Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning

Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning

Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning

Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning

Excerpt

There is a consistency in Swift's work that can be traced from the simplest to the most complex form, from the elements of diction and syntax in the sermons and tracts to the rhetorically ordered symbolism of A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels. This has often been discussed as the consistency of a strong personality, but we can measure the strength of the personality and understand its nature most successfully when we have examined the kinds of meaning in which it finds expression. This essay is concerned, therefore, with structure in Swift's works as it serves to create meaning--and particularly such meaning as redirects attitudes.

The term "rhetoric," as I have used it in the title, is meant to include the traditional art of persuasion as well as our recent concern with "the architecture of communication, its structure and ordonnance" (Arthur M. Clark). The art of persuasion has always required use of language more complex than that of simple factual description. In its simultaneous satisfaction of several ends, rhetoric, like architecture, becomes a problem of design, whatever else it may be. I have tried to trace some of Swift's typical designs and to see in what way they are necessary to his meaning.

The later chapters of this book deal increasingly with the large themes of Swift's major works and the last with his work as a whole. It is always dangerous to read an author's separate works as parts of one great life- work. We are tempted to overlook the change of attitude and shifts of attention of the author; even more, we tend to slight the internal necessity of a single work and to read it as another example of what can be found in all the rest. But as long as these dangers are kept in mind we may learn a great deal. In defining the meanings which are common to several works we may learn to see in its full generality the meaning of each, to perceive the wider suggestions of a work which, taken alone, may seem fairly limited. Such generalized meanings may seem thin as abstracted themes, but as we trace them back through the works they may yield clearer principles of structure and, as a result, more significance in concrete details.

I have tried to present Swift's attitudes sympathetically. This does not mean that there is not much in them to criticize (or even to translate into different terms). But it seems hopeless to embark on such criticism until we have come to some general agreement about what Swift said. Few writers have been so strongly attacked upon such irrelevant grounds. One can only hope that further study of Swift's methods will make his meanings in some measure demonstrable. This essay is offered in the . . .

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