Irvin Ehrenpreis, ‘Gullivers’s Travels’, in Swift, Vol. III (1983)

Source: Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, Vol. III (London: Methuen 1983), Chapter 23: ‘Gullivers’s Travels’ [pp.442-72].

The copious footnote notes to editions of Swift - both of texts and letters as well as to scholarly articles in which Ehrenpreis’s remarks are either sources or corroborated, have not been included in this copy of the chapter - though the dates of letters quoted, when given in such notes, have been inserted after the relevant quotations if not stated in the text itself.
 In one place only I have reproduced a note in which Ehrenpreis offers his account of the respective dates of Gulliver’s Travels and Swift’s ‘Letter to Pope’ which he believes to have been written after Swift began to write the former.
 I have added some details not immediately supplied by the author but within easy reach such as the given-name of William Poultney and the date of Swift's famous letter to Pope - re Gulliver's Travels - setting forth his feelings about humanity en masse as distinct from individual men, which is here said to come ‘earlier’ than one of 26 Nov. 1725.
 Throughout this copy the page-numbers of Ehrenpreis’s chapter appear in square brackets at the bottom of the body of text in question, as elsewhere in RICORSO.

I. Composition
The first reference we have to the composition of Gulliver’s Travels turns up in a letter from Swift. On 15 April 1721 he told Ford, ‘I am now writing a history of my travels, which will be a large volume, and gives account of countries hitherto unknown; but they go on slowly for want of health and humor.’ Swift must have given a general hint to Bolingbroke as well, for in a letter of 1 January 1722 his lordship said, ‘I long to see your travels.’

Six months later we meet our earliest mention of a detail of the actual narrative. This is in June 1722, when Vanessa alludes to Chapter Five of the voyage to Brobdingnag. Writing to Swift, she describes how a large company of men and women offended her when she went to visit a great lady. After comparing the guests to baboons and monkeys, she says that one of them snatched her fan and ‘was so pleased with me ... that I apprehended nothing less than being carried up to the top of the house and served as a friend of yours was.’

The next month, while visiting the Copes, Swift told Ford, ‘The bad weather has made me read through abundance of trash, and this hath made me almost forget how to hold a pen, which I must therefore keep for Dublin, winter and sickness.’ (22 July 1722.) The pen, I assume, would otherwise have been employed on Gulliver’s Travels. After this we have no reference to the book until Christmas Day 1723. Then Bolingbroke, writing to Ford, says that Stella has preserved Swift from losing himself in fantasies [442] or acting like a horse ‘in that country which he discovered not long ago, where horses and mules are the reasonable creatures, and men the beasts of burden.’ Swift read this letter by mistake, and reproached Ford for telling Swift’s secrets to Bolingbroke:

you are a traitor ... else how should [Bolingbroke] know any thing of Stella or of horses. ... I would have him and you know that I hate Yahoos of both sexes, and that Stella and Madame de Villette [Bolingbroke’s second wife] are only tolerable at best, for want of Houyhnhnms. ... I have left the country of horses, and am in the flying island, where I shall not stay long, and my two last journeys will be soon over. (19 Jan. 1724.)

The next month, he wrote again, and replied to Ford’s efforts to excuse himself. ‘[Bolingbroke] talks of the Houyhnhnms as if he were acquainted with [them], and in that shows you as a most finished traitor.’ (13 Feb. 1724) One doubts that Swift felt genuinely distressed.

In April 1724 the end was in sight, and he told Ford, ‘I shall have finished my travels very soon if I have health, leisure, and humour.’ (2 April 1724.) But the Drapier’s Letters came between; and it was not till 14 August 1725 that Swift at last wrote to Ford, ‘I have finished my travels, and I am now transcribing them; they are admirable things, and will wonderfully mend the world.’ Two days later, writing again, he said he was ‘reading books twice over for want of fresh ones, and fairly correcting and transcribing my travels, for the public’. (16 Aug. 1725.) Meanwhile, Bolingbroke, writing directly to Swift, had mentioned the latter’s promise ‘to come to London loaden with [his] travels’ (12 Sept. 1724) and had described those travels as being ‘into ... countries of giants and pygmies’ (24 July 1725).

The circle of knowledgeable friends naturally included Sheridan. Writing to him in September 1725, Swift alluded to Part Four of Gulliver, saying Sheridan should ‘expect no more from man than such an animal is capable of, and you will every [443] day find my description of Yahoos more resembling’. (11 Sept. 1725.) A few days later, Pope wrote to Swift, ‘Your travels I hear much of.’ (14 Sept. 1725.) At the end of the month, writing to Pope from Quilca, Swift said,

I have employed my time (besides ditching) in finishing, correcting, amending, and transcribing my travels, in four parts complete, newly augmented, and intended for the press when the world shall deserve them, or rather when a printer shall be found brave enough to venture his ears. (29 Sept. 1725.)

Apart from such external references to the composition of Gulliver’s Travels, the story itself often alludes to recent public affairs. The latest of these that one can date refers to the withdrawal of Wood’s patent, which became known around 1 September 1725, after Swift told Ford he had ‘finished’ the book. So we may assume that the process of composition continued during the labour of transcription and later. This in fact may be the meaning of Swift’s expression, ‘newly augmented’, in the letter to Pope from Quilca. We had better think of the process as lasting until the copy went to the printer.

Yet the book which Swift began early in 1721 was substantially complete by August 1725. He had written Chapter Five of Part Two no later than June 1722. He had completed Part Four by the end of 1723. He was approaching the end of Part Three in April 1724, but then joined the controversy over Wood’s patent, which slowed down the work on Gulliver.

Swift’s allusive but secretive style of dealing with the progress of his masterpiece suggests what one would assume from reading it with attention - i.e., that he wished it to surprise his readers and yet wanted a chosen few to be prepared for the hoaxes and ironies. When he decided to place Part Four at the end, although written before Part Three, he also indicated a desire for the sequence of parts to have its own power. [444]

We know now, contrary to what once was thought, that Swift produced Gulliver’s Travels not when he had little else to occupy his genius but after the lure of Irish politics drew him back into the business of pamphleteering. There is only a grain of truth in the old view that the book had its origins in the Scriblerus Club [vide John Arbuthnot, et al., Memoirs of Scriblerus, ed. C. Kerby-Miller, 1950, pp.315-20]. Before launching Gulliver, Swift published his Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture and suffered the consequences of its prosecution. More than four months after Swift’s first known reference to his new book, the Duke of Grafton at last brought over a noli prosequi to relieve Waters.

