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THE GREATEST ENGLISH SATIRIST
N his lecture on Swift, Thackeray gives us
a masterly picture of the famous Dean of
St. Patrick's, but tells us he was a very bad man. Certainly there is nothing very agreeable about Swift, and though we have already described him as in a way the typical preacher of his day, he is not such a man as we should like to have occupy the pulpit of the church we go to. For all that, we are forced to admit that in his writings it is the element of truth that has preserved them. “ Gulliver's Travels” is read to-day, and will continue to be read by the average man long after every one of Swift's contemporaries has been relegated to the literary attic. Possibly he will be read as a mere story teller, by children who suspect him of ferocity as little as they suspect the pussy-cat in the
Still, it is very remarkable that the most pungent satire in the language and one of the most simple and fascinating stories can exist together in the same literary composition. The only way to account for it is to suppose that Swift told the simple truth without in any way disfiguring it by his moroseness of temper.
In his literary style, Swift belongs to the same classic school as Bacon. Like Bacon, he states simple truths in the plainest and simplest manner; but while Bacon selected profound truths, Swift, actuated by the mad bitterness of his temper, was always putting his finger with unerring accuracy on the weak points of human nature. He tells his simple story in his smooth and simple way, with no ornament, no exaggeration. No reacer can question, much less deny, a single syllable; but when he looks up and catches the old fellow's malicious eye, his very flesh creeps under tie stinging satire of the truth that the Dean states so suavely and so accurately. The Dean is bitte: and malicious as no other man ever was; bu. he is strictly truthful; and since he is truthfu we cannot believe that he has ever done humar nature any harm.
To be sure, Swift might have applied the purifying caustic with heartfelt love instead of malicious glee. The“ Modest Proposal” for eating children is so repulsive, so sickeningly ferocious, that we prefer to pass it by even though it is one of the most remarkable pieces of literature of its kind. Compare with it the same kind of satire on the same subject, inspired by the same bitterness of heart, that we find in the following paragraph from Ruskin's "Fors Clavigera," à propos of the English gentleman's delight in killing things for sport:
“Of course, all this is natural to a sporting people who have learned to like the smell of gunpowder, sulphur, and gas tar better than that of violets and thyme. But, putting baby-poisoning, pigeon-shooting, and rabbit-shooting to-day in comparison with the pleasures of the German Madonna and her simple company, and of Chaucer and his carolling company: and seeing that the present effect of peace upon earth, and well-pleasing in men, is that every nation now spends most of its income in machinery for shooting the best and the bravest men just when they were likely to have become of some use to their fathers and mothers, I put it to you, my friends all, — calling you so, I suppose for the last time, unless you are disposed for friendship with Herod instead of Barabbas, - whether it would not be more kind and less expensive to make the machinery a little smaller, and adapt it to spare opium now, and expenses of maintenance and education afterwards (beside no end of diplomacy), by taking our sport in shooting babies instead of rabbits ?
There is no doubt, however, that Swift's pitchfork has pricked more skins than Ruskin's subtle needle-point.
Swift's best satirical essay is undoubtedly his first, " A Tale of a Tub." In its digression and variety of topics it is a typical essay, and its amusing little tale has a very deep political significance; for Peter [St. Peter] is merely Swift's
name for the Roman Catholic Church, Martin [Luther] for the Episcopal or English Church, and Jack (Calvin) for the Presbyterian or Nonconformist Church. The satire on booksellers in the “Bookseller's Dedication" and the satire on current authors in the dedication to “Prince Posterity” have nearly as much point to-day as when they were written. Altogether these three or four selections, complete in themselves, give also a very good impression of “A Tale of a Tub" as a whole.
A TALE OF A TUB
THE BOOKSELLER'S DEDICATION
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE JOHN LORD SOMERS
HO’ the author has written a large Dedication,
yet that being addressed to a prince, whom I am never likely to have the honour of being known to; a person besides, as far as I can observe, not at all regarded, or thought on by any of our present writers; and being wholly free from that slavery which booksellers usually lie under, to the caprices of authors; I think it a wise piece of presumption to inscribe these papers to your Lordship, and to implore your Lordship's protection of them. God nd your Lordship know their faults and their