Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
 
[Jonathan Swift was born in Ireland, of English parents, on the 30th of November 1667. He received his education chiefly in Ireland; and after more than one period of prolonged residence in the house of Sir William Temple, he took orders in the Church of Ireland, and became Vicar of Laracor. His first literary attempts were poems in the involved style which had become usual from the current imitation of the Pindaric Ode; and after an essay in political pamphleteering, he published (anonymously) the Tale of a Tub and the Battle of the Books in 1704. Soon after he became immersed in politics; for a short time an ally of the Whigs, but eventually as the close ally of the Tory ministry, and the defender of the Church. Before the fall of Queen Anne’s last ministry he was appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, and his influence was before long felt as Irish patriot, and as defender of the rights of Ireland against the ministry of Walpole (in the Drapier Letters and other pamphlets). In 1726 he published (also anonymously) Gulliver’s Travels; and the remainder of his many works consists of occasional pieces of sarcastic humour and of political invective. After his first poetical attempts in the Pindaric kind, his verses also were inspired only by sarcasm, humour, and invective. He died, after a long period of apathy and mental decay, in 1745.]  1
 
“PROPER words, in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” This is Swift’s own maxim in his Letter to a Young Clergyman, dated 1719. It has the common defect of such apophthegms, that we are left to interpret it each in his own way. But Swift has developed his views upon style with some fulness in several passages; and from these we can gather what his ideal was, although it is only natural that a genius such as his refused in practice to be bound very strictly by his own theories. In the Tatler for 28th September 1710 he commented severely upon the defects of contemporary prose—the mutilation of words and syllables, the introduction of what we should now call slang, and the sacrifice of dignity, taste, and orderly arrangement to caprice, affectation, and ever-changing fashion. He elaborated this more fully in his Letter to the Lord Treasurer (Lord Oxford) of the following year, in which he urged the minister to use his influence to check the vulgarising of our language, by founding an academy which should be empowered to regulate and fix the language, and preserve it against the changing whims of fashion. The project was a strange one, and it may be doubted whether there is not something of irony in Swift’s advocacy of it; but his hatred of the absurd straining after originality, which succeeded only in attaining to an affected oddity and eccentricity, was not only serious and earnest, but was of a piece with the whole body of Swift’s thought and taste. In both these pieces he points to the prose of the Elizabethan age as the most perfect type. Its distinctive mark he asserts to have been its simplicity—“The best and truest ornament of most things in human life,” or, as he repeats in the Letter to the Young Clergyman, “That simplicity without which no human performance can arrive to any great perfection.” As instances of this perfection he adduces Parsons the Jesuit and Hooker, and he contrasts them with the over-elaboration which was distinctive of the following age. Repeatedly he urges this as the first and most essential quality in good prose, and he found the excellence of the prose writers of the reign of Charles I. to be due to their having recovered for a few years some of the simplicity which marked the Elizabethan age. Clarendon was warmly admired by Swift, and was in great measure his model in his chief historical work, the Memoirs of the Last Four Years of the Queen, and he tells with approval of Lord Falkland’s practice of testing the intelligibility of a word by consulting a servant, and being guided “by her judgment whether to receive or reject it.” There is another passage—this time from Mrs. Pilkington’s Memoirs—which helps us to understand Swift’s conception of good prose. “I would have every man write his own English,” said the Dean to Mrs. Pilkington; and when she assented, he followed up his dictum by asking her to explain it. “Not to confine one’s self to a set of phrases, as some of our ancient English historians, Camden in particular, seems to have done, but to make use of such words as naturally occur on the subject.” It was thus that Mrs. Pilkington represents herself to have replied. Swift seems to have approved the interpretation, and we may reasonably guess that he had given Mrs. Pilkington some help towards it.  2
  These indications of the Dean’s opinions are not without interest; but he was the last man to be bound by rules, even of his own making. He inveighs against grammatical errors and looseness of construction, but there is scarcely a page of his own writings in which some trifling infringement of grammatical accuracy is not to be found. Of all prose styles his is perhaps the least subject to parody or to imitation, because it is so admirably adapted to each variety in subject, in tone, in treatment. He wields it with the elastic power of the consummate master, so that, once expressed, each thought seems to be fitted with its natural dress, and no variation in the expression is conceivable without the obscuring and even the destruction of the thought. To the genuine lover of Swift the Tale of a Tub will probably always be the chief treasure in his works; and it is there that his style is seen at its perfection. The mere story in the book is of the flimsiest description, and the fact that the story is an allegory rather weakens than increases its interest. Its genius lies in the range of thought, in the light play of fancy, in the absolute ease with which he passes, in one undeviating mood of contemptuous sarcasm, through every varying phase of human interest—metaphysical and social, literary and historical, ecclesiastical and political, with no sign of effort, and yet without relaxing for one moment the restrained irony which dominates the reader with a sense of reserved power.  3
  This is the quality of Swift’s prose in which his genius shows its mastery. That genius had, of course, other elements; but merely as a writer of prose, Swift’s highest excellence is his consummate ease, his absolute concealment of the art and the artist, and the perfect subordination of his instruments to his subject. It is a necessary consequence of this that his style should have variety; but although it is easy to trace the deliberate effort to assume a certain dialect with a view to dramatic effect, yet Swift never allows his reader to be impressed with the fact that the dialect is purposely assumed. Thus in the Drapier Letters there is a distinct homeliness of tone, but he is always careful to avoid any exaggeration; and he never openly imitates a jargon or reproduces peculiarities throughout a prose piece as he frequently does in his verse. Master of prose as he was, he yet denied himself any but what he deemed legitimate methods, and even in Gulliver’s Travels, his imitations of nautical jargon are never carried on for more than a few lines, and even then they are introduced not so much for the purpose of caricature as to heighten the effect of reality in the narrative.  4
  Of all English prose Swift’s has the most of flexibility, the most of nervous and of sinewy force; it is the most perfect as an instrument, and the most deadly in its unerring accuracy of aim. It often disdains grammatical correctness, and violates not infrequently the rules of construction and arrangement. But it is significant that Swift attained the perfection of his art, not by deliberately setting aside the proprieties of diction, but by setting before himself consistently the first and highest ideal of simplicity, by disdaining eccentricity and paradox and the caprice of fashion, and that although he wrote “his own English,” as no other did before or since, he was inspired from first to last by a deep reverence for the language, and an ardent desire to maintain its dignity and its purity unchanged and unimpaired.  5
 
 
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