From the time of his retirement to Letcombe Bassett in the spring of 1714, Swift had been trying to produce memoirs or reflections on his experience of politics. One after another, they had remained incomplete or unpublishable. ‘There are few things he ever wrote’, said Delany, ‘that he did not wish to be published.’ (A Letter to Deane Swift, London 1755, p.17.). Yet of these pieces the earliest to appear (Some Free Thoughts) only emerged in 1741. Swift transferred his energy to Irish affairs; but the Proposal raised maddening difficulties for him. He tried to compress his anger and insight into the so-called ‘Letter to Pope’ (January 1722) but decided very wisely to leave that in manuscript until 1741. [See note 1, infra.]

I believe, therefore, that when Swift embarked on Gulliver’s Travels, it was to convert these repressed impulses into the shape [445] of a fantasy. He would thus generalize his response to the public events he had known and deliver his confirmed views on human nature as it was exhibited in English society, especially in the conduct of government. But rather than speak out directly, he would speak both ironically and simply in turns, through the mouths of various spokesmen, including an eponymous narrator. By employing fictitious persons and places in a pseudo-memoir, he would escape the frustrations that had smothered his less covert speech. Thus the self-transforming energy of the unprintable essays found a new vehicle, bold enough to satisfy Swift’s anger, expressive enough to convey his doctrine, but so disguised that it could be sold in London.

The literary form belongs to the tradition of narrative satire which Swift had drawn on for A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, and which the members of the Scriblerus Club had talked about. Their figure of Martin Scriblerus had contained enough of Pantagruel to make its Rabelaisian ancestry clear. On this character Swift and his friends had set the humours of an obsessed virtuoso who was to go on Quixotic and Hudibrastic travels.

What Swift now did was to turn the idea inside out. He kept the biographical framework of Rabelais. But instead of having Martin (like Don Quixote) follow his mad vocations among normal people, he sent a sane Gulliver to be educated among oddities. So he combined the pattern of Gargantua with that of More’s Utopia - the most profound English (at least, in authorship) influence upon Gulliver. Arbuthnot had dramatized the politics of the War of the Spanish Succession in an animal fable with John Bull as the innocent hero. Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput is an analogous treatment of the same and later events, with pigmies instead of animals.

One point where the machinery of sublimation grows visible is in Gulliver’s defence of himself against the charge of treason. [446] Two high ministers, he says, had represented his acquaintance with the ambassadors from Blefuscu (i.e., France) as treasonable - ‘a mark of disaffection, from which I am sure my heart was whollyfree’ [Ehrenpreis’s italics]. We must recall how Archbishop King, in 1716, had warned Swift that the exiled Bolingbroke might turn informer, receive a pardon, come home from France, and tell some ‘ill story’ about Swift. In reply, the archbishop had got a furious defence of the exile. After reviewing Bolingbroke’s relations with the French court and identifying himself with his friend’s destiny, Swift had said, ‘But whether I am mistaken or no in other men, I beg your grace to believe, that I am not mistaken in myself; I always professed to be against the Pretender, and am So still.’ [22 Dec. 1716.] In this whole passage Swift echoed a section of the pamphlet he had begun writing eighteen months earlier, defending the ministry of Oxford and Bolingbroke. There he had introduced the character of Bolingbroke with the words, ‘As my own heart was free from all treasonable thoughts, so I did little imagine myself to be perpetually in the company of traitors.’ [Ehrenpreis’s italics.] The parallels of thought and phrase suggest how deeply the story of Gulliver reflected the experience of the author. Swift’s wish to hide what he was doing from the profane while revealing it to the initiate fits his scheme. It would have been pointless to produce a book that no one understood. He relied on a core of enlightened readers to pick up clues which hoi polloi would miss - a chosen few who might join him in laughing at the rest. The friends whom he entrusted with his secret stood for that select audience. They would know without being told that the author was only clowning when he made a parody of seaman’s language, but that he was denouncing the impeachment of Oxford and Bolingbroke when he recorded the charges against Quinbus Flestrin. [447]

II: Comedy
The comic basis of the fantasy was Swift’s ambiguous relation to the doctrine he might have preached; for whenever he tried seriously to win men over, he had to smile to himself at the hopelessness of the project. Ten years after Gulliver came out, Swift wrote to an English statesman about his own rules for preserving health,

I desire that my prescription for living may be published, which you design to follow, for the benefit of mankind, which however I do not value a rush, nor the animal itself as it now acts, neither will I ever value my self as a philanthropes, because it [i.e., mankind] is now a creature (taking a vast majority) that I hate more than a toad, a viper, a wasp, a stock, a fox, or any other that you will please to add. (7 March 1737; to William Pulteney [1st Earl of Bath].)

There are two paradoxes in this sentence, both of which inform Gulliver’s Travels. One is that the writer wishes to serve mankind while professing to hate the species. The other is that although he condemns human nature as essentially corrupt, he congratulates the very statesman to whom he addresses these remarks, for being uncorrupted - for having ‘public and private virtues’ and for defending the liberties of his country ‘with more than an old Roman spirit’ (ibid.). While Swift tries faintly to resolve these paradoxes by applying his condemnation only to the ‘vast majority’ of men, he makes no sustained effort to bring his two attitudes together.

So also the King of Brobdingnag applies his famous denunciation to only the bulk of Englishmen: ‘I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth’. But the ferocity of the language obscures the restraint of the qualifier. Is Gulliver himself the only exception? We remember the emotion better than the limitation.

Here is the spring of the humour and comedy of Gulliver’s Travels. Behind each ironic proposition, Swift recognizes a point of view from which it will seem an expression of despair. Behind each serious proposition is a point of view from which it will seem [448] absurd. In a kind of infinite regress, alternating comic tone with bitter tone, Swift keeps surprising us with shifts in point of view. So it is that he leaps from a mode of simple speech to irony; and so also he represents human nature as utterly vicious and at once produces men or women who are admirable.

Outside Gulliver’s Travels Swift often sounded contemptuous of mankind and yet offered to help people at considerable self-sacrifice. We could impose a transcendent synthesis on such dilemmas by invoking a few conventional pieties. But this is not Swift’s way. To suggest the relation between creature and creator, we may notice an echo of a famous letter of Swift’s in Part Four of Gulliver’s Travels. Writing to Pope, he says,

I tell you after all that I do not hate mankind, it is vous autres who hate them because you would have them reasonable animals, and are angry for being disappointed. I have always rejected that definition and made another of my own. I am no more angry with [Walpole] than I was with the kite that last week flew away with one of my chickens and yet I was pleased when one of my servants shot him two days after. (26 Nov. 1725.)

In the same way Gulliver’s master among the Houyhnhnms says,

That, although he hated the Yahoos of this country, yet he no more blamed them for their odious qualities, than he did a gnnayh (a bird of prey) for its cruelty, or a sharp stone for cutting his hoof.

