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1. Letters to Swift
II/ Letters to Swift

The idlest trifling stuff that ever was writt”?

Nathalie ZIMPFER

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1Dear Reverend Swift,

  • 1 Correspondence, ed. Woolley, I, p. 138.
  • 2 Todd C. Parker, “Introduction.” Swift as Priest and Satirist, Edited by Todd C. Parker, University (...)
  • 3 F. R. Leavis, “The Irony of Swift” (1934), The Common Pursuit, Penguin, 1952, pp. 73-87 (p. 85).

2“The idlest trifling stuff that ever was writt.” Honestly, Reverend, did you really have to write that about your sermons and, for good measure, add that you were “firmly resolved to burn” them?1 You may not be aware of this – that is, unless God has lost His Holy Spirit and allowed the Heavenly Library to contain a literary criticism section – but you have not made things easy for those of us foolish enough to insist that we should take you seriously as a priest. Because you may not know this either, but some people out there blithely assert that “few of [your] interpreters and critics take [you] seriously as a theologian,”2 as you are rather incapable of guessing “what religious feeling might be.”3

  • 4 The poems of Jonathan Swift, Edited by Harold Williams, Clarendon Press, 1958, II, p. 764, l. 13.
  • 5 John Boyle, fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift ( (...)
  • 6 Jonathan Swift, Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises: 'Polite Conversation', 'Directions to Servants' a (...)
  • 7 Patrick Delany, Observations Upon Lord Orrery’s Remarks (1754), Garland Pub., 1974, p. 42.
  • 8 Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. Vol X. Edited by H. Davis with Louis Landa, Blackwell, 1968, pp.253- (...)

3Not that it is worth a pin to you, I suppose, given that you prided yourself on being “not the gravest of Divines.”4 In fact, I suspect that you find the entire affair quite droll. I also expect that you must have felt quite merry upon hearing one of your biographers, who was hardly averse to criticising you, assert that “altho’ [you have] been often accused of irreligion, nothing of that kind ever appeared in [your] conversation or behaviour.”5 Still, I do wish to let you know that you are making our lives somewhat complicated because some of us do know that the satirist who could name one of his characters Master Bates and write A Modest Defence of Punning to indict an essay called God’s Revenge Against Punning on the ground that it is “founded on one grand Mistake,” but will be “found dead” once this mistake is removed,6 was also the clergyman who would give alms to the poor and rehearse his sermons carefully; who issued an order to demand the constant attendance of all the vicars choral at divine service in the cathedral of St Patrick every day at morning and evening prayers; whose “emphasis and fervor. . . everyone around saw, and felt” when you said grace;7 and who gathered his servants to his bed‑chamber every night for prayer with him. I also seem to recall reading somewhere that when your dear Stella was ill, you prayed fervently that the “All‑powerful Being, the least Motion of whose Will can create or destroy a World” would “pity. . . the mournful Friends of [his] distressed servant, who sink under the Weight of her present Condition, and the Fear of losing the most valuable of . . .Friends,” so that she would be “Restor[ed]” to them or else to inspire her friends. . . with Constancy and Resignation, to support [themselves] under so heavy an Affliction.”8

  • 9 Orrery, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, p. 125.
  • 10 Jonathan Swift, A tale of a tub ; to which is added The battle of the books and The mechanical oper (...)

4So while your contemptors inveigh against your “love of trifles, and [your] want of delicacy and decorum,”9 some of us do worry about your reputation and try to establish the truth. But I guess this is rather silly of us. I am sure that, as I write this, you are quite merry, scoffing at all those who “conceive it in [their] power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of [their] own,”10 and are contentedly composing your Modest Proposal for preventing Clergymen from being a Burthen to future Interpreters.

5Yours tetchy‑merrily,

6A well‑wisher

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Notes

1 Correspondence, ed. Woolley, I, p. 138.

2 Todd C. Parker, “Introduction.” Swift as Priest and Satirist, Edited by Todd C. Parker, University of Delaware Press, 2009, p.14.

3 F. R. Leavis, “The Irony of Swift” (1934), The Common Pursuit, Penguin, 1952, pp. 73-87 (p. 85).

4 The poems of Jonathan Swift, Edited by Harold Williams, Clarendon Press, 1958, II, p. 764, l. 13.

5 John Boyle, fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift (1751), Edited by João Fróes, University of Delaware Press & Associated University Presses, 2000, p. 67.

6 Jonathan Swift, Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises: 'Polite Conversation', 'Directions to Servants' and other works, Edited by Valerie Rumbold, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 161.

7 Patrick Delany, Observations Upon Lord Orrery’s Remarks (1754), Garland Pub., 1974, p. 42.

8 Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. Vol X. Edited by H. Davis with Louis Landa, Blackwell, 1968, pp.253-54.

9 Orrery, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, p. 125.

10 Jonathan Swift, A tale of a tub ; to which is added The battle of the books and The mechanical operation of the spirit. Edited by A.C. Guthkelch and David Nichol Smith, Oxford University Press, 2014.

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Référence électronique

Nathalie ZIMPFER, « The idlest trifling stuff that ever was writt”? »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 05 août 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12450 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12450

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Auteur

Nathalie ZIMPFER

nathzimpfer@gmail.com
Dr. Nathalie Zimpfer teaches British Literature and translation at the Lycée Sainte-Marie in Lyon. She specialises in the links between theology and literature in the Augustan period and has published several essays on the Anglicanism of both Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne. Her monograph on Swift’s sermons is forthcoming. She has also published a critical translation into French of Wollstonecraft’s works and been pursuing a long-held interest in eighteenth-century travel writing, more particularly the travelogues of Captain James Cook and Samuel Hearne.

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