Saturday, January 09, 2010

`The Soul None Dare Forgive'

In preparation for writing an essay on the poetry of Jonathan Swift – my choice from among the vast crowd of “neglected” poets – I’ve been rereading the poems, of course, and some of Swift’s prose, and have looked into several biographies, including Dr. Johnson’s “Life” (which hardly mentions the verse), and have ignored most of the critics. But Swift and his poems turn up in unexpected places, particularly in the work of Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Derek Mahon and other Irish writers, of course, and this too is a form of criticism and certainly more interesting than most of the conventional sort (the “cloacal” school of psychoanalytic busybodies). My favorite example is from the funniest travel book I know, Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo (1985). O’Hanlon and the English poet James Fenton are navigating the perilous Rajang River, where the leeches grow to a foot in length:

“James, sitting opposite me on the duckboards in the centre of the canoe and facing upstream, was reading his way through Pat Rogers's new edition [1983] of the complete poems of Swift, a straw boater on his bald head, his white shirt buttoned at the neck and at the wrists.

“`Some of this juvenilia is pretty feeble,’ James would mutter, displeased.

“`Quite so. But—er—James?’


“`Rapid 583/2, Green Heave Strength six-out-of-ten, is approaching.’

“With a second or two to spare, James would shut his book, mark his place in it with a twig, slip it neatly under an edge of the tarpaulin, place his left buttock upon it, shut his eyes, get drenched, open his eyes, squeeze the water from his beard with his right hand, retrieve his book and carry on reading.”

I love O’Hanlon’s account of Fenton’s readerly sangfroid in the face of such rigors. Once, while I was reading B.S. Johnson, a friend set fire to the ragged bottoms of my jeans, and I didn’t notice until I almost wore Capri pants. Another appearance by Swift comes in J.V. Cunningham’s “With a Copy of Swift’s Works” (written in 1944; published in The Judge is Fury, 1947; collected in The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, edited by Timothy Steele, 1997):

“Underneath this pretty cover
Lies Vanessa’s, Stella’s lover.
You that undertake this story
For his life nor death be sorry
Who the Absolute so loved
Motion to its zero moved,
Till, immobile in that chill,
Fury hardened in the will,
And the trivial, bestial flesh
In its jacket ceased to thresh,
And the soul none dare forgive
Quiet lay, and ceased to live.”

The operative line is “the soul none dare forgive,” which compliments Swift’s self-penned epitaph: “Ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit” (“Where savage indignation no more can lacerate his heart”). In his gloss of the poem Steele writes:

“Because of the rebarbative nature of his satire, Swift was reviled as no other major English author had been or has been since.”

In a stanza from another poem, “The Wandering Scholar’s Prayer to St. Catherine of Egypt,” Cunningham writes in a Swiftian manner:

“The vagrants smoke in solitude,
Sick of the spittle without cough;
Not unabsolved do they grow rude,
Dying with Swift in idiot froth.”

It’s the “rebarbative nature” of Swift’s work and his mastery of the plain style that have kept me reading him since he was first sold to me as a writer of children’s books.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

"cloacal" - now there's a new word to put to use! Swiftian at that. Inner Freudians could censer hidden meanings from its Latin roots cluere -to cleanse, cochl - shell, coel- hollow or clocca - bell, clock.

Speaking of Swift turning up in unexpected places, I recently discovered his imprimatur on a wonderful blog about Asian poetry, Lilliput Review.

As Al Davis might say "just synchronize, baby".