The striking facts are that Swift had said, in an earlier letter to Pope, that he ‘ever hated mankind’ [viz., 29 Sept. 1725], and that in Gulliver’s Travels he had described the Houyhnhnms as free from vices and unreasonable passions. One hardly expects Swift suddenly to reverse himself and say he does not hate men. Nor does one expect a Houyhnhnm to say that although he does not blame the Yahoos, he does hate them.

To ask which attitude is valid would be a step in the wrong direction. Rather we should observe how casually Swift makes the kind of shift that his characters make. For each attitude there are alternatives that undercut it. On this principle and on the [449] casualness with which Swift moves from one to the other, the comedy of the book depends.

Thus it is that anger suddenly becomes separable from the pleasure one feels in seeing a hateful object destroyed; thus also hating a repulsive creature is suddenly opposed to blaming it. Gulliver is disillusioned in one speech and credulous in the next. The Houyhnhnms are serious embodiments of moral ideals until they become, for a moment, the butt of a little farce. If the satirist embodies himself in his work, he also keeps withdrawing from it, smiling at the naïveté of his own ideals. The harmony of Swift’s book lies in comic themes - confrontations of mind and body - connected by an ironic tone which is focused in turn on the ambiguous relation of the author to his project. This comic, ironic self-awareness, flickering on and off without warning, is the true, animating spirit that bathes Swift’s masterpiece. In the jurisprudence of this sensibility there is always an appeal from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The reflex by which Swift passed from sober preaching to self-mockery is hard to illustrate conclusively in Gulliver’s Travels because he is not himself the narrator; and the constant puzzle of interpretation is whether or not, at this or that point, the author is indeed ridiculing the protagonist. But in Swift’s letters we hear the reflex constantly. Writing to Bolingbroke about the relation between wealth and virtue, Swift soberly denounces the view that all ages of the world are equally virtuous or vicious; and he alludes to a serious scheme of his own to make virtue the central principle of government. But after some quite earnest sentences he suddenly catches himself and reverses his tone:

I have a scheme in spite of your notions, to govern England upon the principles of virtue, and when the nation is ripe for it, I desire you will send for me. I have learned this by living like a hermit, by which I am got backwards about nineteen hundred years in the aera of the world, and begin to wonder at the wickedness of men. I dine alone upon half a dish of meat, mix water with my wine walk ten miles a day, and read Baronius. Hic explicit epistola ad Dom. Bolingbroke. (5 April 1729.) [450]

From a straightforward, serious recommendation of his proposal, Swift has slipped into ridicule of himself for pressing it on the reader. This reversal of tone is the same as what we hear in Gulliver’s Travels.

The exclusiveness of the various points of view - the failure to reconcile them - counts heavily. The more self-contained each side of the ethical drama appears, the more comical and horrifying the dialectic can be. While Swift was writing Gulliver, he delivered the memorable advice to Sheridan that I have quoted above:

expect no more from man than such an animal is capable of, and you will every day find my description of Yahoos more resembling. You should think and deal with every man as a villain, without calling him so, or flying from him, or valuing him less. (11 Sept. 1725.)

Johnson, whose antipathy to Swift was partly a reaction against early admiration and partly the effect of their deep similarity, once spoke much like this:

Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good? - Johnson. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ - Boswell. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ Johnson. ‘No, sir.’ - Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’ (Boswell, V, p.211.)

The judgment was not eccentric. It was a common Christian view of unredeemed humanity. Yet Christian charity has always been urged to exercise itself on such unpromising material. Shortly before writing his advice to Sheridan, Swift risked his security by writing the Draper’s Letters for the benefit of the Irish people. So also Gulliver returns from the utter disillusionment of his last voyage and yet publishes his memoirs in the hope of serving his fellows. There is something clownish in this behaviour, though Swift, like many moralists and prophets, soberly persisted in it.

But Swift departs from the pulpit view of unredeemed humanity, because that prospect includes always the mysterious [451] possibility of redemption; and the rhetoric of Swift’s satires does not. Whatever he may have taught in his sermons, Swift in his greatest work seems to disallow the idea of a sinner’s being converted to virtue. Driven by his congenital reflex, he turned on himself in his own mind, mocking his benevolent didacticism. So when he expounds the meaning of Gulliver in a letter to Pope, after a calm opening which rises to a bitter outburst against men in general (with a reservation of beloved individuals), Swift makes a characteristic transition to a third and then a fourth stage of his satirical dialectic, viz., self-consciousness and self-ridicule:

Upon this great foundation of misanthropy (though not Timon’s manner) the whole building of my travels is erected: And I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion: by consequence you are to embrace it immediately and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit little dispute. Nay I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point. (29 Sept. 1725.)

The shift from impersonal rhetoric to self-parody is a process audible throughout the journal to Stella. It is rooted in Swift’s consciousness and can be observed guiding the syntax of his best prose. It is the true internal structure of Gulliver’s Travels.

When I thus associate the character of Swift with the design or argument of his great book, I do not imply that one must familiarize oneself with his life order to appreciate the work. Quite the contrary. Read by itself, Gulliver will yield up something like the meanings I have expounded. But the reader who cannot accept them must square his rejection with the biographical data.

III. Interpretation
Unlike most of Swift’s works Gulliver’s Travels does not finally stand within a specific context of public events. It refers to many external facts; we can identify many allusions to persons. But the [452] stories do not require us to notice these historical matters; they do not invite us to keep in mind the particularities of the author’s ambience.

Normally, it is in such a framework that we interpret Swift’s satire. By connecting his attacks with their objects in the life of his time, we often infer the doctrines he is advocating; and he normally encourages us to proceed along such tracks.

In the Drapier’s Letters we arrive at specific principles of politics and economics by listening to the speaker’s explicit statements and by comparing his sarcasms with the doctrines of the person they ridicule. If Mr Wood wishes to manufacture coins for Ireland in Bristol, and the Drapier denounces Mr Wood, we may suspect that Swift believes Ireland should have her own mint. Since the Drapier himself asserts this doctrine openly, and Swift lays it down elsewhere, we can be sure of our interpretation.

Gulliver’s Travels is less simple. The teaching of doctrine abounds in the book. When the King of Brobdingnag denounces standing armies, we may suspect that the author agrees with him, because the statement is so bold and unqualified. We find support for our suspicion in the sympathy with which Swift represents the giant monarch. But we also verify our inference by going outside the fantasy and learning that in Britain at the time, the coterie with which Swift grouped himself regularly exhibited a distrust of standing armies.

