Jonathan Swift visits London, Paris, and (of course) New York

 

[Bust of Swift from St. Patrick\'s Cathedral, Dublin]As one of the governors of the city’s hackney coaches, carts, and carriages, [Swift] enjoyed preferential treatment by the coachmen of Dublin, but this pleasure, along with his delight in evening walking, had to be curtailed because of dizziness. Swift nevertheless continued to regard the liberty of St Patrick’s (a precinct independent of the archbishop’s administration) as a little world under his own absolute control. (Clive Probyn, ODNB, “Jonathan Swift”) (image from Sacred Destinations Travel Guide)

 

It’s funny how much we associate Swift with cities, but these are never major cities, at least not in his own mind.  The Journal to Stella has some superb descriptions of London, and apparently there was an intended trip to France (and, I presume, Paris) in 1727 that was scotched because of George I’s death and Stella’s final decline. 

Throughout Swift’s writings, satirical and otherwise, we can always recognize his rage at his displacement from the centers of power and authority, as well as his resentment at not being where he was supposed to be.  Dublin is not London.  No wonder that Said wrote about Swift with such solicitude for his “exile,” which was a fate chosen for him and a role he consciously assumed.  There were two equal and contradictory desires, to return to the center to receive his due, but also to stay where he was and exercise power and authority on his own terms.

But how easy is it to imagine Swift in the role of Addison or Prior, as a successful politician, courtier, diplomat who just happened to be major writer?  When I read Swift on the abuses of power, his ridicule carries an unmistakable whiff of frustrated desire, an aftertaste of sour grapes along with his disavowals.  In his impersonations of the stupid and the powerful, he works with what is almost a sympathetic identification with their banality, as if to say, “this is what I might have become.”  For Swift, the pain of exclusion provides his insights into the workings of power.

DM

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