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Locating Swift
Essays from Dublin on the 250th Anniversary of the Death of Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745.
Aileen Douglas, Patrick Kelly & Ian Campell Ross, Editors


 Review of English Studies (Volume 50, 1999)
'Numerous collections of essays on Swift have appeared since the tercentenary of his birth in 1967.  As the editors explain, the present volume has its origins in a conference at Trinity College, Dublin, held to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Swift's death.  Their fine introduction goes on to consider changes in Swift studies in the intervening years.  While theoretical approaches, including feminism, have yet to put down firm roots in the Swiftian landscape, Aileen Douglas, Patrick Kelly, and Ian Campbell Ross suggest 'the value of a renewed engagement on the part of Swiftians with history and, especially, Irish history'.

This reviewer does not need to be reminded how much important research on eighteenth-century Irish history has been published in the past fifteen years or so, how much it alters our perception of Swift's Irish milieu, and yet how little thus far it has succeeded in influencing critical approaches to his life and works, particularly as far as the years after 1714 are concerned.  It is fortunate, therefore, that the most important essay in Locating Swift, by S. J. Connolly, is 'Swift and Protestant Ireland: Images and Reality'.  Observing that Swift did not fit 'neatly into the dichotomy of party politics', Professor Connolly argues that Swift 'reveals himself to be either the prisoner or the unscrupulous purveyor of political and religious prejudices so strong as to distort his whole presentation of events'.  Not only is this perception valid, it is, I believe, crucial to a true understanding of Swift's ideas to recognize the extent to which many of them are idiosyncratic.  Swift was not a mainstream thinker.  Having made his point, Professor Connolly embarks on a reconsideration of Swift's opinions on Irish affairs in the light of recent reinterpretations of Irish history.  Unless they are already acquainted with the writings cited in Professor Connolly's footnotes, this essay should be regarded as essential reading for all Swiftians.  Swift's engagement with Irish affairs is also the basis for Patrick Kelly's more straightforward discussion of Berkeley's debt in The Querist to the conclusion of A Modest Proposal.

Unfortunately, the essays concerning Swift's English milieu are less illuminating.  Melinda Alliker Rabb, making bricks without straw, asserts that 'Swift and [Delarivière] Manley show that men and women write differently', underplaying, if not discounting altogether, the various instances of collaboration between the two writers.  Frank Palmeri breaks old ground in juxtaposing Swift's 'satires on history' - A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels - and 'the historical narratives'-A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions and The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen - without adducing any new evidence for his assertion that the Discourse 'carries a considerable satiric charge'.

There is less coherence about the rest of the essays.  Margaret Anne Doody, clearly pursuing the theme of her recent The True Story of the Novel (1996), correctly reminds anyone who was not aware of his fondness for Rabelais, Cervantes, Burton, et al., that 'there is a Renaissance voice in Swift, that it is sometimes useful to consider him as a writer of the late Renaissance'. (Alternatively, one could always read A Tale of a Tub.) Frank T. Boyle revisits Gulliver's Travels to reveal 'how Swift used the materials of contemporary travel literature on the East to construct an image of Modernity set on an inherently misanthropic course'.  Mark R. Blackwell explores Swift's relations with Jonathan Smedley.  And Allen Reddick returns to Swift's later years to stress 'the importance of the consistent commentary concerning Swift's madness and death, especially in terms of divine retributory narrative'.

The last two essays are very different, both from the rest of the collection and from each other.  Exploring the way in which Swift has been taught at Trinity College, Dublin, Aileen Douglas and Ian Campbell Ross observe that, of the 'Classical English Authors' mentioned by name on the first English literature syllabus (1856), only Swift was born in Ireland.  Other fascinating insights into the teaching of English literature at Trinity include this examination question from 1916: 'Write a general account of the poetical work of Edmund Spenser, or Dryden, or Shelley.  Show, if possible, that you have yourself read some of the work of the poet you select.' And we worry about the dumbing down of university teaching!

The collection closes with Carole Fabricant's curious essay on 'Swift's Political Legacy'.  Professor Fabricant's work is notable for its 'new historicist' edge, that is, she insists on bringing contemporary political relevance to bear on the study of Swift's texts.  In this contribution, she continues to discuss 'some of the ways that 1 see Swift capable of speaking to contemporary concerns', specifically reactions to Proposition 187, which was approved in California in 1994, and which mandated a series of draconian steps to reduce the number of illegal aliens (principally Mexicans) in the state.  While I do not dissent from Professor Fabricant's conclusion-'that the world of A Modest Proposal is not only still very much with us, but has expanded to the point where there is very little outside of it capable of functioning in a normative or critical capacity'-I wonder if I am alone in suspecting that she is now fighting all the way back to E. D. Hirsch's distinction between 'meaning' and significance' (Sinn und Bedeutung)?

J.A. DOWNIE Goldsmiths College, London
Review of English Studies, Volume 50, 1999

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