The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

Excerpt

When the great dean of St. Patrick's died in 1745 he had already ceased to be understood by the eighteenth century. Disregarded he could not be; his satires, misinterpreted, vexed the more, and his imperious personality took on an almost diabolic aspect. No English writer of corresponding stature has been repudiated so persistently and so fiercely by immediately succeeding generations, but this repudiation had in it a strange kind of excitement which was instantly communicated, so that one did not avoid the fearful object but sought it out in fascinated horror. Thus later critics -- the Jeffreys and the Thackerays -- found a Swift mythos ready to hand, waiting only for forcible restatement and amplification. Thackeray exercised all his superb art to paint a portrait which would revolt honest men for all time. Yet who, having looked at the portrait, could refrain from going straight to A Modest Proposal? Through the immoderate hostility of his critics Swift's fame was assured: he was a man of unclean mind, a blackguard, a faithless priest, but he was represented as having been all of these things to an unnatural degree; to find him, one must perforce venture into a region where the commonly understood laws of moral being no longer hold control. He was irresistibly evil.

To correct this absurdly false view was the object of the great Victorian biographers of Swift,-- Forster, Craik, Stephen, and Collins,-- who in varying degrees perceived the true genius and character of the great satirist. They worked manfully to break down the traditional prejudices in order that truth might at last show forth, but so well had the Jeffreys and the Thackerays done their work that the English- speaking world continued to regard Swift as a monstrous genius. In fact, it is only within the past twenty years or so that everyday readers have shown anything like a marked tendency to accord to the dean the sane consideration which other great English writers have always enjoyed.

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