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1. Letters to Swift
II/ Letters to Swift

Horsing around: the swan song of the Houyhnhnm race

Amélie DEROME

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1Your Highness the Governor of Glubbdubdrib,

  • 1 If my calculations and several ancient maps are correct, the island of Guam should be the closest p (...)

2I hope this letter finds you in a good state, by which I do not intend to discourteously refer to Your Highness’ health, but rather to the safe arrival of this message in a bottle which I sent drifting from the shores of the island of Guam.1 I happen to bear a message of the highest importance for the Dean of Saint Patrick’s, Jonathan Swift, and wondered whether you might, as a tribute to your ancestor who gladly conversed with this noble guest many years ago, agree to summon him back from the dead so that he may reply to the humble plea of a young researcher concerned with his work. Should you consent to this favour, rest assured that I shall repay you a hundredfold after my death, since I have unfortunately failed to locate your nation in this life. You shall find my message for Jonathan Swift hereunder.

3Yours sincerely,

4Marie Delomée

5
Dean Swift,

  • 2 A catalogue of a genuine collection of cabinet pictures: some ... prints, by Hogarth ...: the prope (...)

6Please forgive me for interrupting the tranquillity of your afterlife. I remain confident, however, that you will understand this rather boorish approach after having kindly considered the few options I had for getting in touch with you. I stumbled across a very peculiar piece of paper during a research trip to the National Gallery Library in London, upon which I hope you could shed some light. I wished to peruse a particular catalogue of the works of William Hogarth, belonging to William Rowley and auctioned by Mr. Squibb on Savile Row in 1806.2 I thought that the book might hold several prints pertaining to your masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, which also happens to be the subject of my doctoral thesis. None of the pictures were relevant to my studies, and I was about to close the volume, dismayed by the uselessness of my trip, when a small strip of parchment fell on my poorly lit desk. Deeming it worthless, I attempted to replace it when the characteristic consonantal aspect of the Houyhnhnm language caught my eye. I marvelled at my luck, for I had discovered an isolated quatrain, underneath what appeared to be a title in capital letters:

YAHOO HNHLOAYN

Hhuun hhuun ylnhniamshy hhnm
Ynlhmndwihlma gnnayh ynholmhnmrohlnw
Nnuhnoh lyhannh luhimuhs
Hnea hnuy maiah whnaholm

  • 3 I would like to note that several important translation studies specialists have worked to restore (...)
  • 4 Voyages en plusieurs lointaines contrées. Translated by A. Desmond, Stock, 1945. Voyages dans plusi (...)

7I instantly reached for the French translation of Gulliver’s Travels by Emile Pons, an item I constantly carry around as a lucky charm, and which includes a scholarly glossary of the Houyhnhnm tongue. I am aware of the reservations expressed by many scientists regarding second-hand translations,3 yet I may assure you that no scholar has attempted a more serious philological analysis of Gulliver’s Travels than Mr. Pons, who dedicated his entire life to his French version of the work, going as far as to generously lend a helping hand to previous translators of the book before publishing his own.4 The English translation presented below is the result of a thorough study of Pons’ invaluable findings and of my initial French draft, unfortunately lost when my hard drive regrettably crashed under the Channel (a hard drive is a modern means of carrying information, alas quite as unreliable as paper manuscripts. You will note that people can now travel by train – an automatic carriage – under the sea from London to Paris, which might have saved Gulliver some trouble, as well as some ink).

THE LAW OF THE YAHOOS

Hurry swiftly native servants!
For weather foul preys on the house,
A hare has swallowed up a mouse
And evil taken gentle infants.

