Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel

 

A Flock of Swifts

Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.

Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.

Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality.   Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.

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Possibly “Stella”: Crawford Gallery
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Possibly “Vanessa”: Millais

Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.

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Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.

On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.

It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital.  Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.

Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.

With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.

In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.

By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin.   In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.

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In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey.  When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.

He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.

Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.

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Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland.  A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.

He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.

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John Stubbs

Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.

Works cited

Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.

How perils of popery led to an alliance with the Islam world

 

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Jay Strongwater: Golden pheasant figurine

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

English readers of This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton would think of Shakespeare’s lines ‘this sceptred isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea’ from Richard II, but the Irish would probably remember Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium. Like the final stanza of that poem, the pages of the book are filled with references to oriental gold. Ironically, for lovers of Yeats’s poem, Brotton tells of a gift, from Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III, not the other way around, of a clockwork organ which was played, in 1599, to entertain ‘the lords and ladies of Byzantium’ in the same palace that Yeats chose for his golden mechanical bird. The Sultan was not ‘drowsy’ but delighted, and offered the organ-maker, Thomas Dallam, his choice of the palace concubines. It seems that Dallam merely accepted a bag of gold.

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A Portrait of Elizabeth I: Irish Examiner

This Orient Isle explains Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman and Persian Empires as well as the Moroccan Sultanate, relationships which frequently distracted her from her ‘disastrous military campaign to try to crush Catholic rebellion in Ireland’.

Although Brotton does not dwell on it, the narrative suggests many parallels to Europe’s current relations with the Islamic world. As Edward Said points out in his theory of Orientalism, Judo-Christian Europeans often see Muslims as the ‘Other’, as something alien and dangerous. Said argues that because of misunderstanding or ignorance, we cast all Muslims as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’.

Brotton sets out to detail and analyse, the process by which Protestant England, with her queen who was to be excommunicated in 1570, was seeking an alliance with this ‘Other’. England was struggling against against Catholic Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire who had a stranglehold on trade. In 1566, the Bishop of Winchester wrote ‘the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery’.

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Brown University Library

The English merchants and explorers, like many current Europeans, did not have much of an understanding of Islam; one of them, Anthony Jenkinson explained, in 1558, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a in terms of their facial hair: ‘the Persians will not cut the hair of their upper lips, as the Bukharians and all other Tartars do’. The task of these emissaries, after all, was not theological but mercantile. In pursuit of trade Jenkinson tackled the frozen wastes of the North West Passage and arrived in Persia after a long and hazardous trek via Moscow. He found that the heavy cloth that he offered for sale was of more interest in the cold climes of Russia than in the warmth of Persia where he saw ‘golden and silken garments’.

Another traveller was Henry Roberts, the first English Ambassador to Morocco (1585).  Roberts, who had been a soldier, was settled in Ireland after a period of quashing insurrection. Not only was he reluctant to ‘yield his place’ in Ireland, but he had no experience of trade or diplomacy. Brotton writes that to ‘a soldier like Roberts, used to the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism, the multi-confessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock’. In the three years that he was there, however, Roberts seems to have spent more time engaged in military and political matters than commerce. He traded munitions and agitated for the Moroccan emperor, al-Mansur, to join an anti-Spanish league.

Roberts was working under the auspices of the Earl of Leicester, as was a later adventurer, Anthony Sherley. After Leicester’s death Sherley’s patron was the ‘equally intemperate’ Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who would, the following year, be attempting to subdue O’Neill in Ireland.

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The Somerset House Conference 1604: National Portrait Gallery

Sherley is described as ‘a born intriguer, a complete opportunist’ and ‘ a completely sinister person’. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival in Persia in 1598, Sherley’s relationship with Shah Abbas was, states Brotton closer than ‘that of any other Elizabethan Englishman and Muslim ruler’. Extraordinarily, by 1599, Sherley was able to claim ‘the right to represent the shah’s interests in Europe and to act like a Persian Mizra (prince) with the authority to mingle with kings and emperors’. Now he ‘was proposing to broker a grand anti-Ottoman alliance between Persia and Europe’s Catholic rulers’. It is not surprising that he was never able to return to England.

It is surprising that in 1888 a pamphlet written by the Reverend Scott Surtees suggested that Sherley was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Surtees argued that Sherley knew the ‘habits and the ways, the customs, dresses, manners, laws of almost every known nation’ and obsessed that the name Antonio, used in so many plays, came from Sherley’s own forename, Anthony.

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Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri:

Whether or not Sherley was ‘he who wrote these plays’, Brotton, himself, is extremely interested in Shakespeare’s works and has searched through them, like a monkey looking for fleas. In his first paragraph, Brotton, writes of Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri as ‘a tall, dark, bearded man’ who in ‘is instantly distinguished from the crowd by his long black robe (thawb), bright white linen turban and the huge richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha, which hangs from his waist’.

Later in the introduction, Brotton, states that ‘it is possible to discern some of the local raw material on which Shakespeare might have drawn for his portrayal of the noble Moor.’ The Morrocan envoy was in London in 1600-1601, the latter being the year that Shakespeare started writing Othello. But Brotton’s rather pedestrian recounting of the story of Othello in the chapter ‘More than a Moor’, along with his foregrounding of every possible reference to the Orient (such as the word ‘surely’ in Twelfth Night being an obvious pun on the name Sherley) are much less convincing and exciting than his account of Elizabethan deeds of derring-do.

Works Cited

Brotton, Jerry. This Orient Isle. London: Random House. 2016. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books. 1978. Print.

Yeats,William Butler.  “The Wild Swans at Coole”. The Wild Swans at Coole. Dublin: Cuala Press 1917. Print.

NB  This review was first published in “Weekend” (p5) in the Irish                               Examiner on 28th May 2016