The Saturday Review of Literature, 22 November 1930
In this review of Carl Van Doren’s Swift: A Biography (1930), Colum continues to anticipate current postcolonial readings of Irish authors like Swift by reclaiming and emphasizing their “Irishness.” This move is characteristic of her work on Irish writers. As one of her own reviewers writes, “wherever Mary Colum is, she never forgets that she is an Irish writer. She is almost a little too conscious of this in the sense that she is always ready to trail her coat and to do two-fisted battle for an Ireland she imagines still needs her defense” (Theodore Maynard, “New Books: Life and the Dream“). Colum, for example, writes in her 1937 critical monograph, “Equally strange were [Matthew Arnold’s] conclusions about Swift, … whom he represents as ‘inspired and consumed by the excess of his English qualities,’ with the intensity of desire ‘which is the main feature of the race.’ … In reality, Swift was an Anglo-Irishman, possessed of the Anglo-Irish mentality in one of its most typical manifestations, endowed with wit, satire, combativeness, strong emotion, social indignation, and political insight; Swift was intensely affected by the country in which he was born and by the unsettled state of his milieu” (FTR 131).
After one has threaded one’s way warily for years through milieus in which almost everybody is engaged either in writing a book or an essay on some American, living or dead, and in which several are writing on the same American, it is with a certain relief that one finds that Carl Van Doren has taken flight to Ireland and England for the subject of his biography. Both the author and the subject give us assurance that we will be treated to no moral parables and no nostrums for the advancement of American culture.
In an age like ours, so desperately self-conscious in its efforts to express itself, a book on Swift is to be welcomed for many reasons, not the least of which is that its subject was a very great writer who troubled himself not at all about self-expression and whose writing was done on the side without his bothering greatly as to what eventually became of it. In spite of the fact that Carl Van Doren is under the same handicap as all previous biographers—the handicap of not comprehending Swift’s real relationship to Ireland—this life of Swift is a very able achievement, and, for some sections—notably section four—a remarkable achievement, and one that takes a couple of readings to appreciate.
“It is almost incredible,” says the writing on the jacket of the book, “that the new era in biography has not yet produced a book on Swift.” Not at all incredible, we should say, for the writing of a biography of Swift is an exceedingly difficult task—so difficult that Shane Leslie, who tried it a couple of years ago, and did indeed produce the only , announces in his second chapter that a Life of Swift will never be written. While this is an exaggeration, it is the sort of exaggeration that is necessary to suggest the truth. Swift, though a man of strong and direct emotions and of simple response to the emotion of others, and of strong and direct intellectual processes, yet was a man of complex and contradictory personality. He was a miser and yet he gave away money generously (there are still in Dublin families the first step in whose fortune is said to have been made through money given by “The Dean” ); he hated mankind and yet he loved his friends lavishly and devotedly; of an arrogant independence, he yet was capable of painful toadying to men in power; of the utmost honesty he yet behaved without candor in his relations with Stella and Vanessa; with a passion for cleanliness far beyond the ideas of his age, his mind was perpetually obsessed by filth; behaving in England like an English patriot, in Ireland he aroused the people against England in words of such burning hatred that they have been used as political rallying-cries in Irish revolutionary movements ever since.
Swift himself was given a good deal to pondering upon the complexities and contradictoriness of man. There is in “A Tale of a Tub,” a passage which might be taken as an unconscious revelation on his own kind of psychological complexity. Writing of the opposed qualities and desires of men who, when they have climbed up to the conception of a God must needs invent a being in antipathy to God and call him a Devil, he wonders—“Whether a tincture of malice in our natures makes us fond of furnishing every bright idea with its reverse; or whether reason reflecting upon the sum of things can like the sun serve only to enlighten one half of the globe, leaving the other half, by necessity, under shade and darkness; or whether fancy, flying up to the imagination of what is highest and best, becomes overshort and spent and weary and suddenly falls like a dead bird of paradise to the ground.” Some of the contradictions in his character may have been caused by that nervous ailment the seeds of which showed themselves early in life and which made the end of his life such a catastrophe. Carl Van Doren describes this malady as “a form of auditory vertigo, the result perhaps of haemorrhage of the labyrinth of the ear.” A diagnosis made in 1882 by a Doctor Bucknill describes Swift’s ailment as Menière’s Disease or Labyrinthine Vertigo, and this seems to me more likely to include whatever malady Swift had than a form of auditory vertigo, for Menière’s Disease covers eight different sorts of affections. Swift certainly had an ailment the seat of which was in the labyrinth, and the labyrinth, to quote Jeliffe and White’s interesting definition in their “Diseases of the Nervous System,” is “that organ of the body which is concerned with the receiving of impressions of its position in space, particularly for the head. The meaning for the human body of the physical laws of gravity is its chief concern. . . . The labyrinth belongs to a series of organs that work in response to gravity. . . . It is the most important of these organs.” I put it to Mr. Van Doren that if Swift’s body had a defective response to the law of gravity, thereby giving him vertigo, this had a more fundamental influence on his outlook on the world and man than anything that was the result of haemorrhage of the labyrinth of the ear. If he also had syphilis his deafness might be accounted for.
