Taboo to Totem: Swift as Epic Hero

  • Ann Cline Kelly


In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel J. Boorstin contrasts the genesis of a “celebrity” with that of a “hero”: “The hero is made by folklore, sacred texts, and history books, but the celebrity is the creature of gossip, of public opinion, of magazines, newspapers, and the ephemeral images of movie and television screen. The passage of time, which creates and establishes the hero, destroys the celebrity.”1 In violation of this principle, Swift’s fame proves the reverse. The gossip about his life and character continued long after his death, but in tandem, he begins to be hailed as a paragon of virtue, excellence, and heroism. In this mode, while Swift does not exactly resemble Aeneas or Ulysses, he assumes epic functions: as an epitome of national values, as a leader on whom the destiny of nations depends, as an heroic warrior who challenges enemies far larger than he, as an idealist willing to sacrifice and suffer for a higher cause, as a demi-god gifted with prophecy and supernatural powers, as an object of reverence. Some versions of Swift’s life accentuate the epic features Raglan associates with the mythic hero: He is “reputed to be the son of a god,” vanquishes a “king and/or giant, dragon, or wild beast,” becomes a king himself, “prescribes laws,” and “has one or more holy sepulchres [sic].” The epic Swift often exists not as a bodied character, but as an abstract icon.


Popular Culture Literary History Modest Proposal British Poet Epic Hero 
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© Ann Cline Kelly 2002

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  • Ann Cline Kelly

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