So also in Part One of Gulliver’s Travels, Chapter Seven, when Gulliver reports the praise heaped on the Emperor of Lilliput for his merciful disposition, we notice that some crucial words are in italics, a feature inviting us to scrutinize them. Research discloses that the words echo the language of Suetonius on Domitian and Tiberius. They also echo the language used by and about George I in connection with the suppression of the 1715 rebellion and again with the trial of Atterbury. We may suspect therefore that the passage refers specifically to the King and asks us to regard him as a bloodthirsty hypocrite in the [453] fashion of the sadistic emperors of Rome. When we go outside the book, our suspicion is confirmed by a letter in which Swift mentions the topic and also by some of his marginalia.

Thus in Gulliver’s Travels as in other works by Swift we may of course meet doctrines conveyed by allusions operating within a historical context. Yet the spirit of the book as a whole hardly blows this way. Rather the direction is toward a challenging of both reader and author by the situations represented. The most profound and essential ingredients of the fantasy detach themselves from time and place, and point at the various definitions of our nature which men of various cultures have accepted. In this fundamental realm the book becomes a machine designed not to advance a set of doctrines but to start readers on the way to reflection, self-doubt, and fresh thought.

For example, in Part Four, when the traveller describes the social institutions of the Houyhnhnms, his language does not direct us toward external references. It is flat and unemphatic, with no obvious sarcasm or irony:

When the matron Houyhnhnms have produced one of each sex, they no longer accompany with their consorts, except they lose one of their issue by some casualty, which very seldom happens: But in such a case they meet again; or when the like accident befalls a person, whose wife is past bearing, some other couple bestows on him one of their own colts, and then go together a second time, until the mother be pregnant.

Gulliver surely sounds as if he approves of such institutions. Yet Swift cannot expect the reader to agree intuitively with Gulliver’s judgment. Neither does any simple alternative exist which one might appeal to after rejecting Gulliver’s position. Marriage and domestic habits take too many forms in too many cultures. Historical context will not carry us far toward an interpretation of such passages.

It remains clear that the institutions of the Houyhnhnms are at odds with those of humans, and that Swift calls attention to the differences. But if he does not expect us to adopt the institutions of the Houyhnhnms, and he condemns those we maintain, he throws us back upon the most general considerations. In effect, he appeals to intuitive reason or morality.

Now in rational terms it would be harder to defend human practices than those of the Houyhnhnms. Consequently, we may presume that Swift is urging us to bring our institutions closer in line with reason, or defensible principles. So whatever our marital customs may be, we must see ourselves hard put to tolerate the policy of leaving them unchanged.

This then is the most general impression left by the book: that we feel drawn into a radical, comical criticism of human nature which leaves us unsure of our axioms, offers no clear set of rules to replace them, and challenges us to reconsider our instinctive patterns of life.

IV. Structure and Explicit Themes
The shape of Gulliver’s Travels derives naturally from the main argument. If one is to examine human nature as such, without regard to differences of time and place, one must take specimens from many countries and periods. Geographically, by planning four voyages, Swift suggests the four directions, or a survey of the whole world. Historically, he probably refers to the four great empires of antiquity (Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome). At many points he dips into history, in order to set the past beside the present; and in Glubbdubdrib he even revives several ancients so that we may compare their character with our own.

Swift also had the example of Sir William Temple’s essay ‘Of Heroick Virtue’. Here Temple set himself the problem of defining human nature by its noblest powers - those which enable truly great men to serve their race, sometimes by patriotic leadership and self-sacrifice, sometimes by fundamental inventions that improve the conditions of life, but above all by instituting wise and just governments. Temple tried to enlarge the common idea of heroism by going outside European tradition. Instead of examining the four great empires of antiquity, he surveyed four that represent the extremes of east, west, north, [455] and south: i.e., China, Peru, Scythia, and Arabia. His essay is among the very few literary works of which one hears verbal echoes in Gulliver’s Travels. It may be significant that Gulliver went to Temple’s college, Emmanuel, and that his story begins in the year of Temple’s death. At points we might even think of him as a humorous reincarnation of Sir William.

In the friendliest way Swift may have been replying to his old master. He went about his work like Temple, by recommending good examples in strange places. Both men dwell on virtue and reason as the essential marks of a good life. [See note 2, infra.] But Temple tried to stir his contemporaries to noble acts by encouraging them to believe that virtue was possible. Swift argued that men cannot be improved, yet tried to change his readers by holding up many pictures of their corruptions along with a few specimens of virtue.

In effect, Temple defined human nature by its heroic representatives, not by its defects. The spirit of his essay is positive and hopeful. He devoted his strongest rhetoric to the virtues of the nations and heroes which he discussed. To the failings of men he gave fleeting attention and small emotion.

So in concluding a survey of the Arab empire, Temple lists the most admirable Mohammedan princes, then the names of great ancients, Goths, and moderns, concluding,

Whoever has a mind to trace the paths of heroic virtue, which lead to the temple of true honour and fame, need seek no further than in the stories and examples of those illustrious persons here assembled; and so I leave this crown of never-fading laurel, in full view of such great and noble spirits as shall deserve it in this or succeeding ages. Let them win and wear it. (Samuel Holt Monk, ed. & intro., Five Miscellaneous Essays by Sir William Temple, Michigan UP 1963, p.166.)

Temple treats his heroes as rare and exceptional, but he does not debase the rest of mankind in order to exalt the exceptions. The [457] hero and his people are mutually responsive; his virtues do not serve to show up their vices; for Temple interpreted ‘heroic virtue’ as equivalent to ‘deserving well of mankind.’ But for all the refinement and charm of his language, Temple writes with little humour, wit, or irony. In his style the comic element hardly exists. It was when Swift composed his early odes that he came nearest to this lack of humour; and it was at this time that he lived most under the influence of Temple’s example. We may therefore think of Gulliver as replying both to Swift’s younger self and to Sir William.

The rhythm of the four parts of Gulliver suggests stages in Swift’s memories. In its historical allusions, Part One points mainly to the public events of the years 1708-15. The dispelling of Gulliver’s illusions as he learns more and more about the imperial court evokes the enlightenment Swift suffered during the years 1711-14. Part Two, I suspect, reverts to the private events of the years 1688-99. The giant king and his wife have touches of Temple and Dorothy Osborne. Glumdalclitch who leaves her family to join Gulliver, and whom he then deserts - has touches of Esther Johnson; and so has the queen (whose ‘weak stomach’ is like Stella’s). Part Three, the least coherent, alludes to the public events of the years 1715-25. The material is not yet digested; the narrative is fragmentary. Part Four, I speculate, alludes quite unconsciously to Swift’s childhood and youth, suggesting an early lack of self-respect, of hostility toward adults, and fear of sexuality. So Swift assigns the Houyhnhnms to a remarkably primitive culture, lacking metals and the wheel. They exist in the pastoral, Saturnian myth of an innocence preceding civilization and associated with childhood.

