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1Dear Jonathan Swift,

2Over the years I have often thought of writing to you. I do hope you’ll forgive me, though of course you won’t — you’re known more for your judgement than for mercy and not all for your equanimity, never mind for suffering fools gladly, so I fully expect a vicious tongue-lashing in response.

3Anyway, Jonathan, if I may, Dean—Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, the Drapier — I’m not quite sure how to address you, to be honest, you assumed so many names and masks and disguises. Good old Sunny Jim Joyce in Finnegans Wake calls you Swhipt, Schwipps and Schweeps, I think, and Swifty, one might add, in honour of your prolific and wide-ranging output. You were one of those rare writers who was what one might call ambidextrous: you could do it all, with both hands, with no regard for the usual confines of the literary, producing poetry, prose, pamphlets and all sorts of strange ephemera; indeed, mostly all sorts of strange ephemera.

4I am writing to you, Jonathan, because you are — if I might be so presumptuous to say so — the writer who is closest to me. Literally closest to me, I mean. In all other respects of course we are miles apart. You are the Dean: I am as a lowly congregant, learning from your example. In terms of scale, I am barely Lilliputian. But if nothing else, we are physically close: I live up here in County Down, at the end of the line, in the middle of nowhere, in a little seaside town which is not exactly known for its cultural and artistic attractions or achievements and yet if I walk just five minutes down to the beach, down to the edge of Belfast Lough, I can see, directly opposite on the far shore, Kilroot, in County Antrim, about as close to me as it would be for me to walk up to the out-of-town shopping mall, which is to say, no distance at all. And Kilroot is of course the place where you first ended up in Ireland after your ordination. Kilroot, County Antrim. You absolutely hated it — and about as quick as you could you returned to Surrey, to your patron’s estate, but then you came back, and then over again to England, until finally settling in Dublin, where I currently happen to work. So I am following, rather timidly, and at a great distance, in your footsteps. I hope you don’t mind.

5Ireland in general and Dublin in particular of course you despised, ‘the most disagreeable place in Europe,’ ‘a wretched, dirty dog-hole and prison’ where you expected to ‘die . . . in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.’ I have sometimes felt the same. Who doesn’t, about wherever they might end up? That sense that this place and these people don’t deserve us, that we’re somehow better than this, that we are superior, made for other, finer things, and other places. That’s probably why I feel so close to you, apart from the fact that you’re my literary neighbour: the fact that you were absolutely, terribly, horribly honest.

6And no one likes an honest man. Indeed, people have often hated you for it: you’ve as many enemies as friends, even now, and almost as many amateur and professional therapists attempting to psychoanalyze you, you poor chap. Indeed, you’re often regarded not so much as a literary figure as a case study, which I suppose is the fate of the very greatest writers — you are, after all, freaks of nature. Abandoned by your mother, you never knew your father, you felt humiliated, you never received the recognition you felt you deserved, you had these strange relationships with young women, you were obsessed and appalled by bodily functions: you were not ‘normal’. ‘I am utterly void of what the world calls natural affection,’ you told your old friend Alexander Pope. I don’t believe it. On the contrary. I think you had an excess of human feelings. A superfluity. A glut. I think of you as like Dante’s Beatrice — love moved you and made you speak. Yet people have taken you at your own word and your own estimation, as so often they do. Thackeray, that old bore, famously claimed that in Gulliver’s Travels you became ‘a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame, filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene,’ and that ‘giant and great as this Dean is, I say we should hoot him.’

7I’m not going to hoot you, Dean Swift. There’ve been plenty of hooters. A confederacy of dunces: Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, F.R. Leavis. Clever men all — and with little or no sense of humour the lot of them, and an utter conviction that they were right about everything and everyone, including you. They were deeply suspicious of you: suspicious of your ideas and your personality, suspicious above all of your tone. Suspicious, I suspect, of your being Irish. They didn’t know how to take you: they couldn’t read you. Which is hardly surprising. It’s not easy. You don’t make it easy. I certainly don’t know how to read you. When are you serious? When’s it a joke? Which of course is part of the appeal, the fascination.

8I think it was Graham Greene — you’d have liked Mr Greene, he was another great scrupuland and a slyboots — who once remarked that it is when we are not sure that we are most alive. With you, we’re never quite sure. You keep us on our toes, Mr Swift. You raise doubts. You force our minds into making the most strange and unusual efforts to try and understand your meaning. Your books give us no end of trouble. Your books help keep us alive.

9That’s my theory anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s why I think your work has survived. But just for the sake of all the hooters out there, all the sceptics of your scepticism, would you perhaps mind providing some kind of clear statement? Were you actually mad, or a misogynist, or a misanthropist, or just really really angry? I hate to be so direct but it would help to know. Critics and biographers have been arguing about this for years. You can write to me here in County Down, or c/o Trinity College, Dublin, your old alma mater. We have a bust of you in the Library still, you’ll probably be utterly indifferent to know — you look to be turning your head away, rather in disgust. As I expect you are so doing now.

10Yours, trepidatiously,
Ian Sansom


11Dear Dean Swift,

12Thank you for your reply. I didn’t expect a straight answer, of course, or indeed a polite one but I do think referring to your correspondents as rodents, vermin, swine and as mental pygmies is perhaps a little strong — as is your referring to me in particular as a ******* ****. But then you are Jonathan Swift: we grant you certain privileges.

