Even Homer Nods

Edmund Wislon (1895-1972), leading U.S. literary critic

Edmund Wislon (1895-1972), leading U.S. literary critic

We are none of us so good that we cannot use some correction.

Vladimir Nabokov was as good a writer of English as ever lived, and certainly one of the leading writers of English of his generation: and yet his old friend Edmund Wilson had to tell him, Your Pushkin translation stinks.

But Edmund Wilson himself was not above pronouncing on stuff he didn’t really know. At the end of a long letter to his friend John Dos Passos [from Lewis M. Dabney, ed., The Portable Edmund Wilson, 1983, p. 594] he added

Swift, whom you mention, is a queer case. The bulk of his work looks like close-range writing, but he is really a long-range writer. His will to power was stronger than his interest in any cause. When he missed his advancement in London, where he hoped to get an important preferment, he went back to Dublin with the utmost reluctance but so furious with the English court that he was driven to identify himself with the Irish.

— now all of the above has been quoted, word for word, so that, just so that  you, Dear Reader, will have a reasonable context to judge the next sentence of Mister Wilson’s. He is writing, pretty much for publication, on a topic about which he is in his own eyes at least a world-class bloviator, to his own compadre in the cause of modern literature. The sentence immediately following the above is as follows

The passion behind his Irish pamphleteering is in a sense irrelevant to the subject: he did the Irish a good turn when he roused them to rebel against Wood’s halfpence; but he was afterwards just as savage on what was really the reactionary side as soon as the interests of the clergy were threatened.

Now, it just so happens that Dean Swift did pen a pamphlet under the title An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby, and it is to there [in Stanley Lane-Poole, ed., Selections from the Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift (New York: Appleton, 1898), pp. 67-86]  that we now turn.

Two pages in we find the author conceding quite a lot:

Therefore I freely own that all appearances are against me. The system of the gospel, after the fate of other systems, is generally antiquated and exploded; and the mass or body of the common people, among whom it seems to have had its latest credit, are now grown as much ashamed of it as their betters . . .

— which concession does not sound at all like the Ireland of any time period, the Irish feeling ashamed of their belief in the face of coolness toward Revelation on the part of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. W.J. McCormack, writing in the journal Eighteenth Century Ireland in 1989, spoke of the [overwhelming majority] Roman Catholics using the Ascendancy as a “focus of resentment.”

So distant is the image from actual life experienced, in the terrible seventeenth-century religious wars or in their echoes in the present twenty-first century, the feeling grows that the writer must be sarcastically inverting the actual state of affairs.

He continues immediately

. . opinions, like fashions, always descending from those of quality to the middle sort, and thence to the vulgar, where at length they are dropped and vanish.

“I hope no reader imagines me so weak to stand up in the defense of real Christianity,” continues Dean Swift (in the weak guise of anonymity)

such as used in primitive times, if we may believe that hors of those ages, to have an influence upon men’s belief and actions

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Don Gavitte, Empire, Inequality, John Schweibert, Local government, Police, Spiritual life. Bookmark the permalink.

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