View Full Version : Leo Damrosch: Jonathan Swift--A New Biography

Ron Price
12-07-2013, 06:00 AM
...but unobtrusive

Jonathan Swift(1667-1745) is a problem for readers and biographers we are informed in a recent biography, because "the cast of characters in his life grew much larger as he grew older. It can be hard to keep them straight."(1) There are royalty and aristocracy, statesmen and politicians, clergymen and laymen, friends and enemies, the high and the low, lots of women from queens and duchesses down to servants and everything in between, including two beloved lovers. Trying to keep them straight may, indeed, be impossible but the story, as told by Leo Damrosch, can be enjoyed regardless. -Ron Price with thanks to (1)John Simon "A Giant Among Men," a review in The New York Times, 27/11/'13, of Leo Damrosch's Jonathan Swift,’ Yale UP, 600 pages, 2013, p. 178.

Readers won't have that problem
with my autobiography and life-
narrative even though there is a
galaxy, a myriad, & bucket-fulls
of people in my life, gazing as I
am at the last 70 years of my life.

All this flotsam and jetsam are kept
in their little places in my letters and
my computer directory, tied-up in the
bundles of paper and vast tracts of new
cyberspace, the WWW, & the internet.

This narrative keeps most of them
far away from the main plot, & an
analysis which goes on for over 5
volumes and 2600 pages....It will
dry-out the average reader before
he or she gets too far. Sadly, too,
readers of my work will not enjoy
the humour and immensely clever
wit of this novelist, essayist, poet,
satirist, epistolarian, pamphleteer.

As readers wade through my-many
millions of words on their long way,
such is my hope, to illuminating a
journey of understanding of what is,
arguably, the greatest of the spiritual
narratives in the history of civilization,
narrative that is at the heart of this
transformation of a heterodox and
seemingly negligible offshoot of the
Shaykhi school of the Ithna-Ashariyyih
sect of Shi'ah Islam into a world religion.(1)

The transformation has been slow, in some
ways, and in the years ahead in this, and
future centuries, it will take this world by
an unobtrusive storm, at least in the years
that have been my life in this first century
of its Formative Age, and before centuries
2 and 3 when the world will find its soul
for the next 1000 years: the journey has
just begun in my lifetime when the fully
institutionalized charismatic Force went
through Its first decades: 1963 to 2013.

1 God Passes by, Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Pub., Trust, Wilmette, 1957, p. xii.

Ron Price
While here and, while thinking about that genius of wit, Jonathan Swift, I'll post several other pieces, partly drawing-on and inspired by this very clever man of words who had such a grim end to his life.-Ron

Seven years before he died, Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift(1667-1745), author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote to Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford: “I am now good for nothing, very deaf, very old, and very much out of favour with those in power. My dear lord, I have a thousand things to say, but I can remember none of them.”

In 1740, five years before his demise, he wrote to his cousin, Mrs Whiteway: “I have been very miserable all night and to-day extremely deaf and full of pain. I am so stupid and confounded that I cannot express the mortification I am under both in body and mind. All I can say, is that I am not in torture: but I daily and hourly expect it. I hardly understand one word I write. I am sure my days will be very few, few and miserable they must be.”

Swift's brain trouble, which had threatened him all his life, became worse, and he had violent fits of temper accompanied by considerable physical pain in his last years. In his last three years, we are informed by biographers, he had dementia. The end came at last on 7 October 1745. He left his fortune to found a hospital for idiots and lunatics. -Ron Price with thanks to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume IX: “From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift,” 1907-1921.

I shall keep you in mind, Jonathan,
as I head down this back stretch.
It is always good to have someone
in my mind who is worse off than I:
or so it seems, although I often wonder.

Is it any use to know that:
Jesus died on the cross for our sins;
they hung one or two of His disciples
upside down at their final life-hour;
9 million blacks from Africa became
slaves in a very miserable existence;
that over a billion(!) died in the last
hundred years from massive trauma,
suffering, disease and starvation?

….that Gone With the Wind was
released in 1939, that my mother
loved Ronald Coleman, and that
my wife gardened yesterday
while I sat in my study and had
a lovely afternoon sleep before
washing up…..my regular job?