8I have devoted myself to the study of the poem ever since its discovery and have devised several theories which I wish to submit for your approval. The most striking aspect of the text is certainly the use of elaborate conceits. Indeed, the common noun “gnnayh” (a small bird of prey), here employed as a verb, “to prey”, seems fairly unusual within the Houyhnhnm canon, known for the “justness of [its] Similes”. Similarly, the topsy-turvydom of the food chain implied by the third verse, where the herbivorous “nnuhnoh” (a “beautiful animal, about the same size [as a rabbit], the skin of which is covered with a fine down”) unexpectedly eats a “luhimuhs” (a wild rat), appears as a clear metaphor for a larger cosmic revolution about to occur. The shift from similes to the more sophisticated figure of the metaphor clearly proves that the scrap of verse is a later text, written at a time when decadence had most certainly tainted the noble and chaste race, for what is a metaphor but “the thing which [is] not”? This hypothesis is further borne out by the verbal form of “swallow,” which denotes a widespread knowledge of the English language imported to Houyhnhnmland by Captain Lemuel Gulliver in 1711. Had the Houyhnhnms been unaware of this tongue, how could the poet have used the common noun “lyhannh,” which ordinarily designates the bird, as a synonym for the verb “to swallow,” “to gobble up”?

9A curious phenomenon which can be observed in the opening verse confirms the idea that this is a late Houyhnhnm poem. The author repeats the interjection “hhuun” – which could roughly be translated as “yeeha,” an obvious English misinterpretation of another Houyhnhnm term, “yahoo.” It remains highly improbable that a race known for its superiority in poetry over “all other Mortals” would resort to such a base figure of speech. Hence, one can only conclude that the twofold use of the word must, in this case, express a delicate variation upon the notion of alacrity – a theory which naturally results in the following translation: “hurry swiftly” (I remain, however, “hardly able to do justice to the” subtle Houyhnhnm polysemy “which must needs suffer by my want of capacity, as well as by a translation into our barbarous English” and I had to resort to what may seem a tautology in this imperfect language.) Since we have established that the quatrain is the product of an ancient tongue newly imbued with the English language, it seems quite likely that the author had intended for the seeds of this translation to be contained in his original verse. This overt use of your name settles, once and for all, the question of the authorship of Gulliver’s Travels which was debated as soon as the book was published. I am quite proud to be able to correct both early commenters who thought it was written by Lemuel Gulliver and modern scholars, who are still greatly mistaken and believe that it is your own fictitious work. The blatant truth which arises from the thorough analysis of the quatrain can be summarised thus: Gulliver never existed but was the pseudonym you chose to adopt for the collation of your very own truthful voyages. The poem’s status remains unclear, yet, let me briefly state what I could make of its message.

10Since Houyhnhnm verses are mainly concerned with “exalted Notions of Friendship and Benevolence, or the Praises of those who were Victors in Races, and other bodily exercises,” the bleak tone of what appears to be a threnody, or should I say the swan song of the Houyhnhnm race, may initially come as a surprise. However, when one recalls that the noble horses could never lie and that their poetry relied on the “exactness of their descriptions,” it becomes necessary to view the poem as a minute depiction of an existing situation, that of the fall of Houyhnhnm nation due to a natural disaster. The poem, indeed, depicts the perversion of nature’s laws. An ill wind, perhaps the very one which blew you to Houyhnhnmland, has taken over the island and is destroying its houses while spreading disease, compelling the poet to command the servants to bring their masters to the shore – most certainly to flee. The renowned cleanliness and perfect health of Houyhnhnm foals led me to believe that the cause of this terrible blow must have been external to the Houyhnhnm race. The only thing that could wreak such havoc would be a Yahoo specimen. Yet, despite the Houyhnhnms’ regular attempts to destroy this hideous race, the two species had somehow managed to set aside their differences for many centuries.

11I thus remain convinced that your intrusion into the island was the origin of this calamity. Indeed, it seems that only a person who combined physical Yahoo characteristics and Houyhnhnm-like rationality could pose a threat to the lawful order of the country. The Assembly, foreseeing some kind of misfortune were you to stay on the island, very justly banned you. However, they remained unaware of the forced intercourse you had with a female Yahoo which spawned the by-blow of your kind, O gentle Yahoo. The new race must have quickly bred, overpopulating the land and perverting both Houyhnhnm nature and nature itself, forcing the wise horses to seek asylum or to die out.

