Veiled criticism: The smokescreen of complaining about language

The unusual thing about the Proposal is that it is one of the few texts to which Swift actually appended his name, which indicates that it was important for him to reach a reading public that could both immediately identify his status as the author and also put a name to the unnamed “pretenders”, “projectors” and “judicious persons” obliquely referred to in the text. In Swift’s other politically satirical writings, to which he did not append his name, he is a master in suggesting a tone of irony and non-literalness without the reader being able to pin the narrative voice down.[1] At some point in the overall text, however, the irony reveals itself explicitly.

The point at which the curtain is drawn aside to reveal Swift’s ironic intent in the Proposal is the sentence underlined in paragraph 9 from lines 131 to 136:

I HAVE never known this great Town without one or more Dunces of Figure, who had Credit enough to give Rise to some new Word, and propagate it in most

Conversations, though it had neither Humor, nor Significancy. If it struck the present Taste, it was soon transferred into the Plays and current Scribbles of the Week, and became an Addition to our Language', while the Men of Wit and Learning, instead of early obviating such Corruptions, were too often seduced to imitate and comply with them.

Swift has often been criticised for inconsistencies in the Proposal but the sentence highlighted above indicates his immense care to make sure that his ironic tone comes across (cf. the example from Swift’s Modest Proposal discussed in note 3 of this chapter). The reference to Addison is almost explicitly made in the noun Addition, so that the allusion to the major “dunce”, “scribbler”, or “playwright” of the week could scarcely be more obvious. The “current Scribbles of the Week” thus becomes a derogatory comment on the Spectator. Swift’s opponents become responsible for introducing new words into the language and for propagating their use in conversation. The criticism, however, is also directed at those who are facile enough to accept such words, “the Men of Wit and Learning”, on the basis of the claim that they represent “the present Taste”. In the enormously popular periodicals the Tatler and the Spectator, which did indeed appear weekly (cf. “current Scribbles of the Week”), Addison, Steele and other contributors commented on a wide range of topics that exemplified forms of polite behaviour and opinion. By extension, therefore, Swift can be interpreted as criticising the contemporary craze for politeness.

In his brief sketch (in par. 5) of how the Latin language first reached a state of perfection, but then fell into a period of decay, he refers to the “great Corruption of Manners” (lines 77-78) induced by the borrowing of words from other languages (i.e. Swift is writing within the contamination through language contact myth presented in chap. 5). The crucial word here is “Manners”, since this was precisely what he saw the contributors to the Spectator attempting to prescribe in the periodical. In paragraph 6, in which he explicitly makes use of the discourse of the pure language myth by referring to notions such as perfection and decay with respect to Latin, he again reverts to the ironic, humorous mode in adding (somewhat gratuitously, since he is writing about Latin here): “And the French for these last Fifty Years hath been polishing as much as it will bear” (lines 81-82). As I shall argue in chapter 8, the concept of politeness (understood here as “polishing”) had indeed been introduced into England since the Reformation from France, and it would appear that this is one of the major butts of his irony, since politeness and manners are precisely what he sees his political opponents as supporting. This again becomes clear in lines 83-84 when he suggests that “the Affection of some late Authors” is “to introduce and multiply Cant Words, which is the most ruinous Corruption in any Language”. It would thus appear that Swift’s purpose is not so much to complain about the state of the English language, but rather to aim verbal invective at his political opponents. The fact that he chose to use the framework of the language myths that had been current for several centuries creates an effective smokescreen to obfuscate his political and literary intentions.

In paragraph 8, lines 123-124, we meet with an apparent inconsistency in Swift’s text unless we are prepared to take the reference to “Patterns of Politeness” as irony. Paragraph 8 purports to expose some of the corruptions that were introduced into the English language after the death of Queen Elizabeth up to the Restoration period. Swift runs the following “true” propositions within the discourse of the purelperfect language myth:

The text reads as follows. Sequences in italics represent those points in the text in which the “true” statements are run, and the underlined sequence signals the possible introduction of irony:

