Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 16. Inception, contributory sources and original features of Gulliver

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 16. Inception, contributory sources and original features of Gulliver

The most famous of all Swift’s works is Gulliver’s Travels. The inception of the book has been traced to the celebrated Scriblerus club, which came into existence in the last months of queen Anne’s reign, when Swift joined with Arbuthnot, Pope, Gay and other members in a scheme to ridicule all false tastes in learning. The Memoirs of Scriblerus by Arbuthnot were not published until 1741; but Pope said that Swift took the first hints for Gulliver’s Travels from them. The connection of the Travels with the original scheme, however, is very slight, and appears chiefly in the third part of the work. Swift’s book underwent discussion between him and his friends several years before it appeared. In September, 1725, he told Pope that he was correcting and finishing the work.

  • I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy (though not in Timon’s manner) the whole building of my Travels is erected, and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of that opinion.
  • Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships, was published anonymously at the end of October, 1726, negotiations with the publishers having been carried on by Swift’s friends, Charles Ford and Erasmus Lewis. In November, Arbuthnot wrote that the book was in everybody’s hands, and that many were led by its verisimilitude to believe that the incidents told really occurred. One Irish bishop said that it was full of improbable lies, and, for his part, he hardly believed a word of it.

    The scheme of the book has been known to us all from our childhood. In the first part, Gulliver describes, in simple language suited to a seaman, his shipwreck in Lilliput, where the tallest people were six inches high. The emperor believed himself to be, and was considered, the delight and terror of the universe; but, how absurd it all appeared to one twelve times as tall as any Lilliputian! In his account of the two parties in the country, distinguished by the use of high and low heels, Swift satirises English political parties, and the intrigues that centred around the prince of Wales. Religious feuds were laughed at in an account of a problem which was dividing the people: “Should eggs be broken at the big end or the little end?” One party alleged that those on the other side were schismatics:

  • This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text, for the words are these, that all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end. And which is the convenient end seems, in my humble opinion, to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the Chief Magistrate to determine.
  • This part is full of references to current politics; but the satire is free from bitterness.

    In the second part, the voyage to Brobdingnag, the author’s contempt for mankind is emphasised. Gulliver now found himself a dwarf among men sixty feet in height. The king, who regarded Europe as if it were an anthill, said, after many questions, “How contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects” as Gulliver, and Gulliver himself, after living among a great race distinguished for calmness and common-sense, could not but feel tempted to laugh at the strutting and bowing of English lords and ladies as much as the king did at him. The king could not understand secrets of state, for he confined the knowledge of governing to good common-sense and reason, justice and lenity. Finally, he said: “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” But Gulliver remarks that allowances must be made for a king living apart from the rest of the world.

    The third part of the book is, in many ways, less interesting, partly because it is less plausible, partly because the story is interrupted more often by personal attacks. The satire is chiefly on philosophers, projectors and inventors, men who are given to dwelling in the air, like the inhabitants of the Flying Island. If it be said that the attacks on the learned were unfair, it must be remembered that the country had recently gone through the experience of the South Sea Bubble, when no project was too absurd to be brought before the public. Unfortunately, Swift does not properly distinguish between pretenders to learning and those who were entitled to respect. In the Island of Sorcerers, Gulliver was able to call up famous men of ancient times and question them, with the result that he found the world to have been misled by prostitute writers to ascribe the greatest exploits in war to cowards, the wisest counsels to fools, sincerity to flatterers, piety to atheists. He saw, too, by looking at an old yeoman, how the race had gradually deteriorated, through vice and corruption. He found that the race of Struldbrugs or Immortals, so far from being happy, were the most miserable of all, enduring an endless dotage, and hated by their neighbours. We cannot but recall the sad closing years of Swift’s own life; but the misery of his own end was due to mental disease and not to old age.

    In the last part of Gulliver’s Travels, the voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms, Swift’s satire is of the bitterest. Gulliver was now in a country where horses were possessed of reason, and were the governing class, while the Yahoos, though in the shape of men, were brute beasts, without reason and conscience. In endeavouring to persuade the Houyhnhnms that he was not a Yahoo, Gulliver is made to show how little a man is removed from the brute. Gulliver’s account of warfare, given with no little pride, caused only disgust. Satire of the law and lawyers, and of the lust for gold, is emphasised by praise of the virtues of the Houyhnhnms, and of their learning. They were governed only by reason, love and courtship being unknown to them. Gulliver dreaded leaving a country for whose rulers he felt gratitude and respect, and, when he returned home, his family filled him with such disgust that he swooned when his wife kissed him. But what made him most impatient was to see “a lump of deformity, and diseases both in body and mind,” filled with pride, a vice wholly unknown to the Houyhnhnms.

    It is a terrible conclusion. All that can be said in reply to those who condemn Swift for writing it is that it was the result of disappointment, wounded pride, growing ill-health and sorrow caused by the sickness of the one whom he loved best in the world. There is nothing bitter in the first half of the work, and most readers find only amusement in it; everything is in harmony, and follows at once when the first premises are granted. But, in the attacks on the Yahoos, consistency is dropped; the Houyhnhnms are often prejudiced and unreasonable, and everything gives way to savage denunciation of mankind. It is only a cynic or a misanthrope who will find anything convincing in Swift’s views.

    Much has been written, in Germany and elsewhere, on the subject of Swift’s indebtedness to previous writers. Rabelais’s method is very different from Swift’s, though Swift may have had in mind the kingdom of queen Quintessence when describing the academy of Lagado. The capture of Gulliver by the eagle and other incidents recall details in The Arabian Nights, then recently published in England. Swift had also read Lucian, The Voyage of Domingo Gonsalez and Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoires comiques and Voyage à la Lune. Whether he had also seen the History of Savarambes (1677), or Foigny’s Journey of Jacques Sadeur to Australia (1693), is more doubtful. The account of the storm in the second part was made up of phrases in Surmy’s Mariners’ Magazine. Gulliver says that he was cousin of William Dampier, and Swift, of course, had studied Robinson Crusoe.