Saturday, October 22, 2016

`Imitate Him If You Dare'

The posthumous fate of writers’ bodies – think of Ben Jonson, Sir Thomas Browne and Laurence Sterne – deserves a mordant chronicler worthy of their literary gifts. For now we can follow their earthly remains with the assistance of various biographers. Consider Jonathan Swift. More decisively than any writer he reveled in the filth and corruption of the human body, even as his own decayed. In Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press, 2013), Leo Damrosch describes Swift’s final dementia as “a second infancy.” The biographer quotes a “bricklayer-poet from Drogheda”: “Reason buried in the body’s grave.” After much suffering, he died on Oct. 19, 1745. No one foresaw it more vividly than the poet in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”:

“Behold the fatal day arrive!
`How is the Dean?’—`He’s just alive.’
Now the departing prayer is read;
`He hardly breathes.’—`The Dean is dead.’”

On this date, Oct. 22, Swift’s body was laid to rest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Ten feet away was the body of his beloved “Stella,” Esther Johnson, who had died in 1728. Only after a century, Damrosch reports, were their remains mingled, at last, in a single coffin. Soon after internment, a brass plaque was installed to mark Swift’s resting place, but Stella’s wasn’t added until early in the twentieth century. “After that,” the biographer reports, “in an ongoing tragicomedy, the plaques migrated from place to place in the cathedral, according to whether each successive dean felt that they belonged together or ought to be kept apart.” The Irish tragicomedy, however, is only just warming up:

“There was a bizarre coda to come. In 1835, the river Poddle, which flows to this day in a tunnel beneath the streets of Dublin, overflowed into the cathedral. Repairs, which Swift himself had urged a century before, had to be made. His coffin was opened, and in accordance with the fad for phrenology [Walt Whitman was an enthusiast], his skull and Stella’s made the rounds of Dublin learned societies. The episode [worthy of the inhabitants of Laputa] was described by a distinguished physician, Sir William Wilde: `The University where Swift had so often toiled again beheld him, but in another phase.’ The phrenologists concluded absurdly that the organs of wit, causality, and comparison were undeveloped, and also that `the portion of the occipital bone assigned to the animal propensities, philoprogenitiveness and amativeness, appeared excessive.’ Perhaps Vanessa would have been able to confirm the truth of that.”

Here is another, less bizarre coda. In his will Swift had left instructions for his own self-composed epitaph. Here is the Latin original, which Damrosch advises we read “not as a prose statement but as a series of telling phrases”:

Hic depositum est Corpus
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem.

Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78º

Here is Damrosch’s translation (“S.T.D.” means not “sexually transmitted disease” but “Sacrae Theologiae Doctor”):

“Here is deposited the body
of Jonathan Swift, S.T.D.,
of this Cathedral church,

the Dean
where savage indignation
can no longer
lacerate his Heart.
Go, traveler,
and imitate, if you can,
a valiant champion
of manly freedom.

He died on the 19th Day of the Month of October,
A.D. 1745, in the 78th Year of his Age.”

And here, better-known than Swift’s original, is Yeats’ adaptation, “Swift’s Epitaph” (The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933):

“Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.”

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