By Chet Yarbrough
The principle of the power of the pen comes from a play titled “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy” written in 1839 with the suggestion that “The pen is mightier than the sword”.
Jonathan Swift is primarily remembered for “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World”; better known as “Gulliver’s Travels”. What is less well-known of Swift is that he was and is a revered Irish hero, a man blessed with the power of the pen.
Leo Damrosch has written a comprehensive biography of Jonathan Swift’s life. Damrosch searches for what is known, while expressing reservation about what others speculate about Swift’s life. Jonathan Swift is recognized as an ordained Anglican priest that reluctantly accepts a position as Dean (Deanery) of St Patrick’s church in Ireland.
Swift lives an ironic life. He was born in Ireland but preferred living in England. His life reflects humanity’s ambivalence about money, power, and prestige. Irony lays in Swift’s desire to become rich, powerful, and respected while skewering the rich, powerful, and respected. Swift reveres the Anglican Church while he hates the memory of King Henry VIII’s duplicitous murder of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in the 12th century. Irish’ Roman Catholics are tolerated rather than accepted as religious equals by Swift. Swift’s appellation for Irish’ Roman Catholics is “those Irish”.
England’s leaders grew to fear Swift’s power of the pen, a power that both hurt and helped Swift become a respected, if not rich, Irish leader.
Religion wields a sword with two edges. Just as Swift is endearing himself to English leadership, he writes a satiric book about western Christianity. The book is called “A Tale of a Tub”. It is widely read by literate England. Queen Anne considers the book blasphemous because of its parodies about religion and religion’s use and abuse in politics. Damrosch believes “A Tale of a Tub” burns Swift’s chance for ever becoming an English Bishop, a well-paying and respected position in the Anglican Church. Without Royal endorsement, Swift has little chance of promotion in England.
An irony of Swift’s life is that he gained a reputation as a maker and breaker of English’ politicians and noblemen by writing “A Tale of a Tub”; i.e. Damrosch notes several examples of English’ leaders that either solicit mention in Swift’s writing or fear pillory by Swift’s pen. The good consequence is growing respect for Swift’s writing skill. The bad consequence is English leadership’s disdain for Swift’s writing substance. The bad consequence leads to Swift’s posting in an Anglican Church in Ireland to subvert his influence in England. The irony of this lesser-posting is that the power of the pen weakens England’s political and aristocratic control of Ireland. It strengthen’s Swift’s reputation as a maker and breaker of English’ politicians and noblemen.
Irony follows irony in Swift’s life. Swift is a Tories’ sympathizer that evolves into an Irish hero that decries Tory treatment of Ireland in the early 18th century. He hated Ireland but became Ireland’s hero. Swift promotes Ireland’s boycott of British goods when England forbids export of Irish wool to anywhere but England. Swift decries Irish poverty but suggests poverty is an Irish moral failing. Swift embraces religion but chooses to denigrate its leadership.
The climax of Damrosch’s biography is Swift’s publication of “Gulliver’s Travels”. Swift’s dissection of societies’ follies is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century. One might argue that “A Tale of a Tub” is equally important but “Gulliver’s Travels” resonates with all who read for pleasure, politics, or enlightenment. “A Tale of a Tub” is trapped in the time of its writing.
There are other biographical details about women in Swift’s life, his stories, and Swift’s idiosyncratic habits but power of the pen is the thematic giant in Damrosch’s book. Damrosch shows how Swift became a feared satirist by England’s leaders.