The design of Gulliver also shows the effects of Swift’s travels and of his fondness for travel books. The ease and regularity with which Gulliver leaves his wife and children correspond to Swift’s habit of abandoning Stella. Swift’s voyages between England and Ireland were, for him, like shuttlings between civilization and barbarism. When he travelled within Ireland, he seemed [457] often to navigate seas of bestiality in order to reach islets of human culture; and the sharpness of the contrasts gave him a point of view for his comic, ironic survey of mankind.

V. Religion and Morality
The books Swift read and remembered while composing Gulliver only added to his store of real travels. The hints supplied by more or less true accounts, such as Dampier’s, are numberless. But their significance for Gulliver is clarified by the implications of the fantasies.

Travel books as a group sometimes provoked English readers to humorous reflections on the faults of European society or of human nature as such. More often they fed the European and Christian sense of easy superiority to the outlanders. A few writers of imaginary voyages used that form to shame Europeans out of their vices by exalting the merits of remote pagans. And several, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, used it to show how virtue could thrive without the help (or weakening effect!) of Christianity. These, then, are the usual implications of the books Swift knew.

Lucian’s True History underlay Swift’s parodies of historians and writers of travels, providing a tone of genial, easygoing ridicule of all mankind. Rabelais inspired much of the satire on learning or science, as well as the farce of some giant–pigmy incidents. He had the idea of drowning a city in the urine of a giant. Rabelais’ preoccupation with the functions of the body showed Swift how to use them to ridicule spiritual aspirations. Rabelais’ oscillations between benevolence toward mankind and contempt for them foreshadowed Swift’s comedy. 3 More’s Utopia gave Swift the most impressive model for shaming Europeans with the moral accomplishments of pagans. The still [458] broader satire of comparing humans with animals (though common in antiquity and natural to Swift) was most pertinently embodied in the travesties of travel literature composed by Cyrano de Bergerac.

The tendency of such literature was ambiguous, as I have suggested. It could enforce reason and religion. It could also undermine Christianity by implying that the highest virtue was available to men who never knew Christian revelation. Swift, I believe, had his own reservations about Christian creeds, but not to the extent of supposing that men without religion might be superior to those who possessed it. In Gulliver’s Travels the remote peoples serve as both positive and negative depredators of the European. If these new nations seem admirable, their effect is to expose European corruptions. If they are evil, their vices are identified with those of Christian Europe.

The implications for religion could only be troubling. I think Swift recognized the fact and tried to build his case on moral grounds that gave decisive importance to the physical aspect of human existence. But not only does religion keep entering into the story. Swift’s morality also keeps clashing with Swift’s history; i.e., his general principles are often undermined by his particular judgments.

There are methods by which a diligent critic might transcend these contradictions between history and morality. But I think we might be wiser to let them stand and to admit that like many a genius, Swift gave himself up to a topic when it excited him, and that he would not weaken the intensity, drama, or humour of a particular passage by a regard for the applications that readers might make to other topics. Absorbed in the depiction of the moral life, the life of reason, he represented the Houyhnhnms as dignified or awesome. Absorbed in the historical drama of his narrative, he let them appear limited and fallible.

The importance of religion for the author becomes obvious from his many discussions of the subject. But some of the reference [ 459] are treacherous. The Lilliputians bury their dead standing on their heads because they imagine the earth will be upside down at the resurrection.’ No doubt Swift means to ridicule an over-literal idea of the resurrection of the body. But it would be hard for most readers to take the joke as advancing Christianity. The Lilliputians also quarrel about which end of an egg to break when they eat one. Here is a shrunken version of the argument behind A Tale of a Tub; and one assumes that Swift is condemning schism. But the Church of England is not obviously strengthened by the tale.

Gulliver’s own attitude toward Christianity appears at the beginning of Part Three, when his sloop is boarded by pirates. One of the pirate leaders is a Dutchman whom Gulliver begs, ‘in consideration of our being Christians and Protestants, of neighbouring countries, in strict alliance’, that he would ask the chief of the pirates to show mercy. The Dutchman grows furious, but a Japanese captain promises that Gulliver and his men will live. So the pagan is morally superior to a Dutch Protestant.

In case we have ignored the implication, Swift goes further. At the end of Part Three, Gulliver pretends himself to be a Dutchman, and asks the Emperor of Japan to excuse him from performing the ceremony of trampling on the crucifix. The Emperor is surprised because no Dutchman had ever before requested such a privilege. Gulliver says his majesty began to doubt ‘whether I were a real Hollander or no; but rather suspected I must be a Christian’. A little historical research into the differences between religious toleration in the Netherlands and in England, along with a little knowledge of Swift’s own attitude toward the Dutch, will persuade most readers that the implications are clear enough. We are being asked to regard the tolerant Dutch as not truly Christian. It is no accident that the benevolent seamen of Part Four are Portuguese Roman Catholics.

But Swift can be more worrying. He confuses the issue in Part Three, Chapter Seven, when the spirits of the dead are called up [460] for Gulliver’s edification. A Christian priest of Swift’s generation normally held that revealed religion is essential to keep men morally upright, and we know that in his sermons Swift preached this doctrine. Admittedly, there were virtuous pagans, but these were rare exceptions with extraordinary gifts. Humanity as a whole could not expect to resist vice without the threat of damnation and the promise of heavenly bliss.

Yet when Gulliver visits Glubbdubdrib, and thinks of men who were truly great, he does not illustrate the doctrine. Although Gulliver lists six heroes of public virtue, only one of them is a Christian and he is no Protestant. Nevertheless, Gulliver says that ‘all the ages of the world cannot add a seventh’ to these.’ Grace works in mysterious ways if Gulliver is right.

One could handle the crux by remembering St Paul’s declaration in Romans ii. 14, ‘For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.’ (Rom., ii. 26.) Just as St Paul reproached the Jews for being outdone in virtue by the Gentiles, so Christians have often reproached their fellow-believers for sinking below the moral standard of eminent pagans. St Paul even matches Swift’s disregard for the applications that might be made from one passage to another, because - as commentators point out - he had delivered an unqualified denunciation of Gentile morals in the first chapter of the epistle.

But elsewhere Swift goes still further. In Part Four, Chapter Five, when Gulliver is holding forth on the causes of war in Europe, we meet the following paragraph:

Difference in opinions hath cost many millions of lives; for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire.

The expression, ‘difference in opinions’, is a euphemism for religious differences. The controversy over flesh and bread is of course over the doctrine of transubstantiation, which divides [462] Protestants from Roman Catholics. So also is the controversy over blood and wine. Whistling is a reference to the use of instrumental music in church, which the Church of England favoured and certain Dissenting sects opposed. The post is the cross, and the controversy here is over its veneration or its destruction as a misleading symbol.

