Jonathan Swift was the Jon Stewart of his day, using both poetry and prose to skewer the powerful and pompous. By Nancy Yang. Illustrations by Jaxon Seiler.
hen Stephen Karian sits down with his student assistants to talk about the poems of Jonathan Swift, he offers words of caution about the where the research might lead. “Sometimes it’s a treasure hunt, but sometimes it’s a wild goose chase. You never know at the beginning what it will be. That’s the nature of this kind of work.”
It’s also the nature of Swift, the 18th-century satirist best known for circuitous and slippery narratives and for works like Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. Less familiar are his 370 poems, but they spare none of Swift’s plainspoken wit and powerful sarcasm — qualities that have allowed his work to endure for almost three centuries.
Karian, an associate professor of English, has taken on the monumental task of documenting every poem Swift ever wrote, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and support from MU and the UM System. The NEH grant expands on a 12-month NEH Fellowship that Karian received three years ago.
“It’s a challenge tackling a big project, because it takes a long time to complete it,” says Karian, who shares the NEH grant with James Woolley, a professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn. “We’ve been at it for a bit, and I think we’re both seeing enormous progress as the end is in sight.”
This is the final year of the NEH funding, which supports two complementary projects: a printed edition of Swift’s complete poems and a digital archive of early manuscripts, printed versions and illustrations. The printed edition runs 3,000 pages in four volumes of the Cambridge Works of Jonathan Swift. The digital archive, also known as the Swift Poems Project, will allow users to search and compare as many as five or more versions of a poem. Together the printed and online collections promise new insights into Swift’s poems and his creative process.
“Future scholars may exploit the digital archive in ways we have hardly dreamed of,” writes Woolley in an email. “There are dozens of dissertation topics that an edition and digital archive like ours will make possible for the first time.”
Karian, Woolley and their research assistants have been poring though manuscripts, newspapers, magazines and anonymous pamphlets, searching for poems not included in previous editions. They’ve also participated in the difficult process of arguing that certain poems have been attributed to Swift incorrectly. In addition, Woolley tracked down a privately owned manuscript of an unpublished poem, which he eventually transcribed for their edition.
The entire process requires persistence, imagination, good judgment, and an excellent database. And because much of Swift’s writing passed from hand-to-hand in manuscript form, the work depends on libraries that house rare 18th-century materials.
Karian will travel to London to visit some of these libraries this summer on a four-week trip supported by the MU PRIME Fund award. The award, which Karian found particularly helpful when applying for the NEH grant, also pays for a graduate assistant. He says he’s grateful for the support and for the fact that MU’s Office of Research (publisher of Illumination) and outside granting agencies can work together.
Swift Scholar Stephen Karian is working to complete an authoritative print edition of Swift’s complete poems, along with a digital archive of early manuscripts, printed works and illustrations.
Karian has been intrigued with Swift since, at age 12, he read Gulliver’s Travels for the first time. He was taken in by its plain language and accessibility, as well as its playfulness, sarcasm, humor and strongly worded satire. Later, in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he began to examine the early printings of Swift’s poems.
“They were fascinating documents just to look at, and they raised so many interesting questions,” he says. One of Karian’s favorite poems, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” actually appeared on the printed page with certain words or phrases deliberately excised by his printer. Some copies contain handwritten notes in the margins that supply the omitted material. The blank spaces speak volumes about the political and cultural contexts of Swift’s poems.
“How did this happen?” asks Karian. “Was this the author’s doing? Was it the publisher’s doing? How did the readers get a hold of this material? How did it circulate? How did they react to it? These questions prompted me to explore the intersection of Swift’s works and the visual appearance of the books — what is termed “print culture” or the “history of the book. These interests came together.”
Out of these interests came his book, Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript, which was published in 2010, nine years after he completed his doctoral degree. According to James McLaverty, an Emeritus Professor at Keele University in the UK and a notable Swift scholar, it is one of the most frequently cited books in modern Swift studies.
“It brought out a whole new side of Swift the author — whose work circulated in manuscript as well as print — and brilliantly showed how print might invite manuscript completion,” McLaverty wrote in interview via email.
“Some of Swift’s most interesting and controversial poems were not printed in full,” says Karian. “They were printed with these blanks. We discover that this is how these poems were first published and how readers would have first encountered them. We know from surviving copies that some readers acquired the missing words because they filled them in by hand, although that didn’t always happen.”
Swift was deeply involved in the politics of his time. He was part of the political inner circle in England for many years. When he fell out of favor later in life, he returned to Ireland. An ordained priest, he became Dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral and began tackling the economic, political and social policies and behaviors that were hurting Ireland. To this day, the people of Ireland and lovers of Swift refer to him as “the Dean.”
“It was an uphill battle for Swift at the end of his life,” says Karian. “Earlier he had written on behalf of the government, but wrote against it in the end. Circumstances forced him into it — he was shut out politically — but he hit his stride as a poet after Gulliver’s Travels and wrote his most interesting political poetry in the last decade of his career.”
Because Swift had nothing like the first amendment to protect him, his attacks on public figures required clever disguise. He wrote anonymously or under a pseudonym most of the time, which, although it was an open secret, offered no proof of his identity. One of his poems features a baboon strutting around and wearing a crown. It’s an obvious attack on King George II, who was known to strut, but Swift knew that nobody in a court of law would admit that the caricature resembled the king.