  • 5 Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution, Sim (...)

12I can only assume that several Houyhnhnm refugees, hoping to find you, must have made their way to the Royal Mews of London thanks to their exquisite physical qualities –European royalty indeed tends to seek fine manes and unparalleled speed in horses. You must then have recognised the sheer beauty of the Houyhnhnm language in a neighing heard on the streets of London during your 1726 stay in the city. I can hardly conceive the distress which must have overcome your compassionate nature during what was surely a very difficult conversation, as I know your love for the Houyhnhnms is true. It seems quite evident that the exchange must have revolved around a plot to establish a Houyhnhnm government in exile in England. It is my belief that you must have entrusted the guards with the poem, so they could breed new Houyhnhnms that would lay ground for an uncorrupted society. It seems that an insurrection almost succeeded to enforce the pure and noble rules of the Houyhnhnms in 1820. The guards of the Royal Mews indeed rebelled against George IV’s attempt to divorce Caroline of Brunswick, a remarkable woman who had been raised to worship horses and to avoid members of the opposite sex.5 Alas, the revolution failed, and the Mews were destroyed before they were subsequently rebuilt at Buckingham Palace. Luckily, the poem found its way into the National Gallery, built upon the remnants of the original stables.

13Thus, faithful author, I have spoken my truth and wish to seek your help in order to assist the Houyhnhnms in their noble plan. In these post-truth times when you will be sorry to hear that swiftboating (a contemporary term which I suspect derives from your angry trips to London) and fake news (I am afraid that the thing which is not has trumped factual reports in today’s press) have taken over the natural course of politics, I believe that the Houyhnhnm revolution is our only hope.

14Truthfully yours,

15Marie Delomée

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Notes

1 If my calculations and several ancient maps are correct, the island of Guam should be the closest parcel of land to your country. Cf. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Benjamin Motte, London, 1726, volume 2, vi. Herman Moll, A New and Correct Map of the World, Laid down According to the Newest Discoveries and from the most Exact Observations, J. Bowles & Son, T. Bowles, R. Sayer and John King, ca 1730.

2 A catalogue of a genuine collection of cabinet pictures: some ... prints, by Hogarth ...: the property of the late William Rowley ... deceased, (removed from his residences in Saville Row and Kentish Town) ...: which will be sold by auction by Mr. Squibb, (by order of the executrix) at his great room, Saville Passage, Saville Row, on ... May 16, 1806.

3 I would like to note that several important translation studies specialists have worked to restore this process to its former glory. See Gideon Toury, Descriptive Translation Studies—and Beyond. John Benjamins Publishing, 1995, 161: “second-hand translation is not some kind of aberration.”

4 Voyages en plusieurs lointaines contrées. Translated by A. Desmond, Stock, 1945. Voyages dans plusieurs pays fort éloignés. Translated by J. Axelrad, Classiques Garnier, 1960.

5 Jane Robins, Rebel Queen: How the Trial of Caroline Brought England to the Brink of Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 126-27.

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References

Electronic reference

Amélie DEROME, “Horsing around: the swan song of the Houyhnhnm race”E-rea [Online], 18.2 | 2021, Online since 15 June 2021, connection on 22 September 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12470; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12470

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About the author

Amélie DEROME

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France
ame.derome@gmail.com
After a doctoral contract at Aix-Marseille Université, Amélie Derome now teaches English at Université Paris Nanterre. Her PhD dissertation, concerning the French translations of Gulliver’s Travels, is supervised by Jean Viviès. She has published articles concerning the reception of Gulliver’s Travels and the work’s links with artificial intelligence. She has given papers in Montreal, Boston and Princeton.

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