Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 21. Baucis and Philemon; The Grand Question Debated; Cadenus and Vanessa; Later savage Satirical Verse: The Legion Club

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

§ 21. Baucis and Philemon; The Grand Question Debated; Cadenus and Vanessa; Later savage Satirical Verse: The Legion Club

It is strange to pass to some of his satires on woman, which are among the bitterest and most savage of his verses, and exhibit a physical loathing which suggests mental defect. In The Progress of Beauty, he dwells on physical decay; in The Progress of Marriage, he describes a union where “the swain is old, the nymph coquette.” In The Journal of a Modern Lady, he satirises the woman whose life is given to cards. In The Lady’s Dressing Room, Strephon and Chloe, and other pieces written about 1730–1, we see the increasing disease of mind which could find nothing but what was loathsome. It is unnecessary to dwell on these melancholy and savage things, or on the coarse or foolish trifles which Swift and the cronies of his later years bandied to and fro. They had their origin in an attempt to escape from the deepening gloom. Nor need we do more than glance at the political ballads and skits—Sid Hamet’s Rod, The Wdsr Prophecy, The Fable of Midas, Dennis’s Invitation to Steele and the like—in which Swift attacked his opponents while engaged in the political warfare of 1710–13; or at those of later years relating to Ireland. The Epistle to Mr. Gay contains a violent attack on Walpole. It is enough to mention the inhuman onslaught on Lord Allen in Traulus (1730), and The Last Judgment and The Legion Club (1736), two of his last pieces, where savage wrath has the fullest sway. In The Legion Club, an attack on the Irish parliament, he pictures it as a madhouse, and gives us the keeper’s description of the various members. If he could destroy the harpies’ nest with thunder, how would Ireland be blessed! They sold the nation, they raved of making laws and they scribbled senseless heads of bills:

  • See, the Muse unbars the gate;
  • Hark, the monkeys, how they prate!
  • Would Hogarth were there, so that every monster might be painted! At length, he could not bear any more of it:
  • Keeper, I have seen enough.
  • Taking then a pinch of snuff,
  • I concluded, looking round them,
  • May their god, the devil, confound them!
  • In the fable called The Beasts Confession to the Priest (1732), Swift dwells on “the universal folly of mankind of mistaking their talents.” When the land was struck with plague, their king ordered the beasts to confess their sins. The ass confessed that he was a wag; the ape claimed strict virtue, but said his zeal was sometimes indiscreet; the swine said his shape and beauty made him proud, but gluttony was never his vice. Similarly, the knave declares he failed because he could not flatter; the chaplain vows he cannot fawn; the statesman says, with a sneer, that his fault is to be too sincere. Swift’s conclusion is that he had libelled the four-footed race, since

  • Creatures of ev’ry kind but ours
  • Well comprehend their nat’ral powers
  • though
  • now and then
  • Beasts may degen’rate into men.
  • On Poetry: a Rhapsody (1733) was thought by Swift to be his best satire. In this very powerful piece, he describes the difficulty of the poet’s art, and the wane of public encouragement. After much satirical advice, he tells the writer who has had to put aside all thoughts of fame to seek support from a party:

  • A pamphlet in Sir Bob’s defence
  • Will never fail to bring in pence.
  • Praise of a king will always be acceptable, and, with change of names, will serve again in the following reign. Or, the poet may live by being a puny judge of wit at Will’s: he must read Rymer and Dennis, and Dryden’s prefaces, now much valued,
  • Though merely writ at first for filling,
  • To raise the volume’s price a shilling.
  • Jobbers in the poet’s art were to be found in every alley, generally at war with each other. As naturalists have observed, a flea
  • Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
  • And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
  • And so proceed ad infinitum.
  • Who can reach the worst in Grub street?
  • the height we know;
  • ’T is only infinite below.
  • And then the piece ends with satirical adulation of king and minister, such as poetasters loved.