Surely the common reader of the passage infers that the author believes such differences are insignificant. So also in Lilliput, when we learn about the Big-Endians and LittleEndians, we are not inclined to think the author takes seriously the divisions between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Lilliputian notions concerning death and resurrection must leave many readers doubting that the author held serious views on those subjects.

Yet we know that Swift had the strongest convictions on transubstantiation and the use of music in church, on the veneration of the cross and the Roman Catholics (not to mention death and resurrection). We also know how bitterly he attacked those who disagreed with him, in A Tale of a Tub and in his writings on the church. From our knowledge of Swift’s self-consciousness, our sense that he realized the implications of his language, we draw an assurance that he must have understood the probable effect of the inconsistencies.

If we seek a harmony of doctrine, we may force a synthesis on the apparent disagreements. But I am not inclined to do so. Of course, it is monstrous that Christians should be more vicious than pagans, that they should murder one another for religious differences, that they should corrupt the most valuable of institutions. This was Swift’s general, moral outlook. In particular instances, however in historical cases - he normally took sides and felt intolerant of other positions. Speaking to his Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver deplores religious dissension leading to war; and Swift simply does not care that from such a statement the reader may draw secondary inferences undermining the historical positions which the author held.

This, I believe, is Swift’s usual practice. He ridicules political differences in a similar way, even though he had strong prejudices [462] in politics and denounced those of the other party. It is the way Swift naturally works. He inculcates his opinions one by one, and does not try to erect a synthesis that will encompass all of them. Not merely in Gulliver’s Travels but in his writings generally, he pushes separate arguments to extremes without regarding the inferences that persistent and learned readers might elicit from them. For those who attend closely to his writing this feature becomes an aspect of his literary self, and they come to look for it. But as a result, although Gulliver’s Travels abounds in challenging doctrines and " intense rhetoric, it would be an unrewarding task to bring them all happily together.

VI. Body and Soul
In Swift’s story, following a common moral tradition, the physical is opposed to the spiritual as disappointing reality is opposed to ideal conduct. Swift was instinctively fascinated and repelled by the relation of bodily processes to filth. Unpleasant smells, perspiration, body oils, urine, faeces excited his imagination. But he could self-consciously turn these deep preoccupations to moral and aesthetic use. By dwelling on them, he could correct men’s habit of regarding the body as easily subordinate to their higher faculties. In Christian tradition it is normal to link such imagery to the idea of sin,’ and Swift could therefore hope that his representation of the Yahoos would remind the reader of old descriptions of fallen humanity - as when John Bradford [a Smithfield martyr] said, ‘What a charnel-house of stinking carrion is this body and life of wicked man.’

It was not, however, to the peculiarly Christian tradition that Swift mainly appealed. Rather it was to the comic and moral association of flesh with filth - associations that children share with adults, and that Christians share with pagans. These are associations the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and Englishmen [463] have in common. On the one hand, the body is the spirit’s tragedy; on the other, it is the spirit’s farce. Gulliver’s Travels is designed to keep both these attitudes in sight at once, and to destroy the dignity of man in all his shapes by their constant juxtaposition.

This is why Swift delights in the quarrel between physical needs and human ambition, between the tangible world and the ways of men. It is why he builds his work on the physical contrasts of size and shape, why he draws attention to Gulliver’s bowels and bladder, to his genitals, to the freckles of Lilliputian ladies,’ to the breast of the giant wet nurse, the stinks of the maids of honour, the cancer of the giant beggar-woman. It is one reason that Part Three, which is not based on such contrasts, is the weakest section of the book.

From the physical point of view, farce and horror coincide. What is loathsome in the beggar is absurd in the maids of honour. Looking into a Brobdingnagian mirror, Gulliver feels ridiculous. Looking at his reflection in Houyhnhnmland, he is horrified. Each response implies the other.

These materials are managed most deftly in the Voyage to Lilliput, and with growing clumsiness in the later voyages - Part Four being heavy-handed in its didacticism and Part Three using filth and body functions in the most elementary manner.

We must look at Lilliput to see Swift’s finest talent for comedy. Here, when Gulliver wakes up, he suffers pains of several kinds. His body is immobilized and tied down. At the same time, the cause of his pain and imprisonment appears as a race of contemptibly small, doll-like creatures. Their spokesman, who addresses Gulliver, acts like a dignified court orator. Yet he is measured, in the hero’s view, beside a young page ‘somewhat longer than my middle finger’. Gulliver’s pain is due to the condition of his body; and it blends with the absurdity of another tiny, pretentious body wasting a grand manner on a giant who cannot understand the language. Both the intellectual and the physical collisions seem ultimately [464] harmless, and therefore comic, to the reader who knows the author survived to write the book.

Swift’s syntax runs parallel to the comic process, in a line of suspenseful containment followed by an absurd release: e.g., the sentence introducing the orator, which starts with a leisurely clutter of verbal phrases to reveal the construction of a tiny stage, then goes through a faster, continuous clause that brings forth the orator; and at last drops to a short, bathetic clause in which the final word makes the joke. I quote the latter elements:

From whence one of them, who seemed to be a person of quality, made me a long speech, whereof I understood not one syllable.

In keeping with Swift’s stylistic instincts, the early part of the sentence not only kept us in suspense but quietly misled us into expecting a far more serious action than we were finally offered.

The undercutting of Lilliputian grandeur by Gulliverian physique goes on in phrase after phrase, as when ‘a person of high rank from his imperial majesty’ must speak to Gulliver, and we are told, ‘His excellency having mounted on the small of my right leg, advanced afterwards up to my face’. But the doll-like comedy soon gives way to something less refined, when Gulliver pisses:

I was able ... to ease myself with making water; which I very plentifully did, to the great astonishment of the people, who conjecturing by my motions what I was going to do, immediately opened to the right and left on that side, to avoid the torrent which fell with noise and violence from me.

Insensibly, we had been led to connect Gulliver’s mere size with a kind of moral dignity. His pain, his imprisonment, his literally superior point of view, and of course his Englishness excited our respectful sympathy. The vivid, unexpected picture of his urinating suddenly ties us to him on a level we had buried. Embarrassment at the author’s indelicacy matches a humbler embarrassment over the exposure of our own coarseness (we too would have had to piss), producing Swift’s comedy of shameful truth. [465]

It would be a mistake to base Swift’s satirical comedy on literary allusion. Mainly the comedy revives those experiences of childhood, shared by us all, in which a natural shame mysteriously attaches itself to a normal process. A simpler example from the Voyage to Brobdingnag will clarify this analysis. At the end of Chapter Five, Gulliver recalls an attempt he made to display muscular agility:

There was a cow-dung in the path, and I must needs try my activity by attempting to leap over it. I took a run, but unfortunately jumped short, and found myself just in the middle up to my knees. I waded through with some difficulty, and one of the footmen wiped me as clean as he could with his handkerchief; for I was filthily bemired, and my nurse confined me to my box until we returned home; where the Queen was soon informed of what had passed, and the footmen spread it about the court; so that all the mirth, for some days, was at my expense.