But whatever was the cause of his maladies and complexities, no previous biographer has shown so extensive a psychological understanding of Swift as has Mr. Van Doren. Most of the writing on Swift in existence, except the brilliant and the laborious , are sorry performances. Mr. Van Doren uses exactly the right expression for Thackeray’s essay when he calls it In Thackeray’s time, seeing that so great a writer could not be the , it became the correct thing to weep over his imaginary combination of vice, gloom, greatness, and unhappiness. The very fact that he preferred a Platonic relationship to a sex relationship with women caused him to be attacked as if this preference were some perverted form of vice. ; ; Taine, who never made criticism subservient to moralizings, considered that Swift showed preëminently . There is nothing in Mr. Van Doren’s biography to show that he might disagree with Taine. But I should like to state my own conviction that no great writer of English is so un-English and so fundamentally incomprehensible to Englishmen as Swift. For the truth is that Swift showed preëminently, however one may account for it, the Irish mind and the Irish passions. The failure to recognize this is the one failure in Mr. Van Doren’s brilliant biography.
Swift was an unmistakable Irish type—a type that has always existed in Ireland, that shows itself in its earliest history and in its native literature. This is all the more curious because though he was born and educated in Ireland, his ancestry on both sides was purely English. It may be that Pavlov, or Dr. Watson, could explain his Irishry as they could explain Benjamin Franklin’s Americanism by theories connected with behaviorism and conditioned reflexes and environment. It may have been that the original stock from which he sprang was Celtic, for, when his skull was dug up in 1835, it was pronounced by Sir William Wilde, who was a considerable antiquary, to
But it is Mr. Van Doren’s great merit that his sense of life, as well as his sense of literature, is so strong that he is able to clear away very many of the clouds that shrouded Swift in incomprehensibility. Nobody writing in the laboratory, study manner generally applied to a great writer, could have revealed Swift at all, because, for Swift, life was action, and his writings were mostly done on the side as an aid to his life of action; some of it, like his riddles and a good deal of his verse, for idle entertainment, and some because his power of seeing through men and affairs demanded a record. “His ruling instinct,” says Mr. Van Doren, with admirable insight, “was towards action amongst stubborn men,” and this instinct kept him out of the study and forced him to live in a man’s world where he mixed in the public life of his time, knew its great figures, fought difficult battles, and invented a method of political combat which when carried to a logical conclusion by later generations of Irishmen changed the history of the country of his birth.
The great life, the fascinating life, was for Swift such as could be got by being a person of political importance in England, for it was the tragedy of the country he was born in that it had and has but little to offer to ambition. Now, persons of political importance in England were in the main Englishmen of the upper classes who had wealth and land and position—people to whose psychology, tradition and the laws of entail had done something so remarkable that the very fact of a man’s inheriting an estate and a house from his ancestors gave him an array of virtues proper to that inheritance—virtues that could be calculated on to such an extent that it was safe to put any member of that class in a ruling or responsible position regardless of whether he had what theologians called “natural virtue” or not; he simply was the man the code demanded. It was, perhaps, a too common English illusion that nobody else outside that class and race had those particular virtues at all.
