Wednesday, May 29, 2024

'To Build a House for Fools and Mad'

An entry dated June 15, 1830 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Table Talk“[Jonathan, not Taylor] Swift was anima Rabelaisii habitans in sicco,--the soul of Rabelais dwelling in a dry place. Yet Swift was rare.”


Now there’s a metaphor that sticks in the mind – “dwelling in a dry place” -- which should tell us something important about the potency of inspired metaphors. It makes intuitive sense even without deep familiarity with Rabelais and Swift, and I certainly know the latter better than the former. The author of Gulliver’s Travels maintains a Buster Keaton manner, straight-faced, business-like, seldom smiling. Comedians and comic writers who laugh at their own gags and try too hard for laughs are death on humor. Was the phrase “dry sense of humor” common in Coleridge’s day?


“Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.” (c. 1731) is a long poem, nearly five-hundred lines, so the humor is somewhat blunted by quoting excerpts out of context. Here are the closing lines, spoken by an unnamed member of “A club assembled at the Rose [Tavern]”:


“‘He gave the little wealth he had

To build a house for fools and mad;

And show’d by one satiric touch,

No nation wanted it so much.

That kingdom he hath left his debtor,

I wish it soon may have a better.’”


It’s good to remember that Swift left a bequest to Dublin for construction of Ireland’s first mental institution. St. Patrick’s Hospital opened in 1757, twelve years after his death.

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