The comedy here sets Gulliver’s exhibitionist vanity against the coarseness of his humiliation. Pride goeth before a fall. If he had not foolishly aspired to show his vigour, there would be little humour in the accident. If he had been physically harmed, there would be still less. But the body is insulted and the spirit suffers.

One might recall celebrated parallels in ancient epic: Ajax with dung in his mouth during the funeral games for Patroclus (Iliad 23, ll.773-77), Nisus prone in filthy manure during the funeral games for Anchises (Aeneid 5, 327-33). But Gulliver is not like Ajax, whose ambition seemed admirable to Homer, and whose fall is funny but not ironical. And Gulliver is even less like Nisus, whose ambition is yet more worthy and whose fall is pathetic.

Swift’s farce gets its edge not from literary precedent but from the turn of his prose. In this passage the language does not underline the sense but cuts across it. A distinct opposition appears between the colourless tone of the plain narrative and the grossness of the material. It is a contrast supporting the moral opposition between false heroism and unheroic bathos; [466] and it irradiates the honest, physical body imposing its truth on a self-deceiving imagination. Swift’s ability to call up the child’s ambivalence toward filth and to make it work for subtleties of style, marks him off from lesser satirists.

So also the suffering of the body matters. When Gulliver, in Part One, receives an account of the Lilliputian court’s plan to do away with him, Swift endows the friendly reporter with an amazing style, in which the sympathy of the speaker is undercut by the coolness with which he tells of the murderous proposals. Through all the sinister assumptions of the informative but accomplished courtier, a physical reality looms - that Gulliver is to be first blinded and then starved to death. The tangible, carnal facts -

five or six thousand of his majesty’s subjects might, in two or three days, cut your flesh from your bones, take it away by cartloads, and bury it in distant parts to prevent infection; leaving the skeleton as a monument of admiration to posterity.

- these details overpower the ethical fallacies of the speaker. It is gruesome but hilarious that the good-natured courtier should assign the virtue of lenity or mercy to either of the two sides (in the division among the councillors) when the issue is whether Gulliver should be burned, poisoned, or blinded.

The reader may if he wishes think of the Marian martyrs, of Samson, or of Hercules as parallel cases. We know that the description of Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians echoes the description by Philostratus of Hercules tied down by pygmies;’ and when Flimnap and Bolgolam want Gulliver’s servants to ‘strew poisonous juice on your shirts and sheets, which would soon make you tear your own flesh and die’, we think of the shirt of Nessus. Yet these possibilities again must remain barely audible. Swift’s syntax, irony, and humour give the passage its brilliance. Any references to history or literature are secondary. Only because Gulliver did in the end escape without harm can the comic tone be maintained and the series of gruesome possibilities become merely a prologue to the farce of the [467] recommendation made by Reldresal, a kind-hearted minister of state who tries to defend Gulliver -

That if his majesty, in consideration of your services, and pursuant to his own merciful disposition, would please to spare your life and give order to put out your eyes; he humbly conceived, that by this expedient, justice might in some measure be satisfied, and all the world would applaud the lenity of the emperor.

In the whole of Gulliver’s Travels there are few stretches of sustained, comic, ironic brilliance to equal the paragraphs from which I have chosen these specimens.’ It is such manipulations of tone, it is such thematic patterns, that give the book its deepest harmony.

VII. The Attack on the Reader
Few readers of Gulliver’s Travels come away from it feeling that the author has strengthened their devotion to Christianity. So it is fortunate that Swift’s real argument lies elsewhere. By locating it not in the soul but in the body, Swift can simply compare the account of human nature generally accepted with the data of experience. He can set our theory of morals beside our visible practice. If religion has failed to touch the hearts of men, perhaps they may be moved by elementary shame, by the sight of the abyss between the principles they themselves preach and the corruption of their lives. Merely on the grounds of enlightened self-interest they may then turn away from their deformities.

This is why Swift chose a repetitive, narrative fantasy. In his story, the inventive form, the imaginative incidents, and not the doctrine, are what touch us first and draw us in. The social or political institutions we hear about come before us first as phenomena to be examined, not as teachings we must accept. They belong to a comic fantasy that may refer to us but that seems initially self-contained and no attack on our character. We begin as external spectators, privileged to criticize not only these remote and freakish people but the narrator himself. [468]

Inevitably, we go beyond acceptance and rejection; for soon, half-consciously, we set up our own ideals beside theirs. We are lured into competition with Gulliver, whose judgments often put us off.

When the élaircissements come, therefore, we are caught with our guard down; for then we realize that the author is judging us as we judge his creatures; and treacherously we are tempted to share his point of view. At these moments we dimly realize that it does not matter whether we accept the Lilliputians’ high principles of law, government, and education, or the doctrines of the King of Brobdingnag, or those of the Houyhnhnms; for they do not represent eccentric novelties but ultimate possibilities, rational morality pressed all the way. In Swift’s design they stand for what the reader, rather than the middle-aged Dean of St Patrick’s, might accept as irreproachable (if unreachable) ideals. If we could re-cast them to shape the view of human possibility bequeathed to us by Goethe or Tolstoy, Swift’s final argument would still obtain: viz., that judged by whatever reasonable standard we may affect to approve, our lives must appear vile betrayals of our principles.

VIII. Exile, Imprisonment, and Slavery
Relations of servant to master are omnipresent in Gulliver’s Travels. The word ‘master’ runs through the opening paragraphs of the book, blending with words like ‘commander’ and ‘captain’ as Gulliver progresses from apprentice to surgeon, and then ship’s captain. This contractual bond gives way to that of captive to captor when Gulliver wakes up in Lilliput. After he arrives in Lorbrulgrud, the capital, he becomes a prisoner chained by the leg. The first words he learns in the Lilliputian language are ‘to express my desire that [the emperor] would please to give me my liberty’. At last he is freed.

The theme of slavery joins that of imprisonment when Gulliver, after capturing the war fleet of Blefuscu, refuses to bring the rest of the enemy’s ships into the ports of Lilliput: ‘And [469] I plainly protested, that I would never be an instrument of bringing a free and brave people into slavery’. This refusal becomes the spring of the emperor’s determination to blind and starve him; but Gulliver gets away in time.

