ALTERNATIVE READINGS OF SWIFT'S PROPOSAL
In the first paragraph Swift states that his proposal to correct, enlarge and “ascertain” (= fix) the English language is aimed at the “Improvement of Knowledge and Politeness”, and he rates its significance as being on a par with “paying the Nations Debts, or opening a Trade into the South Sea”, which I have interpreted as a typical Swiftian, tongue-in-cheek exaggeration that the reader is not meant to take seriously. What might have been his purpose in linking the complaint with such a blatantly nonserious comment?
Recall from the beginning of section 4 that the Tory Party had just assumed office after a long period of Whig domination, with the Earl of Oxford taking over the position of lord high treasurer and first minister to the queen. Swift had also switched his political allegiance from the Whigs to the Tories about the same time. Was he currying favour and looking for a pension from his friend and patron Robert Harley? The final two paragraphs of the letter (paras. 23 and 24) would certainly support this interpretation, and I shall return to this second alternative reading of the text below.
In the second paragraph, as we have seen, Swift repeats his complaint “in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation”, which echoes Defoe’s suggestion in 1697 for a project to institute a language academy similar to the Academie Frangaise. Defoe had suggested that the work of the projected academy “should be to encourage polite learning” and “to polish and refine the English tongue”. Immediately after his complaint Swift berates “the Pretenders to polish and refine [the language]”, who have “chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities”. Defoe was an active Whig, and one of his notable achievements was the publication of the periodical A Review of the Affairs of France, and of All Europe from 1704 till 1713. There is an oblique reference to contributions to that periodical in paragraph 19 when Swift mentions that “about a Year ago” he had “communicated to the Publick, much of what I had to offer upon this Subject [the “design” to prevent English from changing], by the hands of an ingenious Gentleman, who for a long Time did thrice a Week divert or instruct the Kingdom by his Papers”. The Review did indeed appear three times a week, and Swift had contributed a series of articles to it during 1711 with the title “The British Visions: or, Isaac Bickerstaff’s Twelve Prophecies for the Year” under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. The pseudonym (sometimes written with a final “e”) was Swift’s invention, but it was also used by Richard Steele in the Tatler, another Whig periodical to which Swift contributed. The character was also appropriated by the Spectator when it began to appear in 1711, which prompts Swift to state in paragraph 19 that Bickerstaff “is supposed to pursue the same Design at present under the title of the Spectator”. Needless to say, the strong implication is that this is not the case.
Rereading the Proposal from this point of view leads to the conclusion that, although it may have been, on the surface at least, a complaint letter, it was really intended as a political tract aimed at Swift’s former allies in the Whig Party, above all, Addison, Steele and possibly also Shaftesbury and Defoe, who we may take to be the “Pretenders to polish and refine [the language]”. The language issue was thus merely the pretext on which to hang a set of rather obscure political “bickerings” (cf. the name Bickerstaff itself ). What it displays, however, is the potency of the “language as a cultural achievement” ideology in the early eighteenth century. Standard English truly was considered to be a Kultursprache. Is there any evidence for this interpretation? Yes, indeed, and it appears in paragraphs 9 to 13 of the Proposal, which I have already commented on above.
A further subtext occurs in paragraph 23, which offers a second alternative reading. We know that Swift frequently tried to convince the Tory government to grant him an ordination within the Church of England, but without any success. After the accession to the throne of George I in 1714 and the return to power of the Whigs, Swift accepted the position of dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and stayed in that office until his death in 1745. Gaining a living in England or receiving a state pension were professional and economic priorities for Swift in 1712, and his hopes rested on Robert Harley, the newly created Earl of Oxford. The following sequence from the penultimate paragraph of the Proposal (par. 23, lines 363-376) supports this hypothesis:
The French King bestows about half a dozen Pensions to learned Men in several Parts of Europe, and perhaps a dozen in his whole Kingdom; which, in the whole, do probably not amount to half the Income of many a private Commoner in England; yet have more contributed to the Glory of that Prince, than any Million he hath otherwise employed. For Learning, like all true Merit, is easily satisfied, whilst the False and Counterfeit is perpetually craving, and never thinks it hath enough. The smallest Favour given by a Great Prince, as a Mark of Esteem, to reward the Endowments of the Mind, never fails to be returned with Praise and Gratitude, and loudly celebrated to the World. I have known some Years ago, several Pensions given to particular Persons (how deservedly I shall not enquire) any one of which, if divided into smaller Parcels, and distributed by the Crown, to those who might, upon occasion, distinguish themselves by some extraordinary Production of Wit or Learning, would be amply sufficient to answer the End. Or if any such Persons were above Money, (as every great Genius certainly is, with very moderate Conveniences of Life) a Medal, or some Mark of Distinction, would do full as well.
Swift’s example of the French king giving pensions to “learned Men in several Parts of Europe” is an allusion to his expectation that, if the project he is proposing to Harley (which was really Defoe’s idea in 1697) is accepted, he too should be given a pension. He backs this up with the comment, “I have known some Years ago, several Pensions given to particular Persons (how deservedly I shall not enquire)”, which might very well be a reference to a state pension received by Defoe, which Defoe himself later denied having received. In any event, the message is clear that Swift is suggesting that he be given a state pension but that he would settle for some other form of recognition: “a Medal, or some Mark of Distinction, would do full as well.”