Jonathan Swift's Works


Swift was a prolific writer, notable for his satires. The most recent collection of his prose works (Herbert Davis, ed. Basil Blackwell, 1965-) comprises fourteen volumes. A recent edition of his complete poetry (Pat Rodges, ed. Penguin, 1983) is 953 pages long. One edition of his correspondence (David Woolley, ed. P. Lang, 1999) fills three volumes.

Major prose works


Swift's first major prose work, A Tale of a Tub, demonstrates many of the themes and stylistic techniques he would employ in his later work. It is at once wildly playful and funny while being pointed and harshly critical of its targets. In its main thread, the Tale recounts the exploits of three sons, representing the main threads of Christianity, who receive a bequest from their father of a coat each, with the added instructions to make no alterations whatsoever. However, the sons soon find that their coats have fallen out of current fashion, and begin to look for loopholes in their father's will that will let them make the needed alterations. As each finds his own means of getting around their father's admonition, they struggle with each other for power and dominance. Inserted into this story, in alternating chapters, the narrator includes a series of whimsical "digressions" on various subjects.

In 1690, Sir William Temple, Swift's patron, published An Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning a defense of classical writing (see Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns) holding up the Epistles of Phalaris as an example. William Wotton responded to Temple with Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694) showing that the Epistles were a later forgery. A response by the supporters of the Ancients was then made by Charles Boyle (later the 4th Earl of Orrery and father of Swift's first biographer). A further retort on the Modern side came from Richard Bentley, one of the pre-eminent scholars of the day, in his essay Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1699). However, the final words on the topic belong to Swift in his Battle of the Books (1697, published 1704) in which he makes a humorous defense on behalf of Temple and the cause of the Ancients.

In 1708, a cobbler named John Partridge published a popular almanac of astrological predictions. Because Partridge falsely determined the deaths of several church officials, Swift attacked Partridge in Predictions For The Ensuing Year by Isaac Bickerstaff, a parody predicting that Partridge would die on March 29. Swift followed up with a pamphlet issued on March 30 claiming that Partridge had in fact died, which was widely believed despite Partridge's statements to the contrary.

Drapier's Letters (1724) was a series of pamphlets against the monopoly granted by the English government to William Wood to provide the Irish with copper coinage. It was widely believed that Wood would need to flood Ireland with debased coinage in order make a profit. In these "letters" Swift posed as a shop-keeper—a draper—in order to criticize the plan. Swift's writing was so effective in undermining opinion in the project that a reward was offered by the government to anyone disclosing the true identity of the author. Though hardly a secret (on returning to Dublin after one of his trips to England, Swift was greeted with a banner, "Welcome Home, Drapier") no one turned Swift in. The government eventually resorted to hiring none other than Sir Isaac Newton to certify the soundness of Wood's coinage to counter Swift's accusations. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" (1739) Swift recalled this as one of his best achievements.

Gulliver's Travels, a large portion of which Swift wrote at Woodbrook House in County Laois, was published in 1726. It is regarded as his masterpiece. As with his other writings, the Travels was published under a pseudonym, the fictional Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's surgeon and later a sea captain. Some of the correspondence between printer Benj. Motte and Gulliver's also-fictional cousin negotiating the book's publication has survived. Though it has often been mistakenly thought of and published in bowdlerized form as a children's book, it is a great and sophisticated satire of human nature based on Swift's experience of his times. Gulliver's Travels is an anatomy of human nature, a sardonic looking-glass, often criticized for its apparent misanthropy. It asks its readers to refute it, to deny that it has adequately characterized human nature and society. Each of the four books—recounting four voyages to mostly-fictional exotic lands—has a different theme, but all are attempts to deflate human pride. Critics hail the work as a satiric reflection on the shortcomings of Enlightenment thought.

In 1729, Swift published A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public, a satire in which the narrator, with intentionally grotesque logic, recommends that Ireland's poor escape their poverty by selling their children as food to the rich: ”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food...” Following the satirical form, he introduces the reforms he is actually suggesting by deriding them:

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients...taxing our absentees...using [nothing] except what is of our own growth and manufacture...rejecting...foreign luxury...introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance...learning to love our country...quitting our animosities and factions...teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants....Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

According to other sources, Richard Steele uses the personae of Isaac Bickerstaff and was the one who wrote about the "death" of John Partridge and published it in The Spectator, not Jonathan Swift.

    
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