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A tribute to rambunctious Swift from Abilene, Texas

Delores Washburn, Abilene, Texas writes in a letter to the Wall Street Journal (24 July 2008),

Often in recent years, the activities of our government entities make me believe we are living in a satiric world described by Jonathan Swift. The EPA document just released, prescribing idiotic carbon controls, is evidence enough. Having described such a foolish scientific community in Lemuel Gulliver's third voyage (to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan), Swift knew the human animal quite well. I suppose we'll have to give up lawmowers for goats to groom our four acres; but wait - goats have emissions, too! God help us all.
Swift would have liked the reference to goats, and he understood political excess from personal experience.

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Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Dublin. His supposed father's family reached Ireland from England in the 17th century. An attorney, his father died a few months before he was born, and his mother returned to her family in Leicestershire. Meanwhile, Swift had been spirited away to Cumberland by a devoted nursemaid. (He later spent considerable time with the Englishman who may have been his actual father and whose letters he edited.)

At school, Swift was ‘more than a drudge and less than an angel'. He would read widely and deeply only after he left school. He suffered, and managed to survive, labyrinthine vertigo, an illness that would put most people on the disability roster today. In his early thirties, by then ordained, he had begun writing the historical allegories that comfort us with the notion that idiocy's dominant role in politics is not something new and people have survived it in the past, though not without pain.

By 1708 Addison was describing him as 'The Truest Friend And the Greatest Genius of his Age'. Subsequent years found Swift immersed in Whig and then Tory politics, and writing on behalf of each, though not simultaneously and not to our taste in either case. It took only a few years to find Swift increasingly disaffected by politics.

With the Sciblerus Club, he hatched "literary plots against the political and literary establishments". The Club included Alexander Pope, John Gay and Parnell. In time some of these would see the light of day as Gulliver's Travels, The Beggar's Opera, and The Dunciad.

Swift appears to have been an admirer and friend of two women simultaneously, Stella and Vanessa. Stella was beautiful, though slightly fat, and knew Greek, Roman, French and English history, Greek philosophy and the nature of government. She was so witty Swift published her Bon Mots after she died. "His letters to her in the Journal to Stella was that of an intimate and loving friendship between two people who understood each other perfectly." It is speculation that he may have secretly married her. (It is quite possible that she was his half-sister.) Vanessa was a 'Romantick'. Swift urged her to read and exercise so she might 'talk and act like a Man of this World'. Not surprisingly she did not care for this advice.

In 1714, 'weary to death of Courts and Ministers, and Business and Politicks’, a sentiment many of us share, Swift retreated to Ireland to take up the post of Anglican dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. Distanced from the distractions of London, he tackled Gulliver's Travels, though he rarely had more than a month without deafness or vertigo, and dangerously but with some success took up horse-riding to combat his attacks.

It was also in Ireland that he discovered his sense of justice. He "forged a programme of political writing" based on the injustice he could see around him. His first targets were "the punitive trade laws which implemented England's crushing mercantilist domination of Ireland's economy" (which Adam Smith also denounced), "the exploitative Anglo-Irish gentry and landlord class" and "a supine working population". (Populations who have been disarmed are often, by necessity, supine.)

The printer of Swift's essay, Edward Waters, was arrested, but in another triumph for the jury trial was found not guilty. Swift's subsequent letters made him a popular hero in Ireland. He was not alone. Quite a few Brits fought injustice in Ireland.

Hero he might be, but "The clandestine business of getting into print a pseudonymous and satirically explosive political satire entitled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (known from the start by its more popular title, Gulliver's Travels) was managed chiefly by Pope, with the assistance of John Gay and Erasmus Lewis". Five printers were involved to avert the risk of piracy, and the first editions sold out in a week. It is Swift's most famous work, and based almost entirely on the people he had known in London and Ireland.

People, it appears, have not changed very much.

All quotes from the Oxford DNB.

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