Tragic Scenarios: Madness, Suffering, and Death

  • Ann Cline Kelly

Abstract

Both Fate and Swift shaped Swift’s life into the pattern Raglan lays out for the mythologized figure, a tragic trajectory from high promise (“reputed to be the son of a god”) and high achievement (victories over enemies and successful rule) to the loss of it all (“loses favor with the gods/or his subjects, and is driven from the throne and city”), ending with a “mysterious death” alone on a hill or an “upper room.” While Aristotle says tragedy evolved from ancient fertility rites, death more than life is emphasized in the old order making way for the new. While the romance genre opens up explorations of gender, sexuality, and erotic relationships, tragedy encourages meditations on the reasons for suffering, the reality of death, the meaning of life, the nature of Providence, and the way an individual responds to the overwhelming questions these issues raise.1 Unable to conceptualize our own deaths, tragedy allows us to witness in detachment the drama of someone else’s death—to look at death slantways and accommodate ourselves indirectly to the uncertainties of the future and the inevitability of an end.2 Contrary to the inclination of most people to do the same, Swift humorously imagined the realities of his own eventual death in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” a poem in which he shows himself looking calmly and clear-eyed into the void of the hereafter.

Keywords

Dust Assure Resi Gravel Great Pyramid 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 1.
    See Timothy J. Reiss, Tragedy and Truth: Studies in the Development of a Renaissance and Neoclassical Discourse (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980). Reiss argues that “Tragedy in itself does not reveal any cosmic law. It does not show the impossibility of overcoming fate; it does not settle or unsettle the place of man in a divine order. Tragedy is a … textual … machine that enable use subsequently to make such readings” (15).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See A. D. Nuttall, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) andGoogle Scholar
  3. Susan Letzer Cole, The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Michel Foucault, Chapter 2, “The Great Confinement,” 38–64, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Random House, 1965; reprinted 1973).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Eighty items are listed under the subject heading “last words” in the Library of Congress online catalog. One current example is Famous Last Words: apt observations, pleas, curses, benedictions, sour notes, bon mots, and insights from people on the brink of departure, comp. by Alan Brisport (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2001).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Max Byrd, Chapter Five, “Madness at Mid-Century: Melancholy and the Sublime,” 113–44, Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The visit is dramatized in John O’Donovan’s “The Fiddler and the Dean” in Jonathan, Jack, and GBS: Four Plays about Irish History and Literature, ed. Robert Hogan; with a reminiscence by James Plunkett (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993), 85–101.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Samuel Johnson, “Swift,” Lives of the Poets in Selected Poetry and Prose, Frank Brady and W. K. Wimsatt, eds. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA; London: University of California Press, 1977), 447.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    William Henry Davenport Adams, Wrecked Lives: Men Who Have Failed, First series (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New York: Pott, Young and Co, 1880), 225.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    John Churton Collins, Jonathan Swift: A Biographical and Critical Study, London: Chatto and Windus, 1893, facsimile reprint, Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978,230.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    David Masson, “Dean Swift,” in The Three Devils: Luther’s, Miltons, and Goethe’s, with other essays (London: MacMillan, 1874), 289. First published inthe British Quarterly Review (1854).Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Evelyn Hardy chooses the phrase for the title of her biography The Conjured Spirit; Swift, a Study in the Relationship of Swift, Stella and Vanessa (London: Hogarth Press, 1949); David Nokes, for the first chapter of his biography; and Carl Van Doren, for his final chapter of Swift (1931), where he characterizes Swift as a man at war with his spirit, which has “enough angelic light, enough diabolic pride, to make it restless in its human flesh.” (London: Martin Seeker, 1931), 241, Van Doren also uses the phrase as the title of an essay in Saturday Review of Literature 7 (September 1930, 117–18). In addition, “Conjured Spirit” was used as the title for a review of Stephen Gwynn’s Life and Friendships of Dean Swift in The Saturday Review of Literature 10 (December 1933), 321.Google Scholar
  13. 21.
    [Rev. Francis Mahony], “Dean Swift’s Madness: A Tale of a Churn,” The Works of Father Prout, ed. Charles Kent (London: Routledge, 1881), 76–7. First published in Frasers Magazine, July 1834.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    Leslie Shane, The Skull of Swift: An Extempore Exhumation (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1928), 335.Google Scholar
  15. 28.
    J. Wickam Legg and J. C. Bucknill, “Letter,” Academy 19 (June 25, 1881), 241–56.Google Scholar
  16. J. C. Bucknill, “Dean Swift’s Disease,” Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 4 (January 1882), 291–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 29.
    Henry Craik, The Life of Jonathan Swift (London: J. Murray, 1882).Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    Edith Sitwell, I Sit Under a Black Sun (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1938), 322–3.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    Bernard Acworth, Swift (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1947), 219–20. Acworth’s argument also depends on his reading of an apocryphal piece of Swiftiana, first printed by Scott in 1814, entitled “An Evening Prayer.” The prayer, unlike anything Swift ever wrote, explicitly invokes Christ’s mercy and the hope of resurrection. Acworth reprints the “Evening Prayer,” 241–3.Google Scholar
  20. 41.
    W. B. C. Watkins, Perilous Balance: The Tragic Genius of Swift, Johnson, and Sterne (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), 1–2.Google Scholar
  21. 42.
    Frank Stier Goodwin, Jonathan Swift: Giant in Chains, (New York: Liveright, 1940), v.Google Scholar
  22. 43.
    David Nokes, Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), t.p. Nokes takes the title of his book and his epigraph from Sheridan, who is paraphrasing Bolingbroke.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ann Cline Kelly 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ann Cline Kelly

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations