THE ECHOIC POETRY OF JONATHAN SWIFT:
STUDIES IN ITS MEANING
JOHN IRWIN FISCHER
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO TIIE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DECREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Even today there probably are more students of literature
who know that apocryphal story according to which Dryden is sup-
posed once to have told his young relative, "Cousin Swift, you will
never be a poet,"l than there are students who can correctly quote
one line of Swift's poetry. But this almost traditional neglect of
Swift's poetry is giving way to a new interest and even as I write
this preface there are other students in other places and in
increasing numbers who are reading, and writing about Swift's verse.
Happily, this dissertation is only a small part of a much larger
re-examination of Swift's poetry which, begun in the early 1950's,
has each year since then precipitated more--and more careful--essays
that examine the force and value of Swift's poetry. Therefore,
although I increasingly feel my own inadequacy as an explicator
of Swift's poetry, I also grow increasingly sure that the attempt
itself no longer requires any special justification.
Of the kinds of essays on Swift's verse which have been
recently written, the most valuable, it has seemed to me, have
been those which have been confined to the explication of particular
poems. Of course, we will ultimately need to make general state-
ments about Swift's poetic achievement and to place his work in
some just context. But many students must walk before one student
can run, and general statements on the nature of Swift's verse,
when such statements come to be made, will necessarily depend upon
a backlog of poems understood. In the meantime, careful and thought-
ful essays, such as Peter Ohlin's examination of Cadenus and Vanessa2
or Marshall Waingrow's subtle reading of Verses on the Death of Dr.
Swift, D.S.P.D.3 have done more both to illuminate the actual nature
of Swift's poetry and to dispel the charges of misanthropy and ob-
scenity which have darkened our view of that poetry than have those
more general overviews of Swift's poetry which have recently appeared.
Feeling this way, I have, of course, written the four chap-
ters of this dissertation as individual examinations of four particular
poems. Each chapter is written to stand by itself and, indeed, the
four poems considered in these chapters have been chosen specifically
to illustrate the variousness of Swift's poetic achievement. But,
though these four poems, written at three distinct periods in Swift's
life and on four quite different subjects, were chosen for their
variety of manner and matter, they somehow are all tenaciously
characteristic of Swift, and share some things unmistakably in com-
mon. Therefore, although there are enough unhappy examples to
make one very aware of the danger in freely generalizing about
Swift's verse, I offer the following very brief and very broad
remarks about his verse, not, certainly, as a positive thesis, but
only as tentative landmarks in a country not yet very well known.
To observe that Swift was, all of his life, an omnivorous
reader is to begin with what is well enough known.4 What is not
nearly as well known, however, is how much of what Swift read he
re-directed back into his own verse. For, although too many of
Swift's readers have apparently agreed with Samuel Johnson's opinion
that, "the peruser of Swift wants little previous knowledge; it
will be sufficient that he is acquainted with common words and common
things,"5 Dr. Johnson was never more wrong in his life.
Often enough, however, the almost traditional failure to
see how much borrowed material Swift has re-incorporated into his
own poetry is more than understandable, for Swift was frequently
coy about this technique. There are many borrowed lines in Swift's
verse which are so skillfully fitted to their new text that only a
very strong memory or a lucky hit is likely to detect them. Thus,
for example, it is not at all surprising that for years it went
unnoticed that Swift's proclamation of his own originality in Verses
on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.,--
To steal a Hint was never known,
But what he writ was all his own,--
was itself a stolen and slightly altered version of Denham's elegiac
praise of Cowley:6
To him no author was unknown,
But what he writ was all his own.
Knowing that these lines are borrowed must make a very great difference
in the way we understand them. Appearing at first to be only a piece
of pointless boasting, these lines prove, once their source is known,
to be a subtle comment on the nature of originality by being themselves
an illustration of the paradox that Denham describes. Here, then,
as so often in Swift's poems, meaning resides precisely in the con-
flation of two or more texts: Swift's new one and the borrowed
materials which inform it.
No technique, I think, is either more common or more crucial
to Swift's poetry than is this penchant of his to pour old wine into
new bottles. For Swift did not confine this technique to simply
borrowing whole lines and placing them within his poems. Rather,
Swift could, as we shall see, borrow only a few scattered words
from Milton's Paradise Lost and yet make them suggest, in his Ode
to Sancroft, the relevance of Milton's theodicy to his own ode.
Or, on the other hand, Swift could borrow the entire form of the
seventeenth century meditation mortis and then build his own Verses
on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. within that form. But in
either case what we ultimately see is Swift forming through allusion,
imitation and direct quotation, the very meaning of his poetry from
the contrast between the materials he borrows and the uses he makes
of it. Finally, that is, Swift's poetic genius--the peculiar
originality he imparted to his poetry--was best defined by Swift
himself when he, ingeniously re-working Denham's lines, made them
"all his own."
Given, then, the subtlety of Swift's borrowing, it is un-
fortunate that there has been a tendency on the part of Swift's
critics to huddle all the instances of Swift's borrowings that they
have noticed under the simplistic title of parody. For to label
Swift's poetry as parody does not explain it; it is only to assume
that Swift had no better use for any of the materials he re-incor-
porates in his own verse than to make them look silly. The result
of such criticism has been that even when Swift's borrowing has
been detected it has usually been badly misunderstood. Thus, for
example, generations of critics have understood Swift's On Poetry:
A Rapsody as being an attack upon the "cant" of "poetic inspiration."
Or again, Cadenus and Vanessa has been understood--apart from its
biographical interest--as being only another variant of Swift's
lifelong attack on romantic love and on all the silly forms of
verse fools stricken with such love have begotten.
But both these poems, I hope to show, mean more richly than
this. For, just because these poems--like most of Swift's poetry--
are written within earshot of other men's verses and thus reflect
a wide range of human values, they must mean complexly. Indeed,
even when Swift's poetry comes closest to being what Swift's critics
have pretty generally said it is--a kind of anti-poetry7 that
savagely parodies the "softer" or "finer" feelings which are usually
thought of as poetic--even then, I think there is embedded in Swift's
very parody not only Swift's willingness to tell a harsh truth
when it is needed but also his recognition, sometimes almost wist-
ful, that the truth he is telling is harsh. Thus, even when Swift
parodies the material which he borrows, the material continues to
ramify and complicate his meaning. For, ultimately, Swift's parody
only suggests what all the other effects of Swift's collage-like
poetry suggests; that the world with which Swift's poetry grapples
is not a simple one. It is, rather, a world of gain and loss, of
constant and necessary adjustments, a world where quotations must
be measured by other quotations, men by other men, and values by
other values, in order that so much of the truth as men do know
may be evoked.
In the preparation of this dissertation I have been so
fortunate as to contract more debts than my work can repay and
more kindness than I can acknowledge. My fellow students, Mr. J.
Douglas Canfield, Miss Gail H. Compton, Mr. Michael J. Conlon,
Mr. James G. Richardson III and Mr. Lawrence P. Vonalt have all
been both helpful and patient. My seniors, Mr. J. David Walker
and Mr. C. Earl Ramsey have taught me much by precept and more
by example. Mr. Robert H. Bowers and Mr. Ashby E. Hammond have
graciously served on my doctoral committee.
Mr. Aubrey L. Williams has guided this dissertation and
saved it from as many blunders as he could. He is the best teacher
I know, the best I have ever heard of.
Judith always thought I was right. She has been -my worse
critic, and this dissertation is dedicated to her.
All quotations of Swift's poetry in my text are to The Poems of
Jonathan Swift, ed. Sir Harold Williams, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1953).
1. There is simply no evidence that this line was ever spoken.
Therefore, Swift's most recent biographer, Irvin Ehrenpreis,
lists it as one of a "long train of legendary Swiftiana."
Swift: the man, his works, and the age, 2 vols. (Cambridua,
2. 'Cadenus and Vanessa:' Reason and Passion," SEL, IV (13954
3. "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," SEL, V (1965), 513-518.
4. See, for example, Swift's reading list of 1697-98 in Jonartha
Swift: A Tale of a Tub, ed. A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol
Smith (Oxford, 1958), pp. Ivi-lvii.
5. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. George
Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1905), III, 52.
6. First noticed by Hill in the edition of Johnson cited above,
III, 66, n. 3.
7. See E. San Juan, Jr., "The Anti-Poetry of Jonachan Swift,"
PQ, XLIV (1965), 387-396.
Ode to Dr. William Sancroft
Cadenus and Vanessa
On Poetry: A Rapsodv
Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.
Ode to Dr. William Sancroft
In 1689 Jonathan Swift, then twenty-one, began to compose
that series of poems, usually called the "early odes," which are zhe
first of his known literary productions. The style of these odes
has usually been condemned and, indeed, their cram.ed and som~ciaeo
cryptic manner does often obscure their sense. But cramped and cryp-
tic though these early odes are, they have, I think, a wider scope
and demonstrate a deeper understanding than has so far been recogrzzec.
They are the poems of a very young man, it is true, but a young man
who had been cultivating, as Swift later recorded, his instincts for
literature by vigorous reading.2
Early onward in Swift's youthful and apparently highly varie-
gated course of reading he came to admire the poetry of Abraham Cowley3
and, as Swift matured into his twenties and composed his "early odes,"
Cowley remained his dominant model. So great, in fact, was Swift's
youthful admiration for Cowley that, in a letter written to Thomas
Swift in 1692, Jonathan, rather ingenuously, commented that though he
could not easily please himself, yet "when I write what pleases me I
am Cowley to myself and can read it an hundred times over."
Whether or not the young Swift was often quite so pleased with
his performances one cannot say, but modern critical estimates of the
poems have certainly been far from enthusiastic. Even Irvin Ehrenpreis,
whose study of the odes is both the most thorough and sympathetic so
far undertaken, nevertheless slights them with conscious generosity.
"Since," Ehrenpreis comments, Swift's
. themes and values are blamelessly conventional,
he is, in his search for freshness of effect, flung
upon ingenious hyperbole; and since his language is
too weak for the extravagance of his feelings, the
outcome is bathos.5
Many another critic has rendered the same judgment in cerms which are
both less graceful and less precise, and most, I suppose, would agree
with Ehrenpreis' final judgment that Swift, already in his middle
twenties, was rather too old to attribute to mere mortals "such in-
candescent perfections as Swift lent to his subjects 6 But, although
Swift's apparently over-inflated celebrations of his subject's virtue
have irritated almost every reader of his early odes, these celebrations
are, I believe, the most significant element of those odes. To under-
stand these celebrations, however, we will have to briefly examine
first a characteristic of Pindar's odes, and then the development of
that characteristic in the pindarique odes of Swift's model, Abraham
Pindar's odes, written in celebration of specific victors in
the Greek games, portray two related but partly opposed views of the
human situation. On the one hand the odes were composed to celebrate
a victor at the height of his success, at a moment when he is a
type--indeed, seems almost the equal of--the gods and heroes for whose
honor the Greek games existed. Cowley's translation of the first four
lines of Pindar's Second Olympiad makes Pindar's celebration of the
god-like potentialities of man perfectly clear.
Queen of all Harmonious things,
Dancing Words, and Speaking Strings,
What God, what Hero wilt thou sing?
What happy Man to equal glories bring?
On the other hand, just at this most triumphant moment Pindar's typi-
cal subject faces his greatest danger, and so Pindar must warn his
subject against the deadly sin of pride. That is why, in Pindar's odes,
"however great men's golden triumphs may seem, thoughts of the gods'
dazzling eminence intervene to put them in their place."7
Of this second aspect of Pindar, Cowley himself, apparently,
was not always quite conscious. Thus when Pindar, in the Second
Olympiad, warns its subject, Theron, against pride by reminding him
of the fate of his great ancestor, Oedipus, Cowley, in the notes which
he supplied to his translation, somewhat obtusely comments:
One may ask, why he [Pindar] makes mention of these
tragical accidents and action of Oedipus and his Sons
in an Ode dedicated to the praise of Theron and his
ancestors? I answer, that they were so notorious that
it was better to excuse than conceal them....8
But, if Cowley occasionally missed the point of Pindar's
warnings he did not entirely miss seeing Pindar the moralist. Thus,
when Pindar admonishes at the end of the Eighth Pythian,
We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not?
the shadow of a dream
is man, no more,
Cowley both hears and repeats, in a poem of his own, Pindar's warning
What's Some Body, or No Body?
Dream of a Shadow! A Reflection made
From the false glories of the gay reflected Bow,
Is a more solid thing than Thou.
(Life and Fame, 3,6,7,8)
Andbecause Cowley did respond, to a degree, to both aspects of
Pindar, and because, as a Christian, Cowley had at least as pro-
found a sense as Pindar himself both that man was formed in the
image of God and yet that man was capable of falling away from
God, he was able, in the last of his pindarique odes, to work an
interesting and impressive variation on Pindar. What he did was
to versify, in the form of the pindarique ode, sections from the
Old Testament which emphasize both the potential glory and the
present ruin of mankind.
Is this thy Brav'ry Man, is this thy Pride
Rebel to God, and slave to all beside!
Captive'd by everything! and only Free
To fly from thine own Liberty!
All Creatures the Creator said Were Thine:
No Creature but might since, say, Man is Mine.
(The Plagues of Egypt, 1-6)
This contrast between man's present ruin and his possible glory
was hardly a new poetic theme when Cowley employed it, of course.
Cowley's contribution was simply that he recognized the theme
as the natural link between Pindar's odes and the interests of
his own age, thus teaching many, Swift among them, the use of a
genre new to them.
Swift's odes all, following Cowley's, are made to focus on
the contrast between man's potential glory, emblemized by the
heroes of Swift's odes, and man's usual degradation. Therefore,
while it is no doubt true that none of Swift's subjects was really
so heroic as the models Swift constructed, one might as easily
make that charge against Pindar as against Swift--and it would
be equally meaningless in both cases. Rather than make such charges
we ought, I think, examine these odes for what they are, since
in them the young Swift portrays his models of what man ought be.
For this purpose Swift's Ode to Dr. William Sancroft serves
better, for two reasons, than any of the other odes. First, it
alone among the odes seems to have been in a state of composition
and revision from 1689 to 1693, that is, during the entire time
Swift was busying himself about these odes. Second, perhaps
because this ode apparently cost him more trouble than any of the
others, the theological assumptions from which Swift constructed
all his models of perfection and all his pictures of ruin are
closer to the surface in the Ode to Sancroft than in any other of
the six early odes.
A few years ago Joseph Horrell commented, in his edition
of Swift's poems, that the entire theme of the Ode to Sancroft "is
truth," and thus Horrell joined that small group of critics who have
hazarded, in print, a guess at the ode's meaning which was not
intended to bludgeon Swift with his own ode.9 True, the remark
seems rather oracular, coming as it does with no further explication
or justification, but it is, nevertheless, among the first which
indicate that the ode may be something more than a badly over-
inflated praise of Sancroft.
Irvin Ehrenpreis, despite his evident annoyance with much
of the poem, carried analysis of it a step further by observing
that the poem's nominal subject, Sancroft, is meant by Swift to
emblemize "Truth."10 But Ehrenpreis feels that the Sancroft of
the poem, laboring as the earthly, "image of eternal truth," often
sunk under that unnatural load. Consequently he did not pursue
further the grounds which the poem might provide for the connection
of Sancroft and "Truth." Nor are the grounds of this connection
explored in either of the only two other recent considerations of
Both of these remaining considerations, however, make inter-
esting, although perhaps too constricted, observations on the poem.
Ronald Paulson examined the ode in an essay which analyzed Swift's
position in a classic debate: the relationship of spirit to matter.