From the Civil War to this present Time, I am apt to doubt whether the Corruptions in our Language have not at least equalled the Refinements of it; and these Corruptions very few of the best Authors of our Age have wholly escaped During the Usurpation, such an Infusion of Enthusiastick Jargon prevailed in every Writing, as was not shook off in many Years after. To this succeeded that Licentiousness which entered with the Restoration, and from infecting our Religion and Morals, fell to corrupt our Language; which last was not like to be much improved by those who at that Time made up the Court of King Charles the Second; either such who had followed Him in His Banishment, or who had been altogether conversant in the Dialect of those Fanatick Times; or young Men, who had been educated in the same Company; so that the Court, which used to be the Standard of Propriety and Correctness of Speech, was then, and, I think, hath ever since continued the worst School in England for that Accomplishment; and so will remain, till better Care be taken in the Education of our Nobility, that they may set out into the World with some Foundation of Literature- in order to qualify them for Patterns of Politeness.

“From the Civil War to this present Time” indicates the period of time in which Swift considers the basic views of the Whigs—that is, support of Puritanism and nonconformist and Low Church religious practices—to have held sway.[2] He includes within his stricture the court of Charles II, and concludes that the language of the court generally, which at one point he refers to as “the Dialect of those Fanatick Times”, is no longer “the Standard of Propriety and Correctness of Speech”. His wish is that young nobles should be “sent out into the World with some Foundation of Literature, in order to qualify them for Patterns of Politeness”. It is difficult to trace the note of irony here, but if we accept his rejection of the fad for politeness, then this can only be meant ironically, which automatically leads to the whole passage being interpreted by the reader in this way.

Three later passages confirm this interpretation, one in paragraph 12 beginning at line 163 and continuing till line 173, the second at the beginning of paragraph 13 from line 176 to line 179, and the third at the beginning of paragraph 21 from line 303 to line 305. The first sequence is particularly interesting since it makes a further oblique reference to the Spectator:

SEVERAL young Men at the Universities, terribly possessed with the fear of Pedantry, run into a worse Extream, and think all Politeness to consist in reading the daily Trash sent down to them from hence: This they call knowing the World, and reading Men and Manners. Thus furnished they come up to Town, reckon all their Errors for Accomplishments, borrow the newest Sett of Phrases, and if they take a Pen into their Hands, all the odd Words they have picked up in a CoffeeHouse, or a Gaming Ordinary, are produced as Flowers of Style; and the

Orthography refined to the utmost____To this we owe that strange Race of Wits,

who tell us, they Write to the Humour of the Age: And I wish I could say, these quaint Fopperies were wholly absent from graver Subjects.

The ironic tone is unmistakable in the phrase “terribly possessed with the fear of Pedantry”, and “the daily Trash sent down to them from hence” is an explicit reference to copies of the Spectator that were regularly sent to students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge from the capital. Swift reveals this by actually quoting two phrases used in the Spectator, no. 3 (March 1711) which “several young Men at the Universities” take to be equivalent to politeness: “knowing the World” and “reading Men and Manners”.

The second sequence follows immediately after the invective levelled against the Spectator in paragraph 12:

BUT I am very much mistaken, if many of these false Refinements among us, do not arise from a Principle which would quite destroy their Credit, if it were well understood and considered. For I am afraid, My Lord, that with all the real good Qualities of our Country, we are naturally not very Polite.

Swift’s statement here needs no further explanation. His opinion of the Whig craze for politeness, especially as represented in the Spectator, is firmly criticised. The irony in the third sequence leaves no doubt in my mind that Swift did not think favourably of this craze:

AS barbarous and ignorant as we were in former Centuries, there was more effectual Care taken by our Ancestors, to preserve the Memory of Times and Persons, than we find in this Age of Learning and Politeness, as we are pleased to call it.

This only strengthens the interpretation of his reference to politeness in paragraph 8 as irony, which logically leads to an ironic interpretation of the whole complaint made to the Earl of Oxford.

  • [1] A perfect example of his technique can be found in A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children ofPoor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to thePublic, in which the non-seriousness of his proposal is revealed in the following sentence: “I grant this food maybe somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords, who as they have already devoured most of theParents, seem to have the best Title to the Children.” It is as if the narrative voice is declaiming on a stage infront of the audience with the curtains drawn behind him. At this sentence, the curtains are pulled aside toreveal the real intention of the narrative voice and then are hurriedly drawn again.
  • [2] He conveniently leaves out the short period in which James II attempted to reinstate the CatholicChurch.
 
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