Jonathan Swift is 349 years old today. Which is to say he’s beginning his 350th year. What was he anyway? Or never mind what he was; what did he think he was?
Did he think he was mainly the author of Gulliver’s Travels—? Did he think he was a journalist? Deep down, did he consider himself mainly a “Church of England man”? Maybe.
I don’t believe he would have said, I am a satirist. I don’t think he thought that was a job. Or a life. Perhaps he mainly thought he was the cat who walks through the Wet Wild Woods, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone. Heaven knows that’s what I think, but I want to know what he thought.
We know what Thomas Jefferson thought Thomas Jefferson was. He designed his own grave marker and spelled everything out:
HERE WAS BURIED
AUTHOR OF THE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4, 1826
That’s elegant as hell. Who can read it without a thrill? The second you catch on that Jefferson has failed to mention he was also the third president of the United States—it’s a tasty moment. One rereads the inscription over and over, thinking, Hmm! So this is what he thought were his greatest hits …
Swift, too, wrote his own epitaph. It reads:
Hic depositum est Corpus
IONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit.
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745. Anno Ætatis 78º.
“Here is deposited the body of Jonathan Swift, Sacræ Theologiæ Doctor [and] Dean of this cathedral church, where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate, if you can, one who, to his utmost capacity, strenuously championed liberty.”
(And, “He died the 19th day of the month of October, A.D. 1745, in the 78th year of his age.”)
Libertatis vindex, eh? So, is that what he thought he was? An activist?
Edward Said told us in class at Columbia, 1999, that Swift was indeed an activist, a model of “telling truth to power.” Said (who, it turned out, was nearing the end of his own life) seemed to get off on Swift very much. He introduced us to Yeats’s translation of Swift’s epitaph, which I can still easily write out from memory:
Swift has sailed into this rest.
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him, if you dare,
World-besotted traveler. He
Served human liberty.*
I remember Said saying this was one of Yeats’s best poems. And it is good. Improves the original. Key improvement: “if you dare” instead of “if you can.” (“Lacerate his breast” is a little labored, but then again so is “cor lacerare.”) (“World-besotted” is good.)
But I want Swift to have thought of himself as a poet. I don’t think he did.
I have the fourteen volumes of the standard edition of his prose writings, a very motley shelf of battered codices, accumulated one-by-one over the course of twenty years. Anybody who sends a helicopter over that territory will agree with Edward Said. Tracts and pamphlets and histories and what I want to call “provocations” dominate. But Swift was an absolutely superb versifier, too. And the Penguin paperback of his complete poems is six hundred pages.
I only have one idea about this. Once upon a time, there were two traditions in Anglophone poetry. On the one hand, there was poetry that was completely easy to understand and whose elegance depended on translucent phrases and straightforward sentiments. On the other hand, there was the hard stuff: poetry where the reader had to concentrate intensely, because every line was supersaturated with subtle meanings and exotic, twisted-up diction/syntax.
The last time these two traditions (easy vs. hard) were more or less evenly matched was, um, 462 years ago. Ever since the later Elizabethans, the difficult tradition has utterly dominated poetry in English, to the point where what I’m calling “easy” (things like Wyatt’s songs or Cavalier lyrics or old ballads or nine-tenths of Langston Hughes) seems like “light verse” to many a shit-for-brains English major. Today, people pretty much assume poetry should not be easy to understand.
But this is part of why poets like Robert Burns and Swift are special. They are throwbacks to that other tradition. Burns is easy—confidently so, because he saw that people lapped it up, girls especially. Swift is more a middle case. When he says:
In Pope, I cannot read a line,
But with a sigh, I wish it mine:
When he can in one couplet fix
More sense than I can do in six:
It gives me such a jealous fit,
I cry, “Pox take him, and his wit.”
(“Verses on the Death of Dr Swift,” ll. 47–52)
I doubt he is ironizing. I think Swift believed, along with everybody else in the eighteenth century, that lines of poetry should be loaded up with three times as much “sense” as language would normally bear. Hence, he had to regard all those billions of tetrameter couplets he wrote as bagatelles; whereas, in fact, he’s right up there with Chaucer in terms of easy and stands up to a hundred readings.
Anyhow, such is my little flower, laid upon Swift’s grave today. As a poet, he was the cat who walked by himself, and all places were alike to him. He was perverse. And he didn’t know what he had.
*I checked, and the punctuation in my Yeats quotation is not correct. I have done to Yeats what my editors always do to me. Demoted semicolons to periods and inserted one unnecessary comma.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.