His intent is to demonstrate that Swift was, at heart, a dualist,
that Swift felt that everything of true worth was "other-worldly,"
hence divorced from this world of matter and change. The Ode to
Sancroft, Paulson argues, helps confirm this thesis, since in that
ode we actually see the "good" becoming "other-worldly."
. .Sancroft puts down the symbols of worldly
power rather than compromise his ideals; and in
Sancroft, who is compared to a star and to Christ,
the "Good" has become other-worldly.11
There is much in the poem which seemingly recommends Paulson's
position. For example, Swift describes this world first as ". .this
inferior world. .but heaven's dusky shade"(21), and later, even
more forcefully as "that worthless clod"(64). Further, whether
one agrees with Paulson's particular position or not, his considera-
tion of this poem in an essay devoted to the problem of matter and
spirit in Swift's work points out a dimension of the ode which had
not been noted in previous discussions.
It may be felt, however, that Paulson's own position is too
daring: to suggest that Swift, even at age twenty-six, is a dualist,
is perhaps to take too lightly Swift's later comment respecting a
philosopher who, because he stared too constantly at the scars, "found
himself seduced by his lower Parts into a Ditch."2 Further, there is
much in the ode itself which suggests that Paulson's emphasis, at
least, is in error. The truth which, after all, Swift bluntly states
is available and appropriate to man is "That Heaven's high Son was in
a village born" (172), fully God and fully man, the spirit incarnated
in the flesh.
Kathleen Williams' comments on the Ode to Sancroft are closer
than any other criticism I have seen to my own view of the poem. She
argues cnat, in Swift's view, the foolishness and knavery of which men
are guilty, and which serve to make a world of "giddy circumstances,"
all derive from man's desire to be that which he is not. A creature
of but feeble understanding and feebler will, man insists on spinning
out the guts of his own authority presumptuously rigid systems:
this poor creature, man, would, if he could, make himself the measure
of all truth. That such presumption is one of the dominant themes of
the Ode to Sancroft, Swift himself makes perfectly clear:
Thus fools, for being strong and numerous known,
Suppose the truth, like all the world, their own.
But the way in which Kathleen Williams applies this theme to the
Ode to Sancroft is, perhaps, open to objection:
Even in the early odes, where the old-fashioned form
and the "sublime" style imply a more ambitious attempt
to organize experience in the shape of eternal truth
than is to be found elsewhere, Swift's real theme is the
impossibility of succeeding in such an attempt, ...in
the Ode to Sancroft the bishop's "secret regular sphere"
is misunderstood and appears of irregular motion to the
"strong and numerous' fools, and its effect lon us, the
poem's readers] is secondary to that made by such phrases
as "our weak knowledge," "opinion dark and blind," "con-
tradiction's vortex," "crazy composition," and the recur-
ring "giddy" and "giddily." In this poem Swift makes
overt use of religion comparisons, and his sense of man's
intellectual, moral, and spiritual confusion is most
As there was much in the ode which supported Paulson's vis
of it, so there is much which justifies Kathleen Wil-ia-ms' co.:va-
tions. But, as Paulson's argument that, in Swift's view, tha "Goc:"
is ultimately "other-worldly" seemed shaky when posed against Swif.'s
insistence "Tha. Heaven's high Son was in a village born" (172), so
Williams' view that the ode's real theme is the impossibility of
orga izing experience in the shape of eternal truth seems to falter
at the same point. For, as we have noted, Swift insists that man
misses the way to truth not because truth is.completely unavailable
to him nor because man is altogether too weak for it, but because
man is perverse. Both Williams and Paulson, then, have isolated
real themes in the poem; it is concerned with both man's struggle
with mind and body and with man's tendency to over-reach and thus
weaken himself. But both these critics have pushed these themes to
the exclusion of everything else in the poem--and thus pushed the
poem into a dualism which, I hope to demonstrate, Swift was
To recapitulate: the poem's most recent critics have estab-
lished firmly at least some of the terms in which it must be discussed.
They have isolated, as its central theme, man's struggle to achieve
some vision of the truth. But they have also, perhaps, shown the
poem to be more complex than they themselves realized. Swift's view
of man's relation to eternal truth was, I think, more sophisticated
than their views of the poem. That is likely, of course, to be the
fate of any reading of so complex a poem, but perhaps we can proceed
more prudently, at least, by anchoring our discussion of the poem in
the question, what was there in Sancroft's life and circumstances which
called forth this poem from Swift?
William Sancroft was born on January 30, 1616-1617, the second
son of Francis Sandcroft (William dropped the "d" from the name).14
He attended grammar school at Bury St. Edmunds where, on the evidence
of his own manuscripts dating from that time, he demonstrated an early
aptitude for learning. He went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in
1633, received his B.A. in 1637, his M.A. in 1641 and his B.D. in 1648.
He retained a fellowship there until 1651 and then, in 1657, went
abroad where he remained until the restoration. On his return he
received, in rapid succession, the Mastership of Emmanuel College, the
Deanery of York and the Deanery of St. Paul's. The latter post he
retained until 1678, during which time he was instrumental in the re-
building of St. Paul's Cathedral.
In 1678 he was elevated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury
where he, whose life had been both quiet and fruitful, was to have
but little of either peace of joy in his eminence. His attempt to
avoid a direct confrontation with James II over James' interference
with ecclesiastical policy was shattered in 1688 when he, along with
six other bishops, refused to order his clergy to read James'
Declaration of Liberty of Conscience. In a petition to the king,
Sancroft defended his refusal as arising not from "any want of tender-
ness to dissenters," but from his own conviction that James' Declaration,
being founded on nothing more than James' assumed kingly prerogative to
govern as he wished, usurped such power as might "at pleasure put aside
all laws ecclesiastical and civil." Therefore, Sancroft concluded,
the Declaration "appeared to be illegal."
The seven bishops were placed in the tower in May of that year
and brought to trial at the end of June. Their defense was conducted
along the lines of the petition, and it was successful. But despite
the general jubilation in London at the freeing of the seven, the die
for Sancroft himself was cast. For, if he was unwilling to grant the
king "such dispensing power as may at pleasure put aside all laws ec-
clesiastical and civil," he was yet less willing to grant it to the con-
vention which, in 1689, bestowed the throne on William of Orange.
Sancroft did not see how the convention's decision released him, who
had himself annointed James II, from his oath of loyalty to that king.
Consequently, in February 1690-1691, Sancroft was deprived of his
position, and, because he chose to bring it to that point, was ejected
by law in late June from Lambeth Castle. The remaining two years of
his life were spent in seclusion but not in quiet, for he dedicated
himself to securing the succession of what he considered to be England's
true church, a church comprised of men who, like himself, did not
swear their allegiance to William III. He was, of course, almost as
universally despised for this activity as he had been praised for his
stand against James, and he was generally regarded as a turncoat.
This sketch, brief as it is, serves to point out how very
little of Sancroft's actual life and character Swift chose to include
in his ode. Indeed, even the very circumstances of Sancroft's depriva-
tion, which are the occasion of the ode, are referred to only obl) cely.
Irvin Ehrenpreis has objected to the ode on the grounds zhac Swif
was unreasonably attempting to praise Sancroft, who refused co ackr.ow-
edge William III, while simultaneously praising William III. But, chit
is an objection which Ehrenpreis has had to bring from outside the
poem, for there is nothing in the poem which implies that the two men
were at odds. Swift has stripped Sancroft's deprivation of all the
historical circumstances reviewed above in order that what Swift iflt
to be its real significance might appear more clearly. For us u ... dr-
stand that significance, however, we shall have to examine a crucial
part of the circumstances of Sancroft's conduct more carefully.
The revolutionary settlement of 1689, to which Sancroft was
asked to put his hand, in effect rendered the doctrine of the divine
hereditary right of kings a dead letter as English political theory.15
Of course, the divine right of kings to reign, if it really exists,
cannot be circumvented--it rests upon a principle which Swift himself
stated years later in his sermon, Doing Good, "It is apparent from
Scripture, and most agreeable to reason, that the safety and welfare
of nations are under the most peculiar care of God's providence."16
Since, that is, there is either such a thing as God's providence, or
there is not, and if there is, and if William is king, it must follow
that he is king through God's will, no matter by what means. This,
since he held that William was king, and that providence was operative,
was presumably Swift's own view. It may well have been Sancroft's
view too; at least, Sancroft did nothing to actually oppose William.
But that did not mean that Sancroft would second the action of a con-
vention which had claimed--first by voting the English throne vacant,
and then voting to fill it--that the power to make and unmake kings
did not operate through them, but originated with them. To Sancroft,
setting his hand to this work of the convention was striking at the
very life of the church. For, from his point of view, the convention,
in seeking to limit the authority of the king, had actually presumed
to eliminate the authority of God from the civil acts of man.
In the Ode to Sancroft, Swift traces, in a multitude of in-
stances, such foolish, prideful, dangerous and yet ludicrously piti-
able attempts of man to reach truth after having removed himself from
the eye and will of God. In each of these instances Swift illumi-
nates the contradictory and impossible nature of such an attempt.
Sancroft, for having resisted such attempts in a crucial instance,
for his insistence that a just and true government cannot be achieved
by attempting to reject the source of all truth, is the ode's image of
the truth which men may know.
When its connectionswith the rest of the poem are understood,
and its allusions outside of the poem are clarified, the first stanza
of the Ode to Sancroft is seen to reflect in small the entire meaning
of the poem. But the stanza is best examined in stages, and initially
it appears to suggest that neither truth nor any other heavenly virtue
can penetrate the darkness of sublunary climes, to suggest, that is,
the position which Sancroft himself had found untenable--that a com-
plete separation exists between things heavenly and things mundane.
The very structure of the stanza seems to reflect this kind
of dualism. The first six lines of the stanza salute "Truth" in a
glorious heaven; lines seven and eight contrast truth's fixity with the
"giddy circumstances" of "time" and "place"; the final seven lines
darkly image this world and man's estate. By the interposition, then,
of time and place, the realms of heaven and earth are apparently
rendered entirely separate. Further, the two dominant image patterns
of the stanza, light versus dark and fixity versus motion,seem to af-
firm this separation between heaven and earth. The description of
heaven is filled with an imagery of light (bright effluence, chief
lamp, light seest),while in the lines devoted to this world we meet
only darkness (dark disputes, weak arguments and doubt). Similarly,
while heaven is described in the first stanza as constant and fixed,
the world of men which Swift pictures is rocked by random and destruc-
tive motion. Thus man, simply by being born a sublunary creature,
subject to night, time, place and motion seems (though only seems, I
think) condemned, in this first stanza, to a life of constant disorder.
Apparently, it was just such an initial bleakly hopeless view of man's
condition as pictured in this ode that lead Paulson and Williams to
develop their particular readings of it.
Ultimately, however, I think we shall see that the separation
of heaven and earth which seems so striking in this stanza is not
nearly as absolute as it first appears. For while Swift does, in
this stanza portray man as a profoundly limited creature, nevertheless,
the evils which Swift describes as attendant on the human condition
do not seem to derive directly from either man's limitations or from
his sublunary status. Rather, the nature of these evils (dark disputes,
dagger contests, and battles) seemsto type them as being evils of
man's own making. Thus, even as Swift powerfully depicts the wide
disparity between heaven and earth, he suggests that this disparity
is caused not by man's sublunary estate, but rather by his response
to that estate.
It is precisely from man's response to his sublunary environ-
ment, from the cosmologies man has developed to understand and ex-
plain that environment, that Swift draws much of the imagery he uses
to describe man's usual befuddlement. Characteristically, in this ode,
human error is imaged as random and eccentric motion. Men expand their
minds through infinity of space in stanza four; grow in rank profusion
and disorder in stanza-five; run pell mell into heresy in stanza eight.
And this confused motion is reminiscent, Swift notes in the fourth
stanza, of the completely inaccurate but wildly complicated startracks
of such astronomers as Ptolemy and his disciples "who"
. .like hard masters, taught the sun
Through many a needless sphere to run.
Cosmological confusion, that is, and particularly, as we shall see,
the giddy eccentricities of the Ptolemaic and Cartesian systems,
becomes, in this ode, a "type" of all human error. And what Swift's
imagistic equation of human error with confused cosmologies suggests
is that the giddy circumstances of time and place which, in the first
stanza, seem to separate man from heaven and truth and to foredoom
him to constant error are themselves the product of human error. Put
as simply as possible, I think we shall see that in this ode it is
man himself who is responsible for his own benighted and giddy cir-
Let us take, for example, Swift's poetic explanation for the
animosity with which most men regarded Sancroft's actions. It will
be remembered that Sancroft was generally regarded in his own age as
a turncoat, one who, having staunchly defied James II, incongruously
refused to support William III. In our examination Sancroft's reasons
for acting as he did seemed to be consistent, but, Swift explains, to
most of his contemporaries,
. .Holy Sancroft's motion quite irregular appears
because 'tis opposite to theirs.
This (apparently obscure) explanation of the reason Sancroz't
contemporaries mistakenly ought his course "irregular" follows im-
mediately after Swift's discussion of the Ptolemaic system; and it
depends upon that discussion. As we have seen above, Swift knew that
the Ptolemaic system both inaccurately described the actual course of
heavenly bodies and was enormously, needlessly complicated. Of
course, both the inaccuracies of the Ptolemaic system and its endless
complications are caused by one, single, fundamental error. "Led on"
as Swift puts it, "by gross philosophy and pride"; Ptolemy, and those
who followed him, assumed that the earth--their observatory--was still.
From this proud error--the assumption that the earth was still while
all else moved--springsall the "unthrifty motion" and "incoherent
journeys" of the system.17
Among the other needless complexities of this system is the
elaborate mathematical schema Ptolemy and his successors devised in
order to account for the apparently irregular motion of the stars.
Of course, this apparent irregularity of starpath (technically called
retrograde and as observable today as it was to Ptolemy) results
simply from watching one moving body from another moving body. But
if, like Ptolemy, one assumes one's own position to be a still point,
one will assume the observed irregularity of starpaths to be a pheno-
menon of the stars themselves. The point of Swift's lines on
Sancroft's critics then is that those critics, like Ptolemy, er-
roneously assume their position to be stable and therefore wrongly
attribute an irregularity to Sancroft's actions. Like Ptolemy,
Sancroft's critics fall into giddy errors not because the phenomenon
they are observing is either giddy or incomprehensible, but because
they are proud and unstable.
Successful as the lines discussed above are in illustrating
man's propensity to stumble over his own pride into giddy circum-
stances, nevertheless, to most of Swift's contemporaries the system
which ideally illustrated that propensity was not the Ptolemaic but
rather the Cartesian system.18 And it is to Descartes' vortex cos-
mology that Swift refers in the following lines.
And some, to be large ciphers in a state,
Pleas'd with an empty swelling to be counted great;
Make their minds travel o'er infinity of space,
Rapp'd through the wide expanse of thought
And oft in contradiction's vortex caught,
To keep that worthless clod, the body, in one place.
These lines make, I think, an observation about the results of
human pride which is of considerable importance to Swift's entire
ode, but the lines are also, unfortunately, more than a little
cryptic. To understand what Swift is saying here we will have to
briefly glance both at Descartes' cosmology and at the criticism
leveled at that cosmology by Descartes' critics.1
The primary characteristics of the universe postulated in
Descartes' cosmology are three: first, the universe is a plenum,
it is absolutely full of matter; second, the universe is infinite;
third, the universe is arranged in a series of circular corpuscular
streams, called vortices.20 The mathematical basis on which Descartes
raised this system is, to say the least, extremely rickety. But it
was not for the flaws of its mathematical foundations that Descartes'
system became an anathema to many in the seventeenth century; rather,
the system was reviled for its theological implications. As was
recognized by men like the very famous Cambridge platonist, Henry/
More (whose objections to Descartes' system were almost certainly
known to Swift), to postulate a universe which was absolutely matter,
absolutely full, and absolutely infinite was to effectively banish
God from the universe for simple lack of room. As one of Henry More's
contemporaries commented, Descartes, in this system, has outdone "even
the very Atheists themselves"; for while Descartes does not deny
God's existence, he reasons Him both homeless and irrelevant. Descartes'
system, that is, portrays cosmologically that separation of man's es-
tate from God's influence which, from Sancroft's point of view, the
convention that deposed James II attempted to make a political reality.
