The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

By Ricardo Quintana | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE EARLY VERSE

1

WHEN Swift returned to Moor Park late in 1691 it was with the ambition of rising to literary prominence as a poet. With such energy did he set to work that in February of the year following he could report to a friend 'that in these seven weeks I have been here, I have writ, and burnt and writ again, upon almost all manner of subjects, more perhaps than any man in England.' Of the products of this huge activity but five have been preserved: three Pindaric odes in the manner of Cowley and two compositions in heroic couplets.1

This early verse has seldom called forth from Swift's commentators other than derision. Nor will the casual reader, if he has the pertinacity to get through the five pieces, ever be tempted to return to them. Yet despite their badness they are so much a part of the record that the critic must deal with them fully.

Be it said in mitigation that as a matter of literary history Swift's three Pindaric odes are by no means the worst of their kind -- Cowley had been imitated with results far more distressing. Furthermore, Swift's unsuccessful struggle with the Muse was not protracted to the length sometimes imagined, for its beginning can be dated at Swift's return to Moor Park in the last days of 1691 and it ended with the close of the year 1693. Even a genius may be allowed two years of floundering.

But here there is no intention of defending the early verses or of discovering therein unrecognized virtues. In a study of Swift's mind and art their function is clear: through them and through nothing else are we enabled to view the writer's mind before it attained that assurance displayed in every line of A Tale of a Tub; while on the score of art Swift's incapacity in these first efforts is commentary of remarkable significance on his later mastery.

-29-

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