The Art of Swifting

Right now I’m reading a superb biography on Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) by Leo Damrosch. Swift is one of the most memorable personalities in the history of literature. This biography is hard to put down. The book is a masterpiece of prose and storytelling itself. Swift was an essayist and satirist with a sharp mind and a burning wit. For me, Swift’s most memorable quotes, the ones that remain in my mind when I think of Swift, are:

“The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.”

“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

“If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!”

“There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy.”

“…the most pernicious race of odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Swift is mostly known for his satirical story called Gulliver’s Travels. If you’re over 40 you may have had to read this story in middle school or high school. George Orwell, himself probably one of the top 5 English language essayists to ever pick up a pen, thought Gulliver’s Travels probably meant more to him than any other book ever written. Orwell said there was rarely a year that went by without him dipping into Swift’s classic. Orwell wrote an excellent essay on Swift well worth reading.

What brought me to writing this post was a rather humorous passage in Damrosch’s biography that highlights Swift the writer and Swift the personality. Swift was not, at least in many of his writings, a politically correct writer. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he had little patience for literary cant. On Page 209 of Damrosch’s book he writes:

Commenting on a history of the Church, he [Swift] once rewrote an overelaborate passage in order to bring it to life. Here is the original text, describing unworthy clergymen: “They are an insensible and degenerate race, who are thinking of nothing but their present advantages; and so that they may now support a luxurious and brutal course of irregular and voluptuous practices, they are easily hired to betray their religion, to sell their country, and to give up that liberty and those properties which are the present felicities and glories of this nation.” That’s barely readable. Swift’s version gets rid of the big words and abstractions, and leaps from the page: “The bulk of the clergy, and one third of the bishops, are stupid sons of whores, who think of nothing but getting money as soon as they can. If they may but procure enough to supply them in gluttony, drunkenness, and whoring, they are ready to turn traitors to God and their country, and make their fellow subjects slaves.”

We could almost say this bitting, straightforward, no pulling punches writing style, is what we might call Swifting or the Art of Swifting.

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