That the effect of such presumptuous politics is to turn states and
statesmanship into something very like the whirling, Godless, Cartesian
cosmos is, I think, the point of Swift's description of such politicians
as would be "large ciphers in a state," in terms of the Cartesian
It should by now be rather obvious that those giddy circum-
stances which Swift portrays in the first stanza and throughout the
poem as darkening the human estate are not the necessary effects of
man's sublunary condition, but are, rather, the results of man's pre-
sumption. In fact, so far is the universe which Swift himself postu-
lates in this poem from being the giddy, dark and Godless cosmos
Descartes' describes, that Swift's universe resembles instead that
universe which Henry More proposed in opposition to Descartes' system.
In More's cosmology, the most important fact of the physical universe
is that God "is omnipresent and occupies intimately the whole machine. .
as well as its singular particles."23 And that God is actively present
(though hidden) in His universe is exactly the point which Swift him-
self suggests through the two biblical echoes which, as we shall see,
he has incorporated in the first four lines of the Ode to Sancroft.
Truth is eternal, and the Son of Heav'n,
Bright effluence of th' immortal ray,
Chief cherub, and chief lamp of that high sacred Seven,
Which guard the throne by night, and are its light by day.
The third line of the ode describes truth as the "Chief
cherub, and chief lamp of that high sacred Seven" which surround the
throne of God. The phrase "chief lamp of that high sacred seven"
may very well refer to a historical event we have already mentioned.
Sancroft, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the leading prelate
among the seven brought to trial by James II. But the origin of the
image itself is, probably, the Book of Zechariah.
The whole of the vision which is the fourth chapter of
Zechariah is of relevance to this ode. It was composed in post-exilic
Jerusalem when the Jews, returned from Babylonia and under King
Zerubbabel, were reconstructing the Temple. The reconstruction, and
all else, went slowly, and the vision of Zechariah is calculated to
encourage a flagging people by assuring them that God is intimately
concerned in the work undertaken.
The vision begins by Zechariah being waked by an angel, "as
a man that is wakened out of his sleep," and being shown
.. a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the
top of it, and seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to
the seven lamps, which are upon the top thereof . .
Upon his inquiring after the meaning of all this, Zechariah is told,
This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not
by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD.
Few chapters from Scripture might better refute the work of
the 1689 convention, which seemed to exclude God from the civil acts
of men, than this from Zechariah. For it not only states that kings
are kings by the will of God, its whole import is that God is always
present and actively concerned in the affairs of men. Indeed, God's
active involvement with mankind is stressed most emphatically in this
chapter at that point when Zechariah, inquiring about the significance
of those seven lamps which are the source of Swift's image, is told
that those lamps are "the eyes of the LORD, which run to and fro
through the whole earth."
The third line of the ode, then, is quite complex. It occurs
in a stanza which describes that separation of heaven and earth which
men, in their presumption, apparently create. But the line affirms,
both through its echo of Zechariah and,perhaps, in its reference to
Sancroft's successful trial, that not by might, nor by power, but by
God's spirit turn the affairs of men. Nor have we done with the line
yet, for it reads in full, "Chief cherub, and chief lamp of that high
sacred Seven." The vision of Zechariah does not, in fact, mention
a cherub; but Milton, remembering that vision, describes the Archangel
One of the Seven
Who in God's presence, nearest to his throne
Stand ready at command, and are his eyes
That run through all the Heavens, or down to the Earth
Bear his swift errands over moist and dry
O'er sea and land. . .
(P.L. III, 648-53)
While Milton does not actually mention the seven lamps of Zechariah's
vision and therefore could not have been the only source for Swift's
third line, from Milton's imaginative yoking of Uriel with Zechariah's
vision comes, probably, Swift's "chief cherub." Swift, then, draws
in this single line on both the Book of Zechariah and on Milton's
theodicy and thereby suggests that there are "ways of God to man."
Indeed, images which suggest that God actively participates
in this world are finally so pervasive in Swift's ode that the world
he describes seems, like More's universe, permeated with God. But,
often, even as these images suggest God's activity in the world,they
also suggest that this divine activity is somehow hidden. One of the
most striking of such images occurs in-the ode's fourth line. In
that line Swift describes the "high sacred Seven" as being those
cherubs who "guard the throne by night and are its light by day."
The echo in this line is no longer, I think, from Zechariah. Rather,
one hears in this line an echo from the Book of Exodus.
And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a
cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of
fire, to give them light; to go by day and night.
If this text is, indeed, what Swift is echoing, then he has touched
on one of the scriptural passages which are central to the Christian
conception of the hidden God, the Deus Absconditus Whom even Moses
could not view face to face, Who, though hidden from men, guides;
but, though guiding, remains forever hidden.
It is this very traditional conception of God, I think, which
permeates Swift's ode and which raises in the ode its most crucial
problem. Christ himself, as Swift implies in the eighth stanza,
though He was God come among men, remained still God hidden:
What could the sages gain but unbelieving scorn;
Their faith was so uncourtly when they said
That Heaven's high Son was in a village born;
That the world's Savior had been
In a vile manger laid,
And foster'd in a wretched inn.
And the idea of God, hidden away in a "vile manger," is hard to
answer with anything but "unbelieving scorn." It is, as Paul observed,
a folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. But to fail
to accept it, as Swift's imagery of space and motion have shown us,
is to pay for deposing God by crowning Whirl.
Swift's Ode to Sancroft, then, is concerned with the most
basic of human questions; what relationship is possible between man
and God, how can man approach a hidden God? This question is made
particularly difficult in this ode by Swift's constant reminders of
how limited, indeed, how untrustworthy, man's faculties really are.
Human reason, as we have already seen by the varieties of cosmolo-
gical confusion it can engender, is subject to all the errors of
pride. Human senses, too, Swift tells us in the second stanza, are
weak and distorting. But if man can trust neither his mind nor his
senses, then it seems that whirl alone is man's inheritance. Only
Sancroft, in his "secret regular sphere," has succeeded in surmount-
ing that inheritance; and Sancroft, in his isolated retreat, seems
both unapproachable and inexplicable.
Of Sancroft's life, as we have already noted, and of the
specific details of his deprivation and conduct, Swift's ode tells
us very little. Further, we are seemingly told almost as little of
his virtues. We are told that Sancroft possesses a mind which is,
. .fix'd to combat fate
With those two powerful swords, Submission and Humility,
and further we know that he is "Free from our tyrant-passions, anger,
scorn and fear" (116). We know that because of his equanimity, his
"firm heavenly mind," Sancroft is unmoved by "Fortune in both
extremes," and that, therefore, Swift finds him worthy of com-
parison to the regular course of a star and, finally, to Christ
But all this seems, while highly laudatory, yet very vague.
For, excepting only King William, of whom Swift tells us still less,
Sancroft is the only godly man presented in this ode--he is its
"brightest pattern." It is he who must be the
guide from Heav'n to show
the way which ev'ry wand'ring fool below
Pretends so perfectly to know.
In his portrait of Sancroft, if anywhere, Swift must depict the
means by which men can find their way to God.
In the two lines which immediately precede those describing
Sancroft's "fix'd mind" Swift begins, I think, to supply the back-
ground which ultimately illuminates the meaning implicit in San-
croft's character. The lines actually form a proposition.
If all that our weak knowledge titles virtue, be
(High Truth) the best resemblance of exalted Thee,
then, Swift continues, Sancroft's conduct--his combat of fate
through submission and humility--makes him
. .the brightest pattern Earth can shew
Of heav'n-born Truth below.
But this is not a proposition which every philosopher nor every
theologian would grant to Swift. Truth, it can properly be argued,
whether sacred or profane, is the concern of the intellective
faculty, while virtue falls within the domain of the will. True,
no reputable thinker has been willing to separate the realms of
intellect and will completely, but not all would willingly see
virtue made the human counter for truth.
Swift, however, in this ode, regularly connects virtue with
truth. Throughout the poem what truth man sees, or fails to see,
seems to depend upon his righteousness; knowledge is equated with
virtue, and ignorance with sin. We have already seen several
instances of this. Ptolemy's cosmology was a false picture of the
universe because, from Swift's point of view, it sprang from pride.
Much the same can be said of Descartes' cosmology.
So pervasive in this poem is Swift's insistence that man's
intellectual efforts must be conjoined with a will attuned to
virtuous actions that every instance which Swift presents of man's
confusion is but another example of man attempting to divorce the
goodness of one faculty from the goodness of the other. Thus
Descartes' cosmology, an attempted work of pure reason, undertaken
in great pride, ends in confusion and contradiction. Thus those
religious reformers who, Swift complains, practice their reforming
"arts" only to promote their own self-aggrandizement, end by kill-
ing the religion they promised to cure.
While this necessary conjunction of knowledge with virtue
is not, as already pointed out, an equally acceptable premise for
all thinkers; it is, to a greater or lesser degree, an earmark of
those thinkers whose thought begins in a heavily Platonistic back-
ground. "All sin is ignorance," Plato has Socrates comment, and
platonically orientated thought has regularly equated ignorance with
sin and truth with virtue. From this equation follows the ethical
concern inherent in all branches of platonic thought. Plotinus, in
a passage so beautiful that not even centuries of quotation have
worn it out, put the matter this way.
If the eye that adventures the vision be dimmed by vice,
impure, or weak, and unable in its cowardly blanching to
see the uttermost brightness, then it sees nothing even
though another point to what lies plain to sight before
it. To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what
is to be seen, and having some likeness to it. Never
did eye see the sun unless it had first become unlike,
and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty
unless itself be beautiful.25
This passage Swift echoes, though it may well be that he learned it
through an intermediate source:
The daz'ling glory dimms their prostituted sight,
No deflower'd eye can face the naked light.
It is presumably then, the import of Plotinus' passage in whatever
version of it that Swift knew, which informs the imagery of light
and dark that is so substantial a part of this poem. That is, in
the Ode to Sancroft man's world is dark to him because he does not
acknowledge that before he can see his eye must be cleared. In the
first lines of the ode, Swift asserts this need for divine illumina-
tion, and does so through Miltonic echo.
One possible echo from Milton's third book of Paradise Lost
has already been discussed above. Another has been noted by Joseph
Horrell, who observed that the second line of Swift's ode, "Bright
effluence of th' immortal ray," is apparently formed from the sixth
line of the invocation to light with which the third book of Para-
dise Lost begins. Milton's line runs, "Bright effluence of bright
essence increase," and Swift not only borrows the image "bright
effluence"--Milton's figure for light--to form one line but employs
the image "bright essence"--as a figure for truth--to form another:
"Since the bright essence fled, where haunts the reverend ghost'.'
(43). Nor is this all. The first line of Swift's ode announces
its subject with three heavily emphasized words, "Truth is Eternal,"
and then connects that subject obliquely to Christ, "and the Son of
Heav'n." The line seems, then, a conscious imitation of the first
line of Milton's invocation, "Hail, holy light, offspring of Heaven
first-born'" These are not all the echoes of the invocation to light
which occur in Swift's ode, but only a sufficient number to show us
that the invocation was in Swift's mind as he composed his ode.
That is, in Swift's mind, as he composed the'Ode to Sancroft,
is Milton's confession of blindness and supplication for that illumi-
nation without which neither Milton nor any man can truly see:
S. celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
(P.L. III, 51-55)
But in Swift's ode, it is not only "inward" sight, sight which sees
"things invisible," that requires an illuminated mind. The very
mechanics of "mortal sight," Swift reminds us, depend upon the eye
being made receptive to that which it would see. The eye must "catch
the living landscape in a scanty light" (30) Swift says, and his line
is reminiscent, I think, of the first half of St. Paul's dictum, "Now
we see as in a glass darkly, then we shall see as face to face,"
while it directly refers (as John Nichols, the poem's first publisher
pointed out) to "the experiment of the dark chamber, to demonstrate
light to be by reception of the object and not by emission." 26What
the experiment to which Nichols alludes demonstrated was that the
eye in seeing does not shoot out shafts of light, but receives them.
Sight, then, as the experiment showed, is the result of both the
activity and passivity of the eye, the task of which is to actively
make itself conformable to the essentially passive role of seeing.
And what Swift, then, might have gathered from the experiment is
that the role of the physical eye is, as Plotinus had intuitively
known, a perfect analogue for the role a man must undertake would
he approach God. As Plotinus puts it at the end of that passage
which Swift echoed:
Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become unlike,
and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty
unless itself be beautiful. Therefore, first let each become
godlike and beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty.
This injunction to man to become godlike if he would see God, is,
I believe, the background for that comparison of Sancroft and Christ
which Irvin Ehrenpreis feels is an impossibly over-inflated praise of
Sancroft. But, rather chan being over-inflated praise, Swift's com-
parison is, I think, quite appropriate. For Swift's thought in this
poem, as we have already observed, often reflects both the cosmolo-
gical and ethical biases of Christian platonists; it is therefore
appropriate that Swift's model for human conduct should be the norma-
tive model of Christian platonism--the godlike man. Recognizing the
kind of model Sancroft is, we are, I think, in a position to suggest
the meaning of the portrait Swift draws.
Plotinus' injunction to man to become godlike must logically
be based on both the fact and the ideal of deiformation; that is,
if man is to become actually godlike he must be originally made in
theimage of God, must be, although only in potential, already
godlike. But, on the other hand, if man must become godlike, ob-
viously an effort of human will is called for. But towards what is
that effort to be directed? Plato, in the Theaetetus may have
supplied the answer:
The truth is that God is never in any way unrighteous-
He is perfect righteousness and he of us who is the most
righteous is most like him.28
This is no mere tautology. It does not say that to become
godlike man must become godlike; rather it says that to become god-
like man must will to participate in godliness. The first step
towards participating in the divine nature is to will to do so, and,
because it is the essence of divinity itself to choose righteousness
and goodness, to choose God is also the last step in imitating him.
A certain learned doctor, one whose conception of the cosmos and of
man begins in the fact and ideal of deiformity, puts a fine point
on all this; he is the famous Cambridge platonist, Henry More.29
This therefore is the supreme Law and Will of God touching
the Purity of his Worship, That we have no will nor end of
our own. For as we are to have but one God, "Hear, O
Israel, the Lord thy God is one God," so we are to have but
one Will, even the Will of the God Whom we worship. Which
we have not, if we have any Self-will or Self-ends un-
subordinate to the Will of God.
Here, finally, we can fully answer Ehreppreis' objection that
Swift's comparison of Sancroft to Christ undermines his praise of
Sancroft. Quite the opposite, the comparison is at the heart of
what the portrait of Sancroft conveys. Because Sancroft "combats
fate with those two Powr'ful swords, Submission and Humility" (47-48),
that is, because Sancroft actively wills God's Will, he becomes, in
Plato's words, "most like him." Sancroft's portrait provides
Swift's answer to the relationship of man and God because Sancroft,
in setting aside his own will to accept God's will, becomes himself
a type, an image of the hidden God.
