Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise

By Kathleen Williams | Go to book overview

PREFACE

The purpose of this study is to put forward an interpretation of Swift's work based entirely on the writings themselves and on heir relation to ideas, attitudes, and literary methods current in ilis own day. It arises from the belief that one cause of the frequent misunderstanding of the major satires is that they have been conidered in isolation from the political tracts, the letters, the sermons, the sets of maxims, and even in isolation from one another. As a result, the older interpretations of Gulliver's Travels, for instance, are totally contrary to attitudes Swift expresses elsewhere throughout his work. The "Voyage to the Houyhnhnms" is the crucial point in any critical estimate of Swift, and it has long seemed to me virtually impossible that so convinced an opponent of Deism could suggest as even desirable, whether or not attainable, a mode of life in which Deist principles are so obviously embodied as in that of the rational horses.

It is perfectly possible, I believe, to interpret Gulliver's Travels, A Tale of a Tub, and indeed all Swift's work, satisfactorily, by following his guidance as a responsible satirist in each individual work, and this is what the last two chapters of this study set out to do. Swift has not failed in his task of making his meaning clear to the candid reader. But because of the long history of preconceptions and misinterpretations it is difficult for us to come unprejudiced to the reading of his work. Despite the efforts of modern biographers, old memories of Swift the hater and destroyer of mankind still lurk at the back of our minds, and infinite damage has been done to the great satires by the popular image of Swift and the more lurid interpretations of his friendship with Vanessa and with Stella. Swift, it is too readily supposed, came to grief in his life through an excessive devotion to reason and an unbalanced loathing of the human body. Consequently, we expect to find the same extremism and the same disgust as part of the meaning of his work, and until these extraneous considerations are forgotten our minds are not open to the real effect of his satire. I have not therefore been concerned, in the chapters which follow, to give any consideration to the details of Swift's life. Many of

-v-

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Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents *
  • Chapter I - The Need for Compromise 1
  • Chapter II - The Ordering Mind 19
  • Chapter III - Reason and Virtue 43
  • Chapter IV - The Treasure of Baseness in Man 64
  • Chapter V - The Individual and the State 91
  • Chapter VI - Giddy Circumstance 118
  • Chapter VII - Animal Rationis Capax 154
  • Conclusion 210
  • Notes 219
  • Index 235
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