Satire in Swift and Pope

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  • Topic: Satire, Alexander Pope, Poetry
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COURSE 5: The Issue of Bad Writing in Swift and Pope
The eighteenth century witnessed a major revolution, in some ways more profound than the Civil War, the Printing Trade. It was a state of anarchy within which struggling writers, who came from the lower strata, were writing in journals, newspapers, magazines etc. Great consumption of these kinds of writings led to the formation of the Grub Street (a London Street inhabited by literary hacks such as writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems. The term Grub Street is often used collectively for poor and needy authors who wrote for meager sums of money.) This popular culture, which in the view of historians is created, produced and consumed by people themselves, acquired an identity which it never had before. Moreover, it was a time of political strife and patriotism gave way to intense party feelings. Almost all writers could be bought; even the best of them, with a few exceptions, were in the pay or service of one party or the other. Literature became the handmaid of politics and of state-craft. It was at this time that writers like Swift and Pope wrote satires against hack writers, the tradition invented by Dryden in his poem ‘MacFlecknoe’ in which he has mocked and ridiculed writers whom he thought as worthless (Shadwell, Ogilvy etc) and exalted worthy writers of natural poetic talent (Fletcher, Ben Jonson etc).

Among such Satirical works of Swift, where he has attempted to satirize scholastic and modern incoherence in learning, is his book A Tale of a Tub. It can be seen as embodying, as the ‘Author’s Apology’ states, the author’s intention, its satiric purpose being to expose the corruptions in learning and religion. Here, Swift, on the surface level, claims to be a part of the community of the hack writers, Grub Street and also to conform to the literary practices that such writers deployed, to glorify them in a manner such that the glorification becomes only an attack on, a mock-exaltation of these very writers. Swift has, in this book, ridiculed various literary practices of his contemporary writers. He has poked fun at the tradition of writing prefaces which became a vehicle for the authors to denounce other writers and indulge in self-praise to assert their own worth. He mockingly says that his work might be criticized for not conforming to this important practice. In a tongue in cheek manner Swift claims that he must be given all the privileges which are claimed by other modern writers, for example that of being regarded as remarkably clever, witty or profound where a part of the text is put in a different type, italicized or simply obscure. By this he has only revealed the shallowness of learning and meaninglessness of the works of modern writers who unduly received fame by only catering to the craze for cheap and crude entertainment. In ‘Section V: A Digression in the Modern Kind’, under the guise of complementing the moderns and showing them superior to the ancients who are only weak glimmering lights, Swift actually exposes the shallow literature, unprincipled politics and pseudo-scientific pursuits of his contemporaries.

The aim, on the surface, of ‘Section VII: A Digression in Praise of Digressions’ (A Tale of a Tub) is of defending the modern practice of introducing digressions in the literary works due to lack of raw material that was available to the Greeks and the Romans. However, underneath it Swift’s aim is to ridicule moderns for their deficiencies of knowledge and of style and content in their writings:

“For what though his head may be empty, provided his book be full, and if you bate him about the circumstances of method and style and grammar and invention: allow him but the common privilege of transcribing from others and digressing from himself as often as he shall see the occasion.” Swift, ironically, comments that the number of writers would be reduced if padding was to be spurned. To expose the irrelevance of such...
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