SWIFT'S PROPOSAL AS THE BEGINNING OF A COMPLAINT TRADITION

Although the Milroys ([1985] 1999) certainly do suggest that possible complaints about English go as far back as Higden and Caxton (see also chap. 5), J. Milroy (1999) states very specifically that Swift’s Proposal represents the beginning of “the ideological basis of the extreme complaints” about English in the tradition of “the battle against evil and corruption”. The myths presented in chapter 5 show that this is not the case. The cultural reifications of all the language myths discussed in that chapter are present in Swift’s Proposal, but, without the catalyst fusing them together, they cannot properly become part of the ideology of the standard language. In addition, what Milroy and Milroy (1999) and J. Milroy (1999) do not mention is the opposite tendency to extol the supposed virtues of English rather than complain about its insufficiencies and corruption.

An early representative of the discourse of praise is Richard Carew’s “An Epistle concerning the Excellencies of the English Tongue” (cf. chap. 5). In the Epistle, Carew maintains that “whateuer Tongue will gain the Race of Perfection must run upon these four wheeles, SIGNIFICANCIE, EASINESS, COPIOUSNESS, and SWEETNESS” (1769: 4), which he then proceeds to demonstrate by comparing English with other languages. There are signs in Swift’s Proposal that, even if he had not been acquainted with Carew’s text, Swift was certainly well acquainted with ideas extolling the superiority of English over other European languages—as we shall see. There are thus elements of the discourse of praise as well as those of the discourse of complaint to be found in the Proposal.

The text consists of the following 24 paragraphs. For each, I give a brief summary of the contents (see fig. 7.1 ).

The Milroys maintain that the Proposal begins in paragraph 2 (cf. line 26 in the text as presented above) with the following explicit complaint:

My Lord; I do here in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain to your Lordship, as First Minister, that our Language is extremely imperfect . . .

They omit the rest of the paragraph, however, which runs as follows:

. . . that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar. But lest Your Lordship should think my Censure to be too severe, I shall take leave to be more particular.

Although Swift explicitly declares his statement to be a complaint (“I do here . . . complain to your Lordship . . . that our Language is extremely imperfect . . .”), that does not necessarily mean that the whole text should be literally taken as a complaint. Contemporary readers of Swift must have expected that anything written by him would be either satire or satirical narrative (cf. Gulliver’s Travels). The complaint that the language is “extremely imperfect” consciously sets up the metaphorical blend A morally pure language is a perfect language, through which we can assume that (a) the

Contents of Swift’s Proposal paragraph by paragraph

figure 7.1. Contents of Swift’s Proposal paragraph by paragraph

Continued

figure 7.1. Continued

language is extremely immoral and that (b) it is in need of correction. On the one hand, Swift is drawing discursively on the pure language myth, on the other hand, if he is playing the role of the satirist, it is precisely this myth that is under attack. Is there any evidence here or in what the Milroys call the “polite preamble” (1999: 27) that we should doubt the sincerity of his complaint?

First of all, what the Milroys omit from their quotation of the second paragraph is highly significant. Who are “the Pretenders to polish and refine [English]”? What does Swift mean with the ironic use of the infinitives “to polish and refine [English]”? And in running the “true” statement , derived from the metaphor A morally pure language is a perfect language in the sequence “[I complain] that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions”, he deliberately opposes one set of language improvers to his own assessment of the overall situation. So his real criticism is aimed not so much at the language itself as at the supposed improvers, and the implication is that the “improvements” lie within the discourse of polishing and refining the language, that is, within the ideology of politeness (which I will discuss in more detail in chap. 8). Contemporary readers of Swift will have had little difficulty in identifying these “improvers” as Swift’s erstwhile friends and contemporary political enemies Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Daniel Defoe.

Second, when he takes it upon himself to make the complaint “in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation”, we either logically equate “learned persons” with “polite persons”—persons with good breeding, persons with polished behavior, persons who are born to be polite—or we assume that there are learned persons who are not polite. The first interpretation introduces a note of insincerity into the text, which would fit his role of satirist, the second entails that there are indeed nonpolite learned persons and, furthermore, implies that his aim will be to attack them.

Presumably, the Milroys, in using the expression “polite preamble”, are making use of some of the twentieth-century meanings evoked by the lexeme polite: that Swift is flattering the Earl of Oxford, that he is attempting to avoid discord, that he is displaying deference to the Earl of Oxford, and so on. However, these interpretations of the lexeme polite are very different from those that were common in the eighteenth century. In addition, whether or not the letter was sent privately to the earl, it was still published as an open letter with a very different audience in mind: Swift’s habitual readers.

It is quite feasible to argue that the preamble is anything but polite in the modern sense, although it may have met constraints on the eighteenth- century interpretation of the lexeme. The “very judicious Persons”, who in line 5 are said to have confirmed Swift’s sentiments, remain unnamed throughout the whole text, and they agree with him that “nothing would be of greater Use towards the Improvement of Knowledge and Politeness, than some effectual Method for Correcting, Enlarging, and Ascertaining our Language” (lines 6-8). Later sections of the Proposal, however, indicate that those who have apparently made this suggestion are, by implication, those same former friends and present political opponents: Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (and possibly also Daniel Defoe, who was the first to have made a proposal similar to Swift’s in his Essay upon Projects in 1697). “Politeness”, in the early eighteenth-century sense of the term, meant “polished” (from the French poli), and it was habitually associated with the good breeding and classical education of the landed gentry and higher echelons of the aristocracy. Knowledge would be the kind of knowledge that was beyond the reach of the rest of society, including the rising middle classes.

The final two sentences of the “preamble” appear to represent lavish praise of the Earl of Oxford’s concerns for matters that appear to be outside the great affairs of state:

I confess, the Merit of this Candor and Condescension is very much lessened, because Your Lordship hardly leaves us room to offer our good Wishes, removing all our Difficulties, and supplying all our Wants, faster than the most visionary Projector can adjust his Schemes, And therefore, My Lord, the Design of this Paper is not so much to offer You Ways and Means, as to complain of a Grievance, the redressing of which is to be Your own Work, as much as that of paying the Nation’s Debts, or opening a Trade into the South Sea; and though not of such immediate Benefit as either of these, or any other of Your glorious Actions, yet perhaps, in future Ages, not less to Your Honour.

The first underlined sequence is an oblique reference to Swift’s former friend, the Whig writer Daniel Defoe. Contemporary readers will have been familiar with Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects, so that suggesting that a visionary projector cannot adjust his schemes as quickly as the Earl of Oxford can provide for everyone’s wants is an ironic suggestion that the Tories get things done whereas the Whigs just make projects. The second underlined sequence equates the problem of the language to “paying the Nation’s Debts” or “opening up a Trade into the South Sea”, which can hardly be taken seriously.

What, then, is the status of Swift’s Proposal as a complaint “that our Language is extremely imperfect”? The first two paragraphs of the text leave us good reason to doubt that this was his real aim in writing it. If this is the case, can we reasonably say that Swift meant everything he wrote? If his real intent is not to complain about the English language, can we interpret it in such a way as to reveal his underlying intent? Note, first, the veiled reference to Defoe in the first paragraph and to other Whig writers in the second. To fully understand the text, we need to locate it as part of a significant type of discourse in the first 10 to 15 years of eighteenth-century London society, and this will be the topic of the following section.

 
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