All I Survey/Essay XIV

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Essay XIII All I Survey
Essay XIV
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XV



Essay XIV: On Jonathan Swift

THE greatness of the great Jonathan Swift grows upon me as I go on through life, like a man travelling nearer and nearer to a mountain. I did not understand him when I was very young; which is not to be wondered at, seeing that most people understood him so little as to give me his _Gulliver's Travels_ as a book written for children. Also he was hidden from me by the rather hypocritical haze of literary sentiment which pervaded the Victorian time. It was, in this case, very largely a stale political prejudice, due to the fact that Swift had been a Tory and that the whole Victorian legend was a sort of triumph of the Whigs. I began to learn better the more I learned about his period, and to learn better still, the more I learned about my own. For Swift stood at the beginning of something of which (it may be) we stand at the end; the whole of that cycle of commercial Imperialism and commercial Parliamentarianism which he already distrusted at its very beginning, or before it had really begun. Anyhow, I learned to like Swift for all the things for which Macaulay and Thackeray disliked him. I liked him for liking Bolingbroke; for despising Marlborough; for showing up the Glorious Hanoverian Succession in Ireland as a very low and dirty job; for treating the wit of the Freethinkers with contempt; for giving the first place to the virtue of Honour, which practically disappeared from politics and financial affairs about this time. It is doubtless true that he was too bitter and exclusive, but that is no reason why we should be. And the final phase of true philanthropy is not complete until it can love the misanthrope.

But I have often noticed a rather curious fact or fancy. Whenever there is a sort of proverb or anecdote or allusion, always connected with a literary man in literary gossip, that proverb always misses the point. So many people could hardly mention Dr. Johnson without the highly irrelevant remark that he wrote a Dictionary. So the favourite or fashionable phrase about Dean Swift seemed to be that he "wrote an essay on a Broomstick." Indeed, the literary gossip managed to miss the point even here. The real point of the essay on a Broomstick is not merely that it is on a Broomstick, but that it is an essay in parody or satire upon the essays of Boyle, the most fashionable writer of the day. As for broomsticks, I imagine that Swift could have written a hundred essays on a hundred broomsticks. Nor do I see any particular reason why it should be difficult; many people could do it; I could do it myself. For, to begin with, almost any subject, considered as a subject, contains stuff and substance enough for an essay, when we consider that its origin and object, and material and design, and relation to other things, are all subjects in themselves. And secondly, a broomstick does not strike me as being intrinsically a dull subject, but rather a romantic one. The picturesque aspects of it, that leap into sight at once, so to speak, would suffice for an essay much longer than Swift's. A broom, and consequently, a broomstick, are connected with religious ideas of purification, and with other ideas which are rather the reverse. George Herbert dedicated the broom especially to the service of God. The witches dedicated the broomstick especially to the service of Satan. And if the essayist is so fastidious as to find the subject of devil-worship merely mild and tame, we might well ask what subjects he finds sensational or exciting. There are a hundred other things to be said, of course, even without plagiarizing from Swift. The image applied to politics, in some places, might even be alarmingly significant. The broomstick is a bundle of twigs decidedly suggestive of the _Fasces,_ and quite a number of things might be written about that.

But this rather misleading though traditional trifle has another interest for the imagination. Swift, as I have said, was a man who could write what nobody else could have written, and often at a time when nobody else would have dared to write it. He could write the truth about a time in which perhaps more lies were told, and about which perhaps more lies have since been taught, than any other episode in English history. He could say the right thing, and say it exactly rightly; with a deadly detachment or a stunning understatement unmatched in the satires of mankind. But Swift was not a man gifted with the particular grace with which this literary legend would distinguish him. He was not a man who specially saw a spiritual significance in common things, or learned great lessons from small objects, or had anything about him of the poet who finds poetry in prose. He was a religious man in an irreligious age; but only because he was really too intellectual a man to be merely an irreligious man. He had nothing about him of the mystic, who sees divine symbols everywhere, who turns a stone and starts a wing. There were only too many stones, and not half enough wings, in poor Jonathan Swift's existence, and I fear he was largely saved from scepticism by a contempt for the sceptics. He did not see the glory of God in a broomstick; but he did see something very like a broomstick in the stuck-up wooden-headed young atheist who denied the glory of God. He did see that the ideas in the head of that philosophical broomstick were all tied together as loosely as a bundle of sticks, and that these borrowed notions bore the same relation to real sincerity and originality as the twigs tied on to a broomstick bear to the branches growing on a tree. In short, his approach to such central truths was noble indeed, but somewhat narrow and negative; he was wise by the follies of others; or at any rate, not merely out of the wisdom that is at one with charity. And because he was partly deficient in charity he was really deficient in poetry, though certainly not deficient in fancy. He was the last person in the world to write a poem about a broomstick; yet a hundred minor poets, so long as they were poets, could easily imagine a poem about a broomstick. Why, even the Nursery Rhymes have already set us a most spirited example, in that imaginative flight that swept the starry spiders' webs out of the very corners of the sky.

It is perhaps worth while to note this incongruity about the literary legend, because it will soon be necessary to insist that each of these talents exists and each is valuable to truth. In the somewhat acid mood that is coming upon men of letters just now, it is likely enough that they will return to the realism of the great satirist, and accept his limitations along with his liberties. They will begin to be just to Swift, and immediately begin to be unjust to Blake or Wordsworth or Walt Whitman. For they seem unable to believe that different literary virtues are needed to balance each other; and a great deal of contemporary criticism reads to me like a man saying: "Of course I do not like green cheese; I am very fond of brown sherry."