Thus, primitive Sancroft moves too high
To be observed by vulgar eye,
And rolls the silent year
On his own secret regular sphere,
And sheds, tho' all unseen, his sacred influence here.
Sancroft's deprivation at the hands of prideful men seems
S. to discover what they would have done
(Were his humanity on earth once more)
To his undoubted Master, Heaven's Almighty Son,
because Sancroft lives, in the most literal sense, for Christ. This
portrait of a godlike Sancroft, then, whose will is so completely
attuned to God's that earthly "fortune in both extremes" is "but
one thing under two different names" is, when viewed against the
set of ideas which give it substance, both a model for human conduct
and Swift's assertion that man is, in fact, formed after the image
What then, finally, is Swift's view, in this ode, of the
relationship between heaven and earth, man and God? The imagery of
space and motion which was examined earlier in this chapter led us,
we remember, to something like Henry More's conception of the universe--
a conception in which God permeated, was hidden in, every particle of
matter. The portrait of Sancroft has also led us to something very
like More's conception of man, a conception in which man is imitatio
Dei, after the image of God. But neither Swift nor More are naive
in their employment of the ideal of deiformation. Both recognize
that though the world is an image of God, it is only an image.
For this inferior world is but Heaven's dusky shade,
By dark reverted rays from its reflection made.
Both recognize that although man is, in potential, godlike, he must
willfully accept his birthright. After all, it was the failure of
a group of men to acknowledge God's providence in the civil acts of
man which gave rise to this poem.
Thus the position of both men is the more or less orthodox
one that both this world and human nature are goods, but they are
goods dependent upon the God that created and sustains them and to
Whom they must ultimately return. That is why "apocalyptic
mutterings," to use Maynard Mack's phrase, can be heard in several
places in this ode--and most clearly in the following lines from the
seventh stanza. The lines describe the evanescent quality of the
enthusiast's zeal, but they do so in imagery drawn from the second
chapter of the Book of Daniel.
The crazy composition shews,
Like that fantastic medley in the idol's toes,
Made up of iron mix't with clay,
This crumbles into dust,
That, moulders into rust,
Or melts by the first show'r away.
In the dream from which Swift's imagery is drawn, King
Nebuchadnezzar sees an idol whose head is made of gold, the chest of
silver, the belly and thighs of brass, the legs of iron and the feet
of a composition of iron and potter's clay. As the dream continues,
Nebuchadnezzar sees a stone hewn from a mountain, though the hewing
is done by no hands. This stone crushes first the feet and then the
whole of the idol, and, when this is done, the stone itself grows
to assume the form of a mountain.
Nebuchadnezzar, upon awakening, forgets the contents of this
dream, but as he remains troubled by it, he calls upon first his
wise men and, seeing them fail, then upon Daniel to relate and ex-
plicate the dream. Daniel, having asserted that his knowledge
originates not with himself but with God, explains to Nebuchadnezzar
that he has dreamt a prophesy for the whole world. Four empires will
arise and then a fifth will be formed of the fragments of its pre-
decessors, but, at last, God will destroy all human kingdoms and
establish His own Empire on earth.
The echo implies, I believe, Swift's final answer to the
pride and folly, not only of the enthusiast's zeal, but of all the
men who are shown in this poem to have placed their will before
God's. They shall perish, and their works shall pass away, but the
Kingdom of God will be established on earth. In fact, in a sense,
that Kingdom has already been long established, linking all men
willing to participate in it to one another and to God.
In the final, and incomplete, twelfth stanza of the ode,
Swift refers to Sancroft, presumably after his death, as "happy
saint" and appeals to him to
Pity a miserable Church's tears,
That begs the powerful blessing of thy pray'rs.
The validity of this appeal to a saint to pray for the entire earthly
Church depends upon a Catholic doctrine which, though it was probably
not completely acceptable to Swift as an Anglican, still apparently
had for him a poetic validity--the doctrine of the Communion of
According to the doctrine, the saints are able to entertain
prayers addressed to them and to intercede, in heaven, for those
who have prayed because the Church on Earth is but a part of the one
true Church, which encompasses also the Church in purgatory and the
Church in heaven. It is this total harmony and communion of God's
Kingdom which makes efficacious the appeal to the saints. But fur-
ther, according to Catholic doctrine, so far does this harmony extend
that even men living in the world can, in emulating Christ, dedicate
their suffering to atone for the sin of other men. We have already
noted that Sancroft, because he is a godly man, appears in this ode
as a type of the Deus Absconditus; what Swift's prayer to Sancroft
allows us to appreciate is the real quality of Sancroft's "influence."
Kathleen Williams remarked, we will remember, that the bishop's
"secret regular sphere" seemed overwhelmed by the calumny of the
world Swift describes. But that is to miss the point, for, it is
finally out of his very misfortune that Sancroft can fashion
.his own secret regular sphere,
And shed, tho' all unseen, his sacred influence here.
It is on the pervasiveness of God's spiritual kingdom that
this ode ends. Disregarding the "outcasts of this outcast age," its
final line asserts that "Heaven and Cato both are pleas'd." The line
refers, presumably, to Cato the younger, whose life, in its devo-
tion to virtue and truth, in its isolation and in the contempt and
ridicule it elicited from his own contemporaries, bears a curious
resemblance to Sancroft's own. Cato, had not, of course, the benefit
of revelation, but, Swift maintains, Cato and heaven are in accord.
In accord, Swift has maintained, are heaven and all men whose will,
in devotion to virtue and truth, is not "self will" and whose ends
are not "self ends" but who are "subordinate to the Will of God."
Brought together in one kingdom are the true men of all kingdoms and
all times, all within a Church which spans earth, purgatory and heaven.
1. That is, these are the first poems we know definitely to be
Swift's. For references to possible earlier satiric verse
see Herbert Davis, Jonathan Swift: essays on his satire and
other studies (New York, 1964), p. 171.
2. At fourteen Swift was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin,
where, according to Swift himself, "he too much neglected
some parts of his academical studies, for which he had no
great relish by nature and turned himself to reading history
and poetry." The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert
Davis et al., 13 vols. (Oxford, 1957), V, 162. All quota-
tions of Swift's prose in my text are to this edition.
3. "There is in some of Mr. Cowley's Love Verse," Swift com-
mented when he was forty-two, "a strain that I thought extra-
ordinary at fifteen." The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, II,
114. At forty-two, it hardly needs to be said, the Dean
was less fond of Cowley than he had been at fifteen.
4. The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Sir Harold Williams,
5 vols. (Oxford, 1963), I, 9.
5. Swift: the man, his works, and the age, 2 vols. (Cambridge,
Mass., 1962-), I, 109.
6. Ibid. I, 112.
7. John H. Finley, Jr., Pindar and Aeschylus (Cambridge, Mass.,
1955), p. 54.
8. The English Writings of Abraham Cowley, ed. A. R. Waller,
2 vols. (Cambridge, Eng., 1905), I, 165. All quotations
of Cowley's verse in my text are to this edition.
9. The Collected Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Joseph Horrell,
2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), I, 378.
10. Swift: the man, his works, and the age, I, 126 and following.
11. Ronald Paulson, "Swift, Stella, and Permanence," ELH, XXVII
12. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, I, 189-90.
13. Kathleen Williams, Swift and the Age of Compromise (Lawrence,
Kansas, 1958), p. 147.
14. The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sir Leslie Stephen
and Sir Sidney Lee, 22 vols. (Oxford, 1937), XVII, 733-39.
15. G. M. Trevelyan, History of England, 2 vols. (New York, 1954),
16. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, IX, 238.
17. Let it here be noted that Swift, using Ptolemaic cosmology
as an emblem for human confusion was harder on that cosmology
than the facts actually warrant. See Thomas S. Kuhn, The
Copernican Revolution. . (New York, 1959).
18. See Phillip Harth, Swift and Anglican Rationalism. ..
(Chicago, 1961), pp. 92 and following.
19. For the following discussion of Descartes' cosmology and
Henry More's opposition to it I am indebted to Alexander
Koyre's From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe
(New York, 1957). See particularly chapters five and six.
20. While this summary is accurate, it is also, it should be unaer-
stood, very simplified. Descartes, for example, called his
cosmos "indefinite," not "infinite." But the cosmos Descartes
described is infinite.
21. Phillip Harth in Swift and Anglican Rationalism. . makes
a very convincing case for Swift's early acquaintance with
and admiration for the work of Henry More.
22. Ralph Cudworth, The True Intelleccual System of the Universe
(London, 1678), p. 175.
23. Henry More, Collection of Several Philosophical Writings
(London, 1662). Cited from Koyre, p. 111.
24. On this point see Aharon Lichtenstein, Henry More: The
Rational Theology of a Cambridge Platonist (Cambridge, Mass.,
1962), pp. 89-90.
25. Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (New York, 1957),
26. Nichols' observation is cited from Sir Harold Williams' edition
of Swift's Poems, I, 35, n. 1.
27. Swift: the man, his works, and the age, I, 130.
28. Plato, Theaetetus, cited from The Dialogues of Plato, trans.
Benjamin Jowett (New York, 1937), 176a-b.
29. An Antidote against Idolatry (London, 1672-1673), cited from
Cadenus and Vanessa
In 1767 Oliver Goldsmith touched on what is at once the most
obvious and the most remarkable aspect of Swift's Cadenus and Vanessa.
"This [poem] is thought," he commented,
. one of Dr. Swift's correctest pieces; its chief merit,
indeed, is the elegant easT with which a story, but ill con-
ceived in itself, is told.
To put Goldsmith's point less charitably, Swift seems certainly, in
this poem, to expend a prodigality of materials only to lead us
finally to an apparently lame conclusion. Something of the effect
may be gathered from the following synopsis.
The poem opens ambitiously, presenting to us the Court of
Venus met in full session. The reason for this session is, however,
a professed decline of love between the sexes, and a multitude of
shepherds and nymphs are joined in debate to fix on each other the
responsibility for this decline. The pleader for the nymphs opens
the debate by accusing both "that false creature, man," and Cupid him-
self of negligence in the pursuit of love. He cites as a sad result
of this negligence, a universal decline of both romantic and conju-
Now love is dwindled to intrigue,
And marriage grown a money league.
The pleader for the shepherds next states his case. He
acknowledges that men have, indeed, grown indifferent to love but
he fixes the responsibility for this decline on the nymphs them-
selves. The nymphs, he maintains, have turned from that celestial
flame, chaste and pure, which characterized ancient love and which
alone can inspire love in virtuous men. Their fancies, instead, are
engrossed by the lowest trivia, and the nymphs are therefore not
worthy of love from a worthy man.
Venus, "much perplex'd in mind/To see her Empire thus de-
clin'd" (128-129), finds her references to legal texts no help in
settling this dispute. Therefore, she undertakes an experiment
which she hopes will at once restore her reign and settle the merits
of the case before her. Choosing out a particularly beautiful female
infant, she endows the child with all the graces at her command--out-
ward cleanliness, decency of mind, and a soft engaging air. Then,
in order to make the child completely worthy of a virtuous and
rational love, she deceives Pallas, goddess of wisdom, into believ-
ing the infant to be male. Thus deceived, Pallas grants the child
those gifts of knowledge, judgment, wit, justice, truth, fortitude
and honor which are traditionally the gifts of only the best of men.
Venus' task is thus complete and, she hopes, she has only to allow
the cause before her to spin itself out for sixteen years until a
mature Vanessa can, by providing a model for nymphs and an object
of adoration for shepherds, secure her reign.
The experiment, however, is not a success. Pallas is quickly
undeceived, and while she cannot resume the gifts she has given,
she correctly predicts that they will hinder, rather than further,
Venus' cause. And, in fact, Vanessa's very wisdom is Venus'
undoing; for Vanessa is so unlike the beaux and dames whom she is
to captivate that far from taking her as a model they unanimously
find her "the dullest soul."
Then tipt their Forehead in a jeer,
As who should say--she wants it here.
Indeed, from Venus' point of view the experiment turns into a total
disaster, since Vanessa herself has, apparently, too much sense to
fall in love.
At this point Cupid, longing to vindicate his mother's wrongs,
succeeds in causing Vanessa to become enamoured of a fortyish priest,
her tutor, Cadenus. And now the poem becomes, in some sense, bio-
graphical, the reflection of an actual relationship between Swift
himself and Esther Vanhomerigh. Vanessa, smitten, betrays all the
classic marks of love-sickness--she feels pain at heart, listens to
her tutor's voice but not his lectures, and contrives ways in which
to touch his hand. Cadenus, misunderstanding, concludes she has
grown tired of his lectures; he therefore offers to withdraw, and
thereby actually forces Vanessa to confess her love. Her confession
precipitates a debate between them in which Vanessa attempts to main-
tain the reasonableness of her love while Cadenus offers only the
unsatisfactory (to her) return of "Friendship in its greatest
At this point, with the outcome of the debate still undecided:
Whether the Nymph, to please her Swain,
Talks in a high romatick Strain;
Or whether he at last descends,
To act with less Seraphick ends,
Or, to compound the Business, whether
They temper love and books together,
Swift's muse, having already revealed so much, turns inexpicably
coy and refuses to reveal anything more. Instead, we are rather
lurchingly removed again to Venus' Court where she, having watched
Vanessa's whole career, decides the case rather arbitrarily against
the men and, leaving the world to Cupid's dubious discretion,
Left all below at Six and Sev'n,
Harness'd her Doves and flew to Heaven.
The lavish number of lines, nearly nine hundred, expended
to arrive at so halting a conclusion would be surprising even from
an author whose power of economy was less proverbial than Swift's.
Swift, however, in Cadenus and Vanessa, seems unable even to tell
his story without numerous inconsistencies. Thus, for example, we
are first told that Cupid, hoping to procure a lover for Vanessa,
shot numerous arrows "Pointed at Col'nels, Lords, and Beaux" (478).
Then we are told that Cadenus warded off these same arrows by placing
books in the hands of (presumably) Vanessa. What Swift is getting
at is clear enough; Cupid's efforts are in vain because Vanessa,
tutored by Cadenus, is both learned and aloof. But the path of
Swift's metaphorical arrows is impossible to trace.
Worse still than such missteps, however, is the poem's gene-
ral inconclusiveness, the air of indecision which hangs over the
entire production. First, the debate between the shepherds and nymphs
which opens the poem is never, by the parties themselves, brought
to issue. Second, the debate between Cadenus and Vanessa not only
is not concluded, it does not seem possible to conclude it since
the argument springs from fundamentally unarguable circumstances:
Vanessa is in love and Cadenus is not. Lastly, while a judgment
is finally rendered by Venus against the men, that judgment is not
very convincing, since, although it is true that the shepherds
have failed to adore Vanessa, it is equally true that the nymphs
have failed to model themselves after her. Therefore, despite
Venus' judgment, the end of the poem finds all things as they were
at its beginning, at a state of "six and seven."
To seek, then, in Cadenus and Vanessa for a consistent and
unified view of human love is to search for what, I suspect, does
not exist in the poem. But that is not to say that Cadenus and
Vanessa does not repay close study. On the contrary, the poem
provides, first I think, as much insight as we shall ever have
into what a more romantic age called "the mystery of Swift's life
and loves." And secondly, while the poem is hardly an "art of love"
it is, I think, taken as a whole, a single large metaphor for "the
difficulties which love attend." The poem has never been read this
way, but reading it so shows, I think, its apparent missteps and
its hopelessly futile debates as, not flaws, but as coherent parts
of Swift's precise illustration of love's difficulties.
