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Swift and the Ruin(s) of History

Madeleine Descargues-Grant

Résumés

Cet article s’attache à l’utilisation que fait Swift de la ruine en tant que figure dans son œuvre. Conséquence de l’hubris illustrée par l’histoire de Babel, référence récurrente au dix-huitième siècle, les ruines produites par l’activité de l’homme ne donnent pas lieu chez Swift à une réflexion sur l’histoire, pas plus qu’elles ne sont constituées en objets esthétiques (contrairement à ce qu’illustrera l’Encyclopédie). Il met en avant les connotations morales négatives de la notion, employée comme un leitmotiv dans ses sermons. Malgré l’engagement de Swift aux côtés des Tories en 1710-11, son scepticisme invétéré le fait douter de la possibilité même de toute activité politique réparatrice et l’amène à préférer la posture de l’isolation qui lui permet, de son exil irlandais, de fulminer contre ce qu’il considère comme des menaces à l’encontre de l’Église d’Angleterre et de la paix civique. Ce réflexe anti-moderne est lié à l’opposition instinctive de Swift à l’optimisme des Whigs et à leur foi en l’avenir, et remonte à l’expérience de 1714, année apocalyptique qui voit les espoirs des Tories et les ambitions de Swift s’effondrer après la mort de la reine Anne. Ce sont les poèmes de Swift qui offrent le meilleur commentaire sur la « scène de dévastation » de ces années-là. On y voit revenir Babel, symbole du péché originel ou de l’entrée dans l’histoire, le « passé glorieux » n’étant invoqué que par contraste avec le futur menaçant.

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  • 1 The Sonnets, John Dover Wilson (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge UP, p. 34.
  • 2 Patrick Reilly, Jonathan Swift  : the Brave Desponder, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1982, p. 1.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 106.

1This paper was initially prompted by a reflection on the lingering « ruin-ruminate » alliteration in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64, itself a meditation on the effects of « Time’s fell hand » : « When I have seen such interchange of state, / Or state it self confounded, to decay, / Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate / That Time will come and take my love away »1. What, one wonders, were the nature of Swift’s ruminations when (repeatedly) he brandished the image of past and future ruins ? The reference to Shakespeare is hardly surprising if we bear in mind that Swift was, « even in his own time, a man of the past », as observed by Patrick Reilly2. Like Shakespeare the Renaissance man, and unlike the proponents of modern science and progress such as Newton, « [Swift] sees [time] as a force inimical to man. […] Time itself is the culprit, history the enemy »3. It was not the Dean’s temperament, however, to evade confrontation with any antagonist, be it time itself. As he strove to take practical action first in an English, then in an Anglo-Irish context, he could not avoid having a view to the future, despite his own disappointments and his deeply-ingrained pessimism with regard to the course of history. At a more personal level, he indeed seems to have been magnetized in many of his writings, whether prose or poetry, to the starkest representations of the ruinous ravages of time.

  • 4 Alan D. Chalmers, Swift and the Burden of the Future, Newark, University of Delaware Press ; London (...)
  • 5 Daniel Eilon, Factions’s Fictions  : Ideological Closure in Swift’s Satire, Newark, University of D (...)

2Swift used the motif of ruins for a complex mixture of theological, political, satirical, and more generally poetical purposes. But was there, we may ask, more to the motif than a castigation of human hubris and a general psychological and political distrust of change, linked to what Alan D. Chalmers has termed his « apprehension » – in the sense of both « grasp[ing] » and « fear[ing] » – of the future4 ? How idiosyncratic was his use of the reference to Babel, as identified by Daniel Eilon5, an image and notion commonly invoked in the representation of ruin(s) in the eighteenth century, and one of the key-words utilized by Swift to conjure up the spectre of civic apocalypse ?

3We will pursue the intricacies of the motif of ruin(s) more particularly in two of Swift’s sermons, written respectively in 1726 and 1724, including a brief consideration of the treatment of the motif in book three of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), along with a flashback to the conclusion of Swift’s political engagement with Harley’s moderate Tory ministry for the adventure of The Examiner (1710-11). We will then venture an interpretation of the significance of ruins in Swift’s own evolving sense of history, through later examples of his poetry, e.g. « Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift » (1731) and « To Janus on New year’s Day » (1729).

Babel, ruins and the vision of history

  • 6 Jonathan Swift, Irish Tracts 1720-1723 and Sermons, Herbert Davis and Louis Landa (eds.), The Prose (...)

4If we consider Swift’s sermon « Upon the Martyrdom of King Charles I », preached 30 January 1726, a text which can be described as paradigmatic in its treatment of the motif of ruin by Swift, we will find it saturated with the lexis of ruin, destruction and decay as well as written within a very rigorous and pedagogical compass. Swift accuses the Cromwellians of ruining England, of literally « destroying and defacing […] vast numbers of God’s houses », as if they had been « Heathens sent on purpose to ruin and blot out all marks of Christianity »6, and of having similarly destroyed the civic structure of the country, which is where the Babel paradigm is operative :

As to the civil government, you have already heard how they modelled it upon the murder of their King, and discarding the nobility. Yet, clearly to shew what a Babel they had built, after twelve years trial, and twenty several sorts of government ; the nation, grown weary of their tyranny, was forced to call in the son of him whom those reformers had sacrificed. (226)

5Incidentally, in this presentation, the role of the Christlike figure is passed on from Charles I to Charles II (an unexpected promotion for the latter), just as, in the same sermon, the punishment of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, overlaps with that of the builders of Babel, as described in Genesis. On discovering the city and the tower built by the son of men :

  • 7 Gen. 11.6-8.

the LORD said, « Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do ; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech ». So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.7

  • 8 See Eilon’s study of the parallel between the crimes of Simeon and Levi (Jacob’s violent sons, to w (...)

