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  • Politics and Literature in the Age of Swift: English and Irish Perspectives ed. by Claude Rawson
  • Charles A. Knight
Politics and Literature in the Age of Swift: English and Irish Perspectives, ed. Claude Rawson. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2010. Pp. xiii + 297. $95.

Mr. Rawson’s distinguished collection is more sharply focused than its title suggests. Most of its essays look at Swift’s political writings in their context. The essays are sensibly grouped in three sections: the first and third take up Swift’s politics in England and Ireland respectively; the central section moves from Swift on Partridge to the later Swift and addresses a range of topics. The focus of Mr. Rawson and his collaborators is on works less frequently discussed than Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub. With a few exceptions the essays collected here address specific elements [End Page 240] of Swift’s tracts and poems; they do not provide a global definition of Swift’s political sympathies, but they do bring particular clarity to the ideas and circumstances of his political writings.

One response to the difficulty of distinguishing Swift’s politics from the ironies of his speakers is to line up his public politics with the positions he takes in letters, annotations, marginalia, and other private documents. This is basically the method followed by Ian Higgins, who moves from Swift’s annotations on the histories of Clarendon and Bishop Burnet to such public documents as Letter concerning the Sacramental Test and The Sentiments of a Church of England Man. He argues that Swift’s politics is driven by religious conservatism, that Swift is particularly antagonistic to Scottish Presbyterianism and that the force of that antagonism is expressed in an extreme rhetoric. A sharp contrast to Mr. Higgins’s wide-ranging approach is Mark Goldie’s, which locates Swift’s “Discourse of Athens and Rome” in its immediate political context. The specific issue prompting “A Discourse” was a petition from the freeholders of Kent urging the House of Commons to vote a war tax. The Kentish petition raised the issue of whether Members of Parliament were free to follow their own views or were responsible to their constituents. The latter view is consistent with Locke and was argued by Somers and Defoe for the Whigs and opposed by Sir Humphrey Mackworth for the Tories. Swift’s “Discourse,” Mr. Goldie argues, defends the Whig position but does so by arguments that are aristocratic and Tory. The complexity of Swift’s argument led the Tory writer Charles Leslie to see it as typical of Whig inconsistency. Mr. Goldie asserts that in a certain sense Leslie was right, for Swift’s argument does not conform to that of Somers. Paul Langford traces the relationship between Swift and Walpole. Soon after their meeting of 1726, Gulliver’s Travels depicted Walpole as Flimnap. Swift’s major comments on Walpole appear in letters and in “Account of the Court and Empire of Japan,” which was not published until 1765. Walpole was more openly attacked in poems, especially “A Libel on Dr. Delany” (1730). Swift underestimated Walpole’s political skill and saw his rise as the result of corruption rather than accomplishment. He did not understand the governmental model by which Walpole exercised power as a member of the House of Commons. He was not a consistent political thinker, and his ideas were out of date by the 1720s and 1730s.

The central section on “The Writer and his World” echoes the organization of the book as a whole by moving from Swift’s English writings to his Irish ones, beginning with Valerie Rumbold’s essay on Predictions for the Year 1708 and the various responses to it, by Swift, Partridge, Steele, and others. Seen in their contexts, these suggest the multivalent force of Swift’s satire. Predictions is usually regarded as an April Fool’s joke, but in 1708, April 1 was the date of Maundy Thursday. Partridge’s “death” was scheduled for the Monday before Easter, bringing together the enemy of the Church and its founder. The Partridge almanacks that appeared after his real death in 1715 eventually lost their radical Whig tone. The relation of political...


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