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  • Swift’s Irish Rhymes
  • Jonathan Pritchard

PENCIL and paper in hand, the Dean of St. Patrick’s would sit in his cathedral, listening to the preacher’s sermon. “As soon as any one got up into the pulpit,” the Reverend Patrick Delany recalled, Jonathan Swift “carefully noted every wrong pronunciation, or expression, that fell from him.”1 Delany’s witness is valuable not only because it reminds us that Swift took seriously his decanal responsibilities,2 but also because it suggests that his interest in norms of pronunciation was more searching than is often assumed. (It is also a good story: “carefully” sells the humor of the scene.) Pronunciation is apt to be regarded as an aspect of Swift’s enduring interest in the vernacular, its cant and jargon, gossip and chit-chat, street cries and billingsgate, and their shiftlessness or futility: much of the material adduced in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738) concerns the voicing of the spontaneous, the trivial, and the evanescent. The importance of the correct rehearsing of a text—and in this regard Swift drew no distinction between the sacred and profane, or between verse and prose—is nonetheless realized in a variety of tracts, including A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712), A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Entered into Holy Orders (1721), and “A Letter to a Young Lady, on her Marriage” (1723), in both of which latter works, but for quite different reasons, he recommends engaging a friend to hear the addressee read aloud.3 It may be that Swift’s advice was based [End Page 123] in his own experience: he was, by his own joking admission, “famous for reading verses the worst in the world.”4 And yet the extraordinary knack with which he versified colloquial speech (the vocabulary and idiom of “The Humble Petition of Frances Harris” [1701], or a various sense of tempo and intonation in The Grand Question Debated [1729; published 1732]) commands a traditional comprehension of poetry as verbal utterance. Only by reading aloud Swift’s work and wondering about the surprises consequent upon the textual constraints of orthography and sound-patterning, or rhythm and sentence-length, can one fully appreciate his poetical achievement.

In this essay, a work of literary appreciation grounded in historical linguistics and critical close reading, I argue that, to a much greater extent than has previously been allowed, Swift’s verse includes what might be called “Irish rhymes,” Irish pronunciations, that is, of English words, the expression of the idiom of seventeenth-century English which lingered in eighteenth-century Ireland. Consider one of his earliest compositions:

Reformers and physicians differ but in name, One end in both, and the design the same; Cordials are in their talk, whilst all they mean Is but the patient’s death, and gain—.5

The prompting term of the third line of this extract sounds now an off note, a half rhyme with “gain.” To Irish readers, however, the vowel in “gain” truly answered the vowel in “mean.” That none of his contemporaries refers to the phenomenon is evidence of a modern critical misapprehension. Their response was quite the contrary. The minister, Orrery approved, “had the nicest ear, [and was] remarkably chaste and delicate in his rhymes. A bad rhyme appeared to him one of the capital [End Page 124] sins in poetry.”6 Swift was certainly demanding of others’ attempts at rhyme. His comments on Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715–20) (“pray in your next do not let me have so many unjustifiable Rhymes to war and gods”), his strictures to Thomas Beach (“I cannot suffer an ill rhyme, such as seen and scene”), and his marginalia on the distortions with which James Gibbs rendered the Psalms all support Samuel Johnson’s faint praise of Swift’s technical abilities: his poetical works are “for the most part what their author intended. The diction is correct, the numbers are smooth, and the rhymes exact.”7 The same views continued to be expressed, with as little enthusiasm, throughout the nineteenth century: George Gordon, Lord Byron’s enjoyment of the poet’s seemingly makeshift or...


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