6Confusion and dispersion are in both cases – that of the builders of Babel and that of Simeon and Levi – the punishment for the political ambition of the sons of men or for those whom Swift usually brands with the names of « factions » or « factious » people8. In his sermon the ruins of Babel therefore testify to the castigation by God of human hubris or pride, which itself has ruined the city or the nation and the Church. They serve as a moral warning. The emphasis is laid on the active process of ruining churches and Christianity as enacting a negative human will. The example described belongs to a recent past, but the notion of ruin to which the sermon refers is not only valid for the past. It can easily apply to the present and to the future as well.

  • 9 By the end of the eighteenth century, the ruins that inspired the composition of Gibbon’s History o (...)
  • 10 When Jaucourt mentioned the ruins of Babel as his first example in his article on « ruin » and « ru (...)
  • 11 If we further explore Jaucourt’s definition of ruin(s) in the Encyclopédie, we can observe the coha (...)

7The status of the ruins of Babel for Swift and for writers in general, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, was mostly theological and political. Taking a broader cultural and historical perspective, one could observe that in the course of the eighteenth century and in the context of the rise of historical studies9, Babel as a literary symbol would gradually lose its effectiveness as a negative political exemplum to acquire a more general anthropological meaning10, as ruins and the fascination for the past increasingly took on an aesthetic value, culminating in the gothic experience of the late eighteenth century11.

  • 12 Gulliver’s Travels, Robert A. Greenberg (ed.), New York, London, Norton, 1970, p. 180.
  • 13 Norbert Col, « The Moralist’s Adventure : Rewriting History in Gullivers’ Travels  », in Adventure  (...)

8The nearest one gets to the contemplation of the past is in Gulliver’s Travels. Before meeting the Struldbruggs – before, that is to say, meeting the living ruins that they literally are –, Gulliver fancies himself immortal and imagines « the Pleasure of seeing the various Revolutions of States and Empires ; […] antient Cities in Ruins, and obscure Villages become the Seats of Kings. […] Barbarity over-running the politest Nations, and the most barbarous becoming civilized »12. Interestingly the significance of ruins here as traces is related to the great tidal rhythm of history, according to which decay and construction go together. Gulliver’s « antient Cities in Ruins » are located in a cyclical vision of history, inscribed in the word « Revolutions », essentially incompatible with any progressive views potentially contained in a linear conception of history. Norbert Col has observed that « his [Gulliver’s] is a linear, cumulative, rather than a cyclical history. Yet both are present in Gulliver’s Travels. The coexistence of these two incompatible outlooks on history points to the clumsy articulation of the historian and the moralist in Swift »13. If Gulliver could hope, as an individual, to benefit from the lessons of the past by becoming wiser, his confrontation with the Struldbruggs casts doubt on the realism of even such a modest ambition. Not only are they made repugnant by the accumulation of human vices in their decrepit oldest age, they also lose their memory and therefore cannot be of any use for the prospective historian : a striking parable of the limits of linearity.

  • 14 Gulliver’s Travels, op. cit., p. 151.
  • 15 P. Reilly, op. cit., p. 106.

9Gulliver’s stay in Laputa provides a complementary illustration of the value of ruins as a warning against the illusion of progress, in the description of Lord Munodi’s ruined mill. Acting as Gulliver’s guide, Lord Munodi can boast a prosperous estate, because he has so far managed to keep well away from the innovative methods of the mad scientists of Lagado – for whom one should read the new natural philosophers of the Royal Society. In one case only have the projectors’ and scientific schemers’ conceptions prevailed upon his respect of tradition, and that with dire consequences, since his old mill, which was once « very convenient »14, has been superseded by a new construction, set against nature and common sense, and resulting after many vain efforts in a useless heap of abandoned stones. « The ruined mill », Patrick Reilly writes, « is history in microcosm, a parabolic demonstration of what must happen when corrupt, hare-brained meddlers tinker with the social structure ; the statesman’s task should be conservation, patching up defects […] »15, failing which any political action is bound to generate chaos and ruins rather than order and prosperity.

10There is a very short step from the parabolic value of literal ruin(s) to the generalized metaphorical use of the term by Swift, enabling him to connect ruins not only with the past, but also, more perversely, with the future. In the sermon « Doing Good », which will be examined later, Swift declares himself justified to speak from the pulpit against those who want « to turn our cities and churches into ruins » (235), thereby using ruins as the symbolic site of a menace. Instead of referring to the ruins of the past, Swift prefers/seems to say that it is the future which threatens ruin. Certainly, if ruin lends itself to redemption in his writing, it is not via the aesthetic glorification of the trace of the past. Rather, the reference to the great wheel of history in the Struldbruggs episode would anchor the theme in a form of historical detachment, of the sort that Swift found admirable in Sir William Temple, his early Whig mentor. But detachment was not a forte of Swift’s, judging by his systematic attacks on meddlers, projectors, and more generally all who did not share his views, in support of which his rhetoric relied coherently and heavily on the lexis of destruction and ruin.

The sermons against ruinous rebellion

  • 16 F. P. Lock, The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels, Oxford, Clarendon, 1980, p. 24.

