Swift’s wit frequently left its imprint on the thought of the time. The results of this special prank with the astrologer were: first, to cause the wits of the town to join in the hue and cry that Partridge was dead; second, to increase the contempt for astrologers; and, third, in the words of Scott: “The most remarkable consequence of Swift’s frolic was the establishment of the Tatler.” Richard Steele, its founder, adopted the popular name of Isaac Bickerstaff.
Taine says of Swift: “He is the inventor of irony, as Shakespeare of poetry.” The most powerful instance of Swift’s irony is shown in his attempt to better the condition of the Irish, whose poverty forced them to let their children grow up ignorant and destitute, or often even die of starvation. His Modest Proposal for relieving such distress is to have the children at the age of one year served as a new dish on the tables of the great. So apt is irony to be misunderstood and to fail of its mark, that for a time Swift was considered merely brutal; but soon he convinced the Irish that he was their friend, willing to contribute both time and money to aid them. His ironical remarks on The Abolishing of Christianity were also misunderstood.
His poems, such as A Description of a City Shower, and Cadenus and Vanessa, show the same general characteristics as his prose, but are inferior to it.
We shall search Swift’s work in vain for examples of pathos or sublimity. We shall find his pages caustic with wit, satire, and irony, and often disfigured with coarseness. One of the great pessimists of all time, he is yet tremendously in earnest in whatever he says, from his Drapier’s Letters, written to protect Ireland from the schemes of English politicians, to his Gulliver’s Travels, where he describes the court of Lilliput. This earnestness and circumstantial minuteness throw an air of reality around his most grotesque creations. He pretended to despise Defoe; yet the influence of that great writer, who made fiction seem as real as fact, is plainly apparent in Gulliver’s remarkable adventures.
Although sublimity and pathos are outside of his range, his style is remarkably well adapted to his special subject matter. While reading his works, one scarcely ever thinks of his style, unless the attention is specially directed to it. Only a great artist can thus conceal his art. A style so natural as this has especial merits which will repay study. Three of its chief characteristics are simplicity, flexibility, and energetic directness.
JOSEPH ADDISON, 1672-1719
[Illustration: JOSEPH ADDISON. From the painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller, National Portrait Gallery.]
[Illustration: THE BIRTHPLACE OF ADDISON.]