Just because Cadenus and Vanessa, while full of debate,
apparently proceeds to no conclusion, it has proven a treasure trove
of sorts for generations of critics seeking to document one or
another attitude towards Swift or about his work. Most of the
speeches which in the poem are assigned to Venus, Pallas, Vanessa
and Cadenus have been, at some time, taken to represent Swift's
genuine view. This tendency to take a speech from Cadenus and
Vanessa and to assume, while disregarding the character to whom
Swift assigned it, that it represents Swift's real view, led to parti-
cularly amusing colloquies between Swift's earliest critics.
Thus, for example, Lord Orrery first isolated for commentary
the following passage.
Two maxims she could still produce,
And sad Experience taught their Use:
That Virtue, pleas'd by being shown,
knows nothing which it dare not own;
Can make us, without Fear disclose
Our inmost secrets to our Foes:
That common Forms were not designed
Directors to a noble mind.
In remarking on this passage, however, Orrery completely dis-
regarded the fact that the speech is only a recapitulation by the
character, Vanessa, of an opinion supposedly held by the character
Cadenus. Instead, Orrery used this speech to draw a very black
picture indeed of the Dean of St. Patricks.
He [Swift] taught her, that vice as soon as it defied
shame, was immediately changed into virtue. That vulgar
forms were not binding on certain choice spirits, to whom
either the writings or persons of men of wit were acceptable.
Then, a year after Lord Orrery's Remarks appeared, Patrick Delany,
Swift's long-time friend, took up the cudgels for Swift in Obser-
vations on Lord Orrery's Remarks. In the course of defending
Swift against Orrery's generally damning portrait Delany, too, falls
upon Vanessa's speech. But, instead of correcting Orrery's mistake,
Delany, like Orrery, assumes the passage must represent Swift's own
Now, pray, my Lord, what is there in all this, which the
most virtuous man alive might not own with his last breath to
be his most sincere and genuine sentiments: For my own
part, I can see nothing in it, but a panygyric upon
purity and noble nature of virtue.3
All the difference which really exists between these two widely
divergent readings is, of course, that Delany is kindly disposed
towards Swift while Orrery is not.
What is surprising, though, is not that this highly subjec-
tive and personal form of criticism should have been written by men
who knew Swift well, but that it should still remain, as we shall
see, the dominant strain in modern criticism of Cadenus and
Vanessa. The antidote for it, after all, has existed for over two
hundred years. For Swift's nephew, Deane Swift, while animadverting
upon Orrery's Remarks a year after Delany, added to Delany's read-
ing of Cadenus and Vanessa the necessary fillip of critical insight.
To Orrery's assumption that Cadenus and Vanessa are the exact
counterparts to Swift and Esther Vanhomerigh, Deane Swift replied
that, for all we know, the poem might be purely a work of Swift's
imagination; and further, that even if we assume that Swift and
Esther are, in some sense, Cadenus and Vanessa, the degree to which
the poet's imagination has transformed them must remain hidden from
us.4 A clearsighted application, then, of Deane Swift's insight to
Cadenus and Vanessa should produce a reading of the poem which can
be validated from the text and ha's nothing to do with either a
critic's sympathy towards or dislike of'Jo'dathan Swift himself.
But nothing can more clearly' il'l'ustrate the difficulty of producing
such a reading than a review of"'the most intensive and cogent of
modern attempts on the poem.
Peter Ohlin, in his'articl', ""'"Ca'dehus'and Vanessa,' Reason
I I I i, I I
and Passion,"5 begins by attempting to open some aesthetic dis-
tance between the poem and the relationship between Swift and
Esther Vonhomerigh which inspired it. Rather than turning towards
what we know of that relationship in order to understand the poem,
Ohlin suggests we draw "some aid from other and less immediately
personal documents from Swift's hand." These sources, Ohlin
argues, "will reveal that Cadenus and Vanessa is a delicately exe-
cuted dialogue between reason and passion, utilizing the conflict
between these two principles as the controlling device."
The less immediately personal documents Ohlin uses are,
principally, A Letter to a Young Lady on her Marriage, Swift's
poems to Stella and Thoughts on Various Subjects. From these Ohlin
draws documentation for what he calls Swift's "orthodox christian"
view of love, a view which, though it does not find sexual passion
evil, insists that this passion must be constantly directed by
reason. This view of Swift's "orthodox christianity" forms the
background for Ohlin's reading of the poem.
The "two principles" of "reason" and "passion" are re-
presented, according to Ohlin, by two characters apiece. "Passion's"
prime representative is, of course, Venus, whom Ohlin characterizes
as "vain, sensuous and deceitful." Fearful of the loss of her em-
pire (and therefore vain), Venus deceives Pallas (whom Ohlin con-
siders "reason's" first representative) into helping her create
Vanessa. Vanessa, until her intellect is addled by the force of
Cupid's dart is, Ohlin argues, reasonable because she is a perfect
blend of reason and passion. When, however, she has once been
inflamed by love, her passions mount inappropriately astride her
reason and her mind is darkened by vain imaginings. Gazing at
Cadenus she now,
Imaginary Charms can find,
In eyes with Reading almost blind;
Cadenus now no more appears
Declin'd in Health, advan'd in years.
Cadenus' response to her, Ohlin therefore maintains, is a per-
fectly correct attempt to restore her to reason's control and, in
fact, represents Swift's own real views. Cadenus offers,
. .Friendship in its greatest Height,
A constant rational Delight,
and promises that
His want of Passion will redeem
With Gratitude, Respect, Esteem.
What Cadenus is finally offering, according to Ohlin, is Swift's
conception of the highest type of love, "that christian selfless
love which is a reflection of the divine love of God for mankind."
Unfortunately, however, Vanessa has meanwhile become so besotted
by passion as not to recognize the value of what Cadenus offers her,
and the debate is, therefore, as Ohlin argues, left at a standstill.
Meanwhile Venus, who, Ohlin now argues, had attempted to give men
a "reasonable passion," decides that "since they [men] cannot see
perfect beauty and virtue for what they are when they appear in
Vanessa, men do not deserve the ability to control their passions."
Therefore, Ohlin concludes, "Venus leaves all 'below at Six and
Sev'n' without the order she had planned to establish."
The strong point of Ohlin's argument is, it seems to me, his
appreciation of the effects on Vanessa of her impassioned state.
Swift makes it abundantly clear that, whatever our response to
Vanessa might be, we are to understand that her arguments are not
to be entirely trusted. She argues, Swift tells us,
. .as Philosophers, who find
Some Fav'rite System to their Mind:
In ev'ry Point to make it fit,
Will force all Nature to submit.
Despite the apparent obviousness of the point, however, Ohlin is
the first critic to notice it, and thus he frees himself, and us,
of the need--which Delany and many another critic since has felt--
to read Vanessa's lines as if they expressed Swift's own considered
opinions. Vanessa's lines can therefore be read, not with an eye
towards making them consistent with what we think is (or ought to
be) Swift's opinion, but by the portrait Swift provides us of the
character who speaks them.
But if Ohlin's strongest point is his treatment of Vanessa,
his weakest point is his treatment of Cadenus. For although Ohlin
treats Cadenus as the moral center of the poem and as Swift's own
spokesman, Swift has, I think, compromised Cadenus quite as much
as he has Vanessa. The speech, for example, in which Cadenus offers
Vanessa that "gratitude, respect, and esteem," which Ohlin claims
to be "christian selfless love," Swift, in fact, introduced with
So when Cadenus could not hide,
He chose to justify his Pride.
Ohlin is forced, by his own thesis, to touch very lightly on such
embarrassing passages, and he therefore damages the complexity of
both Cadenus' character and of Cadenus' lines.
Indeed, because Ohlin takes Cadenus' point of view for
Swift's own, he misses much of the complexity of Cadenus and Vanessa.
He is forced to read the whole of Cadenus and Vanessa from what he
conceives to be Cadenus' preference for reason over passion, and
he must, therefore, rigorously pare the poem down to the scope of
Cadenus' vision. Ironically, the poem takes its revenge by in-
volving Ohlin in contradiction. Thus, for example, Ohlin begins by
describing Venus as Cadenus doubtless would have seen her--vain,
shamelessly sensuous, and deceitful. But by the end of his article
Ohlin is forced to admit that it is, indeed, "to the World's per-
petual Shame/ [that] The Queen of Beauty lost her aim." (432-33)
The moral of all this is, of course, only an extension of
the point Deane Swift made over two hundred years ago--that neither
Cadenus nor Vanessa nor any other of the poem's characters can
be taken for Swift's own authentic voice. But, on the other hand,
we ought not dismiss too quickly a critical error which has per-
sisted for over two hundred years; for the error, I think, con-
tains a germ of truth. For, although Orrery was certainly wrong
in attacking Swift through the lines of a character whose argu-
ments Swift himself has amply enough undermined, nevertheless, the
opinions which Vanessa espouses can, as we shall see, be found in
Swift's writings when he was speaking in his own person. Similarly,
although Ohlin erred in drawing too tightly together Swift and the
character whose flaws Swift clearly exposes, Ohlin has certainly
demonstrated that Swift, at times, did offer arguments very much
like those he provides Cadenus. Indeed, the complexity of the poem
lies precisely in this: although Swift exposes the flaws of each
of the characters in his poem, nevertheless, all of them argue in
ways which he has argued. It is small wonder, then, that critics
have so often seen, and felt forced to judge, Swift within his
lines; for Cadenus and Vanessa is almost a psychomachia. Almost,
I say, but not quite: for it is the nature of a psychomachia to
move towards a conclusion in which virtue which is clearly virtue
triumphs over vice which is clearly vice. But Cadenus and Vanessa
reaches no conclusion; rather, as I hope to show, it exposes and
judges the contrary opinions on love held by the Dean of St. Patricks
Cathedral. It is, to repeat myself, a single large metaphor for
"the difficulties which love attends."
On the basis of their surviving correspondence, the relation-
ship between Swift and Esther Vonhomerigh seems peculiarly tailored
to illuminate, for Swift, love's difficulties. Yet, for all that,
the relationship began normally enough. Swift first met Esther in
1708 and was doubtless taken by her combination of youth (she was not,
however, so young as Swift thought), good looks, good character and
good sense. Further, to all these qualities Esther apparently added
two more which Swift found certainly not charming but, nevertheless,
compelling: these were a streak of laziness and, subsequently, a
lady-like ignorance. These qualities were, for Swift, probably com-
pelling, since, as is well enough known, Swift's penchant for reform-
ing female manners amounted to something very like a life-long avoca-
tion. Therefore, as Irvin Ehrenpreis has put it, "We may assume that
he began the friendship as usual, by suggesting books for the young
woman to read and acquaintances for her to drop."
How long this relatively simple friendship continued and
when, and in what way, it deepened into both something more and
something different it is not possible to say. If we could fix a
date for the completion of Cadenus and Vanessa, we should know, at
least, the latest date by which Esther had declared her love to
Swift; but the date by which Swift completed that poem is as uncer-
tain as anything else in the history of Swift and Esther. What
we do know is that by 1711 Swift felt it necessary to suppress, in
his correspondence to Esther Johnson, his previously numerous refer-
ences to the Vonhomerigh establishment in general and Vanessa in
particular. And we know too, that about this same time Swift and
Esther held a series of secret meetings at the house of Swift's
entirely trustworthy friend though not entirely reputable printer,
John Barber. Clearly then, by the end of 1711 their friendship had
complicated, Swift was deeply involved, and Vanessa, presumably, had
conceived what she was later to call her "inexpressible passion" for
Swift. Because Cadenus and Vanessa is, in some way, Swift's response
to Esther's passion for him, it is worthwhile to see what her cor-
respondence tells us of her and her passion.
A surprising amount has been written about Esther, and most
of it portrays her as a poor, weak-willed girl overpowered by both
Swift and her own sentiments. This portrait is not confirmed, how-
ever, by either the quality of style or argumentation which one finds
in her correspondence with Swift. To be sure, Esther could, and
often did, address Swift in the most passionate of terms.
Put my passion under the utmost restraint, send me
as distant from you as the earth will allow, yet you
cannot banish those charming ideas, which will ever
stick by me whilst I have the use of memory. Nor is
the love I bear you only seated in my soul, for there
is not an atom of my frame that is not blended with it.
Therefore don't flatter yourself that separation will
ever change my sentiments, for I find myself unquiet in
the midst of silence, and my heart is at once pierced
with sorrow and love.9
But passion so well worded as this is argues for a cool head as well
as for a warm heart, and particularly the carefully constructed
final sentence of this passage persuades me that Esther understood
the use of the blunt as well as the sharp end of her stylus. Further,
passionate as she was, Esther could, on occasion, invert the whole
form of passionate address by the delicate application of satire--
and she could perform such mischief almost as well as Swift himself,
who was the master of it.
Now, because I love frankness extremely, I here tell you
that I have determined to try all manner of human arts
to reclaim you, and if all those fail I am resolved to
have recourse to the black one, which, it is said, never
does. Now see what inconveniences you will bring both me
and yourself into. Pray think calmly of it. Is it not
much better to come of yourself than to be brought by
force. . ?10
Indeed, so stylistically sophisticated are Esther's letters that,
it seems to me, they possess an interest even independent of their
If, however, the style of Esther's letters is consistently
good--and Swift thought it was--her mode of argumentation is often
positively striking. For Esther's arguments are founded on ele-
ments of Swift's own principles and use those principles in such
way that, as Esther might have put it, his thought "made for her."
The aim of all her letters is, of course, to draw Swift closer to
her, and her whole means for accomplishing this aim is her attractive-
ness to him. Her task, then, was to place Swift's emotional and sub-
jective responses to her, his pity, friendship, admiration and love,
within a frame of reference which would weigh those responses most
heavily. Her art, practiced over a period of nearly a dozen years,
consisted in the skill with which she culled, from Swift's own thought,
those elements which honor subjective and individualistic response.
Such elements really exist in Swift's thought, but because
critics have found more striking Swift's alternative view--his rigorous
demand for objective judgment--the subjective nature of many of Swift's
maxims and much of his advice has often been overlooked. Thus, for
example, the extreme objectivism of Swift's following advice to Stella
(Esther Johnson) has been often pointed out:
In Points of Honour to be try'd,
All Passions must be laid aside;
How shall I act? is not the Case;
But how would Brutus in my Place?
Drive all objections from your Mind,
Else you relapse to human Kind.
(To Stella, Visiting me in my Sickness)
But, on the other hand, Swift's recognition, in other poems to Stella,
that a subjective point of view is sometimes not only more chari-
table but, in some fundamental way, more true, has been rarely
But, Stella say, what evil Tongue
Reports you are no longer young?
That half your Locks are turned to grey:
I'll ne'er believe a Word they say.
Tis true, but let it not be known,
My Eyes are somewhat dimmish grown:
For Nature, always in the Right,
To your Decays adapts my Sight,
And till I see them with these Eyes,
Whoever says you have them, lyes.
(Stella's Birthday, 1724-25)
Similarly, numbers of critics have reminded us of the rigorously
objective viewpoint which Swift proposed to a young lady as a guide
for her married life. Often cited, for example, has been this advice.
I will add one Thing, although it be a little out of
Place, which is to desire that you will learn to value
and esteem your Husband, for those good Qualities which
he really possesseth; and not to fancy others in him,
which he certainly hath not. For, although this latter
be generally understood for a Mark of Love, yet it is
indeed nothing but affectation, or ill judgment.12
But rarely cited, though from the same letter, is that passage in
which Swift advised the young woman to pursue learning, not only
because it would increase her husband's regard for her judgment
and opinion, but also because, Swift tells her,
The Endowments of your Mind will even make your Person
more agreeable to him; and when you are alone, your
Time will not lie heavy upon your Hands, for want of
some trifling amusement.1
What I think is clear from these "matched sets" of examples--and
they might easily be multiplied--is that though Swift honored the
man who saw clearly and objectively, he also recognized the validity
of certain kinds of subjective truths. He knew, that is, that beauty
and, perhaps, truth is often in the eye of the beholder.