11The sermon initially mentioned, « Upon the Martyrdom of King Charles I », can be considered as a particularly measured attempt at expressing a comprehensive view of Swift’s political position, since in it first of all he has to reconcile his hostility to an absolutist king with the necessity to write a eulogy of this former King as martyr. As noted by F. P. Lock, « as an Anglican he was practically committed to a virtual cult of Charles I and as an Anglican clergyman to preaching occasional sermons on 30 January (the fast day ordained to commemorate Charles’ martyrdom) »16. He also has to reconcile his suspicion of rebellious politics in general with a support of the (Old) Whig balance between Church and King, all of these tensions having to be contained within his essential conviction that the Church is the only real rampart against the ruin of England.

12In this sermon, the heaviest charge is laid of course at the door of the Puritans, « the founders of our dissenters » (221), descended from those Protestants who were forced to leave England, to take refuge and become exiles in Geneva, by the persecution of the Catholic Queen Mary. They are accused of having later come back to England « so fond of the government [a commonwealth governed without a king] and religion [without the order of bishops] of the place they had left » (220) that they wanted to import them into England, forming to this purpose « a considerable faction in the kingdom » (221). The chain of errors and responsibilities leads from Popery to puritanism. A secondary share in the crisis is attributed to the king himself, with reference to the general context of political institutions – « In the reign of this Prince, Charles the Martyr, the power and prerogative of the king were much greater than they are in our times » (220) – and to his own severe though forgivable flaws : « he was forced upon a practice, no way justifiable, of raising money » (221). Charles is seen as drawn into a tragic trap : « forced […] to pass an act for cutting off the head of his best and chief minister » (Thomas Strafford, who was executed in 1641, before William Laud, beheaded in 1645) and « compelled […] to pass another law, by which it should not be in his power to dissolve [the] parliament without their own consent ». Thereby « this Prince did in effect sign his own destruction » (222) and empowered the House of Commons to govern without his consent and to turn the army he had sent to Ireland « against [himself] their own sovereign » (222). The process is described as culminating in « that abominable rebellion and murder » (223) and engendering the dire consequences of the Irish rebellion, of the multiplication of schisms, heresies and factions, as well as « the rise and progress of Atheism » (223). A relatively positive portrait of Charles I is painted here, despite Swift’s lack of sympathy for absolutism : « this gracious King » (221) having « redress[ed] all [the] grievances » (221-22) he was guilty of, and having died « a real martyr for the true religion and liberty of his people » (223). In the same sermon, Swift contrasts James II and Charles I :

  • 17 The « other remedy » could be an allusion to the regency proposal. See F. P. Lock, Swift’s Tory Pol (...)

but the late Revolution under the Prince of Orange was occasioned by a proceeding directly contrary, the oppression and injustice there beginning from the throne. For that unhappy Prince, King James II. did not only invade our laws and liberties, but would have forced a false religion [Catholicism] upon his subjects, for which he was deservedly rejected, since there could be no other remedy found, or at least agreed on. (229-30)17

  • 18 Commentary on Swift’s political positioning is far from concordant, with views ranging from the vis (...)
  • 19 Gen. 49.6.

13He formulates a synthesis of his political theory, allowing him to justify the Revolution of 1688, in accordance with Old Whig principles, while he condemns the Civil War, in accordance with moderate Tory views18. What emerges is the primacy of the Anglican Church, because only it can claim to be permanent, as distinct from the state, whose legitimacy can be questioned on account of possible arbitrariness. The fulminating tone of the sermon is aimed at the Dissenters, who demanded the abolition of the anniversary of 30 January, together with Low Church and Whiggish divines who thought the commemoration served to kindle animosities among Protestants. But for Swift, the Protestant sects – heirs of the Puritans who challenged the state – are a threat to the tenets of civic peace : order, stability, and hierarchy. They are the inheritors of the spirit of Babel, like Simeon and Levi, accused by their father Jacob in the epigraph of the same sermon : « for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they digged down a wall »19.

  • 20 Claude Rawson, God, Gulliver, and Genocide, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001, p. 16.

14Delivered in 1726, fifteen years after Swift’s most ambitious involvement at the very centre of English political life, with the episode of the Examiner (1710-11) in London, and two years after his other most famous intervention, in Anglo-Irish politics this time, with the campaign against Wood’s coins in the Drapiers’ Letters (1724), the sermon « Upon the martyrdom of King Charles I » provides a running commentary on Swift’s Tory rather than Whig principles. These relate to his essentially authoritarian stand, and are certainly at variance with what Claude Rawson has called « the well-intentioned ministrations of ‘liberal’ sensibilities of the late Ph.D. era ([…] from the end of the Second World War) »20, which tried to reclaim Swift for radicalism. Swift’s strictures upon the subject of civic ruin as a fatal consequence of « the great Decay of Religion » – a phrase he uses in another sermon, « Upon Sleeping in Church » (214) – are addressed to the prevailing liberal and latitudinarian Whiggish views, which he distrusts, politically and temperamentally. He therefore advises his listeners « [t]o avoid all broachers and preachers of new-fangled doctrines in the church ; […] to obey God and the King, and meddle not with those who are given to change » (231). This resolute anti-modern position also appears to have an intricate link with the idea of original sin, transposed in the story of Babel. The analysis of the treatment of ruin(s) in one particular issue of The Examiner will further explore Swift’s conceptions.

