Jonathan Swift once termed the Harbottle Review, “Lilliputian in its perspicacity and Brobdingnagian in its folly,” yet knowing him as I do, it stirred no resentment. Whether in the pamphlets or at the dinner table, the Dean is a sparrer, who likes to test the mettle of his rivals through railleries and taunts. Or, as Pope once said to a tearful Burlington, “Take no notice of him, mate; it’s just his way.” Swift is a bully, a baiter, a sarcastic aggressor, who would have suited the Bench; and though he gives his fellow man a thorough drubbing in Gulliver’s Travels, this is not so much a work of misanthropy as a caution on its proper limits.
Lemuel Gulliver, a blythe soul with a thirst to see the world, makes four voyages over sixteen years, and finds himself each time in some distorted version of England. The peoples he meets either represent the failings of mankind, or have virtues that stand in unforgiving contrast. The satire can be more sledgehammer than scalpel, with the tiny Lilliputians representing the pettiness of party faction and the triviality of religious schism. But the deeper message here is that, although their government is founded on a perfect constitution, it is inevitably corrupted by the involvement of men. This is the first of many roastings over coals that Swift gives to humankind. Another of Gulliver’s sojourns is among the giants of Brobdingnag, where the noble king listens to his account of the English and concludes them to be: “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” The judgement seems too harsh, but Gulliver makes no appeal.
Misanthropy of this order might look like the result of bitterness: the bitterness of a dean who thinks he ought to be a bishop; of a Tory whose party has been crushed by the Whigs; of a man exiled to Ireland, though his heart is English. Swift is all of these things; but what, by the end of Gulliver’s third voyage, appears to be the venting of a thwarted old bore, turns out finally to be something more purposeful.
Gulliver’s last voyage takes him to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses governed entirely by reason. These insufferable creatures, unafflicted with passions, do not dispute, or love, or err, or aspire; thus they experience nothing of any note, and have no history, other than records of race winners. They live alongside creatures called Yahoos, a warped parody of humanity, more fantastical than anything Hobbes dreamed of, and possessed of less sentience than might be observed in mad dogs. Gulliver, already disillusioned, and bewitched now by the siren-song of Houyhnhnm rationality, identifies these wretches with humanity at large, thus losing all faith in his own race. When forced home, he responds to his family and fellows with disgust, and buys himself a pair of horses to talk to instead.
Of course, we prefer the Gulliver of sixteen years before, the naif, over the fanatical cynic he has become; and this is Swift’s crowning irony, in which his own misanthropic satire becomes the target of a further satire. Swift has elsewhere declared, “I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.” Or in other words, however far you decry the vice and violence and venality of humankind, do not forget that you are of that breed yourself.
Gulliver’s Travels is printed by Benjamin Motte, at the Middle Temple-Gate in Fleet-street, and might cost you some of the wind out your sails.