Savage Indignation Civilized

Author: Helen Deutsch (University of California, Los Angeles)


Claude Rawson. Swift’s Angers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, xiv + 305 pp.

“Here is laid the Body of JONATHAN SWIFT, S.T.D., Dean of this Cathedral, Where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go, traveller, and imitate, if you can, this strong defender, to the utmost of his powers, of liberty. He died on the 19th day of October at the age of 78” (Rawson’s translation from the original Latin, 239).

By fracturing the legendary “saeva indignatio” or savage indignation of Jonathan Swift’s self-authored epitaph into the “angers” of this book’s title, Claude Rawson demonstrates his characteristic skill at discerning the self-divided complexities of Swift’s satire. An Augustan authority in both matter and manner who is something of a satirist in his own right—I can think of no other critic writing today who could get away with calling Samuel Richardson a “rancid old patriarch” (154)—Rawson illuminates Swift in a series of new and revised essays that span several decades. Rawson’s Swift emerges with an ambivalent relationship to both the classical past he revered and the future he deplored: an artfully elusive prose ironist who mimicked the modernity he loathed while refusing to abandon his texts completely to “full fictional impersonation” (182), a major poet who claimed to have been “only a Man of Rhimes, and that upon Trifles, never having written any serious Couplets in my Life” (182). Overall, Rawson shows that Swift is a figure of multiple paradoxes and a master of multiple genres.

Rawson, like his subject, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and the history of Swift criticism the book incidentally provides is frequently impatient, particularly with critics who, in Rawson’s view, ignore Swift’s scathingly general misanthropy in order to see him as “politically palatable” (167). Rawson is less interested in liking Swift than in getting Swift right. His readings delineate a relentless pattern of exemplarity in Swift in which satiric “others,” be they women or the savage Yahoos of Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels, are never other enough. Misogyny is thus subsumed into general misanthropy, and the Yahoo’s bestial Irishness stinks of humanity tout court. Throughout, Rawson reminds us that while Swift’s irony might have ludic dimensions, it was intended, as Swift said of Gulliver’s Travels, to vex rather than divert, and to instruct rather than delight. Feminist critics who see something of value in his celebration of an ideal intellectual woman in “Cadenus and Vanessa,” for example, are put in their place with a reminder of Swift’s misogyny, while scholars who draw inspiration from Swift’s championing of the Irish against English tyranny are informed that Swift’s hatred of oppressors was only a particularly virulent “example of a viciousness that Swift saw in all humans” (116). Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” in Rawson’s reading, is therefore directed primarily at Ireland, mobilizing racist stereotypes of savage Irish cannibalism in order to accuse the Anglo-Irish of devouring the Catholic poor; the English are more distantly involved in the savagery from which nobody is exempt. Rawson painstakingly analyzes the scathing and seemingly un-ironic description of the foundation of a “modern Colony” at the end of Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels in order to downplay Swift’s sympathy with the “harmless People” who suffer the brutal consequences of the civilizing mission; he reads the natives as passive objects of cruelty rather than positive examples, who exist “more to bring out the depravity of these evil-doers than their own virtue or suffering as victims” (114). For Rawson, to read Gulliver in particular and Swift in general as denouncing English colonialism is to miss the unsettling joke of all-encompassing misanthropy in which Swift, “with clear-eyed mischievousness,” implicates himself (130). To gain political inspiration from Swift is to mistake the satirist for “a bland model of civic virtue, promoting postcolonial pieties, and repudiating the Houyhnhms as slave-owners and racists” (131).

The book’s three section titles—“Ireland,” “Fiction,” and “Poetry”—quarantine literature and politics from one another. If Rawson’s vision of Swift’s satire is politically disabling, his account of Swift’s artistry is, by contrast, aesthetically enabling. This book provides a richly nuanced and suggestive “literary history” that “attempt[s] to report continuities and change through an intensive probing of nuances and registers” (18). “Intensive probing,” a positive literary-critical version of the reason that Swift’s hack narrator in A Tale of a Tub ironically deplores for cutting and piercing the surface of things, aptly describes the rigor and meticulousness with which this literary history unfolds. Rawson parses literary relationships between Swift and his predecessors, peers, and heirs with an elegance and finesse worthy of the heroic couplets that Swift refused to master. With dazzling erudition and an unmatched ear for allusion and ironic inflection, just to give one example, Rawson elucidates a Swift who declined the “lofty stile” of heroic pentameter and Juvenalian rage that Pope made his own for Hudibrastic tetrameter, the Horatian laughter of the hack’s preternaturally lively narcissistic levity, and the Modest Proposer’s chilling poise, teasing out the paradoxes that make Pope, the poet best known for imitating Horace, less Horatian than the satirist known for the savage indignation that lacerated his heart. He distinguishes Swift’s parody of modern confessional self-regard and “writing to the moment” in the Tale from his own private affinities for such writing in the Journal to Stella, both of which, Rawson argues, proleptically anticipate the self-regarding sentimental irony of Laurence Sterne’s Shandeism. Indeed, Rawson is most disapproving of Swift when he approaches Sterne’s coy self-promotion in “Cadenus and Vanessa” and “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” and defending the fragile boundary between Swift and Sterne is one of his key critical projects.

