Comparison of Swift and Addison as Satirists

Swift and Addison are two of the greatest satirists of the age of satirists, namely, the age of Queen Anne. The whole of Addison’s satiric work is in prose but Swift used verse, along with prose, as medium of his satire, even though his verse satire is considerably inferior to his prose satire. Thus both Addison and Swift, pre­eminently, are prose satirists. Pope is in fact the greatest verse satirist, and Swift the greatest prose satirist, in the entire history of English literature. Addison comes much lower than either of them.

Of course, the Victorian critics such as Macaulay and Thackeray placed Addison much higher than Swift who was dismissed by them as a blustering maniac shouting imprecations against humanity. Addison, on the contrary, was praised to the skies as a perfect gentleman writer, mild and understanding, and genuinely and selflessly concerned with the moral regeneration of his age. The gigantic, troubling personality of Swift could not, understandably, be fitted into the Victorian critical frame. But, as Bonamy Dobree puts it, the age of “lachrymosic” praise of Addison “is now gone, and modern criticism, unhampered by sentimentalism and prejudice, has toppled the Victorian apple-cart and assigned Swift a much higher place than Addison in the hierarchy of English satirists. Indeed, as a satirist, Swift is far more searching and complex than Addison, the intellectual content of whose writings is thin like milk-and-water-gruel. Justifiably does C. S. Lewis complain that there is no “iron” in Addison.

The Genesis of Their Satire:
Why did Swift and Addison turn to satire? In both the cases there were both subjective and objective factors which seem to have operated. All satire is an expression, in one way or another, of Its writer’s sense of dissatisfaction with things as they actually are. Satire is the art of expressing creatively the sense of am userrtent, despair, or disgust-all arising from dissatisfaction at the departure of the real from the ideal. Apathy or contentment can never result in satire. Different things created the sense of dissatisfaction in Swift and Addison and consequently, different things engaged their satiric attention. Addison was dissatisfied with the departure of the people from common sense, reason, and refinement, as was apparent from their manners of dress and behaviour. Women were particularly prone to sartorial extravagances, fopperies and frivolities, mostly imported from France. As a man of culture, Addison was amused to find the state of affairs prevailing around him. He tried his best in The Taller and The Spectator to rid the country of, what may be called, “minor vices of dress and manners.” His intention, in his own words, was “to banish vice from the territories of Britain.” This reformative intention found a very eligible weapon in satire. But this satire was bound to be superficial. It was not intended to touch the inner and deep-seated springs of human action. Addison did not go beyond the dress and the skin.
Swift’s satire, on the other hand, could be far more searching, disillusioning, and consequently, troubling. Whereas Addison is amused at the difference between what things are and what they should be, Swift is disgusted. Of course, both of them are dissatisfied, but their dissatisfaction takes different shapes. Swift’s objective examination and analysis of the socio-political conditions obtaining around him did much to foment his wrath. Below the pretty-pretty surface of “the peace of the Augustans” his piercing Intellect could see disgusting corruption and unspeakable iniquities. Behind the imposing facade of Augustan “common sense and reason” he saw squalid vistas inhabited by monsters of folly and error. He had personally been (particularly during 1710-14) a witness to high society and the inner political life of the country. He had been in touch with political dignitaries such as Harley and Bolingbroke. He had been not only a spectator, but also a player; he had not only seen, but experienced. Moreover, he saw around himself a swarming mass of pedants, idiots, poetasters, witlings, shallow dilettantes, fervent dissenters, pimps, airy scientists, blue stockings, almanac-makers, and “corruptors of taste and lovers of passion.” He, in the words of Herbert Davis, received a “constant shock, as a moralist, at the insane pride of these miserable vermin [that is, men], crawling about the face of the earth…outraged by the brutalities and insensitiveness of eighteenth century manners.”
