Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 17. Genteel Conversation, Directions to Servants, Argument against abolishing Christianity, and other Pamphlets

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

§ 17. Genteel Conversation, Directions to Servants, Argument against abolishing Christianity, and other Pamphlets

In Hints towards an Essay on Conversation, written about 1709, Swift commented humorously on people who monopolise conversation, or talk of themselves, or turn raillery all into repartee. These, and other remarks on the degeneracy of conversation, occur again in the witty and good-natured book published in Swift’s later years, under the title A Complete Collection of genteel and ingenious Conversation, according to the most polite mode and method now used at Court, and in the best Companies of England. By Simon Wagstaff, Esq. This entertaining volume was given to his friend Mrs. Barber in 1738, when she was in need of money; but reference is made to it in a letter to Gay as early as 1731. Swift had noticed carefully the talk of people at fashionable gatherings, and, in conversations here put into the mouths of Miss Notable, Tom Neverout, Lady Smart, Lady Answerall, colonel Atwit and the rest, he satirises—but without bitterness—the banality, rudeness, coarseness and false with of so-called “smart” society. But the best thing in the volume is the ironical introduction, in which Swift explains that he had often, with grief, observed ladies and gentlemen at a loss for questions, answers, replies and rejoinders, and now proposed to provide an infallible remedy. He had always kept a table-book in his pocket, and, when he left the company at the house of a polite family, he at once entered the choicest expressions that had passed. These he now published, after waiting some years to see if there were more to be gathered in. Anyone who aspired to being witty and smart must learn every sentence in the book and know, also, the appropriate motion or gesture. Polite persons smooth and polish various syllables of the words they utter, and, when they write, they vary the orthography: “we are infinitely better judges of what will please a distinguishing ear than those who call themselves scholars can possibly be.” It might be objected that the book would prostitute the noble art to mean and vulgar people; but it was not an easy acquirement. A footman may swear, but he cannot swear like a lord, unless he be a lad of superior parts. A waiting-woman might acquire some small politeness, and, in some years, make a sufficient figure to draw in the young chaplain or the old steward; but how could she master the hundred graces and motions necessary to real success? Miss Notable and Mr. Neverout were described with special care; for they were intended to be patterns for all young bachelors and single ladies. Sir John Linger, the Derbyshire knight, was made to speak in his own rude dialect, to show what should be avoided. The labour of the work had been great; the author could not doubt that the country would come to realise how much it owed to him for his diligence and care.

Directions to Servants, published after Swift’s death, was in hand in 1731, and we know that further progress had been made with it by the following year. It was, however, left incomplete. From some of his verses—The Petition of Mrs. Frances Harris, a chambermaid who had lost her purse, and May the Cook-maid’s Letter—it is clear that Swift took special interest in the ways of servants. We know that he was good to the members of his own household, but insisted on their following strict rules. Directions to Servants is a good specimen of irony; it is, however, disfigured to an exceptional extent by coarseness. The ex-footman who is supposed to be the writer of the piece furnishes his friends with a set of rules to enable them to cheat and rob their masters in every set of circumstances. Servants, in general, must be loyal to each other; never do anything except what they are hired for; be out as much as possible; secure all the “tips” they can, and be rude to guests who do not pay. The cook is to “scrape the bottom of the pots and kettles with a silver spoon, for fear of giving them a taste of copper.” The children’s maid is to throw physic out of the window: “the child will love you the better; but bid it not tell.” The waiting-maid must extort everything she can from her master, if he likes her, and, at the end, should secure a husband from among the chaplain, the steward and my lord’s gentleman. It must be confessed that, after a few pages, this pitiless cynicism becomes depressing and a little tedious.

