Jestbook Swift: The Return of the Repressed

  • Ann Cline Kelly


By the early twentieth century, the narratives of Swift’s tangled amours and his tormented death dominated his biography What got left behind was the image of the comic Swift that had circulated widely in print for one and a half centuries. Some writers argued that Swift had been stripped of the humorous qualities that had made him so famous in his own time, but these protests were ignored or repudiated. In 1927, in a work called Literary Blasphemies, Ernest Boyd laments that one could no longer openly relish Swift’s love of laughter, manifest in the coarse and silly things he published, and complains that an overemphasis on Swift’s epitaph and his final illness had distorted Swift’s essential nature.1 Also taking issue with the prominence of the doomed and dour Swift character, W. D. Taylor, writing in 1933, says,

[O]ne is inclined to protest that he is after all a humorist, that he provokes us to laughter, not to tears. … All that stupendous force of indignant passion which threatens to carry everything headlong before it, comes surging about us as laughter, at times bitter harsh laughter, at times the laughter of him who knows that the game is up.2

This chapter recuperates the comic Swift of the jestbooks, widely distributed compendia of laughter-producing material read by all classes of people. In the jestbooks, Swift appears as the author of light verse (most of which he did not write) and as a comic character in humorous or witty anecdotes.


Popular Culture Comic Character Didactic Purpose Polite Conversation Comic Story 
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  1. 1.
    Ernest Boyd, “Swift,” in Literary Blasphemies (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1927), 74–105.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    W. D. Taylor, Swift: A Critical Essay (London: Peter Davies, 1933), 305.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Some of these items are included in the Catalogue of English and American ChapBooks and Broadside Ballads in Harvard College Library, ed. William Coolidge Lane (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College Library, 1905). In addition to the works cited in this chapter, useful scholarship on the jestbooks includes Ronald Paulson’s, “The Joke and Joe Miller’s Jests,” Chapter 6, Popular and Polite Art in the Age of Hogarth and Fielding andGoogle Scholar
  4. Derek Brewer’s “Prose Jest-Books Mainly in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries in England,” in A Cultural History of Humour From Antiquity to the Present Day, eds. Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenberg (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1997) 90–111.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Letter # 144, March 9, 1748. The constraints against laughter also gain support from religion; laughter is associated with sin because Christ never was reported to have laughed. Johan Verbeckmoes, Laughter, Jestbooks, and Society in the Spanish Netherlands (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 11.
    For many of the jests she cites, Mackie Jarrell provides the index numbers from Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Bloomington: University of Indiana, [1955–58]).Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Misogyny in the fabliaux is discussed by Norris J. Lacy, Chapter 5, “Women in the Fabliaux” in Reading Fabliaux (Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1999), 60–78.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Mahadev L. Apte, Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach (London and Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 226–30. A variety of theories exist to explain why audiences react to the trickster character with laughter: his extreme nonconformity creates an inherently comic incongruity (P. E. McGhee); his humiliation of his adversaries vicariously produces the feeling of superiority, or “sudden glorying” over others (Hobbes); his unembarrassed pursuit of repressed pleasures (sex, excrement, aggression, profanity) enacts the secret urges of the audience (Sigmund Freud); his organic fluidity is a life-affirming reproof to deathlike social rigidity (Henri Bergson); his character embodies the spirit of carnivalesque popular culture (comic, irreverent, unstable, egalitarian) in opposition to the “monolithically serious” “official” hierarchies (Mikhail Bakhtin).Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    John Boyle, Fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, “Manuscript Notes (Houghton MS Eng. 218.14)” in Remarks on the Life and Writing of Dr. Jonathan Swift, ed. Joao Froes, 329–64, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000), 330.Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    George Meredith, An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit (Westminister: Archibald Constable, 1903), 27.Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    Examples of stories about Roger: (1) One Sunday, as Roger Cox, Dean Swift’s clerk, was going to church, his scarlet caught Swift’s eye; Roger bowed, and observed that he wore scarlet because he belonged to the church militant; (2) When Swift was in Laracor, there happened to be a sale of farm and stock, the farmer being dead. Swift chanced to go past during the auction, just as a pen of poultry had been offered at auction. Roger bid for them: he was overbid by a farmer by the name of Hatch. “What, Roger, won’t you buy the poultry?” exclaimed Swift. “No, sir,” said Roger, “I see they are just a going to Hatch.” R. Wyse Jackson, in Swift and his Circle (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1945), has a whole chapter on “Roger Cox,” in which he publishes poems purported authored by Roger. One has the couplet, “I love to see the Doctor [Swift] smile, / For it’s the sunshine of our isle,” from which Jackson infers that his stint at Laracor was “probably the happiest time in Swift’s troubled life” (27). This may have been one of the anecdotes that appeared in St. James’s Evening Post, Number 3098, August 28–30, 1735 and labeled “Dean Swift’s Country Post,” listed in Scouten-Teerink as #1629. Scott quotes Theophilus Swift, who says that Orrery’s story about Swift and Roger is pure fiction, designed to discredit Swift. Theophilus Swift claims that the story is a version of one he found in a jestbook “printed between 1655 and 1660” (61n).Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    A. C. Elias, Jr., “Lord Orrery’s Copy of Memoirs of the Life of Swift (1751),” Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 1 (1986), 111–25. Appendix II, (pp. 124–25) “Fresh Anecdotes of Swift,” contains the texts of the stories added to Orrery’s Remarks, from which I have quoted.Google Scholar
  13. 39.
    One popular item is an epigram by Swift given the title “At Home and Abroad,” which first appeared in the Swift-Pope Miscellanies. It begins “As Thomas was cudgell’d one day by his Wife” (P 1: 327). It was published in a number of collections, for example, An Anthology of Humor Verse, eds. Helen and Louis Melville (London: George Harrap, Co., 1910), and reprinted as a filler, for example, in Good Housekeeping Magazine 141 (November 1955), 14.Google Scholar
  14. 40.
    Jarrell, “Jack and the Dane,” 317, 320. Jarrell notes that “a crude versions of this [latter] anecdote appeared in Teague-land Jests, or, Bog-Witticisms (London, 1690)” (320nl), which derived from a standard formula in the fabliaux, into which Swift’s name was inserted during the eighteenth century. This story is retold by Lady Gregory. “Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” in The Kiltartan History Book (Dublin: Colin Smythe: 1909); reprinted as Irish Folktales, ed. Henry Glassie (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 92.Google Scholar
  15. 42.
    John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 15th edition, ed. Emily Morrison Beck (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1980), 321–3. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations has been in constant demand since it first appeared in 1855.Google Scholar
  16. 43.
    George Saintsbury, The Peace of the Augustans: A Survey of Eighteenth Century literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1916), 27.Google Scholar

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© Ann Cline Kelly 2002

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