Of Yahoo and Houyhnhnm
Vol. 1C pages
498-2500 & 2507-2512 &
Longman 3rd ed
"Swift," "Lady's Dressing Room,"
An annotated internet text of
available from University of Toronto at
Another online text is available from Lee Jaffe at
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be
submitted on the interactive course site at
SUNY Learning Network.
Write for an hour (or more if you have
time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the
final essay. Some
other journaling ideas for today include:
The foreign place (real or imagined) seems to be an often-recurring
element in British Literature. How do you compare Houyhnhnm society to
that in More's Utopia? in Sidney's "golden world" of poetry?
Raleigh's Guiana? in Arthur Barlow or John Smith's Virginia?
in Behn's Surinam or Shakespeare's Illyria?
Is Gulliver insane?
Is he meant to be a wise fool in the tradition of Hythlodaeus and
Feste? Is Swift serious or simply clowning?
In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," Swift ironically criticizes
Perhaps I may allow the Dean
Had too much satire in his vein;
And seemed determined not to starve it,
Because no age could more
Yet malice never was his aim;
He lashed the vice
but spared the name.
(Damrosch 2526, ll 459-464)
What vices are lashed in Gulliver's Travels? For what
does it satirize the age?
The devolution of mankind.
General instructions on Journaling
this course. For a sample journal, see
Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.
Adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
(New York: Longman, 2003)
The art of
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is a corollary to
the project of the Royal Society to observe the world
more closely in order to reveal its actuality. Of course, Swift's observations are
satiric, not scientific, and their objectivity often can be
questioned, but the satirist like the scientist is
disillusioning. Both take hard new looks at common
physical reality to see what is really there; both
assume that what we normally perceive or commonly
think is not accurate.
A few of
Swift's poems make the quickest introduction to his art. “A
Description of a City Shower” (2501) observes London
through disgusting physical details: venting spleens,
vomiting clouds, dust indistinguishable from rain,
Tories cowering with Whigs. All of the city is thrown
together in the gutter, an open sewer for anyone to see:
“Here various kinds by various fortunes led, / Commence
acquaintance underneath a shed” (ll. 39–40). The kennel
itself “in huge confluent” carries the whole mess that
can no longer pretend to any distinction (“Filths of all
hues and odors, seem to tell / What streets they sailed
from by the sight and smell” [ll. 55–56]) The final
triplet in the poem, despised by Swift as a cheap trick
of prosody (he observes his own poem with disgust in his
footnotes), pushes the sense of overflow. The
Alexandrine hexameter (as opposed to the loose
couplets of the rest of the poem) gives extra rhyme,
extra sounds, extra room, extra time to all these
Lady’s Dressing Room”
is another comic revelation of the truth. What is
attractive about the disgusting? The question applies not
only to Strephon, but also to the narrator, and by
implication, that appalled but fascinated voyeur, the
reader (“Strephon bids us guess the rest” [l. 16]). It’s
useful to ask: can things really be this disgusting? Or,
as “Celia’s magnifying glass” (l. 60) suggests, is the
poem playing on the psychological implications of
perspective? Neither the worm nor the squeezing of it,
for example, is really there—thing and act are
extrapolated by Strephon or the narrator (ll. 63-68). The voyeurism
magnifies the horror; the very act of seeing what one’s
not supposed to see lends a darker luster to things that
would probably shift to some extent into ordinariness if
openly offered. Is Strephon exaggerating? Or is Celia
particularly filthy in her personal habits; if so, why
generalize to all women? Do we think Strephon keeps his
own room any better?
The missing motive is turned back
against the satirist by
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's
Reasons that Induced Dr. S to write a Poem called 'The
Lady's Dressing Room.'" Montagu makes out Dr. S to be an
old lecher, blaming his whore for his impotence. Both
Swift's poem and Montagu's reply brilliantly juxtapose polite
refined poetic form with mean subject matter.
Swift's masterpiece in poetry may be "Verses on the Death
of Dr. Swift" (2513) which is a great meditation for any budding
poet to imitate. What will happen after you die? What
will people say? What should they say? Note how the
focus has shifted from the medieval afterlife of
spiritual journey to the 18th century afterlife of
continued gossip and slander.
left: Jonathan Swift [cartooned by Dr G]. 18th century
fashion exposed the vanity and artifice of the wearer.
The Age of Irreverence
is the great age of British
and few seem to have been as disgusted in it as
Travels (book 3, excerpts)
is a send up of the Royal Society's useless experiments
and designs for language reform (recall Lesson 21). Swift's academics busy
themselves in isolation from one another, and from
everyone else, with impossible or pointless projects,
such as the extraction of light from cucumbers and the
creation of food from dung. The professors are beggars
dependent on charity since their work has no real value
to anybody but themselves. The broken sentence machine
(2534-2535) is the advanced high tech printing press no
longer requiring intelligent human input. Writing can be
produced through random generation of words without the
need for content. The linguistic project to eliminate
verbs and participles from the language (2535) is not
only an echo of Sprat's History but a criticism of
materialism. When nothing is left for us to say but but
nouns, we can describe the London gutter, the lady's
dressing room, or even the academy itself only as a
picture of things stripped of all purpose. We can't show
why anything is, nor where it came from nor where it is
going. Reason has gone missing.
Book 4 of Gulliver's Travels
provides the ideals of rationality against which Swift criticizes
English and European society. The ideal is manifested in
the society of the
Houyhnhnms, who have no words for
"the thing which is not" and who show no malice toward
one another since all are guided by a better or more
evolved reason than is to be found in mankind. Darwin's
discovery of evolution still lay more than 100 years in
the future, but it is hard to resist the application of
the theory to the species discovered by Gulliver,
especially the apelike Yahoos and fully evolved horses
of book 4.
With its pretentious language
and reasoning hypocrisy stripped away, humanity is imaged
physically in the
animal body of the Yahoo is more adapted for survival than
Gulliver's body: it can climb trees better, swim better,
claw better, better withstand cold. Gulliver has a
compensating ability to learn the Houyhnhnm language,
however, and this mutation makes him a prodigy among
Yahoos, from the Houyhnhnm point of view: he is
teachable. It is this little bit of reasoning in him,
however, that they understand poses a danger to their
race, so ultimately they exile him.
Though in a sense less sophisticated, Houyhnhnm language is superior to English in that it
cannot be used to deceive. Houyhnhnms know nothing of
war, lawyering, money, trade, medicine or hierarchical
order based on nobility of birth, and these are the
general objects of Swift's attack. Gulliver has
difficulty in explaining these aspects of European
society to a sentient being who is unfamiliar with lying
and unfriendliness. Reductionist aspects have made the
book a classic of children's literature, though its full
meaning is not childish. Among its many ironies, not the
least is the development of Gulliver's character through
the book from a simple outgoing adventurer to an
Gulliver's Travels Online by Lee Jaffe (includes texts, biographies,
Jonathan Swift at
A Tale of a Tub
from Oxford University.
Gulliver's Travels at Project Gutenberg.
Jonathan Swift at Victorianweb
Gulliver's Travels Page:
Illustrations for Gulliver's Travels
Letters of Lady Montague
(includes Tom Jones) at Bartleby.
Know of an
excellent website that would wonderfully complement this lesson? Please send it to Dr. G.