swift’s “dilemma” lay in the fact that the authority of the author of satiric texts “must somehow reconcile with the authority of an Anglican dean” (emphasis added), or that Swift had to reject his sermons because they could be so easily parodied. Hence, Mr. Parker argues, Swift could safeguard his identity as a priest only by rejecting the sermons, thus separating them from the body of his satire. This seems a modern rather than Swiftian paradox.

Louise K. Barnett’s essay stands on its own, an examination of Swift’s religion in psychoanalytical terms, asking...



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