Tuesday, June 08, 2021

'Fools Rush Into My Head, and So I Write'

Last week, somewhere online, after a long absence, I encountered probity. I can’t remember when I first learned the word but I’ve always liked the sound of it. Prob- echoes probe musically, not etymologically, and -ity, which sounds like babytalk in isolation (as in itty-bitty), turns the verb into a noun. (This is my idiosyncratic analysis, the way I play with words in private.) Probity shares a root with prove. (Who remembers P.J. Proby?) Johnson in his Dictionary defines probity as “honesty; sincerity; veracity.” Probity has gravity. It’s more than cash-register honesty. A judge ought to rule with probity. 

Over the weekend, as often happens, I encountered the word again, in Jonathan Swift’s “A Dialogue Between an Eminent Lawyer and Dr. Swift” (1729). The poem is a loose adaptation of Horace’s Satire 1.1:


“Since there are persons who complain

There’s too much satire in my vein;

That I am often found exceeding

The rules of raillery and breeding;

With too much freedom treat my betters,

Not sparing even men of letters . . .”:


The opening is disingenuous. Swift would never apologize for his “savage indignation.” He asks his friend, the lawyer Robert Lindsay, for advice. Lindsay, the voice of gutless sensitivity, replies: “You should withdraw from pen and ink, / Forbear your poetry and jokes, / And live like other Christian folks.” He suggests Swift champion the thought of Thomas Woolston, a free-thinking deist who was convicted of blasphemy and died in prison:


“To Woolston recommend our youth,

For learning, probity, and truth;

That noble genius, who unbinds

The chains which fetter freeborn minds;

Redeems us from the slavish fears

Which lasted near two thousand years;

He can alone the priesthood humble,

Make gilded spires and altars tumble.”


Many have noted the impossibility of satirizing our age, as the age has already satirized itself. When humorless people adopt silly, hateful ways of thinking and acting, they have immunized themselves against satire. Like his friend Swift, Alexander Pope also translated Horace’s Satire 1.1:


“Not write? but then I think,

And for my soul I cannot sleep a wink.

I nod in company, I wake at night,

Fools rush into my head, and so I write.”

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