Group Title: echoic poetry of Jonathan Swift
Title: The echoic poetry of Jonathan Swift
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Title: The echoic poetry of Jonathan Swift studies in its meaning
Physical Description: xi, 144 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Language: English
Creator: Fischer, John Irwin, 1940-
Publication Date: 1968
Copyright Date: 1968
Subject: English thesis Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )
Thesis: Thesis - University of Florida.
Bibliography: Bibliography: leaves 141-144.
Additional Physical Form: Also available on World Wide Web
General Note: Manuscript copy.
General Note: Vita.
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Bibliographic ID: UF00097795
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
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Resource Identifier: alephbibnum - 000561419
oclc - 13528862
notis - ACY7352


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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,
Mass., 1962-).

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.







Works Cited

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

against pride.

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

the ode.

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,
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
vividly expressed.13

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

specifically refuting.

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

Uriel as

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

of God.

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
(1960), 298-314.

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),
II, 210.

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
Lichtenstein, p.59.

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-

gal felicity,

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

height." (780).

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

the remark,

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

biographical significance.1

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-

speare, asks,

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

same point.

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

nymphs' accusations.

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

believing in.

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

"ancient days,"

(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,

concludes that,

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,

there is

. .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
to mention.12

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

native use."14


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,

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