Indeed, even aspects of Swift's thought which do not im-
mediately appear subjective can often bear very subjective applica-
tions. Thus, as Orrery perceived, Swift's often repeated maxim,
"Act what is right and do not mind what the world says," might
itself be dangerously subjective, since it can make not only the
responsibility for individual conduct, but ultimately the actual
determination of values a matter of individual interpretation.
But Orrery perceived this possible application of Swift's maxim
much later than Esther, to whom Swift had taught it. "You had
once a maxim,"Esther remarked to Swift when she would encourage'
his attention and diminish his reticence, "to do what was right and
not mind what the world said. I wish you would stick to it now."14
It was, of course, Esther's misfortune to be unsuccessful,
and Swift proved reticent for a host of reasons, some of which we
know, some, probably, not. Yet there can be, I think, no doubt
that Swift loved her: indeed, he was even willing, on occasion, to
spin out love's logic for her; to evaluate her by the only standard
she wished to be judged by, the subjective truth of his affection
for her. "What beasts in pettycoats," he tells her in a famous
are the most excellent of these women whom I daily see
when I compare them to you. When I am in their company
I cannot but observe that they fall miserably short of you
in every way. Are they, I must ask myself, even of the same
sex or species as yourself.15
Presumably, when Swift wrote this passage, and others like it, he
felt he was telling the truth. But he knew, too, that he was tell-
ing only one kind of truth, and a very special kind at that. And
he knew that a coldly objective view of his relationship with
Esther must include the disparity of their ages, stations and tempera-
ments, just as coldly objective view of Vanessa herself must include
her impatient, splenetic temperament and her often total lack of
Of course, there is something horribly unfair in first
telling a young woman to "do what was right and not mind what the
world said," and then to berate her with, "You once bragged you
were very discrete. Where is it gone?"16 But that is exactly
Swift's dilemma. On the one hand he found, and recorded, his
responsiveness to Esther; on the other hand he could not keep from
seeing, and recording, an exact state of her qualities. Because the
two accounts did not correspond, Swift's letters to Esther vary,
as has long been recognized, from warm affection and abundant
praise to something very like disdain and stern reprimand. Esther,
of course, had no such double account and was, therefore, the much
more perfect lover. Indeed, Esther seems in all her humors to
judge Swift in all of his by exactly that subjective standard by
which she passionately wished to be judged.
I firmly believe, could I know your thoughts, I should
find that you have often in a rage wished me religious,
hoping then I should have paid my devotions to Heaven.
But that would not spare you, for was I an enthusiast,
still you'd be the deity I should worship. What marks
are there of a deity but what you are to be known by?
You are present everywhere; your dear image is always
before [my] eyes; sometimes you strike me with that
prodigious awe, I tremble with fear; at other times a
charming compassion shines through your countenance,
which revives my soul.17
But though Esther's love for Swift is so perfect as to remind us
(and Esther, too, perhaps) of Heloise's love for Abalard, never-
theless, Swift, with his heats and chills, his double accounts, his
affections and reticence, seems the more human. That is why
Cadenus and Vanessa, in its painfully amusing account of the in-
compatibility of love with wisdom, has a universal validity.
When Swift, in the opening lines of Candenus and Vanessa,
causes the nymphs' advocate to complain before Venus' court,
That, Cupid now has lost his Art,
Or blunts the point of every Dart:
His altar now no longer smokes,
His Mother's Aid no youth invokes,
he is simply recording the enfeebled condition of Venus' kingdom,
in England, after practically a century and a half of constant
attack. "Free thinkers," as the advocate goes on to charge, had
indeed been at work on the principles of love's religion, with the
result that, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the most
prominent fact about Venus' kingdom, with its religion, laws, courts
and mythology, is that it no longer could provide a possible meta-
phor for the reality of human love. That is why, to stress the
obvious, we are amused by the high flying legalese which character-
izes the opening speech of the nymphs' advocate. It is not the com-
plaint he brings which is funny; "Now love," he tells us
. .is dwindled to Intrigue,
And Marriage grown a Money-league,
and that is serious enough; but it is rather the idea that such
a complaint is susceptible to the language of legal arbitration
which amuses us. Just because we find such a combination of law
and love amusingly irrelevant, Swift can count on our grinning
when he drops his advocate, with a bathetic plump, from the
heights of legal posturing.
Which Crimes aforesaid, (with her leave)
Were (as he humbly did conceive)
Against our Sov'reign Lady's Peace,
Against the Statute in that Case,
Against her Dignity and Crown:
Then Prayed an Answer and sat down.
There is, however, nothing inherently funny in the mixture
of law and love which characterizes the courts and kingdom of
Venus. A glance at the sixteenth century composition, The
Court of Venus, and at its sources, makes clear that men of the
sixteenth century and, of course, of earlier centuries, could
take very seriously exactly the mixture of law and love which
Swift, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, found a natural
target for parody. That Swift intended us to be amused and that
we are amused points rather to a radical shift of sensibility
which occurred in the seventeenth century.8 This shift, which is
first fully recorded in the lyric verse of the Stuart poets,
operated to dissolve any possible connection between law and love.
For the Stuart poets are the first to fully affirm that the phenome-
non of love has absolutely nothing to do with external reality but
rather is a function of only internal reality, of the highly sub-
jective needs of the lover himself. "Why slightest thou," asks
Henry King, in significantly legal language,
.what I approve?
Thou art no Peer to try my love,
Nor canst discern where her form lies,
Unless thou saw'st her with my eyes.19
And if this be true, all courts of love, even that court of Venus
herself, must be irrevocably useless.
Of course, this sort of observation was not unheard of be-
fore the seventeenth century. Presumably, so long as men have
loved at all they have noticed that sexual love does not often
smoothly follow the path of rational choice. Thus, for example,
Horace notes that Barine's patent unfaithfulness does not diminish
her attractiveness either for himself or for any man who desires
Had ever any penalty for violated vows visited thee,
Barine; didst thou ever grow uglier by a single blackened
tooth or spotted nail, I'd trust thee now. But with
thee, no sooner hast thou bound thy perfidious head
by promises than thou shinest forth much fairer and art
the cynosure of all eyes when thou appearest.
(II, 8, 1-8, trans. C.E. Bennett)
Horace understands, then, something of the fundamental irration-
ality of love and desire, but he does not like it. He would much
rather that he might love the she whom he should, or better still,
that the she whom he loved would be as she ought. And it is this
perfectly human desire for a rational love, a love founded on
tested merit, which is given metaphoric form, in so many medieval
and renaissance poems, by the proofs, trials, laws, rules, in short,
by the whole framework of Venus' courts and kingdom.
In turn, it is the psychological validity of precisely
this sort of love which, in the late sixteenth century and through
the seventeenth century, came increasingly to be questioned. "Tell
me where the beauty lies," one anonymous poet, remembering Shake-
In my mistress? Or in my eyes?
Is she fair, I made her so
Beauty doth from liking grow.20
And that this highly subjective point of view became a common place
of restoration lyricism can be confirmed by an examination of almost
any restoration song-book. Suckling, for example, not only observed
on one occasion that,
'Tis not the meat, but 'tis the appetite,
Makes eating a delight,
And If I like one dish
More than another, that a pheasant is,
but he was willing to extend his subjectivity far enough to set, in
truly amazing detail, the following dilemma:
Each man his humour hath, and, faith, 'tis mine,
To love that woman which I now define.
Her nose I'd have a foot long, not above,
With pimples embroider'd for those I love;
And at the end a comely pearl of snot,
Considering whether it should fall or not:
I have my utmost wish; and having so2
Judge whether I am happy, yea or no?2
And here, I think, Suckling sets for us, though in brutal terms, that
dilemma which, as we shall see, is also the central problem in Swift's
Cadenus and Vanessa. Our answer to the question posed by the final
line of Suckling's poem, "Judge whether I am happy, yea or no?" must
be "yea": the narrator of this poem has, after all, the woman he wants
(his "utmost wish") and therefore must be happy. Yet, even as we say
that the narrator is a happy man we cannot, I suspect, help thinking
that since the woman the narrator has is a perfect horror when judged
by any standard but his own, he ought not be happy. That is, we finally
don't want to think that love is so subjective, so arbitrary, that a
man might be happy with the awful hag described in Suckling's poem.
We want love to be more objective, more rational than Suckling's
lines suggest it is; and our own discomfort at love's arbitrariness
thus becomes Suckling's joke on us.
Swift, certainly, understood as well as Suckling that sexual
love is fundamentally unreasonable and has nothing to do with absolute
standards. "No wise man," Swift once noted, "ever married from the
dictates of reason,'23 and several of Swift's epigrams insist on this
The glass, by lovers nonsense blurr'd
Dims and obscures our sight:
So when our Passions Love hath stirr'd
It darkens Reason's light.
But Swift is no Suckling. Suckling, as we have seen above, cooly
forces us to see that, though we wish love were rational and objec-
tive, it is arbitrary, standardless and subjective. And having made
his point, Suckling leaves us with the discomforting dilemma that
love's arbitrariness raises in our own minds. Swift, on the other
hand, incorporating this same dilemma within Cadenus and Vanessa,
does not so much offer us a dilemma as struggle with one himself, and
it is Swift's own struggles which give an order and coherence to a
story which is otherwise, as Goldsmith remarked, apparently, "ill con-
ceived in itself."
Thus, although the debate between the shepherds and nymphs
arrives at no conclusion, it is not, therefore, barren of meaning.
Rather, it is an excellent demonstration that love is not susceptible
to rules, laws, and legal arbitration. Or again, although the debate
between Cadenus and Vanessa ends at stalemate, that is itself Swift's
best demonstration that love is intransigently subjective and com-
pletely unamenable to arbitration. What makes these demonstra-
tions so terribly convincing is precisely that they stem from fail-
ures, The narrative of the poem itself, that is, struggles to af-
fect a reconciliation between love and wisdom; and we cannot there-
fore help but feel Swift's sympathies are engaged on behalf of this
reconciliation. That it is not, therefore, effected, must impress
us far more deeply with love's subjective nature than does even
Suckling's poem The Deformed Mistress, examined briefly above. For
we cannot forget, I think, that Swift's desire to effect this recon-
ciliation, and his failure to do so, have a deeply personal aspect.
Finally, that is, Cadenus and Vanessa is Swift's very honest, yet
most tactful explanation to Esther Vonhomerigh that he fails to wholly
love her as she wished him to love her not because he does not de-
sire to do so, and not because she is unworthy of him, but because,
simply and sadly, he does not so love her, This failure, by the very
nature of love, he cannot help.
Something of Swift's struggle to establish a mean between,
on the one hand, Suckling's extreme statement of love's subjectivity
and, on the other hand, the highly idealistic, self-deceiving and
psychologically naive assumption that love ought follow absolute
and rational standards, can be seen in the shepherd's retort to the
To the nymphs' accusation that shepherds have ceased from
loving, the shepherds' advocate, we remember, replies by admitting
the charge but laying "all the fault on t'other sex." This strategy
is dictated by the shepherd's demand that their nymphs be goddess-
like, a demand which in turn is rooted in their highly idealistic
view of love--
A Fire celestial, chaste, refin'd,
Conceived and kindled in the Mind;
Which having found an equal flame,
Unites, and both become the same;
In different Breasts together burn,
Together both to ashes turn.
Swift is, of course, aware that the shepherds, by placing such
lofty requirements on the nature of love, imagine a passion which
has no existence. Therefore, their advocates' description of this
passion, as one which infallibly reduces its devotees to ashes, is
both apt and laughable. Such passion, as the shepherds' advocate
goes on to tell us, is nowhere discoverable in the world but was
once sung by ancient poets. And this description makes it a near
relative, I suspect, of what Swift, in his own person called, "that
ridiculous passion which hath no being but in Play-books and romances,"24
and which he prudently advised a recently married young woman against
But, although Swift holds up to ridicule the psychologi-
cally naive view of love presented in the shepherds' complaint, the
entire complaint is not made ridiculous. Rather, that part of the
complaint which is directed against the nymphs has a very convincing
ring since the frivolities which the shepherds accuse the nymphs of
following to the exclusion of everything else are exactly those for
which Swift, in his own person, often berated that "tribe of bold,
swaggering, rattling ladies"25 whom all his life he despised. Thus the
condemnation of women spoken by the shepherds' advocate:
Hence we conclude no women's Hearts
Are won by Virtue, Wits, and Parts:
Nor are the Men of Sense to blame,
For Breasts incapable of Flame:
The Fault must on the Nvmohs be placed,
Grown so corrupted in their Taste,
is sympathetically echoed by Swift himself in his epistle to Lord
Harlev on his Marriage:
For such is all the sex's flight,
They fly from learning, wit and light:
They fly, and none can overtake
But some gay coxcomb, or a rake.
What emerges, then, even in the opening speeches of Cadenus
and Vanessa, is Swift's attempt to honor two standards of love. On
the one hand Swift, in good restoration fashion, is parodying Venus'
Court and the high-handed methods with which both advocates apply
rules to love. On the other hand, Swift is in sympathy with the
shepherds' plea that love ought to respond only to an actual good
and that, therefore, women ought to be truly worthy of the love of
a good man. Indeed, Venus' experiment is nothing other than an at-
tempt to adjust these two standards to each other. For Venus, by
endowing Vanessa with the perfection of every virtue, creates a
woman whom, she hopes, all men needs must love,but whom it will be
perfectly reasonable to love.
Of course, Venus' experiment is, we remember, a total failure.
For, although Vanessa is endowed with every virtue which, if virtue
could command love, ought to have made her universally adored, still,
as Venus sadly complains, Vanessa, "Never could one lover find."
(867). And the moral of this is obvious: no matter what the shep-
herds claim, no matter how much men wish to love reasonably, sexual
love is not reasonable. Rather, love has nothing to do with the
true value of the one loved and everything to do with the values of
the lover. And, in fact, this outcome has been predictable from the
beginning of the poem, for, from the beginning of the poem, Venus and
Pallas are professed foes and no possible reconciliation is ever of-
fered between these goddesses of love and of wisdom.
But if this outcome is obvious, we must not therefore miss
its pathos in Cadenus and Vanessa. Raised on lyrics like, "I don't
know why I love you like I do, I don't know why, I just do," and
assuming naturally that love is subjective, it is possible, I suspect,
for us to miss Swift's implied regret in lines like, "thus, to the
world's eternal shame,/The Queen of Beauty lost her aim." (431-432).
But for us not to credit the regret in these lines would be a mis-
take, I think; for our understanding of the poem depends upon our
recognizing that Swift's sympathies are clearly engaged by Venus and
her experiment. For although only by deceit is Venus able to enlist
Wisdom's aid towards endowing Vanessa and although Pallas proves to be
perfectly right in asking her scornfully rhetorical question,
.. how can heav'nly wisdom prove
An instrument to earthly love,
nevertheless, Pallas' scorn only makes more affecting the truth she
tells. And we are, therefore, against all wisdom, made to partici-
pate in Venus' sorrow when,
Too late with grief she understood
Pallas had done more harm than good.
And indeed, in the defeat of Venus' experiment are involved
a goodly number of cherished assumptions. Thus, for example, while
it is true that Swift, by couching in trivial terms Venus' naive
assumption that Vanessa's virtue must inspire universal love and
imitation,made that assumption appear just as naive as it is;
nevertheless, for all its simple-mindedness, there is something
appealing about Venus' expectation that,
Offending Daughters oft would hear
Vanessa's Praise rung in their Ear:
Miss Betty, when she does a Fault,
Lets fall her knife, or spills the Salt,
Will thus be by her Mother chid;
'Tis what Vanessa never did.