A political situation beyond repair

15In Examiner 44, the penultimate number in the series which had been entrusted to his satirical quill by the moderate Tory and former Whig Harley, from November 1710 to May 1711, Swift associates the word and the image of ruin(s) with the idea of repair, in an effort to conjure up a positive and reassuring vision – a signal exception in his usual manner – to present a partial summary of the tasks accomplished by the Tory parliament. The change of the previous ministry and the elimination of the Whigs were well justified, he once more explains, despite the fears entertained by ill-meaning people who even insinuated that the French rejoiced over the political choices made by the English government :

  • 21 The Examiner, and Other Press Written in 1710-11, Herbert Davis (ed.), Works, Oxford, Basil Blackwe (...)

But, if a house be Swept, the more occasion there is for such a Work, the more Dust it will raise ; if it be going to Ruin, the Repairs, however necessary, will make a Noise, and disturb the Neighbourhood awhile. And as to the Rejoicings made in France, if it be true, that they had any, upon the News of those Alterations among us ; their Joy was grounded upon the same Hopes with that of the Whigs, who comforted themselves, that a Change of Ministry and Parliament, would infallibly put us all into Confusion ; increase our Divisions, and destroy our Credit ; wherein, I suppose, by this time they are equally undeceived.21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 168, 169, 170.

16The house has been swept, the repairs have been made to prevent it from « going to Ruin », without breaking more eggs than necessary, and the Examiner (as persona-author of the paper) can present a list of achievements owed to the Tory parliament, among which are the reestablishment of trust in « the Credit of the Nation », the reduction of foreign religious immigration, and the defence of the rights of access to Parliament of landowners versus the representatives of the modern world of finance and « Monyed Interest ». The list also includes the control regained over « the Publick Debts […] so prodigiously encreased, by the Negligence and Corruption of those who had been Managers of the Revenue », and the decision to fund the building of « fifty new Churches in London and Westminster »22. All these sound too typically like the commonplace rhetoric of a binary political system, where one side accuses the other of squandering the wealth of the nation, or vice versa, and lead one to suspect that the summary is biased for the purpose of the demonstration.

17To round off this sense of a positive conclusion, the Examiner can even congratulate himself on his part, which he does in n° 45, the last issue in which Swift avowedly had a hand, since he composed the first part of it :

  • 23 Ibid., p. 172.

When a General hath conquered an Army, and reduced a Country to obedience ; he often finds it necessary to send out small Bodies, in order to take in petty Castles and Forts. […] This case exactly resembles mine ; I count the main Body of the Whigs entirely subdued ; at least, until they appear with new Reinforcements, I shall reckon them as such ; and therefore do find my self at Leisure to examine inferior Abuses23.

  • 24 Harold Williams (ed.), Jonathan Swift : Journal to Stella, 2 vols., Oxford, Clarendon, 1948, vol. 1 (...)
  • 25 Ibid., p. 343.

18The condescending tone practised on the discomforted Whigs certainly has a Swiftian ring. Swift is here closing the file and bringing his writing for The Examiner to an acceptable conclusion with a rhetorical flourish, both for the sake of his own image as author of the series and for the sake of the public image of the government he was proud to support. Yet the Journal to Stella on the corresponding dates in June 1711 famously and seriously qualifies the All’s-Well-That-Ends-Well note, with Swift’s directions for reading, intended for his friend : « As for the Examiner, I have heard a whisper, that after that of this day, which tells what this parliament has done, you will hardly find them so good. I prophesy they will be trash for the future ; and methinks in this day’s Examiner the author talks doubtfully, as if he would write no more »24. With due acknowledgement of the fact that Swift is in the journal using a private persona and indulging a more affective attitude, several other statements in the Journal testify to his sense of disillusionment and of distance : « There is now but one business the ministry wants me for ; and when that is done, I will take my leave of them. I never got a penny from them, nor expect it »25, he writes in August 1711, two months after the adventure of The Examiner. A little later, in October 1711, he reports concerning his efforts to keep Harley and Bolingbroke on good terms :

  • 26 Journal to Stella, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 389.

I told him [Bolingbroke], I knew all along, that this proceeding of mine was the surest way to send me back to my willows in Ireland, but that I regarded it not, provided I could do the kingdom service in keeping them well together. I minded him how often I had told lord treasurer, lord keeper, and him together, that all things depended on their union, and that my comfort was to see them love one another […] I act an honest part ; that will bring me neither profit nor praise.26

  • 27 See Examiner 15, op. cit., p. 13 ; also n°13, ibid., p. 3.
  • 28 Louis I. Bredfold, « The Gloom of the Tory Satirists », in Pope and His Contemporaries : Essays Pre (...)

19Such deeply ingrained scepticism concerning the future, including his own future, and the success of his own political efforts questions his belief in the possibility of repair which Examiner 44 was trying to conjure up for the benefit of its Tory readers. It supports Swift’s pose as the independent wise man, the « impartial Hand »27, in his own words, above parties – which was precisely the moral contract presiding over his undertaking of the paper – and effectively shows him to be more interested in principles than in pragmatism. Although Swift is indeed conservative in his conception of ruin as civic apocalypse fostered by the alliance of Whiggism and modernity, the powerful admixture of moral, ideological and political acerbity – his personal version of what Louis I. Bredvold identified as « the gloom of the Tory satirists »28 – prevents him from endorsing even a Tory program of repair. The ruins are really beyond such repair, whoever is responsible for them.