I trust you now live in peace,
Jonathan, with your labor put
away, your pain, 260 years ago:
an evanescent grace is yours, I trust,
and June in England forever.

Life is such a little thing to lose
when you pass that door where
all attain all goodness--and this
migration surely it's a friendly
flight—& forgiveness like a flood,
an early peach, all astonishment
and those I loved awaiting, a light
unbearable: does it burn, Jonathan?
Does it burn? What a relief, eh, eh?

Ron Price
24/1/'06 to 8/12/'13.

Ron Price
12-07-2013, 08:41 PM

Part 1:

Some diarists like Jonathan Swift and Samuel Pepys recorded their daily life virtually from hour to hour, but not every day from cradle to grave. Perhaps, during those years in which they did keep a diary, they satisfied some passion, some sociability need, some need to write. V.S. Pritchett says that diarizing in the English speaking world is, or at least has been, “The Great Snail.” Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett(1900-1997) was a British writer and critic. He was particularly known for his short stories collected in a number of volumes. His most famous non-fiction works are his memoirs A Cab at the Door (1968), and Midnight Oil (1971), as well as his many collections of essays on literary biography and criticism.

I post these words from Pritchett because the vast majority of people never keep a diary, and those who do often give us mainly their sense of life’s drudgery, its essentially accidental quality, and a flavour of the underlying tedium that is, or at least was for them, part of the immense repetition of life. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: daily entries from his 17th century London diary, is 11 volumes. His diary has only one serious rival in the western literary and historical tradition of diarizing and confessional autobiography in diary form. That rival is James Boswell. Both these diarists are lapsed Puritans and they “owe something to the Puritan tradition of diaries as a training of conscience.”(1)

Part 2:

Some diarists are transfixed by wonder at the ordinary world; a myriad small interests keep them spry, but these small interests rarely translate into interesting reading. All diarists write, in a sense, due to their response to some consciousness, or lack of it, of their times.(2) Good diaries are like microscopes, and they can give us a vividness of their times, of the author’s memory, and/or history’s detailed minutiae. They are works of art in a broad sense even if, in some verbatim or documentary way, they are somewhat tedious.

The extent to which diaries are works of art, works of art enjoyed by later generations, may be due to the extent to which their authors possess an obsessional quality among other essential qualities that a writer needs, in putting them down on paper. I have yet to experience this obsessional quality vis-à-vis my diary or journal, and I am far from being able to translate daily experience into an interesting diary format. I do that in other genres of my writing, or so it seems to me.-Ron Price with thanks to (1) V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London, 1991, p.1057; and (2) ibid., p.1059, 23/5/'97 to 8/12/'13.

Ron Price
12-07-2013, 08:47 PM
Got a small chunk today….as I passed by

Television programs about poetry are few and far between. Beginning in 2004, Channel 4 in the UK presented a series of 50 modules, ranging in length from 3 to 8 minutes, and grouped together to form twelve 25-minute programs. Each program consisted of four different poems. These TV programs came to Australia in 2011 and 2012 and this morning I watched, by chance, the last five minutes of the last module.(1)

I am a retired teacher and I was a student or teacher of English literature, off and on, from 1949 to 2005. While I was a teacher in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools, there was little television material of use in the classroom for the study of poetry. This morning I chanced upon a chunk that presented the Anglo-Irish poet, satirist, essayist, and political pamphleteer Jonathan Swift(1667-1745) with a focus on his poem Lines on the Death of Dr Swift. This series would have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of my teaching of poetry over the 32 years I was in the classroom as a teacher to say nothing of the 18 years I was in the classroom as a student. The half century from 1955 to 2005, which were my job-hunting years, were in many ways the beginning of educational TV.-Ron Price, Pioneering Over Five Epochs, 27/4/’12 to 8/12/'13.

I often feel that after more
than half a century’s study
of poetry that I am just one
of the millions of beginners,
and in the evening of my life,
at the age of 69, I have put a
small dint, have scratched the
surface: information’s mountain
is getting bigger & bigger on its
way to an Everest of knowledge
that no one can ever grasp, and
this is true of most subjects and
disciplines of study that pleasantly
occupy me now in the evening of
my life down here in Australia....

