Jonathan Swift: His life and his world
Yale University Press (Inbooks), $49.95 hb, 582pp, 9780300164992
Twelve years after Swift’s death, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu showed a visitor to her house in Venice a commode lined with books by Pope, Bolingbroke, and Swift. This, she explained, ‘gave her the satisfaction of shitting on them every day’. We still don’t know exactly what it was that caused her to fall out with Swift, Pope, and their friends in the 1720s, but there’s no questioning the enduring passions involved. The clichéd ‘men in powdered wigs’ image of the eighteenth century tells only a small part of the story. The violent intensities of the satirists are really much more interesting. We read Swift still for the visionary moments of humour, indignation, disgust, and existential terror sometimes hard to distinguish from tragedy; oh, and also for the deadly poise of his prose. Wortley Montagu was right thus to line her commode. Satire in her day was a visceral business.