Wednesday, May 23, 2018

`A Wretched, Dirty Doghole and Prison'

No writer is so clarifying to read as Swift. He intends his words to sting like a splash of rubbing alcohol, but that’s only to wake us up. Even at his most shit-minded, Swift is never offensive. He wants us to see and to smell. For him, there’s a moral urgency about perceiving the truth, and being euphemistic or decorous doesn’t help. Here is a passage from a letter he wrote on July 8, 1726 to his friend Thomas Sheridan. The subject is his vexing loyalty to and contempt for Ireland (and England):

“This is the first time I was ever weary of England, and longed to be in Ireland; but it is because go I must; for I do not love Ireland better, nor England, as England, worse; in short, you all live in a wretched, dirty doghole and prison, but it is a place good enough to die in.”

This sounds like Beckett, another Irishman. “Doghole” seems self-explanatory but I looked it up in the OED to be sure: “A hole fit only for a dog; a place unfit for human habitation; a wretched or mean place or dwelling.” Shakespeare uses the word to describe yet another country in All’s Well That Ends Well. In Act II, Scene 3, Parolles says: “France is a dog-hole, and it no more merits / The tread of a man’s foot: to the wars!” Swift seems not to have thought much of dogs, and associated them with dirt and refuse. Here is the conclusion to one of his finest poems, “A Description of a City Shower” (1710):

“Sweeping from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood;
Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.”

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