Anyhow, Swift was an outsider; he was born in Ireland, educated in a Norman Irish school in Kilkenny and in Trinity College in Dublin. Thus, on one side his destiny was decided by the fact that he was born and educated in Ireland, on the other side by the fact that he was the poor relation of Sir William Temple’s wife, the wonderful Dorothy Osborne. This relationship landed him at the age of twenty-one into the job of being secretary to Sir William at Moor Park. Temple was a diplomat, a statesman, and a man of letters; in his house Swift came into touch with the great world which included King William. Such connections added to Swift’s ambition; as it was an age of patronage he reasonably expected some sort of patronage from Temple in return for his services. When, after a few years this was not forthcoming, the great diplomat and his secretary parted company, and Swift went to Ireland, took orders, and became the parson of Kilroot —an obscure job in an obscure corner of the world. Soon he regretted leaving Sir William, and in due course returned to Moor Park, this time in a more independent position. This time the stimulus that came to him in Sir William’s house was not so much political as literary; he was drawn into the controversy over the ancients and the moderns, and wrote “The Battle of the Books” and “A Tale of a Tub,” a wild, fantastic, glorious book, the highwater mark of English prose. On Sir William’s death, and after some ups and downs, Swift went back to Ireland where the Viceroy gave him the vicarage of Laracor and Rathbeggan in County Meath, where, after a while Esther Johnson (Stella) came to live. But he kept up his contacts with his political friends in London.
It was an age when governments were run by men of fashion who were wits, assisted on the side by wits who were not men of fashion: all the chief writers of the day had their hands in politics—Addison, Steele, Congreve, and Rowe wrote on the Whig side; Prior and Atterbury wrote on the Tory side. What political writing Swift had done was on the Whig side, and it was only a matter of time until his pen would be more eagerly sought for by ambitious politicians than the pen of any other wit. The whole drama of the politics of the period, the steps by which Swift joined Harley and became what can best be described as publicity-director and moulder of public opinion for the Tories, is described by Mr. Van Doren in a section of his book called “The Man in Power,” in a manner which shows a masterly organization of difficult material. For its temper, its easy knowledge of the period, its clarity of presentation, its comprehension of the characters of Bolingbroke and Harley (“the whispering Harley and the glittering Bolingbroke”—how excellently pointed are Mr. Van Doren’s epithets!)—for the revelation of Swift himself, for the style in which the whole section is written, a reader with any knowledge of the difficulties conquered must offer admiring salutations.
This intervention of Swift’s in politics probably represents the strangest part in affairs ever played by a great writer. All the time he was the aide of Harley and Bolingbroke, he was intimate with the great writers of the time, he was their friend and helper and formed with them the Scriblerus Club, and kept up a correspondence with them from Dublin afterwards when he had become Dean of St. Patrick’s. Yet he believed that his real work was in his political career; his writing he regarded as play. As Dean of St. Patrick’s his plunge into Irish politics, the creative ideas he contributed to Irish nationality had consequences which place him amongst the makers of modern Ireland. But all this movement in Irish affairs which was a greater part of Swift’s life than his few year’s alliance with the English Tories, as well as the Irish quality of his mind, is as much of a mystery to Mr. Van Doren as it has been to the English biographers of Swift. And this is not surprising, for it requires a profound knowledge of Ireland to estimate such things.
His return to Ireland where Stella waited for him brings us to another side of Swift’s life which Mr. Van Doren treats with understanding and commonsense— his relations with women—where he shows what we cannot help believing is convincing insight. He has the good sense to avoid the melodramatic, knowing what little melodrama enters into any man’s relations with any woman unless he is a gangster or a racketeer. He wastes little unnecessary sympathy with the two women, Stella and Vanessa; as a matter of fact there has never been much reason for shedding tears over Stella’s fate, whatever one might do over Vanessa’s. Stella was the most intimate friend of one of the greatest men of his time, a man who was devoted to her, who had educated her and cultivated her mind; she lived in an age when people knew nothing about sex-frustration, or the dangers of suppressed libidos, and these notions, having made no entrance into her mind, probably made no entrance into her life. Swift loved her devotedly, though there is not a line in existence to show that he had ever been in love with her. If the truth were recognized, very few people are capable of falling profoundly and passionately in love, anyway, and women, according to the newer psychology, less than men. So that, on the whole, Stella probably got more than the average share of happiness, even if she did not taste all the possibilities of life.
