© Ellie Foreman-Peck
What is the greatest and most universally loved book ever written in Ireland — wilder than Wilde, more shocking than Shaw, more experimental than Joyce, more disillusioned than Beckett, more humane than Heaney?
The book is, of course, Gulliver's Travels. Its author wrote his own Latin epitaph, best translated by another Anglo-Irishman, Yeats: "Swift has sailed into his rest;/Savage indignation there/ Cannot lacerate his breast." Jonathan Swift's indignation against the follies of mankind was indeed so extreme that he has been savaged himself ever since, by critics who have seen his works as misanthropic and misogynist, the revenge of an embittered man thwarted in his poetical, political and ecclesiastical ambitions. Swift was so scandalous on every level — from the gruesome irony of A Modest Proposal to the scatological reductio ad absurdum of all that polite society held dear in The Lady's Dressing Room — that his exile from literary London to the Deanery of St Patrick's, Dublin, has been posthumously extended: hence his present neglect in our schools and universities. David Womersley's definitive new edition of Gulliver's Travels, the latest of 18 volumes of Swift's works published by Cambridge University Press, is thus a major step towards his academic rehabilitation and even vindication.
Yet not only the English-speaking peoples, but the whole civilised world has embraced Gulliver's Travels since its first publication in 1726. The fact that many who have not read it wrongly suppose it to be a children's book, and that children do indeed enjoy at any rate the first two parts, reveals its author's genius. Adapted and bowdlerised more than almost any other literary classic, Gulliver has survived and, though countless modern writers, whether of magical realism or teenage fantasy fiction, owe Swift an unconscious debt, the original still surpasses all imitations.
Why, then, have critics declined to follow Captain Lemuel Gulliver on his adventures in Lilliput and Brobdingnag? Samuel Johnson set the tone with his mean-spirited Life of Swift and his disparaging comment to Boswell: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest." Yet the young Johnson had not disdained to entitle his satirical parliamentary sketches for the Gentleman's Magazine of 1738-44 "State of Affairs in Lilliput", thus demonstrating that within 20 years of its appearance Gulliver's Travels was required reading. On their tour of the Hebrides, Boswell recorded Johnson's conversation with a "sensible clever woman", Lady MacLeod, who asked if no man was naturally good. "No, madam, no more than a wolf," he replied. "Nor no woman, sir?" Boswell interpolated. "No, sir." Lady Mac-Leod: "This is worse than Swift." Her startled aside is revealing, both of Swift's reputation and of his influence on Johnson.