Swift's Polite Conversation

Swift's Polite Conversation

Swift's Polite Conversation

Swift's Polite Conversation

Excerpt

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) deserves from all historians, students and lovers of English a gratitude much deeper, a praise much higher, than he has ever received -- except perhaps from the genial and erudite George Saintsbury, who, despite an apparent quirkiness, possessed a remarkably sound judgement and who, surrounded by an infinity of trees, could always measure and appreciate and display the forest.

Swift, whose own prose style was, at its best, lucid, direct, immensely effective, retained throughout his adult years a passion for the purity and simplicity of English style and for the purity and value of the English language. I have more than once seen it stated and heard it said that, in his essays and papers on English vocabulary and syntax and style, whether written or spoken, he was never profound: but in which of the half-dozen or so essays and papers dealing with English would profundity have been necessary or even suitable? The Discourse is a savagely ironic and often burlesque attack on the pedants; the Proposal was addressed to a busy politician and preoccupied statesman; the remaining pieces were intentionally light in both matter and manner.

Rather than adversely criticize Swift for what he did not even attempt, let us generously acclaim him for what he did, and fully intended to, achieve. Into the stuffy atmosphere that, with one exception, had pervaded the attitude towards, hence the treatment of, English and was, with very few exceptions, to pervade it for many years to come, Swift brought a breath of cool, fresh air, a shrewd appreciation of the facts as opposed to the theory of the spoken and written language, and a judgement at once conservative and forward-looking. Dryden might conceivably have done this, but he too soon became a pontiff, something Swift was fundamentally too modest to become.

If we take the relevant essays and other works mainly in the order of their publication, we have first to consider the essay in The Tatler (No. 230) of 28 September 1710, despite the fact that Polite Conversation was at least begun some six years earlier. In the Tatler essay, Swift wittily attacks certain 'false refinements', especially such truncations as mob, phiz, pozz, rep, and such slang as banter and bamboozle, and then pleads for the introduction, into our style, of . . .

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