Ruins as leitmotif

  • 29 « It is a very melancholy Reflection, that such a Country as ours, which is capable of producing al (...)
  • 30 F. P. Lock, Swift’s Tory Politics, op. cit., p. 165. See p. 163-65 in particular for Lock’s study o (...)

20If we now turn to the sermon « Doing Good », pronounced in 1724, at the time of The Drapiers’s Letters, we face what might seem the other extreme of Swift’s political career, or even its counter-example : a direct and effective intervention, based on the leading of a popular movement. Swift’s campaign against Wood’s patent is also, in the field of Swiftian studies, the most serious evidence of the views that make him an Anglo-Irish patriot and the champion of the people’s liberties, though this libertarian interpretation is contested by his other writings. It is a fact that after the brilliant episode of the Examiner, followed by his return to Ireland (and to the deanery of Saint Patricks’s) in 1714, only the relation between Ireland and England drew Swift out of his political silence. This was to defend the Protestant interest in Ireland, threatened for example by the passing of a Toleration Act for Ireland in 1719, too favourable to the dissenting interests in the eyes of Swift : a typical example, according to him, of the betrayal of the Church by the London government, which had been returned to the domination of the Whigs with the accession of Walpole in 1721. Swift’s motivation was also to resist the treatment of Ireland as a colony by England, politically or economically, and it was steeped in ambivalence : towards the behaviour of Protestants in Ireland, as Swift both denounced « the intolerable Hardships » imposed by « our rigorous Neighbours » (200) and the mismanagement of trade, the dishonesty and sloth of workers at all levels ; towards « covetous Landlords » (201) and of course, most of all perhaps, towards their tenants, the Irish Catholics, both hateful and pitiable. His very harsh and passionate advocacy inspired for example the sermon « Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland », preached after 1720, which presents a description of Ireland as apocalypse, reminiscent in its beginning of the famous and possibly contemporary Modest Proposal (1729)29. The sermon « Doing Good » must be situated within this context of the scandal of « Wood’s half-pence ». William Wood had been granted a patent to coin copper farthings and halfpence for use in Ireland, possibly through bribing the Duchess of Kendall, George I’s mistress, and the English government had not taken the trouble to consult any Irish people about the decision. The Irish resented the contempt with which they were treated as much as the fact that the coins would be minted in England ; objected that the terms of the patent were too favourable to Wood and insufficiently guaranteed against counterfeiting, overcoining, and debasement. Naturally, Swift’s anti-modern position and his rejection of luxury and commerce could seize upon inflationist fears, and he did not dispense with this facile association in his sermon, presenting a storming description of the future state to which Ireland would be reduced if the project were carried through. This sermon actually offers an exemplary use of the rhetoric of ruin by Swift, in the form of extreme caricature. The theme feeds into the general coherence of his position, against the Whig government of London and its economic policy, therefore brandishing the threat of ruin in front of the development of commerce : « For although the nominal antagonist is the insignificant William Wood, Swift’s readers are never in doubt that the real enemy is the English government »30.

21As Swift’s rhetoric benefits here from popular feeling, all the supporters of the project are smothered under the ruins, without discrimination : « Have we not seen men, for the sake of some petty employment, give up the very natural rights and liberties of their country, and of mankind, in the ruin of which themselves must at last be involved ? » (233) — a rhetorical question hardly allowing for any answer or qualification. Wood himself is described as « one obscure man, by representing our wants where they were least, and concealing them where they were greatest, [who] had almost succeeded in a project of utterly ruining this whole kingdom » (237). The supporters of the coinage are « the meanest instruments » of « public mischief », « deceiving us with plausible arguments, to make us believe, that the most ruinous project they can offer is intended for our good » (237), which precludes any consideration of the plausibility of the said arguments. In this sermon full of similes, evoking successively « storm at sea », « beggary » and « plague » (237, 236, 237), the richest example is one that actively militates for the idea of the fusion of pastoral and political roles :

Perhaps it may be thought by some, that this way of discoursing is not so proper from the pulpit. But surely, when an open attempt is made, and far carried on, to make a great kingdom one large poor-house, to deprive us of all means to exercise hospitality or charity, to turn our cities and churches into ruins, to make the country a desert for wild beasts and robbers, to destroy arts and sciences, all trades and manufactures, and the very tillage of the ground, only to enrich one obscure, ill-designing projector, and his followers ; it is time for the pastor to cry out, that the wolf is getting into his flock, to warn them to stand together, and all to consult the common safety. (235-36)

22This form of eloquence is also a testimony to the way in Swift can simplify the issues, in his best (or worst) propaganda style, and at the same time an example of the use of ruin(s) as a sort of catchword, lending itself to the rallying of all under the anti-modern banner, till the final charge :

I pray God protect his most gracious Majesty, and this kingdom, long under his government, and defend us from all ruinous projectors, deceivers, suborners, perjurers, false accusers, and oppressors ; from the virulence of party and faction ; and unite us in loyalty to our King, love to our country, and charity to each other. (240)

23This rather opportunistic use of the notion of ruin – whatever may have been the effectiveness of Swift’s campaign in the Drapier’s Letters and the legitimacy of the latter, which belongs to another discussion – makes the word a short cut for what he wants to be taken for granted, not unlike the habitual use of scapegoats in propaganda. As Lock remarked, Swift is settling accounts with the Whig government. In his rhetoric, ruins are a convenient leitmotiv that people will automatically decode into a chain of meanings concluding in an anti-governmental position.

