Reason and Revolution, Satire and the City: Literature and Society in the Age of Swift

Open, Lecture—Fall

This lecture examines British literary culture across the lifetime of the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift. Between Swift’s birth in 1667 and his death in 1745, Britain emerged from an era of violent civil conflict to become a major military and colonial power with a functional, if often massively corrupt, political system, along with a sense of national identity that has remained consistent to this day and several of the world’s great metropolitan centers. As Britain achieved a new political stability, however, its marketplace of literature and ideas grew increasingly diverse and fractious—as journalism and popular fiction, some of it authored by women, challenged the cultural supremacy of neoclassical poetry written by and for men and as voices from the social and colonial margins made themselves heard in print. Swift’s career exemplified many of these tensions, as he wrote propaganda for both sides of the political aisle, expressed reactionary social values while crafting subversively experimental works of fiction, mocked the new urban culture of London while portraying it with loving fidelity, and attacked the English exploitation of Ireland even as he formed part of the Anglican religious establishment in Dublin. This course will cover Swift’s major works—from prose fictions such as Gulliver’s Travels to his outrageous scatological poetry and his scathing writings on Ireland, including the famous Modest Proposal—as well as a wide variety of other voices from this raucous period in English letters. Writers may include: England’s first professional female author, Aphra Behn; the wildly transgressive poet John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film The Libertine; Rochester’s rival, the political satirist John Dryden; comic playwrights such as William Congreve; Swift’s friend and collaborator, Alexander Pope, who attacked and memorialized the social and literary scene of the day in lapidary verse; moral philosophers such as Bernard Mandeville; the visual satirist William Hogarth; and early novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Eliza Haywood.