Savage Indignation: Colonial Discourse from Milton to Swift

Savage Indignation: Colonial Discourse from Milton to Swift

Savage Indignation: Colonial Discourse from Milton to Swift

Savage Indignation: Colonial Discourse from Milton to Swift


Savage Indignation is about a flexible and indiscriminate discourse during the window of license occurring between the end of an English divine polity (1649) and the emergence of science as arbiter of true discourse (ca. 1734). Rather than tracing the development of the expedient language of empire and ideological success, the book analyzes the resistance and the waste that are integral to that spectacle of the bourgeois progress. Theoretically informed by Foucault and others, the readings of Milton's late poems, the Oroonoko texts, and Scriblerian efforts attend to denotative and connotative limits of the language, and they incorporate contemporary ephemera to expand the amplitude of potential signification. During the period, von Sneidern concludes, proprietary discourse and the language of trespass had not yet been converted into the language of duty. Just about anything could and was said, to the ingenious reader's wonder, merriment, and considerable uneasiness of mind. Maja-Lisa von Sneidern, Editorial Associate for Arizona Quarterly, teaches part-time at the University of Arizona South.


Hic Depositum est Corpus jonathan swift / … Ubi sæva
Indignatio / Ulterius / Cor lacerae nequit./ Abi Viator / Et
Imitare si poteris / Strenuum pro virili / Libertatis
Vindicatorem. …

—Jonathan Swift’s epitaph,
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland

Here is laid the body … where savage indignation can no longer
tear [its] heart. Depart, wayfarer, and imitate if you can a man
who to his utmost championed liberty. …

—Slightly Savaged Translation

Jonathan swift never said, or at least never wrote, much about John Milton; the latter’s anti-prelaty, disestablishment, Good Old Cause prejudices would have strained a relationship between the two had they been contemporaries. Yet the contentious republican and the irascible dean are curiously compatible; the epitaph, which Swift wrote for himself, could as well aphorize Milton’s life. Faced with the imminent restoration of the Stuart monarch, in early 1660 Milton wrote two editions of The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. There, the only explanation for backsliding into the bondage of kingship is “that people must needs be madd or strangely infatuated,” England’s “perverse inhabitants are deaf” and manifesting “epidemic madness.” Savage indignation does not suffer fools gladly, or as a dyspeptic Jonathan Swift ruminated, “ Oppression makes a wise Man mad” and therefore it follows that “the Reason some Men are not mad is because they are not wise: However, it were to be wished that Oppression would in time teach a little Wisdom to Fools.” Both men are railing against what they identify as threadbare ideologies; how can people think like that? How can they sheepishly relinquish all that is valuable for “trifles or superfluities” (cpw 7:462)? They must be crazy.

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