The ruins of the future

24We then need to investigate why Swift paradoxically feels on safe ground with ruin(s). For one thing, they are a rhetorical weapon against all those who meddle with change, instead of being content « to obey God and the King », to quote the Dean. In this respect, they reflect his preoccupation with revolutionary instability, as experienced in the days of the Glorious revolution when, then in his early manhood, he left Ireland and fled to England to become secretary to William Temple. For general polemical purposes, they have a direct connotation with the hazards linked to Whig notions of economic development and they serve as a rallying cry against the attractions of ease and luxury.

  • 31 C. Rawson, op. cit., p. 10, 12.

25As a motif, they are the performative aspect of Swift’s most effective rhetoric. When Rawson for example describes A Modest Proposal as « a metaphor of political and economic self-destruction », and discusses the « slippery » « connections and disconnections between figures of speech and the realities or intentions they appear to be expressing »31, we find ourselves face to face with Swift’s premonitory aesthetics of ruin(s), which are neither contemplative nor nostalgic (contrary to the Gothic school of the later eighteenth century), but active and dynamic, through the demonstration of the power exercised by language, the power to build and break.

  • 32 The Burden of the Future, op. cit., p. 138.

26But they are also, more importantly perhaps in the case of Swift, a talisman – albeit a negative one – against the lure of progress and of promoting political action as such, and therefore a defensive rhetorical strategy against failure – such as that experienced at the time of glorious commitment, with the adventure of the Examiner. In this sense, the imaginary presence of ruins informs Swift’s sense of history ; it is symptomatic of his commitments in the present, with implications for the doubtful future, and of his relationship with time. Ruins allow him to accommodate the future. They are a collapsed version of the ideal of immutability and permanence : a reminder that the future which men insistently wish to build for themselves is strictly not performable, and that no energies should therefore be wasted on the project. Swift prefers a theatrical self-effacement from the scene of the future, as in the case of his « Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift », written in 1731. But in such cases, as noted by Chalmers, « Swift’s self-displacement is his technique for self-assertion »32, as in many feats of his most effective and most (self-)destructive rhetoric.

  • 33 Michael Shinagel, A Concordance to the Poems of Jonathan Swift, Ithaca and London, Cornell UP, 1972

27I would like here to pursue the word and idea of ruins in Swift’s poetical works, helped in this by Michael Shinagel’s Concordance to the Poems of Jonathan Swift33. My interest at this point is not so much in Swift’s aesthetics of destruction or in his self-destructive rhetoric, from a stylistic perspective, but in his attempt at expressing via ruin(s) his own founding gesture, in defiance of time and history. Not coincidentally, the themes of ruin and Babel converge in the above-cited « Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift », which takes its particular flavour from Swift’s contemplation of the ruin of his own body and faculties, in a strange celebration of decrepitude, not unfamiliar in his poetry :

  • 34 Jonathan Swift, Poetical Works, Herbert Davis (ed.), New York and Toronto, Oxford UP, 1967, p. 498- (...)

See, how the Dean begins to break :
Poor Gentleman, he droops apace,
You plainly find it in his Face :
That old Vertigo in his Head, Will never leave him, till he’s dead :
Besides, his Memory decays, He recollects not what he says ;
He cannot call his Friends to Mind ;
Forgets the Place where last he din’d :
Plyes you with Stories o’er and o’er,
He told them fifty Times before.
34

28As the poem accelerates towards its conclusion, Swift looks back seventeen years to the chaos of 1714, after the Queen’s death : the rout of the Tories and the revenge of the Whigs, « a dangerous Faction » undertaking :

  • 35 Ibid., p. 509.

To ruin, slaughter, and confound ;
To turn Religion to a Fable,
And make the Government a Babel  :
Pervert the Law, disgrace the Gown,
Corrupt the Senate, rob the Crown ;
To sacrifice old England’s Glory,
And make her infamous in Story. […]
With Horror, Grief, Despair the Dean
Beheld the dire destructive Scene […].35

  • 36 Ibid., p. 510.

29All that he can achieve, from the time of his exile to Ireland – described in the same poem as « the Land of Slaves and Fens » – , is « to save that helpless Land [Ireland] from Ruin »36, an allusion to the success of the campaign led through The Drapier’s Letters against Wood, and also a general statement about Ireland, threatened on two accounts : ruin by the English oppressors, and by the Irish themselves.

  • 37 Ibid., p. 508.
  • 38 The Burden of the Future, op. cit., p. 143-44.

