Though Swift's voice was his own, his greatest works are satires: his relationships with literary precursors are as a consequence complex and frequently obscure. His oeuvre was influenced, as Pope's and Johnson's would be, by the works of the classical authors, the great "Ancients" whom he revered, but it owed a great deal, as well, both to the works of friends and contemporaries like Addison, Steele, and Pope, whom he admired and collaborated with, and to the works of enemies like Defoe, whose pseudo-matter-of-factness in Robinson Crusoe he satirized in the first book of his own Gulliver's Travels. He was well aware of the ironies inherent in the extent of his indebtedness: it has been pointed out that though he wrote, of himself, "that what he writ was all his own," the line itself is a parody of a line — "Yet what he wrote was all his own" — which appears in Denham's "Elegy on Cowley." The real sources of his works, in any event, lay not in literary originals but in contemporary events — political events in England, which he satirized in the Lilliputian episode in Gulliver, or socio-economic events in Ireland, which he satirized in "A Modest Proposal."
Swift died a great, a famous, and an enormously respected man, though his last years were melancholy ones and though he lapsed, finally, into senility. His literary influence on subsequent authors has been incalculable. His values, however were those of his age, and the Romantics and the Victorians reacted against his work even more strongly than they did against Pope's. Pope they merely relegated to the dust-bin, but they perceived Swift, particularly the Swift who had brought Gulliver to the Country of the Houhynhynms, as a threat, and they savaged him. Thomas De Quincey wrote in 1847 that "the meanness of Swift's nature, and his rigid incapacity for dealing with the grandeurs of the human spirit, with religion, with poetry or even with science when it rose above the mercenary practical, is absolutely appalling. His own Yahoo is not a more abominable one-sided degradation of humanity than he himself in under this aspect. . . ." In 1851 the great Victorian novelist Thackeray grew positively hysterical in his denunciation of Swift: he declares that the moral of Gulliver is "horrible, shameful, unmanly, blasphemous," and insists that in the fourth book Swift reveals himself as "a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind — tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene. . ."
Even in the midst of Victorian England, however, Swift had defenders — Ruskin, for example, in 1871, could name Swift, with Guido Guinicelli and Marmontel, as one of three persons in past history for whom he felt "most sympathy," and wrote that "anyone who can understand the natures of those three men can understand mine." What was it about Swift's portrait of mankind in Gulliver's Travels that provoked these outbursts from De Quincey and Thackeray (who would, to his credit, later change his mind about Swift)?
In our own century he has been analysed and reinterpreted, but though the old slanders continued to plague his memory — D. H. Lawrence refered in 1929 to his "insolent and sicklily squeamish mind" — he has regained his place as one of the great English authors, and certainly as the greatest satirist in the English language. Yeats helped us to begin to appreciate his poetry once more; he was a strong influence on Joyce; and T. S. Eliot could write, in 1923, in an essay on Joyce's Ulysses, that Swift's vision of the country of the Houhynhynms was "one of the greatest triumphs that the human soul has ever achieved." What is it about his work that has enabled him to regain, in our century, the reputation he had lost in the preceding one?
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000