13You’re particularly scathing about the psychoanalysts — I’m afraid I can’t provide their home addresses or contact details, no. If you’re interested in reading up on the various theories, the person to start with is probably Sandor Ferenczi, with his paper, ‘Gulliver Phantasies’, which was published back in the 1920s and which was all about the hidden sexual symbols in your work: it’s all to do with castration anxiety, apparently. And there have always been concerns about your scatological poetry. I know that compared to some of the stuff we get nowadays it is pretty tame and there’s hardly any of it but you know what we’re like. We love digging in the dirt. And in fairness you probably don’t help matters, with your unusual domestic arrangements with Hester Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh. Hester, who you called her Stella — you always gave the women you knew nicknames, which is a little odd, I have to say — was nine when you became her private tutor, wasn’t she, and you were, what, twenty-two? You became lifelong friends. Were you secretly married? Lovers? I don’t really expect you to answer that. I suppose we’ll never know. We do know that she moved to Dublin to be close to you. As did Esther — you called her Vanessa. Two much devoted women. Two lovers? One wife? A mistress? Who knows. The letters to Esther are rather fascinating, I must admit, with their coded references to ‘drinking coffee’. ‘It is impossible to tell you how often I have wished you a cup of coffee,’ writes Esther. ‘I wish I were to walk with you 50 times about your garden, and then – drink your coffee,’ you reply. Hmm.

14But let’s ignore all that stuff. In the words of another Swift — Taylor, no relation, as far as I know — haters gonna hate hate hate and I’m not here to ask questions about the meaning of ‘coffee’ or to quibble about your phallic symbols. I’m here to ask you about writing. And in answer to your question — your accusation, rather — yes, I think I have glimpsed the abyss of gloom that lies beneath us and I think I do understand the purpose of writing, of satire in particular, in helping us to see the depths and edges of that abyss, though you’d be appalled at our attempts at satire these days. Satire now in these islands, it seems to me, is really just another luxury consumer item. It is the preserve of the privileged and the plush, of the wry and witty columnist and commentator, just another part of the establishment. It represents nothing and does nothing except determinedly evade the real difficulties and complexities of life. Satire today in Britain and in Ireland doesn’t really discomfit — it comforts. You were always much more challenging, much more radical. There are very few writers, it seems to me, who have ever shared your uncompromising vision: Emil Cioran perhaps, the great Romanian philosopher, inexhaustibly bleak, or maybe Thomas Bernhard, the late great Austrian Nestbeschumutzer. But then Cioran was really just a nihilist, and an aphorist — and he lived in France — and Bernhard was writing for a literary elite, whilst endlessly biting the dainty hands that fed him. You, it seems to me were much more wildly inventive, much more truly imaginative and audacious, and you were writing for the common herd. You can’t imagine Emil Cioran or Thomas Bernhard writing Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, one can’t really imagine anyone, any one person writing Gulliver’s Travels — it’s as if J.K. Rowling were also H.L. Mencken, or if Kurt Vonnegut were Doctor Seuss. T. S. Eliot was right — he was often wrong, but about this he was right — when he described you as ‘colossal’. You are positively Brobdingnagian.

15And yes, sorry, it’s true, Jonathan, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are indeed best known today for Gulliver’s Travels. (I was writing to Geoffrey Chaucer recently and I had to break it to him that he’s best known now for The Canterbury Tales. He thought people would remember him for his Parlement of Foules or for Troilus and Criseyde!) But really, what a piece of work to be remembered for: reading it recently it seemed to me that us literary folk have made very little advance since. Indeed, I think in some ways we’ve regressed. Years before Kafka you were defining the nature of the Kafkaesque; centuries before Sigmund Freud or Germaine Greer or Judith Butler you were pushing the boundaries of what might possibly be said and thought about the human body; you redefined the idea of children’s literature; you made satire an art. Perhaps only in the realms of science fiction and fantasy these days do writers dare to follow your example.

16The rest of us, I think, are just too scared, too timid. As I have grown older I’ve come to realise that much literature is in fact just a game, a form of social etiquette, a way of men and women seeking preferment. You weren’t interested in etiquette. You weren’t interested in seeking preferment. The church was your patron and you had no one else to please. Which is why your pamphlets are so shocking even now: ‘A Modest Proposal’, with its argument that the solution to Ireland’s problem is the eating of babies. ‘A Tale of a Tub,’ which mocks the religious and which everyone says cost you a bishopric. You were fearless, and fearless because you did not seek other’s approval but instead cultivated an eternal perspective. ‘In all my Writings, I have had constant Regard to this great End, not to suit and apply them to particular Occasions and Circumstances of Time, of Place, or of Person: but to calculate them for universal Nature, and Mankind in general.’

17Your fellow countryman William Butler Yeats rewrote your epitaph — which you’d written yourself — and he understood very well your high ideals and your disappointments, your complex commitments and obligations, your refusal to play the game.

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast
Imitate him if you dare,

World-besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.

18Thank you, Dean, for the necessary reminder that literature is not a popularity contest.

19Yours, in admiration,
Ian Sansom

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Ian SANSOM, « I have often thought of writing to you »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Ian Sansom is Director of the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College Dublin, as well a novelist and a critic, author of over 14 books. He has written on a variety of topics for The Guardian, TLS and Irish Times and is also a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3. His most recent book is Reading Room: A Year of Literary Curiosities, (British Library Publishing, 2019).

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