30For Swift, in a sense, history stopped in 1714 : « Here ended all our golden Dreams »37. In his discussion of Swift’s posturing and of the different voices in this poem, Chalmers notes that « the voices […] construct Swift’s absence as central to the topic, structure, and interpretation of the poem. Swift’s exile from the future – the permanent exile of death – is made central to the poem, in the same way that Swift depicts his own exile as central to the history of the Whig administration after 1714 ».38 It is the stumbling-block of Swift’s short-lived participation in English politics that compels my attention here. I would like to underline the compulsive quality of Swift’s gnawing at his bones of contention, with the Whigs, with the course of history, and with himself perhaps most of all, for having tried to intervene and failed. I would therefore argue that on top of the more obvious symbolic level in which he uses the theme and menace of ruin(s) against the modern notion of progress, there is also a self-induced punishing gesture in their invocation, like a sort of vanitas that the politician or the historian had better not forget, lodged in the corner of his imaginary schemes, the worm in the fruit perverting any attempts at building a future, and reminding him that commitment is inevitably doomed to fail. We may remember that ten years later, in the case of Wood, his success was in arresting, not assisting, the process of history. Might « the dire destructive Scene » of 1714 have been Swift’s own lesson to himself, learned from the rise and fall of his own ambitions after the death of Queen Anne ? Further, if the lesson, more comprehensively, is that any investment in the future, any project, is not only dangerous and unsafe, but corrupted with pride, a proof of that original sin of which Babel was a manifestation, Swift’s obstinate rumination on his failed attempt could be interpreted as an indirect acknowledgement of having shared in the very pride of those grim « projectors » he was otherwise so keen to expose ; of having in fact created a small Babel of his own. Another poem, addressed to « Two-fac’d Janus, God of Time », and written in 1729, offers a typical view of Swift’s historical perspective on ruin, imagined here as belonging to an unspecified future, as « retrospection » sees equally unspecific « glorious ages past » :

  • 39 « To Janus on New Year’s Day », Poetical Works, op. cit., p. 373. In Roman religion, Janus was the (...)

God of Time, if you be wise,
Look not with your future Eyes :
What imports thy forward Sight ?
Well, if you could lose it quite.
Can you take Delight in viewing
This poor Isle’s approaching Ruin ?
When thy Retrospection vast
Sees the glorious Ages past.
 
Happy Nation were we blind,
Or, had only Eyes behind.
39

  • 40 « A little confusingly », Chalmers writes, « Swift requests of Janus the face that is turned to the (...)

31One can note that ruins here have quite disappeared from « the glorious past » to gather instead, like clouds, towards the dark future40. Nevertheless, at the end of the poem, the « Madam » addressed prefers to be deaf to this solemn warning and to choose the precariously poised « Youth and Beauty still ». Not so the Dean, who had rather abolish the perishable object of desire in his rhetorical gesture than be defeated by time in his longing for it.

  • 41 Eccl. 3.20.

32Beyond the minatory purpose, what comes through in the invocation of ruin(s) by Swift is a figure of the apocalypse, the consequence and fulfilment of original sin in a ruinous future, in the Babel that the future is destined to become. Where poets and historians would later in the century take delight in contemplating the ruins of Babel as the grandiose past of men’s history, justifying their hopes in another future, for Swift, ruin is always « approaching », therefore essentially associated with the future, as if the ruins of Babel were, for him, a portable memorandum of the dust in Ecclesiastes : « all are from the dust, and all return to dust »41. The desire to control or to appropriate history or even to hope in the future is doomed because it tries, in effect, to rebuild Babel. In this light, we may understand original sin as the entrance into history itself, and the ruin as fallen man’s inevitable artefact.

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Notes

1 The Sonnets, John Dover Wilson (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge UP, p. 34.

2 Patrick Reilly, Jonathan Swift  : the Brave Desponder, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1982, p. 1.

3 Ibid., p. 106.

4 Alan D. Chalmers, Swift and the Burden of the Future, Newark, University of Delaware Press ; London, Associated University Presses, 1995, p. 15. For Chalmers, Swift’s « often intuitive sense of the major cultural shifts underway around him », his satirical imagination were indeed fired /« vitalized by the prospect of time to come », despite his « own apparent contempt for all expressions of interest in posterity », p. 28, p. 16, p. 15.

5 Daniel Eilon, Factions’s Fictions  : Ideological Closure in Swift’s Satire, Newark, University of Delaware Press ; London & Toronto, Associated University Presses, 1991.

6 Jonathan Swift, Irish Tracts 1720-1723 and Sermons, Herbert Davis and Louis Landa (eds.), The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, 16 vols., Oxford, Basil Blackwell [1948], 1968, vol. 9, p. 224, p. 224-25. Further references to this edition will be given in the text.

7 Gen. 11.6-8.

8 See Eilon’s study of the parallel between the crimes of Simeon and Levi (Jacob’s violent sons, to whom the epigraph of Swift’s sermon refers) and that of the builders of Babel, Factions’s Fictions, op. cit., p. 17.

9 By the end of the eighteenth century, the ruins that inspired the composition of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) had been reclaimed by history from the realm of religion.

10 When Jaucourt mentioned the ruins of Babel as his first example in his article on « ruin » and « ruins » in the Encyclopédie (1751-76), taken here as a landmark in the lexical history of the term « ruin(s) », his emphasis was on the archeological, not the religious, significance : « RUINES, f. f. pl. (Archit.) ce sont des matériaux confus de bâtiments considérables dépéris par succession de tems. Telles sont les ruines de la tour de Babel, ou tombeau de Belus, à deux journées de Bagdat en Syrie, sur les bords de l’Euphrate, qui ne sont plus qu’un monceau de briques cuites & crues maçonnées avec du bitume, & dont on ne reconnoît que le plan, qui étoit quarré. » (Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Nouvelle impression en facsimilé de la première édition de 1751-1780, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, Frommann-holzboog, 1967-1995, 17 vols., vol. 14, p. 433. All references are in the original spelling and to this edition). In the example given by the Encyclopédie, Babel is notably endowed with an archeological, a geographical and a scientific quality : it is the tomb of « Belus » – even though the latter appears to be a half mythical character –, which distinguishes it from the Biblical context referred to by Swift and it is located in Syria, near the Euphrates. Ruins are anchored in a distant past, blending legendary uncertainty and objective information, and they are contemplated for the benefit of the present-day spectator.

