Sunday, September 25, 2016

`Only a Woman's Hair'

“Lo here I sit at Holyhead
With muddy ale and mouldy bread
All Christian victuals stink of fish
I’m where my enemies would wish . . .”

Like photography and marksmanship, the art of invective relies on focus and strict recognition of existing conditions. Otherwise, it’s mere rant, a formless tantrum in words. Passion is less than half the job. The rest is “proper words in proper places,” as Swift wrote elsewhere. The poem excerpted above, “Holyhead. September 25, 1727,” was written in his journal and not published until 1882. Swift arrived at Holyhead on Sept. 24 but stormy weather kept him from traveling for five days. On Sept. 29, his ferry set sail but returned to Holyhead because of rough seas. He didn’t ship out until Oct. 1, and weather again delayed him. Swift came ashore in County Louth, some seventy miles from Dublin, and reached the city on Oct. 6 or 7:   
“I never was in haste before
To reach that slavish hateful shore
Before, I always found the wind
To me was most malicious kind
But now, the danger of a friend
On whom my fears and hopes depend
Absent from whom all climes are curst
With whom I'm happy in the worst
With rage impatient makes me wait
A passage to the land I hate.”

The “friend” is Esther Johnson, better known as “Stella,” to whom he addressed his Journal to Stella. Swift prayed at her bedside and composed prayers for her, but couldn’t stand to be present at her death, on Jan. 28, 1728. In another poem from his Holyhead journal, Swift writes of Ireland:

“Remove me from this land of slaves,
Where all are fools and all are knaves;
Where every knave and fool is bought,
Yet kindly sells himself for naught;
Where Whig and Tory fiercely fight,
Who’s in the wrong, who in the right;
And when their country lies at stake,
They only fight for fighting’s sake,
While English sharpers take the pay,
And then stand by to see fair play.”

Few writers could so combine political invective with the outlines of a love letter. Thackeray writes in his essay on Swift:

“In a note in his biography, Scott says that his friend Dr. Tuke of Dublin has a lock of Stella’s hair, enclosed in a paper by Swift, on which are written, in the Dean’s hand, the words: `Only a woman’s hair.’ An instance, says Scott, of the Dean’s desire to veil his feelings under the mask of cynical indifference.”

[“`Jonathan Swift’ is the only Fast Ferry on the Irish Sea route taking you across in just 1 hour 49 mins!”]

1 comment:

Sugarloaf said...

Thanks for the reference to the ferry, which I had not known about. It must be difficult for the Irish to celebrate the work of a writer who was so critical of the land of his birth, but I suppose the word-play on Swift was irresistible to the board of Irish Ferries. A fine example of commerce coming to the aid of literature, and vice-versa!