In 1708, Swift began a brilliant series of pamphlets on church questions. The first piece—a masterpiece of irony—was An Argument against abolishing Christianity, in which he banters very wittily writers who had attacked religion; but the banter is freely mixed with the irony which is never absent from his works. He begins by saying that no reader will, of course, imagine that he is attempting to defend real Christianity, such as, in primitive times, had an influence upon men’s beliefs and actions. That would be a wild project: it would be to destroy at once all the wit and half the learning of the kingdom; to ruin trade and to extinguish arts and sciences. All he aimed at was to defend nominal Christianity; the other having been laid aside by general consent. He deals with the arguments that the abolishing of Christianity would be a gain of one day in seven; that it would remove the absurd custom by which a set of men were employed to denounce on Sundays what is the constant practice of all men on the other six; that, if the system of the Gospel were discarded, all religion would be affected and, consequently, those prejudices of education called virtue, conscience, honour and justice. If Christianity were abolished, the only topic left for the wits would be taken away. The spirit of opposition is ineradicable in mankind: if sectaries could not occupy themselves with religion, they would do worse, by contravening the law of the land, and disturbing the public peace. If Christianity is to be repealed, let us abolish religion in general; for, of what use is freedom of thought, if it will not conduce to freedom of action? Swift’s moral, of course, is that we should both keep and improve our Christianity.

Another pamphlet, The Sentiments of a Church of England Man with respect to Religion and Government, was written in a more serious strain, and contained a warning to both parties. Swift found himself unable to join the extremists of either without offering violence to his integrity and understanding; and he decided that the truest service he could render to his country was by “endeavouring to moderate between the rival powers.” “I believe I am no bigot in religion, and I am sure I am none in government.” All positions of trust or dignity should, he felt, be given only to those whose principles directed them to preserve the constitution in all its parts. He could not feel any sympathy for non-conformists.

  • One simple compliance with the national form of receiving the sacrament is all we require to qualify any sectary among us for the greatest employments in the state, after which he is at liberty to rejoin his own assemblies for the rest of his life.
  • An unlimited liberty in publishing books against Christian doctrines was a scandal to government. Party feuds had been carried to excess. The church was not so narrowly calculated that it could not fall in with any regular species of government; but, though every species of government was equally lawful, they were not equally expedient, or for every country indifferently. A church of England man might properly approve the plans of one party more than those of the other, according as he thought they best promoted the good of church and state; but he would never be swayed by passion or interest to denounce an opinion merely because it was not of the party he himself approved. “To enter into a party as into an order of friars with so resigned an obedience to superiors, is very unsuitable both with the civil and religious liberties we so zealously assert.” Whoever has a true value for church and state will avoid the extremes of whig, for the sake of the former, and the extremes of tory, for the sake of the latter. Swift’s great object was to maintain the established constitution in both church and state.

    Another piece, A Project for the advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners (1709), highly praised by Steele in The Tatler, contained a good many interesting suggestions, some excellent, others impracticable. Swift said that divines were justified in their complaint against the wickedness of the age; hardly one in a hundred people of quality or gentry appeared to act on any principle of religion, and great numbers of them entirely discarded it. Among men were to be found cheating, quarrels and blasphemies; among women, immorality and neglect of household affairs. In particular, there was fraud and cozenage in the law, injustice and oppression. Among the clergy, there was much ignorance, servility and pragmatism. It was in the power of the prince to cause piety and virtue to become the fashion, if he would make them the necessary qualifications for favour. It should be every man’s interest to cultivate religion and virtue. Of course, it might be urged that, to make religion a necessary step for interest and favour, would increase hypocrisy; but, says Swift, if one in twenty were brought home to true piety and the nineteen were only hypocrites, the advantage would still be great. Hypocrisy at least wears the livery of religion, and most men would leave off vices out of mere weariness rather than undergo the risk and expense of practising them in private. “I believe it is often with religion as it is with love, which by much dissembling at last grows real.” The clergy should not shut themselves up in their own clubs, but should mix with the laity and gain their esteem. “No man values the best medicine if administered by a physician whose person he hates or despises.” More churches should be provided in growing towns: the printing of pernicious books should be stopped: taverns and alehouses should be closed at midnight, and no woman should be suffered to enter any tavern. In brief, it is the business of everyone to maintain appearances, if nothing more; and this should be enforced by the magistrates.