Such finely tuned judgment is a literary-critical art that few scholars are able to practice. It enables Rawson to hear the “flat hard-edged comedy” (175) of Swift’s uniquely reticent mock-heroic mode in his “Description of the Morning,” to distinguish it from “the blowsy elevation of Pope’s mock-grandeur” (175) in The Rape of the Lock’s celebration of what it deplores, and to detect its echoes in T.S. Eliot’s early poetry. It traces the conversational rhythms of Swift’s ventriloquization of servant’s speech in poems like “Mrs. Harris’s Petition” and “Mary the Cook-Maid’s Letter” to “The Game of Chess” section of Eliot’s The Waste Land (186). Indeed, Rawson’s appreciation of Eliot as the poet/critic who understood Swift best sheds new light on both authors. In fact, this book does Swift a great service by restoring his poetry to the centrality it deserves, complicating the standard couplet opposition between Pope the poet and Swift the prose writer and elucidating a tradition of conversational verse that stretches back to Butler and forward to Byron, Auden, and Derek Mahon. The levity of such verse reminds us that “Vive la bagatelle” was one of Swift’s favorite mottos, at the other end of the affective spectrum from the savage indignation that so inspired William Butler Yeats.

It’s the figure of Yeats—who begins the introduction to his 1934 play Words Upon the Window-Pane, in which the ghost of Swift interrupts the most mundane of séances, “Swift haunts me; he is always just round the next corner”1—who poses a critical challenge for Rawson perhaps equal to the conundrum of Swift himself. Swift would not have recognized himself in the figure Yeats created—that “arrogant intellect free at last from superstition” who “foresaw the ruin to come, Democracy, Rousseau, the French Revolution”—but there is something true in Yeats’s loyalty to Swift’s unappeased and unreconciled ghost.2 Rawson’s final chapter, “Savage indignation revisited: Swift, Yeats, and the ‘cry’ of liberty,” closes with a tour de force analysis of Swift’s epitaph and a new mode of affinity based on creative misreading. Rawson points out that Swift borrows from Juvenal when coining his famous lines, adding “saeva” to the original “facit indignatio versum,” “as though bidding to be more Juvenalian than Juvenal, whom he ostentatiously avoided emulating in his own poems” (266). As if in response, Yeats makes an addition to his poetic version of Swift’s epitaph that epitomizes their differences: “World-besotted traveller, he / Served human liberty”3 (emphasis mine). Yeats insists on a Swiftian humanism that Swift’s misanthropy at once enables and undermines. Edward Said might have had this in mind when he remarked in his late book Humanism and Democratic Criticism that it was Yeats’s version of Swift that enabled him to “read Swift in a revisionist way, as demonic and tigerish a writer as has ever lived.”4 Such productive misreadings create what Rawson calls “a surplus kinship,” a passionate “grandiloquence” that in Swift’s case could only be spoken posthumously, in much the same way that “the whole people of Ireland” Swift summoned into rhetorical being in his Drapier’s Letters would not exist until long after his death.

Rawson’s essays work as cautionary correctives to the epitaph’s haunting power, but the example of Yeats reminds us that such inspiration was also Swift’s intention. It remains to other critics to demonstrate that the radical negativity of Swift’s satire can be as liberating as it is damning. Beyond the expert’s desire to get Swift right beckons Samuel Beckett’s comic injunction to “fail better,” and the tragically redemptive possibility of what John Traugott once called, in an essay on the utopian possibility of Swift’s irony, the reader’s “revolution in consciousness.”5

1 William Butler Yeats, “Introduction to Words Upon the Window-Pane [1934],” in Fair Liberty Was All His Cry: A Tercentenary Tribute to Jonathan Swift, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967), 186.

2 Ibid., 196, 190.

3 William Butler Yeats, “Swift’s Epitaph,” in William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems and Four Plays, ed. M.L. Rosenthal, Fourth Edition (New York: Scribner, 1996), 138.

4 Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 25.

5 John Traugott, “‘Shall Jonathan Die?’: Swift, Irony, and a Failed Revolution in Ireland,” in The Politics of Irony: Essays in Self-Betrayal, eds. Daniel W. Conway and John E. Seery (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1992), 51.