(1) ABC1 TV, Arrows of Desire, 10:35- 11:00 a.m., 27 April 2012.

Ron Price
27/4/'12 to 8/12/'13.

Ron Price
12-07-2013, 09:00 PM
Before I leave these reflections on Jonathan Swift, I'll post a personal letter I wrote a little less than 2 years before I retired after 32 years in the classroom as a teacher and another 18 as a student. I wrote this letter to a friend and colleague in which I mentioned Swift. After half a century in classrooms and, with retirement on the horizon, my letter-writing life in some ways was just beginning, even after some 40 years of writing and receiving such communications.
3 August 1997, Belmont Western Australia

I enjoyed your comments, John, about letter writing. I have a quotation in the preface to a collection of that great essayist William Hazlitt’s letters where he says “the principle events of men’s lives are their works; there is little else to be known of them.” He wrote some four million words. I’d also add that ‘the reality of men are their thoughts.’ One gets a stretching of the intellectual limbs of a person in their letters, or one gets bags of trivia, or both. Evidently, according to A.L. Rowse who wrote a biography of Jonathan Swift, some men in the 18th century rewrote their letters; for example, he says Pope rewrote his letters until they became pompous essays.

Part of the richness of the letter, it seems to me, lies in people’s willingness to reveal something of their inner life, their idiosyncrasies, their weaknesses. Most men at our college where we have both worked now for over a decade, would have trouble doing this. One biographer of Dickens said that we learn more about Dickens from his letters than his novels because of this one factor: the revelation of the inner man. The letter is a type of social context; we reveal ourselves in social contexts. Most of the people I meet I would be happy not be rub-up against their identity in the normal course of events. I think after many years of teaching we get overloaded with other people’s ‘everydayness’. It is fatiguing in the extreme, as we have both mentioned before. Other people seem to have a need for endless chit-chat, and socializing. Perhaps its a question of different horses for different courses.

As you say, if one does not learn from corresponding what is the point. It is a special kind of learning. That highly literate historian, Carlyle, saw his own letters as the best reflection of his life available. Evidently Carlyle collected and edited the letters of Oliver Cromwell, among his many contributions to western literature. Of course, for most people, these letters will just hang in the dark abyss of the past, unread, unknown. Interest is the key ingredient. I’m not sure I would want to read these letters unless I was passionately interested in the history of the 1640s-1650s, among many other literary and intellectual passions. I can’t think of any of my students ever reading his letters. They would be bored.

I, like you, try to keep things as interesting to my students as possible. But I bore them from time to time, no matter how hard I try. It will be one of the pleasures of retirement not having to stimulate the young. In another connection, you mention having the right noddings, smilings, polite noises for conversation. My wife says the same thing of me. Years of teaching have taught me that ability to follow a conversation-to make it look like it-but not really being there at all.

At the moment I am not writing to anyone with any regularity beside yourself. Two or three people get an annual letter and several others an occasional letter. Writing letters is so infrequent at the moment that I have trouble getting bored in the process. You should never feel(nor should I) the need to comment on everything we write to each other. Our experience is different and what we read different; we have to live with that reality. Our own moods are also important in evaluating letters, even ones we enjoy. Thoreau said “I never received more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage.” In our more pessimistic and sad moods probably even you and I might have said this.

I’ll close with a W.B. Yeats quotation relating to the persistence of one’s lustful proclivities into middle life and beyond(if I have not yet shared it with you):

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance in attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young:
What else have I to spur me into song?

Lust, I would argue, is involved with the skin-deep stuff. Love is involved with the beauty that has to do with the stuff that is not skin-deep. How’s that for starters in response to your final question? Well, we’re back at teaching for another term, and less than 2 years to go for me. I think things should be smoother this term, fewer hassles from disgruntled students. Hope so.



The Atheist
12-11-2013, 03:47 AM
I'm sure whatever it is you're trying to say would be quite interesting, but the way you've set it out, mixing the 17th, 18th, 20th and 21st centuries - and subject matter - seems a deliberate attempt to confuse rather than impart.

Maybe you could try to aim for coherence to aid responses?