In Brobdingnag, once Gulliver is caught by a reaper, he always remains a prisoner of one sort or another. First, the farmer becomes his ‘master’ and the farmer’s wife his ‘mistress’. Then Gulliver goes to court and finds himself to be the queen’s ‘most humble creature and vassal’. He lives in a box and is kept as a kind of royal pet while pining for liberty. ‘I was the favourite of a great king and queen, and the delight of the whole court; but it was upon such a foot as ill became the dignity of human kind’ (The comic note of ‘dignity of human kind’ places Gulliver exactly where Swift wants us to see him.) At last the box itself is carried off by a Brobdingnagian eagle, and Gulliver makes his way home.

In Part Three, he rises to be master of a sloop with fourteen men under him. But pirates capture them; they are tied up; and Gulliver is then set adrift, isolated in a canoe. Rescued by the Laputans, he soon tires of the flying island and thinks of it as a place to escape from. It is easy to do so, and the themes of servitude and imprisonment fade from the voyage.

In Part Four, Swift inverts the motifs. Now Gulliver starts as a captain with fifty hands serving under him. The men mutiny, and Gulliver becomes a prisoner in his cabin, bound hand and foot. The mutineers set him ashore in a strange land. The captive has become an exile once more. Meeting the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is converted to the life of reason and radically changes his attitude. His clothes veil his shape and keep him from being treated as a Yahoo. Soon Gulliver calls the Houyhnhnm with whom he lives his master; and in an early conversation the two discuss the whole problem of authority; for the master is disturbed to learn that European horses are the slaves of Yahoos. The master then declares that if, in Europe, Yahoos alone are endowed with reason, they must certainly be ‘the governing animal’. As Gulliver stays with the Houyhnhnms, he comes to detest his own kind, flinching to see his own face in a lake. When at last he must leave, he feels he is going into exile. But of course he is now taken back to Europe and eventually returns to his family. Life in England seems exile indeed. Here, reason, which should unite men, keeps them apart. Gulliver thinks now of living as a recluse, i.e., like an isolated prisoner, cut off from mankind. But finally he does not.

If we think of Gulliver’s Travels as having a thread of allegory, one reference of these themes is from microcosm to macrocosm. They reflect in a single person that yearning for freedom and that lust for power which are ineradicable from human nature and which also mark the condition of nations. The obsession with liberty as a political idea in The Drapier’s Letters is matched by the character of Gulliver.

But another implication also exists. A peculiarity of the shifting relations of master and slave in Gulliver’s Travels is that they so often depend on shape. This is why the motifs dwindle in Laputa, where the natives, for all their eccentricities, look like ordinary men. Elsewhere, slave and master, exile and slave, captive and captor are distinguishable by their appearance. It is the size or shape of the body which tells them apart; and I suspect that Swift is drawing on an old, symbolic paradox, that the body is regrettably the master (or warden, or conqueror) of the rational soul which should be its lord.

On the level of morality Gulliver echoes the claim of St Paul in Swift’s favourite epistle: ‘But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.’ (Cor., ix. 27.) The motif of liberty and slavery has the same resonance, e.g., in the epistles of Peter: ‘While they promise them liberty, they themselves are servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage’ (2 Pet. ii. 19). Ultimately, all men are jailed not only on their islands of racial culture but in the sensuality and corruption of their flesh. Nature itself is foreign territory for mankind. The Houyhnhnms may live at home in the world. Men are aliens.

Not only are such themes integral to the design of Swift’s book. They also suggest the themes of Swift’s correspondence with English friends during the years when he was working [471] on Gulliver. Exile and banishment are perennial topics there.’ Especially in writing to Bolingbroke and Pope, Swift returned continually to his isolation, his sense of living in exile, his desire to rejoin ancient comrades, his contempt for the people and affairs of Dublin. Of course, he complained of the slavery imposed on the Irish by the English and discussed the fears which some friends voiced, that Swift might be imprisoned if he went to England.

In two celebrated letters to Pope, Swift expounded the meaning of Gulliver’s TravelsThe moral implications of Gulliver came out in these letters and were debated by Pope and Bolingbroke. Both men urged Swift to detach himself from passions and from public affairs; 5 they recommended notions of friendship that Swift rejected, while he compared his life in Ireland to a life in jail. It is significant that Swift saved drafts of several of his letters to Bolingbroke. Did he wish to refresh his mind with their contents? Swift wrote that exile was the worst punishment of a virtuous man, because love of one’s country is the definition of virtue. Bolingbroke, who composed an essay in praise of exile, disagreed.’ Swift made Cato the Younger one of his great heroes; 8 Bolingbroke vilified him. 9 Bolingbroke claimed that living in exile did not trouble him, and that ‘tranquillity’ was the tenor of his life. He insisted that reason alone sufficed to guide the operations of the mind. He quarrelled with Swift’s definition of man.

At last it was the completion of Gulliver that turned these epistolary duels into conversation face to face. When the book was ready, Swift wished to arrange for its publication himself. This motion, added to the accumulated yearnings of a dozen years, was strong enough to defeat the scruples Swift had so often bowed to; and yet once more he left for England.

[End Chap. 23]

I think Swift wrote the ‘Letter to Pope’ after he began composing Gulliver’s Travels. The pamphlet is headed ‘January to, 1721’. Herbert Davis thought its proper date was Jan. 1721 by the modern calendar, rather than 1722, as Craik and Ball had argued. Williams agreed with Davis. (See Craik II. 60; Ball III, 113, n.5; Davis IX. xii, n.I; Williams II, 365, n. 2.) Craik had observed that Swift’s reference to Grafton’s relief of Waters (Williams V. 27) must have been written after the event, which occurred in August 1721. Davis said this sentence of Swift’s seemed an awkward, later insertion into a text which otherwise referred to events preceding Jan. 1721. I do not find the sentence awkward or a break in the train of thought. The reference to ‘man’ in the next paragraph is awkward, but not remarkably so; similar breaks will be found often enough in Swift’s prose and verse. Besides, the form of the date is significant. Swift normally used double dates for the period I Jan. to 25 Mar.; and when he used single dates, they carried on the old year. (Cf. Williams II, 9, 340, 341; v. 6.) So Swift’s ‘Jan. 10 , 1721’ would be our 1722’. Cf. above, p.136, n.4. [This earlier note which deals with the dating of the ‘Letter to Pope’ and the circumstances of its composition, commenced, in Ehrenpreis’s view, on 10 Jan. 1722, and in the event withheld by Swift from publication until 1741.]

2. Temple interprets Confucius (one of his heroes) as teaching that ‘every man ought to study and endeavour the improving and perfecting of his own natural reason’ (p.114), and he attributes similar doctrines to Mango Copac of Peru (p. 132).

[ back ]

[ top ]