In another poem, Swift makes fun of fellow poets, saying: “In Poetry, the Height we know; Tis only infinite below,” implying there’s no limit to how bad some writing can be. Swift, who despised pretension, was attacking the kind of false flattery that’s often given to people in power, says Karian. “As long as human folly and public corruption survive, Swift’s satire will be pertinent," says Woolley. “In Swift’s culture, his satiric poems served some of the same functions that editorial cartoons and television satire serve in ours. The recent Charlie Hebdo massacre reminds us, too, that the risks satirists take can be fearsome.”
For Swift and his contemporaries, a big threat was prison, which “was filthy and damp, highly conducive for disease,” says Karian. Swift seemed to have an unstated arrangement with his printers: they alone would reap the profits but would also suffer any penalties imposed by the authorities. It was a typically canny move by Swift, and one that some of Swift’s printers paid a heavy price for consenting to: Several did, in fact, end up imprisoned for publishing his politically controversial work.
On two occasions authorities offered financial rewards to printers willing to identify Swift as the author of controversial works. Nobody squealed. That publishers were able to hold firm against pressures and incentives is a testament to their trust and loyalty, says Karian. It also speaks to the power of Swift's work, and why it still resonates today.
“Swift is remarkable for his ability to transform everyday events into works of art using everyday language,” writes McLaverty. “He has a keen ear for how people talk — the disguises, dishonesties, and vacuities of social and political speech — and can fuse this language with downright truth telling into finely wrought and memorable poems.”
Hermann J. Real, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Münster in Germany, points to these qualities as the source of renewed interest in Swift scholarship worldwide. Real, who heads the Ehrenpreis Centre for Swift Studies and edits the journal Swift Studies, has been holding Swift symposia since 1984. In an email exchange, he referred to an international community of scholars who recognize Swift’s works as “the greatest satires in the English language.”
'Great Uneasiness' Unlike Lemuel Gulliver's rude reception in Lilliput, Swift's 1726 account of Gulliver's travels was an instant success. The book, regarded as Swift's masterpiece, employs many of the satiric tools that made his poetry so incendiary.
Today, scholars and lay people alike use the term “Swiftian” to describe Swift’s characteristic satire, with its irony, veiled rage and certain level of obscene language. Swift himself invented terms such as “yahoo” for the animalistic humans in Gulliver’s Travels, and the phrase “Confederacy of dunces” in the satirical essay, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting.” The subject matter of Swift’s poems can also sound surprisingly contemporary. In works such as “The South Sea Project” and “The Run Upon the Bankers,” he attacks economic scandals, most notably the South Sea Bubble of 1720, and issues involving speculative trading — topics that are clearly relevant today.
“In his poems, Swift’s public voice is balanced by a more personal, intimate voice,” says Karian. “Swift sometimes teases his friends and even mocks himself. Those tendencies attract readers today, who can view him less as an unfamiliar, historical figure and more as a person they feel they know.”
Karian says that in some of Swift’s more ironic moments, his satire resembles Stephen Colbert. Colbert, the former host of The Colbert Report, is known for adopting an ironic persona and inhabiting it fully. “That seems to me to be reminiscent of Swift,” he says. “Colbert takes on the voice and personality of an arch conservative TV journalist, but you should know that his own beliefs are the antithesis.”
But at times it can be hard to determine Swift’s own stance, since abrupt and jarring shifts of tone routinely occur in his works. This quality requires readers to stay on their toes, especially when the poet's voice often changes from serious to ironic and back again.
“Swift can also become filled with rage and righteous indignation,” says Karian. “In 'The Legion Club,' for example, he imagines certain members of the Irish parliament as inmates in an insane asylum. Sometimes, in his more vehement and obscene moments, Swift reminds me of the creators of South Park. They’re equal-opportunity offenders.”
Swift was a product of his tumultuous times. His satire could be dehumanizing, raunchy and shocking, even by today’s standards. Politics were combative, and they were highly partisan. Neutral speech was not an expectation, and newspapers and other publications had few standards regarding things like objectivity. Today, satirists like Jon Stewart gleefully attack politicians and media personalities from all angles, but tend to recognize certain limits. In Swift’s day? Not so much.
“In many respects, satire in the 18th century was much more personal and vicious than it is today,” Karian says. “Swift and his contemporaries were not above attacking people because of personal infirmities or because of who their parents were. They could be quite cruel, and they could rely on all sorts of gossip and distortions. We have certain opinions about what is crossing the line, and that line was in a different place for Swift and his contemporaries.”
The issues were also different. Swift lived at a time in Ireland when there was a state-authorized church, and the arguments he and his contemporaries would have had about religion and politics bear little resemblance to our own, says Karian. Today’s debates involve subjects such as reproductive rights and sexual orientation. In Swift’s time these would have been about which religious groups should be given full political rights, including the rights to hold public office.
“One thing I always need to remind my students is that satire is not history,” says Karian. “History tries to capture some sense of what happened, but satire is about perception, and we shouldn’t accept a satirist’s viewpoint as historical fact. There’s almost always distortion involved.”
Karian teaches a course, English Verse Satire, 1660-1750, which includes the study of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” the poem that first fascinated him in graduate school. The work attacks English and Irish politicians, but it is also directed inward. During much of the poem, Swift imagines his own death and how people will react.
“That poem is certainly very interesting,” he says. “In some ways it’s about reputation and legacy. People are certainly interested in celebrity today. Swift was interested in celebrity too, but I think he was also wondering what happens when the '15 minutes of fame' are over. Would he be remembered at all, and if so, why?"