Of course, love does not prove to be, in Cadenus and Vanessa, what
it is assumed to be in so many romances both past and present--an
instrument capable of reforming men's manners and morals. Those
degraded shepherds and nymphs whom Venus hoped to reform through
Vanessa's great example ironically find Vanessa lacking in knowledge,
wit and judgment.
Their judgment was, upon the Whole,
--That lady is the dullest Soul--
Then tipt their Forehead in a jeer,
As who should say--she wants it here.
And ;ai.n, the moral of this is perfectly clear. Love can-
not be an effective instrument of reformation because love has
nothing to do with a reasonable appreciation of actual value,but
is'dependent solely on the nature of the lover. "Great examples,"
as Swift observes, "are but vain,/Where ignorance begets disdain"'
(436-437). But, because Swift has put Venus' expectations in such a
homely and appealing strain, there is something distinctly disappoint-
ing in discovering that Venus has, as Pallas prophesied to her, de-
ceived herself, instead of Pallas. Pallas, is perfectly right, of
course, and as she goes on to claim, "love" and "sense" have never
had anything to do with one another; but there is, nevertheless, a
pathos in that truth which Pallas seems incapable of appreciating but
which Swift, I think, has made perfectly plain.
The source of this pathos, is, of course, most fully explored
in the relationship of Vanessa and Cadenus. To be sure, everywhere
in the narration of their relationship love's subjectivity and funda-
mental irrationality are insisted on. Vanessa, for example, falls in
love not because of the reasonable appreciation which she might have
for Cadenus' gifts but rather through the violent and distressing
efforts of Cupid. And once she is in love, Vanessa's reason is pal-
pably affected, for, as we have already noted above, she comes badly
to overestimate Cadenus' gifts while unmistakably blurring his failings.
Cadenus now no more appears
Declin'd in Health, advanced in Years
She fancies Musick in his Tongue,
Nor further looks, but thinks him young.
Now, plainly, to fancy thus is not reasonable: it is to make of
Cadenus what Vanessa wants him to be, and even Vanessa herself must
admit that the real cause of her love is not, ultimately, Cadenus,
but herself. "Self love," she says,
. .in Nature rooted fast,
Attends us first, and leaves us last:
Whny she likes him, admire not at her,
She loves herself, and that's the matter.
Yet, Vanessa's attempts to reconcile her love for Cadenus
with reason are enormously appealing. Because, she argues, those
virtues which Cadenus taught and she, by the dictates of reason,
accepted, have now become her character, she, in loving herself,
must infallibly love him. Reason is thus, she may conclude, "her
guide in love." Vanessa's arguments are as ingenious as they are
attractive, and certainly we must admit about them what even Cadenus
admits, that we "at least could hardly wish them wrong." And yet
they are wrong, and Vanessa herself indicates the point at which
they err. For, seeking to turn everything to her argument, Vanessa
compares her love for Cadenus to his reverence for the authors of
(Those authors he so oft' had nam'd
For learning, wit and wisdom famed.)
But not even Vanessa can completely equate her passion for Cadenus
to his for ancient authors. A scholar's feelings for such authors
were, she knew, esteem, respect, devotion, and that sort of love
which she rightly characterizes in remarking that were such an author
now alive, "How all would for his friendship strive." (701)
These are indeed the marks of esteem which reason can grant
to apparent virtue, and were these love, love were reasonable. But
this, it is made ironically clear, is neither love nor what Vanessa
wants. For Cadenus offers her precisely
Friendship at its greatest Height,
A constant rational delight,
On Virtue's Basis fixed to last
When Love's Allurements long are past,
and promises further that he
His want of passion will redeem
With gratitude, respect, esteem.
And this offer Vanessa rejects out of hand. Her love for Cadenus
springs from her own self-love and, finally, has nought to do with
Cadenus' real qualities: no less passionate a commitment from Cadenus
will satisfy her.
Yet it is Vanessa, I think, rather than Cadenus, whom Swift
has created to most engage our sympathies. True, Vanessa was able
no more than Venus to reconcile love and reason, and Vanessa, in her
subjective and passionate commitment to Cadenus shows herself willing
to badly distort logic, and indeed, "all nature" in order to effect
her ends. Yet, if the basis of Vanessa's love is irrational self-
love, it is self-love more generously employed, one feels, than that
love of self which guides Cadenus' actions. For both Cadenus' fear
of gossip, "of what the world will say," and his susceptibility to
flattery are aspects of his own most unhappy variant of self-love--
pride. And as Vanessa has mistaken reason as her "guide in love" so
Cadenus subverts reason to be his guide in pride, and the result is
clearly much less admirable as he,
Const'ring the Passion she had shown,
Much to her praise, more to his own,
Nature in him had merit placed,
In her, a most judicious taste.
But neither must we judge Cadenus more harshly than does the
poem itself. True, the mask of reason with which Cadenus attempts
to cover his own self-interest is somehow always awry. Thus he,
having offered to a woman whom he does not love what he claims is
a higher good, "friendship. .a constant rational delight," con-
tinues on, with splendid inconsistency to offer her,
S. .that Devotion we bestow,
When Goddesses appear below.
But, even though this offer is both inconsistent and just what
Vanessa does not want, there is something touching and generously
redeeming in it. For finally, Cadenus is really not much different
from anyone else in the cast of this poem: all the cast are engaged
in the same funny, pitiable and human attempt to make truth submit
to their own subjective needs and views. The shepherds and nymphs,
reasonably blaming each other while holding themselves utterly
blameless; Venus, by reason, defending her kingdom; Pallas, un-
charitably but by reason defending hers; Vanessa reasonably defend-
ing her love and Cadenus reasonably defending his failure to love:
each is a miniature proof that man is, at best, but dimly conscious
of, and capable of controlling, his own nature. And yet they all,
somehow, demand compassion from us because we are all, I suspect,
a good deal like them. And so, apparently was Swift, who compassion-
ately made them and thus formed this, the gentlest of satires.
1. The Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur
Friedman, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1966), V, 329.
2. John Boyle, Earl of Corke and Orrery, Remarks on the Life
and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (London, 1752), p. 73.
3. Patrick Delany (London, 1754), p. 113.
4. Deane Swift, An Essay Upon the Life, Writings and
Character of Dr. Jonathan Swift (London, 1755), p. 244.
5. SEL, IV (1964), 485-496.
6. Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: the man, his works,and the age,
2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1662-), II, 312.
7. Dates from 1713 to 1719 have been proposed for the comple-
tion of Cadenus and Vanessa. For a recent review of the
problems involved see The Collected Poems of Jonathan Swift,
ed. Joseph Horrell, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), I,
8. Swift: the man, his works, and the age, II, 641-644.
9. Vanessa and her correspondence with Jonathan Swift, ed.
A. Martin Freeman (Boston and New York, 1921), p. 128.
10. Ibid., p. 110-111.
11. For an example of just how sophisticated a writer Esther
was, one might note that in the quotation just cited in
my text Esther, probably consciously, is echoing Theocritus'
Second Idyl. That is pretty good for "a brat who," Swift
said, "never read."
12. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis
et al., 13 vols. (Oxford, 1957), IX, 94.
13. Ibid., p. 90.
14. Vanessa and her correspondence with Jonathan Swift, p. 103.
15. Ibid., p. 109.
16. Ibid., p. 99.
17. Ibid., pp. 139-140.
18. I am here and through the remainder of my chapter deeply
indebted to H. M. Richmond's The School of Love: The
Evolution of the Stuart Love Lyric (Princeton, New Jersey,
19. Cited from Richmond, p. 185.
20. Cited from Richmond, p. 189.
21. The Works of Sir John Suckling, ed. A. Hamilton Thomson,
M. A. (London, 1910), p. 15.
22. Ibid., pp. 59-60.
23. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, IX, 263.
24. Ibid., p. 89.
25. Ibid., p. 93.
On Poetry: A Rapsody
None of Swift's poems has been so consistently praised as
has On Poetry: A Rapsody. Certain sections, at least, of the
poem have been abundantly anthologized, and the poem has been tra-
ditionally characterized as "one of Swift's chief claims to che
title of poet."' Indeed, one passage from the poem has been so
often cited as to have transcended both Swift and his Rapsody; the
passage, Swift's famous comparison of fleas and poets, has achieved
through frequent quotation an independent state of famous anonymity
as an example of eighteenth century verse.
The vermin only teaze and pinch
Their Foes superior by an Inch.
So, Nat'ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum:
Thus ev'ry poet in his Kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind.
Curiously enough, however, although the poem has remained
popular since the time of Goldsmith's praise of it as "one of the
best versified poems in our language and the most masterly pro-
duction of its author,"2 it has not, to the best of my knowledge,
ever been made the subject of much close study. Rather, the
observations which critics have usually flung in passing praise
of the Rapsody are at once impressionistic and in surprising con-
tradition with each other. Thus, to choose two fairly recent
examples, Ricardo Quintana has praised the poem by claiming that
"of such high voltage is the satire, that the level of intensity,
instead of declining as the piece continues, rises steadily from
couplet to couplet,"3 while on the other hand, Maurice Johnson has
maintained of the same poem that its "tone is so constantly level
and chilly that it seemed unbearably insulting to Walpole and the
others it named."4
Such vague and confused contrariness in praise of Swift's
Rapsody has served only, I suspect, to blunt the force, subtlety
and point of the poem, just as frequent quotation, in usually
insipid contexts, of the famous lines cited above has elevated
them to a bad, because vacuous, eminence. What has been missed in
such criticism can be indicated by simply noting that these famous
lines, though almost tamed by mere quotation, are really the center
of Swift's description of a society so vicious that in it each
man's hand is lifted against each man's hand, that in it
Each Poet of inferiour Size
On you shall rail and criticize;
And try to tear you Limb from Limb,
While others do as much for him.
This vicious society, I will argue, is the subject of the Rapsody
and is one of Swift's most powerful depictions of the catastrophic
results he thought to be implicit in the style of life he saw
about him, a style he thought corruptive enough to reduce human
life, as he tells us (beginning at line 319), to Hobbes' state of
nature--to a situation where the life of man is but one long combat.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of this combative
world is that in it all notion of vocation has apparently been
lost. Swift begins the Rapsody with the observation that all men
have run mad after the office of poet,
All Human Race would fain be Wits,
And Millions miss, for one that hits,
and he goes on to depict a world in which all other offices as
well have fallen into either abuse or desuetude. It is a world
where prelates thrive "who no God believe," public ministers min-
ister not, and no king rules. And because it is a world where all
sense of office has been lost it is also a world where the very
order of society, degree itself, has disappeared. Thus, "statesmen"
grow indistinguishable from "south sea jobbers," "pick-purses"
from judges, and "duchesses" from common whores. Ultimately, it is
a world where even the most fundamental of all human distinctions
and degrees, those which spring from family, from the relationship
of parent to child and husband to wife, are perverted and over-
A vivid insight into the subject and method of the Rapsody
can be gleaned by simply watching Swift build into the poem, by
allusion to familial relationship, a sense of the way the society
he depicts has grown corrupt. For in the world which Swift por-
trays in the Rapsody, neither a loving relationship of husband to
wife, nor legitimate parentage and the ties implied by it, are to
be found. Promiscuity and bastardy, rather, introduced very early
. .dropt, the spurious Pledges,
Of Gipsies litt'ring under hedges,
provide the defining metaphors for most of the relationships and
activities described in the Rapsody. Like the actual hordes of
beggars and gypsies who are so often anxiously mentioned by seven-
teenth and early eighteenth century preachers and whose masterless
and wandering condition was thought to be an evil portent for society
and a corruptive example to responsible men,5 the metaphor of
familial disintegration infects every strata of society and level
of endeavor described in this poem. Yet, always in this background
of bastardy and disinheritance there are reminders, in the very
terms Swift uses to create this background, that in well ordered
societies it is the family, in its naturalness and mutual loving
responsibilities, which has always been the supreme example for
the conduct of even the highest offices of society.
Thus, to cite the most obvious example of the use of this
metaphor, the writing of bad poetry is repeatedly imaged in the
Rapsodv as a type of misbegetting and unnatural parentage. And
the perversions implicit in this comparison are especially pointed
since, in the eighteenth century the writing of not bad, but good,
poetry was often described in terms which suggest procreation.
Thus, for example, Pope defines the operation of true wit as "a
justness of thought and a faculty of expression; or (in the mid-
wife's phrase) a perfect conception with an easy delivery."6 In
the Rapsody, Pope's basic comparison of writing to begetting is
maintained but, since Swift is describing the generation of false
wit, the terms are changed, and thus the import of the comparison
is reversed. The poets Swift describes "prostitute" their muses
and the result, of course, is bastardy.
The Product of your Toil and Sweating;
A Bastard of your own begetting.
As Swift developed this metaphoric comparison of bad poets
and bad poetry with promiscuity, bastardy, and parental and filial
ungratefulness, the moral ugliness which he thought was involved in
writing bad poetry becomes increasingly clear. Thus, he points
out through this metaphor that the writer of bad verses not only
commits an unnatural act in first writing but is then, all too
often, forced to compound his first sin with another act even more
unnatural: he is forced, in order to prevent discovery, to commit
the metaphorical equivalent of child abandonment. "If you find,"
the bad poet is warned,
. the general Vogue
Pronounces you a stupid Rogue;
. .praise the Judgment of the Town,
And help your self to run it [your poem] down.
Give up your fond paternal pride,
Nor argue on the weaker side. . .
Thus, the writing of bad poetry comes, in the Rapsody, to involve
more than just writing bad poetry, it becomes a way of prostitu-
ting one's moral sense as well. As Swift indicates early in the
poem, maintaining still a metaphor based upon a perversion of
familial relationship, the condition of poetry in the England this
poem describes is like the condition of a disinherited family line,
and a line not only disinherited but whose portion has bcc.
attainted--lost through the sin of its progenitors. The poet's
"portion," that is, inheritance, was never more than "one annual
hundred pounds" (the laureate's grant) and now, Swift remarks,
. .not so much as in Remainder,
Since Cibber brought in an Attainder;
Forever fixt by Right Divine
(A Monarch's Right) on Grubstreet Line.
Swift's point, of course, is that the unhappy appointment of so
unworthy a man as Cibber to the laureatship, though the appointment
is approved by royalty, disaccredits the whole race of poets.
But promiscuity, bastardy and disinheritance are not, as
I have already indicated, reserved in this poem to the office of
poetry. Rather, Swift insists, these perversions reach to the
highest of England's political offices, and much of the irony
which permeates that praise of George II and his family, with which
Swift concludes the Rapsody, turns upon the contrast between the
familial harmony which ought to characterize England's ruling
family and the scandalously public disharmony which actually
characterized both that family and its rule. For Swift's first
readers, then, much of Swift's mock praise of George II served
only as a reminder that George was as corrupt a natural husband
and father as he was a kingly father. Thus, for example, the
praise of Queen Caroline as
The Consort of his Throne and Bed
A perfect Goddess born and bred,
must have reminded those readers only that George was often un-
faithful to that bed. And the praise of George's eldest son,
Fredrick Louis, Prince of Wales, as manly,
What Early Manhood has he shown,
Before his downy Beard was grown,
must have seemed a very thinly veiled allusion to that prince's un-
distinguished and undistinguishing promiscuity. Thus, much of the
irony of this whole closing passage works to locate in the royal
family that corruption of familial harmony which was first intro-
duced into the poem through society's pariahs. Swift, in so
closing the poem, completes a metaphor of disorder which runs
from alien gypsies to England's sovereign power.