The case of Vanessa is somewhat different: she must have been one of the most difficult of women for a coy and prudent gentleman to cope with. Unlike Stella who took what she got and was thankful, Vanessa was an unsatisfied, passionate, and interfering woman who wanted the Dean’s love and nothing short of it, and who chafed under his restrictions and exhortations to avoid occasions for gossip. Nevertheless, while there is no discoverable tradition around Laracor of Swift’s making love to Stella, there are all sorts of charming stories around Celbridge of the Dean’s walks and talks with Vanessa. Whereas the house that tradition points out as Stella’s is small and mean, Marlay Abbey, which was Vanessa’s, is one of the most beautiful of houses, and has about it a fascination that affects one like a spell. Unlike most Irish houses which are rather ponderously built this one is bright and gay like a French château; even in the room where, we are told, Swift in rage flung the letter Vanessa had written to Stella, and then rode away without a word, there is no sadness but a subtle gaiety and whimsicality: it is as if some fairy princess lived there once and left behind her some blithe enchantment. If we could believe in atmosphere and folk-tales and pay no attention to written documents, then this house and its grounds were the scene of a dreamlike love-affair, and Swift and Vanessa walked and read by the dream-like river that flows through the grounds. So powerful and strange are the invisible marks that the passions and personalities of men leave behind them that the atmosphere of this house and its grounds and the folk-lore around make it difficult to judge the story of Swift and Vanessa entirely from written evidence.
It happens that there are two streams of evidence about Dean Swift in Ireland; he is not only a literary figure, he is a folk-hero. In him and his works a great part of the Irish temperament has expressed itself. The critics who have taken him as an original, without affinities in literature were ignorant of his affinities with Gaelic literature. He did not know Gaelic literature directly, but all around him he heard translations of it and he knew the mentality which had produced part of it. He had a like mentality—the mentality of the satirical Irish bards whose satire was supposed to blast the ones on whom it was turned. When he wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” the pedants all quoted the learned authors, Latin and others, that Swift had taken the idea from, but every Irish shanachie and ballad-singer who sang the Dean’s poems, which perhaps were not poetry at all, knew that he had got the notion of Gulliver from the story in the Ultonian cycle upon the King of the Little People’s and from Gulliver had entertained the King of the Brobdignagians much as Eisert of the Little Folk had entertained the court of King Fergus, and the King of the Little Folk had nearly lost his life in the King’s porridge-pot as Gulliver’ nearly lost his in the bowl of cream.
It is in fact vain to try and judge the work of any Irish writer without a knowledge of the Gaelic inheritance which has influenced everybody born in Ireland. Swift is almost the Irish national writer; he expressed great dislike of the country, for true to his temperament, he hated and loved it. Most curiously in his work he has expressed the country and its people. There are main Irish types, but the type the Dean stands for embraces something more commonly found in Ireland than any other type. His mentality is the same in kind, though, naturally, not in degree, as the mentality of half the Irish nation—the same in kind is the satirical quality of his mind, the same the manner of thinking and feeling. His countrymen might keep Moore’s Melodies on the top of the piano to advertise their gentility and sung them on Sundays and off days, but the Dean’s verses, the Dean’s works, represented their daily boon-companions. One can still hear the songs Swift made about Wood’s ha’pence sung in the streets of Dublin with the substitution of herrings for ha’pence. Something outrageous and bawdy in the Irish temperament which exists side by side with the narrowest Puritanism and genteelness found delighted expression in the extravagant intellectual foolery, the mockery, and coarseness of the Dean’s verse.
There are kinds of satire represented in Swift that can hardly be understood outside Ireland, that, anyhow, never yet have been understood. There are uses of language, a manner of fusing together intellect and emotion so that the resulting expression has the naked directness that is a distinguishing quality of Irish writing, has its highest manifestation in the Dean’s prose. The , say, are extremely difficult to discover if the critic has to judge him by pure English literature. But when one can compare him with Swift there is to be found a kinship, a common inheritance, that makes either of them more comprehensible by comparison with the other. Even the pranks that Joyce is playing with the English language have their points of resemblance with the “little language” Swift invented for Stella. So that it happens that great as is my admiration for Mr. Van Doren’s achievement, all this article is colored by the prejudice of one who believes that Swift and his work are not really comprehensible to any biographer except one born and bred in Ireland.