Friday, November 30, 2012

`His Stomach Was a Strong One'

“I am reading once more the work I have read oftener than any other prose work in our language [A Tale of a Tub]. I cannot bring to my recollection the number of copies I have given away, chiefly to young Catholic ladies. I really believe I converted one by it unintentionally. What a writer! not the most imaginative or the most simple, not Bacon or Goldsmith, had the power of saying more forcibly or completely whatever he meant to say!”

The writer is Walter Savage Landor, as reported by John Forster in his 1876 biography of the epigrammist, who captures the violent clarity of Swift’s language. In verse and prose, Swift arranges his words with seeming artlessness, like stones in a cold stream, without filigree. As logical as a Euclidian proof, they seem more forcefully there than the words of almost any other writer (the others are also Irish). “Proper words in proper places,” Swift writes, “make the true definition of a style.” 

In 1732, Swift published “An Examination of Certain Abuses, Corruptions, and Enormities in the City of Dublin” (The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol. XII, Irish Tracts 1728-1733), a pamphlet that begins rather charmingly with a description of the calls of street traders in the Irish capital, where Swift was born. The writer claims the cries are a nuisance because they cannot be readily understood, and that “our Law-makers” ought to regulate such speech so that “a plain Christian Hearer may comprehend what is cryed”: 

“I would advise all new Comers to look out at their Garret Windows, and there see whether the Thing that is cryed be Tripes, or Flummery, Buttermilk, or Cowheels.” 

Seamlessly, Swift moves on to his real subject, the insidious intrusion of politics into private life, and does so in a manner we recognize as quintessentially Swiftian; that is, scatologically: 

“Every Person who walks the Streets, must needs observe the immense Number of human Excrements at the Doors and Steps of waste Houses, and at the Sides of every dead Wall; for which the disaffected Party hath assigned a very false and malicious Cause. They would have it, that these Heaps were laid there privately by British Fundaments, to make the World believe, that our Irish Vulgar do daily eat and drink; and, consequently, that the Clamour of Poverty among us, must be false, proceeding only from Jacobites and Papists. They would confirm this, by pretending to observe, that a British Anus being more narrowly perforated than one of our own Country; and many of these Excrements upon a strict View appearing Copple-crowned, with a Point like a Cone or Pyramid, are easily distinguished from the Hibernian, which lie much flatter, and with less Continuity.” 

The author of the pamphlet reports he has consulted “an eminent Physician” who was “pleased to make Trial with each of his Fingers, by thrusting them into the Anus of several Persons of both Nations.” He could then, “by smelling each Finger, distinguish the Hibernian Excrement from the British, and was not above twice mistaken in an Hundred Experiments; upon which he intends very soon to publish a learned Dissertation.” 

And that’s not the worst, or best, of it. Swift extends his logic one sickening step further, but you’ll have to read the pamphlet for yourself. In his introduction to a selection of Swift’s poems, C.H. Sisson writes: “There is no mincing matters for him. His stomach was a strong one.” No one else has made cloacal revulsion so effective a tool of politics, or anti-politics. Swift was born on this date, Nov. 30, in 1667.

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