But even as it minutely records this disorder, the Rapsody
itself is a poem of affirmation. For, as I shall argue throughout
this essay, the perversely inharmonious world of foolish men which
the Rapsody describes is judged in the very terms of its descrip-
tion. Thus, to cite an example we have already seen, the whole
efficaciousness of Swift's description of the Rapsody's world in
terms of promiscuity, bastardy and disinheritance depends upon our
seeing, in the midst of Swift's irony, his insistence that the
great pattern of well ordered states has traditionally been proper
familial relationship. Our mode of reading the Rapsody, then,
must be something like the method Edward Young commended in reading
Scripture; it must be read by measuring its descriptions of men
against what is requires of man in order that its "Satire on the
weakness and iniquity of man"7may be of profit.
Like Pope's Dunciad, which Swift conspicuously footnotes
(at line 393) in his poem, the Ransody was written in an age when
"Paper. .became so cheap and printers so numerous, that a deluge
of authors cover'd the land."8 As "for poets," as Swift puts it,
. (you can never want them,
Spread thro' Augusta Trinobantumn)
Computing by their Pecks of Coals,
Amount to just Nine Thousand Souls.
And like the very beggars and gypsies, to whose fortunes Swift
unfavorably compares the face of poets, the ever-swelling hordes
of bad rhymers emblemized, to Augustans like Swift and Pope, an
entire society strayed loose from its traditional moorings, a
race of men wandered from their simplest self-interest.
Indeed, the first seventy lines of the Rapsody are per-
meated with Swift's astonishment at such men as have run mad
after the name of poet, since, as Swift assures us, the office of
poet has never worked to the apparent worldly good of any man so
unfortunate to be called to serve in it. Not beggars' brats, nor
shoe blacks, nor sons of whores, Swift insists, are
.so disqualify'd by Fate
To Rise in Church, or Law, or State,
As he, whom Phoebus in his Ire
Hath blasted with Poetic Fire.
Swift demonstrates this thesis throughout the poem by
listing a multitude of misfortunes which attend upon the poet's
station. Of these miseries the most probable, of course, was the
brand of blockhead--but it was not, by far, the worst. For, as
Swift's mock lament should remind us,
Poor Starviing Bard, how small thy Gains,
How unproportion'd to thy Pains,
grinding poverty was often enough in eighteenth century London
the lot of those who pretended to letters. Indeed, even prominence
in the world of letters, Swift makes clear, was no assurance of
either political or financial security. Pope, Swift notes, being
Catholic, could not approach the court from which Gay was ul-
timately banished and in which Edward Young could eke out a living
only so long as he could continue to
. .torture his Invention,
To flatter Knaves or lose his Pension.
Given, then, these conditions we must share Swift's puzzle-
ment when, in the Rapsody's first stanza, he wonders why men, even
against the grain of their abilities, attempt to be poets and asks,
What Reason can there be assigned,
For this Perverseness in the Mind?
Curiously, however, Swift has already formally answered this
question within the first four lines of the Rapsodv. "Pride,"
he has remarked, "was never known to spread so wide." And it is
indicative of how far removed is the conduct of the race of would-
be wits from Swift's own vision of man's proper role that, having
once answered it, he raises the same question all over again.
Here, that is, as throughout the Rapsody, we can sense not only
Swift's anger, but also his astonishment, at that man who, having
a choice, would
. .where his Genious least inclines,
Absurdly bend his whole designs.
Thus, although it has been lamented that in the Rapsody
there are no clear norms to judge those men whom Swift satirizes,
in fact, Swift's own conviction that each man is so peculiarly
endowed for his proper role that it takes an astoundingly energetic
act of willful perversity to avoid that role is made clear enough
even in the first paragraph of the poem. In that paragraph Swift
compares man's chronic failure to follow his own natural bent with
the ease with which "Brutes find out where their talents lie."
The comparison was a popular one through the sixteenth and seven-
teenth centuries;10 Swift might have found it in several places
in both Montaigne and Pascal and, of course, he uses it in several
places himself. But in the Rapsody Swift works an illuminating
variation on the standard use of this comparison. Customarily, in
both Montaigne and Pascal, for example, the comparison is used to
remind proud man that in some ways, at least, the condition of
brutes is preferable to the condition of man, to remind men that,
though they consider themselves lords of the universe, in some
ways nature has been a kinder mother to brutes (by making them
instinctively aware of their abilities) than to mankind. Swift's
use of this comparison is, of course, like those of Montaigne and
Pascal, directed against man's pride,but his emphasis is different
from theirs; for Swift's point is not that nature has been a
kinder mother to brutes than to man but that man is simply the most
perverse of nature's children, the only creature, as Swift ob-
Who, led by Folly, combats Nature;
Who, when She loudly cries Forbear,
With Obstinacy fixes there.
Fully informed by nature, man,in Swift's view, insists on going
wrong. And therefore, unlike the dog which, Swift tells us, knows
to "turn aside" when it "sees the ditch too deep and wide," man
not only leaps into the ditch, but, as we shall see later in the
poem, even attempts to invert the whole world in order to make a
ridiculous virtue out of his bemiring failure,
With Heads to Points the Gulph they enter,
Link't perpendic'lar to the Centre:
And as their Heels elated rise,
Their Heads attempt the nether Skies.
There is, however, both in Swift's certainty that each
man has a particular role to play and in his condemnation of those
would-be poets who undertake a vocation to which they are not
called, something quite alien to a culture which, like ours, is
secular. Generally, in twentieth century European and American
literature, a choice of careers has been considered as a very
complex process, since it has been understood to depend upon a
large number of personal variables--what will make a particular
man happiest, most intellectually stimulated or most prosperous.
One must simply observe that Swift had not this way of thinking;
rather, as he makes abundantly clear in several of his sermons,
and particularly in that sermon titled, The Duty of Mutual
Subjection, a man's personal happiness was not and, from his
view of the matter, simply could not be the primary consideration
in the finding of a vocation. For Swift, a man's personal happi-
ness was itself dependent upon another consideration, how useful
a man might make his own advantages of wisdom, power or wealth to
his neighbor. "If a man doth not use those advantages to the Good
of the Publick," Swift observed,
or to the Benefit of his Neighbour, it is certain he
doth not deserve them; and consequently, that God never
intended them for a Blessing to him; and on the other
side, whoever doth employ his Talents as he ought, will
find by his own Experience, that they were chiefly lent
him for the Service of others: for to the Service of
others he will certainly employ them.11
Indeed, Swift is willing to argue the proposition that each
man's talent is a blessing to him only insofar as he is willing
to devote it to the service of others even with respect to the
gift of wisdom--a talent so often considered a good of itself.
For Swift comments,
Even great Wisdom is in the opinion of Solomon not a
Blessing in itself: for in much Wisdom is much Sorrow;
and Men of common understandings, if they serve God and
mind their Callings, make fewer mistakes in che Conduct
of Life than those who have better Heads. And yet,
Wisdom is a mighty Blessing when it is applied to good
Purposes, to instruct the Ignorant, to be a faithful
Counsellor either in Publick or Private, to be a
Director to Youth, and to many other Ends needless here
By his potential usefulness, then, not by a vision of his poten-
tial happiness, must a man find his proper calling. As Swift
argues, this world is providentially so ordered that the good of
each particular man, and of society as a whole, is dependent upon
the willingness of each particular man to serve his neighbor; as
each man is dependent upon his neighbor's skills, so each man must
bend his talents in subjection to his neighbor's good. Thus,
Swift sums the matter up,
As God hath contrived all the works of Nature to be
useful, and in some manner a support to each other, by
which the whole frame of the World under his Providence
is preserved and kept up: so among Mankind, our par-
ticular Stations are appointed to each of us by God
Almighty, wherein we are obliged to act, as far as our
Power reacheth, towards the Good of the whole community.
And he who doth not perform that Part Assigned to him
towards advancing the Benefit of the Whole, in propor-
tion to his Opportunities and Abilities, is not only a
useless, but a very mischievous Member of the Publick;
Because he taketh his Share of the Profit, and yet leaveth
his Share of the Burden to be borne by others, which
is the true principal cause of most Miseries and Mis-
fortunes in Life.
Measured, then, against Swift's view of a man's social
responsibility, it should be obvious that the man who "absurdly
bends his whole designs" against the inclinations of his own
genius errs profoundly against both himself and his fellow man.
He errs against himself because his own happiness, whether he
acknowledges it or not, depends upon the serviceable utilization
of his talents. And he errs against others since each abuse of
one's own talents represents a choice, no matter how mistaken, of
one's own good before the good of one's neighbor, and each such
choice must weaken those bonds of mutual responsibility which are
the very makings of a society. Thus, the "uncalled" poets Swift
describes in the Rapsody are capable of working far worse than
their own individual ill; they are, rather, at once active in and
emblematic of a general social disaster. And their culpability
extends beyond their having abandoned those offices and responsi-
bilities to which their God-given talents gave them a natural and
legitimate claim; for the office which they subsequently overrun
simply by force of their numbers is exactly that office which
traditionally has been considered primarily responsible for
teaching what they, in even attempting poetry, have forgotten--
the art, as Horace put it, to "bring all things to their proper
For Swift, then, what made doubly dangerous this headlong
rush of men from their proper spheres to a vocation for which they
had no calling is that it involved not only the abandonment of
their several stations, but it meant also the adulteration by un-
fit men of an office of particular significance; an office for
which, Swift assures us early in the Rapsody, many may feel called,
but few are chosen.
Not Empire to the Rising-Sun,
By Valour, Conduct, Fortune won;
Nor highest Wisdom in Debates
For framing Laws to govern States;
Nor Skill in Sciences profound,
So large to graspe the Circle round;
Such Heav'nly Influence require,
As how to strike the Muses Lyre.
Unfortunately, critics seeing the scorn which Swift later in the
Rapsody pours down upon the pretentions and pretentiousness of a
city-full of bad poets, have been generally inclined to read that
scorn back into the lines just cited; that is, Swift's critics
have understood these lines to signify just the opposite of what
they say.15 There is, however, no real reason to so interpret
these lines, and there are good reasons, I think, why one should
not do so.
To begin with, Swift, in claiming that the office of poet
required a special grace and therefore, implicitly, served a
special function, does no more than state an intellectual common-
place which presumably he, as well as his contemporaries, in-
herited from the ages which preceded his. Horace had claimed that
the particular function of poetry was Aut prodesse volunt, aut de-
lectare and, as Thomas Maresca has recently argued,16 Horace's
maxim was repeated, with special emphasis on and expansion of its
first alternative, throughout the seventeenth century. "I could
never," Ben Jonson asserted at the beginning of the century,
. .think the study of wisdom confined only to the
philosopher or of piety to the divine, or of state
to the politicke. But he that can fain a Common-
Wealth (which is the poet) can gowne it with counsels,
strengthen it with laws, correct it with judgments,
inform it with religion and morals, is all of these.
Wee do not require in him mere elocution, or an ex-
cellent faculty in verse, but the exact knowledge of
all virtues, and their contraries, with the ability to
render one Love'd and the other hated. 17
At the end of the century, Dryden, speaking of tragedy, makes
for it exactly the same claim which Jonson had made more generally
for all poetry--and does so almost in Jonson's words. The work of
tragedy, Dryden claims, is to "reform manners by the delightful
representation of human life," and it can only do this by teaching
"love to virtue and hatred to vice; by shewing the rewards of one,
and punishments of the other. .. [or, at least by] rendering vir-
tue always amiable and vice detestable."18
This vision of poetry, as at once the repository of the
particular truths of divinity, philosophy and politics and the
ideal fountainhead for these truths is, in fact, the common denomi-
nator not only of one, but of more than two centuries of English
critical thought and unifies tracts so disparate in time and diverse
in spirit as Sidney's joyous Defense of Poesy and Sir William
Temple's almost phlegmatic Of Poetry. As long as Horace's state-
ment of the efficacy of poetry in teaching virtues and civility
continued to command respect, it provided a common basis for cri-
tical thought. It was, therefore, as true for Dryden as for Sid-
ney, for Pope as for Jonson, that poetry, because it illuminates
the universal through the particular by teaching morality through
clearly praiseworthy and blameworthy examples, is the ideal vehicle
to render virtues love and their contraries hated. Indeed, just
because poetry was considered to be at once so efficacious and so
necessary in "insensibly influencing" a people to virtuous action,
many a seventeenth century critic, like Sir William Davenant,
felt he could confidently maintain that without the "help of the
muses" no Divine or Leader of Armies, no Statesman or Judge could
reasonably expect "a long or quiet satisfaction in government."19
This whole background of ideas defining the nature of
poetry and, more importantly, the ends poetry is to serve is, both
by the title Swift chose to give his poem and by the way he chose
to narrate most of it, made almost constantly available as a
standard of judgment against which the activities imaged in the
poem can be measured. The significance of the first half of the
title is rather obvious; "On Poetry" refers back to that group of
similarly titled works which, as they reflected Horace's moral
view of poetry's function, reflected also the popular title of
his fullest exposition of his view, the Ars Poetica. The signifi-
cance of the second half of the title, however, may be somewhat
obscured for a twentieth century reader since both the connota-
tion and denotation of the word "rhapsody" have changed consider-
ably since Swift used it. To the twentieth century reader the
word normally denotes a specific type of music which is agreeable
because of its charming lyrical freedom. In the eighteenth cen-
tury, however, the word was often used to refer co any work which
was distinguished by an unhappy disorder. Thus Pope, writing to
Swift in 1729, defined by the word "rhapsody" the opposite of true
wit's creative and orderly process: "This letter. .will by a
rhapsody, it is many years since I wrote as a wit."20 As Swift,
then, would have understood the words of his title, that title
delineates the process his poem describes; a debasing and dis-
ordering of that very art which traditionally taught "the proper
native use" of things and men."
In the Rapsody, in fact, this disordering process is not
only described, its very workings are, as we shall see, demon-
strated. Up to line seventy, as we have already noted, the as-
tonished narrator of the Rapsody seems to be Swift himself, and
the mode of narration is a reasonably straight-forward description
of disorder. After line seventy, however, the narration of the
Rapsody becomes a subtler matter. We are introduced to a narrator
who himself illustrates the actual force of disorder as it corrupts
now poetry and now mankind, and the narration of the poem becomes,
in fact, a perverse Ars Poetica, echoing, in its variegated sub-
jects, oscillating style and in the very wording of its advice,
that Horatian collection of practical advice, historical review,
and social commentary which served as the foundation of that
traditional view of poetry which we have discussed above.
"How shall a new Attempter learn,' Swift asks, moving into
this new section,
Of different Spirits to discern,
And how distinguish, which is which,
The Poet's Vein, or scribling Itch?
Then hear an old experienced Sinner
Instructing thus a young Beginner.
Thus Swift introduces what is probably some of the subtlest and
most compact poetry he ever wrote by prefacing it with lines which
are themselves perplexing. The narrator of the coming lines, Swift
tells us here, is an "old experienced sinner." But, although Swift
calls this narrator a sinner, it is not very clear why he does so,
since he also tells us that the instructions which this sinner
will offer are instructions in that art which is most necessary
to all potential poets--and generalized, to all good men--the art
of distinguishing between true poetic calling and a mere scribbling
itch, between true vocation and mere whimsy.
But, despite the initially confusing character of this
introduction, it does provide us with at least one very strong
indication of our new narrator's sinful and corruptive nature.
In telling us that this old sinner will teach the skill, precisely,
"of different Spirits to discern," Swift echoes a text, I Corinthians 12,