It was natural for such a pestiferous world as Swift saw to have set up a deep and vexatious reaction in his sensitive mind. His rough exterior was. in fact, a mask hiding a hypersensitive nature acutely alive to the deep corruption and perversion of human life. However, along with his objective observation of life his subjective experience was also, to some extent, responsible for provoking his satiric outbursts. Addison’s life was a bed of roses. He was a very successful man who with his rather modest talents Tose to high government offices, mostly due to the patronage of numerous grandees. The smugness and sense of complacency and good humour which characterise Addison‘s satire are partly due to his own successful personal career. Swift’s life was, on the other hand, a veritable jeremiad, one long concatenation of insufferable woes, ending for the last five years in a state of perfect idiocy. He desired and deserved to be a bishop but could not get beyond being a dean. After 1714, he felt crushed and humbled by the arrival of the era of Whig supremacy. Thwarted ambitions, neglected merit, physical ill-health, ungratified erotic appetite-he was not married in spite of three love-affairs—the state of servility in childhood and adolescense, everything contributed towards the making of the “prince of satirists.” The world did not seem to realise his merit, so he wanted to teach it a lesson. He hungered for position though not much for money. He once wrote to Bolingbroke: “All my endeavours to distinguish myself were only for want of a great title and fortune, that I might be used like a lord by those who have an opinion of my parts.”
The Targets of Their Satire:
The range of Swift’s satiric targets is much vaster than that of Addison’s. Most of Swift’s prose works can be called satires. On the other hand,’ satire is just an element in some of the periodical essays which Addison wrote for The Taller, The Spectator, and some other periodicals. Swift is nothing if not a satirist. His satire knows no barrier. Its rapier-like thrusts spare neither an almanac-maker, nor an airy philosopher, nor a glib politician, nor a conceited for, nor a pretentious scientist. He once satirised every satire! The paltry Parridge and the mighty Walpole alike winced under his terrible “whip of scorpions.” John Bullitt in Swift and the Anatomy of Satire remarks: “Few satirists have found such a plethora of objects for their contempt as did Swift.” Roughly speaking, there are three categories of objects that a satirist can attack. They are :
(i)         individuals.
(ii)        Groups, tendencies, institutions professions, ideologies, etc.
(iii)       Humanity in general.
Addison restricts Tlis attention as satirist to trie second category. His satire is neither too particular nor too general. He attacks neither individual men nor man but, to use his own expression, “multitudes.” He ridicules the groups of people who patronise numerous follies, fopperies, and frivolities which offend good taste. He lashes the vice but “spares the man”. He is basically critical not of people but the follies they patronise. It goes to the credit of Addison that as a satirist he never indulged in personalities. There were people like Pope who satirised him quite maliciously and unreasonably, but Addison never retaliated. Wit, according to him, should be employed for educating and reforming humanity rather than deriding one’s personal antagonists.
Swift’s satire, on the other hand, takes within its ambit all the three categories of targets listed above. Starting with individuals and progressing with groups, tendencies, and what he thought were erroneous ways of thinking and behaving, it ends in a terrible indictment of mankind in its entirety and all its attributes. Even the human body and life itself come within the reach of its lashes. While hating humanity Swift made some exception. He observes: “I have ever hated all nations, professions and communities: and all my love is towards individuals…But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them.” If Swift is a misanthrope, he is a misanthrope of his own kind.
A glance at the important satires of Swift will convince one of the tremendous variety of his targets. Generally he makes his satire operate on many planes simultaneously. Gulliver’s Travels is a satire on the pettiness of man, his pride, depravity, and corruption. At the same time there are veiled hits directed against parry struggle, silly scientists, mathematicians, etc. A Tale of a Tub, in his own words, was meant to be a satire on “the numerous and gross corruptions in religion and learning.” But once again the satire goes beyond its aim and attacks some individuals, particularly, “our great Dryden,” William Wotton, and Richard Bentley as also general human folly and unreason, critics, philosophers, and enthusiasts. The Battle of the Books is a satire on the pride and pettiness of modern writers, particularly Bentley and Wotton. The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit attacks the enthusiasm of the Puritans. Directions to Servants is a delightful satire on wily domestic servants. “Bickerstaff Papers” were written to expose the charlatanry of the almanac-writer Partidge. Drapier’s Letters and A Modest Proposal were written on behalf of the down-trodden Irish people who were being impoverished and tyrannised by their English overlords. To this list must be added several more works attacking several more targets. The extensive variety of his targets may make one question whether it was the world or the great dean himself who was out of step!
