‘Animal Rationis Capax.’ A study of certain aspects of Swift’s imagery
S WIFT has given offence to his readers, from his day to our own, through his habit of referring to the physical qualities — and, since his purpose is usually satiric, often the more unpleasant physical qualities — of human beings or of animals. So frequently does he use allegory or incidental imagery of this nature that one may wonder whether it had some particular significance for him, for it is generally used to convey meaning; even poems like ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ or ‘Strephon and Chloe’ cannot be dismissed as examples of a merely pathological insistence on physical functions. Sometimes, of course, the meaning is quite plain, as in the straight-forward allegory of the spider and the bee in The Battle of the Books, where the context makes it clear that the physical habits of the insects are the equivalents of the methods of modern and ancient learning. But even this allegorical use can be misinterpreted in less simple and unambiguous contexts, and some of the attacks made by Swift’s contemporaries upon his character and opinions seem to have been based on an over-literal interpretation of those satires in which he presents the moral in terms of the physical. Swift was himself conscious of being misunderstood, as he shows in the Apology for A Tale of a Tub, and in certain of the poems.
KeywordsEternal Truth Extended Symbol Ancient Learning Fourth Book Love Poetry
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- Churton Collins, Jonathan Swift, A Biographical and Critical Study (London, 1893), p. 202.Google Scholar