- Five Recent Books on Swift
The central problem in Swift criticism today is not even recognized as a problem by some critics because it seems obvious to them that Swift in his satires speaks not through a persona, but in his own voice. And yet, as we shall see, to interpret the Swift we now know through numerous biographies as the speaker in satires like A Tale of a Tub leads to mind-boggling absurdities of interpretation.
Our major sin of omission is a failure to remember that A Tale of a Tub (1704) and other satires came into the world as anonymous or pseudonymous works. Not having, as we do, a vast library of Swift scholarship, his first readers could never entertain a voice other than that which actually speaks in A Tale . A second major omission is our failure to remember that this anonymous/pseudonymous was vital to Swift’s strategy to win an audience. In the Apology prefacing the 1710 Tale he may have identified himself as a secular, “a young Gentleman much in the World [who] wrote to the Tast of those who were like himself” (p. 4), but his mission in general as a priest—defined by St. Paul in Acts 13:47—made him look upon himself as one “appointed by Providence for defending a post assigned me, and for gaining over as many enemies as I can” (Thoughts on Religion). His sector would be among those who either were apostates from Christianity or indifferent or hostile to some or all of its teachings (the “many enemies”), often men of wealth, power and substance, like John Lord Somers and his Whig associates. He did not intend to preach to the converted, but wrote for those who appreciated wit more than conventional piety and sermons.
So critics who have built their interpretations of the satires on the concept of the persona have in effect been trying to define what Swift’s first readers saw as they confronted these works. 1 Everyone agrees that the method of reading an alternating persona and Swift in voce propria inevitably leads to widespread disagreement. [End Page 108] Our problem is an embarrassment of riches; if we must square our readings of Swift’s satires with everything else (letters, poems, Examiners, biographies, etc.) we have an impossible assignment. To set this ideal as the standard for interpreting A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver’s Travels, and everything else leaves the common reader—trapped in a post-Christian milieu—hopelessly unequipped to make sense of what the first readers read with pleasure and, presumably, profit.
While the problem of the persona is not initially evident in Ian Higgins’ Swift’s Politics, it complicates immensely Higgins’ attempt in his final chapter to integrate his evidence with his conclusions. This study argues that Swift never was a real Whig, but from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 began as a Tory and quickly moved in sympathies to Tory Jacobite. Higgins does not improve upon J. A. Downie’s Jonathan Swift Political Writer (1984) for its view of Swift as an Old Whig, nor does he add anything of significance to F. P. Lock’s The Politics of “Gulliver’s Travels” (1980), which presents Swift as a Tory. Higgins cites both for inadequacies, however, as he stakes out new territory for Swift as a Jacobite.
The astonishing thing in Higgins’ effort to prove that Swift was a “crypto-Jacobite...