All satire is, fundamentally, a triumpn of technique. It is the way in which a satirist puts his thoughts which ultimately and exclusively rates his satire. What Swift says in The Battle of the Books, for instance, could have been said simply in a few words. Not that Swift indulges in prolixity: there are very few writers as concise as he is. It is to couch his message in an effective way that he invents the interesting story of the battle of the ancients and the moderns fought “last Friday” in St. James’s Library. All effective satire eschews directness and works itself through some sly indirection of technique. Both Swift and Addison are good satirists on account of the effectiveness and artistry of their technique. Both are indirect and do not employ the sizzling and denunciatory style of Juvenal. The indirectness of their technique is mostly seen in their very frequent use of irony. According to T. H. Lobban, the two hallmarks of Addison’s satire are “irony and urbanity”. Pope in the Epistle to Arbuthnot represents Addison as Atticus, whose modus operandi is to
Damn with faint praise, assent -with civil leer,
and -without sneering, teach the rest to sneer.
That is, according to Lobban, “a brilliant definition of Addisonian irony as viewed by hostile eyes.” Most of Addison’s satiric essays are ironical in tone. He writes about the follies of the age either approvingly or, at least, relates them gravely and simply as if they were quite natural, if not positively admirable. Swift’s usual method is also similar. Dr. Johnson observes: “One slight lineament of his [Addison’s] character Swift has preserved. It was his practice, when he found any man invincibly wrong, to flatter his opinions by acquiescence and sink him yet deeper into absurdity.” But there is one difference. With Addison, irony, even though it is used very often, is just a momentary instrument to be used and then quickly laid down-sometimes just another figure of speech; with Swift irony is more extensive, almost a way of thinking. In many of his satires Swift seems to be wearing an ironic mask from the beginning to the end. He seems to be letting a well-defined fictive character express himself, mostly in obvious contradiction to the views of the writer. That makes for a kind of “dramatic irony.” He puts thus in action the very folly he intends attacking, and makes it damn itself, without the need of his active intrusion. In A Tale of a Tub, especially in the numerous digressions, it is a hack who is obviously speaking: it is Swift’s intention to satirise hacks. In A Modest Proposal it is an agricultural economist who is made to speak: it is Swift’s intention to satirise such people as this character represents. Some of Swift’s masks, for instance that of the Drapier, are, however, non-ironic. In the hands of Swift such “extended irony” became a highly refined and effective technique, and has since remained something unique in English literature. Swift, according to Charles Whibley, was “a great master of irony—the greatest that has ever been bom in these isles, great enough to teach a lesson to Voltaire himself and to inspire the author of‘Jonathan Wild.”
Their General Attitude and the Impression They Leave:
There is much difference between the general attitudes of Addison and Swift as satirists, and also the impressions that they leave on the reader. Addison is kindly and gentle and generally tolerant; on the other hand, Swift is fierce and indignant and often seems to be out to damn the world. Addison satirises because he loves humanity; Swift, because he hates it. Saeva indignatio (=savage anger) is the expression which is often used to characterise Swift’s satire. Addison is much more of a “gentleman” though much less of genius.
Swift shatters complacency as no other satirist does. He urges us to look at things anew and searchingly and not to be satisfied with “the superficies of things.” Thus, he is muph more incisive and compelling than Addison. But sometimes he is gross, and quite often, negative and destructive. Addison was a born optimist believing in basic human goodness and corrigibility. Swift, on the other hand, despaired and hoped by turns, and correspondingly his satire veered between the constructive and the destructive. “As long as,” says John Bullitt in the work quoted above, “Swift could find vices and follies which were not ingrained in man by nature and which could therefore possibly be shamed out of existence, his satire has a place.”

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