11 If we further explore Jaucourt’s definition of ruin(s) in the Encyclopédie, we can observe the cohabitation of the meaning of decay given to the word by Swift, i.e. « décadence, chûte, destruction », and of the aesthetic value : « les ruines sont belles à peindre » (Ibid., p. 433). The aesthetisation of the term takes place in fact with the use of the plural « les ruines ». Then comes the metonymy with its fully positive overlap between ruin and beauty : « RUINE se dit en Peinture de la représentation d’édifices presque entièrement ruinés. De belles ruines. On donne le nom de ruine au tableau même qui représente ces ruines. Ruine ne se dit que des palais, des tombeaux somptueux ou ¬¬¬¬¬¬des monuments publics. On ne diroit point ruine en parlant d’une maison particulière de paysans ou de bourgeois, on diroit alors bâtimens ruinés » (Ibid., p. 433).

12 Gulliver’s Travels, Robert A. Greenberg (ed.), New York, London, Norton, 1970, p. 180.

13 Norbert Col, « The Moralist’s Adventure : Rewriting History in Gullivers’ Travels  », in Adventure : an Eighteenth-Century Idiom, Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope, and Alexander Pettit (eds.), New York, AMS Press, 2009, p. 239.

14 Gulliver’s Travels, op. cit., p. 151.

15 P. Reilly, op. cit., p. 106.

16 F. P. Lock, The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels, Oxford, Clarendon, 1980, p. 24.

17 The « other remedy » could be an allusion to the regency proposal. See F. P. Lock, Swift’s Tory Politics, London, Duckworth, 1983, p. 82.

18 Commentary on Swift’s political positioning is far from concordant, with views ranging from the vision of Swift as a true Whig (see J. A. Downie, Jonathan Swift, Political Writer, London, Routledge, 1984) to that of Swift as a Tory, including of course the tendency to see him as a paradoxical mixed figure. Ian Higgins, for one, defends a view of Swift’s position as containing Jacobite political implications, in the context of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century polemics. See Ian Higgins, Swift’s Politics : a Study in Disaffection, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1994.

19 Gen. 49.6.

20 Claude Rawson, God, Gulliver, and Genocide, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001, p. 16.

21 The Examiner, and Other Press Written in 1710-11, Herbert Davis (ed.), Works, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1940, vol. 3, p. 168.

22 Ibid., p. 168, 169, 170.

23 Ibid., p. 172.

24 Harold Williams (ed.), Jonathan Swift : Journal to Stella, 2 vols., Oxford, Clarendon, 1948, vol. 1, p. 291.

25 Ibid., p. 343.

26 Journal to Stella, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 389.

27 See Examiner 15, op. cit., p. 13 ; also n°13, ibid., p. 3.

28 Louis I. Bredfold, « The Gloom of the Tory Satirists », in Pope and His Contemporaries : Essays Presented to George Sherburn, James L. Clifford and Louis A. Landa (eds.), Oxford, Clarendon, 1949, p. 1-19.

29 « It is a very melancholy Reflection, that such a Country as ours, which is capable of producing all Things necessary […] should yet lye under the heaviest Load of Misery and Want, our Streets crouded with Beggars, so many of our lower Sort of Tradesmen, Labourers and Artificers, not able to find Cloaths and Food for their Families », Works, op. cit., vol. 9, p. 199.

30 F. P. Lock, Swift’s Tory Politics, op. cit., p. 165. See p. 163-65 in particular for Lock’s study of the episode.

31 C. Rawson, op. cit., p. 10, 12.

32 The Burden of the Future, op. cit., p. 138.

33 Michael Shinagel, A Concordance to the Poems of Jonathan Swift, Ithaca and London, Cornell UP, 1972.

34 Jonathan Swift, Poetical Works, Herbert Davis (ed.), New York and Toronto, Oxford UP, 1967, p. 498-99.

35 Ibid., p. 509.

36 Ibid., p. 510.

37 Ibid., p. 508.

38 The Burden of the Future, op. cit., p. 143-44.

39 « To Janus on New Year’s Day », Poetical Works, op. cit., p. 373. In Roman religion, Janus was the god of gates and doorways and of beginnings in general, which is why the first month of the Roman calendar was named after him.

40 « A little confusingly », Chalmers writes, « Swift requests of Janus the face that is turned to the future, to provide the lady with a perspective on the past » (The Burden of the Future, op. cit., p. 137). But in the fashionable lady’s vision, « aging and death are denied » (ibid., p. 138).

41 Eccl. 3.20.

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Madeleine Descargues-Grant, « Swift and the Ruin(s) of History », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 19 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2011, consulté le 20 août 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/636 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.636

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Auteur

Madeleine Descargues-Grant

Madeleine Descargues-Grant est Professeur de littérature anglaise à l’université de Valenciennes. Elle est l’auteur de Correspondances (Didier, 1994) sur les lettres de Sterne, et de Prédicateurs et journalistes (Septentrion, 2004), sur les essais et les sermons de Swift, Addison, Fielding, Sterne. Elle a publié, avec Anne Bandry, Tristram Shandy  : Laurence Sterne (Armand Colin, 2006). Elle a coédité Les Sources anglaises de l’Encyclopédie (2005) et édité Récit de voyage et Encyclopédie (2011) aux Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes. Elle a signé de nombreux articles sur la littérature anglaise du dix-huitième siècle.

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