Irish Political Writings after 1725: A Modest Proposal and Other Works
by Jonathan Swift, edited by David Hayton and Adam Rounce.
Cambridge University Press, 2018. 548 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
This is the latest in the new series called The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift. When this monumental undertaking is complete, the set will consist of fourteen volumes. The book under review is the sixth item to see the light of day. The first came out ten years ago.
People have been calling for this new edition for almost eighty years—basically ever since the last complete collection of Swift’s prose started to come out, in 1939. That bad boy (The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis et al. 16 volumes, Oxford: Basil Blackwell) took more than thirty years to complete, and was never, ever satisfactory. And why not? ’Cuz no footnotes.
It was edited correctly. All the volumes had swell introductions. The index volume was a masterpiece. The typography was great. But no notes. Zip. And people were like “This will not do.” Therefore, sometime this millennium, a small group of inverted British druids, beards down to here, formed a committee. You couldn’t even knock on their door unless you’d eaten the British Library for breakfast and had ten PhDs. They started appointing sub-druids. And in 2008, Swift’s Conduct of the Allies was ready to hit the newsstands again.
Everybody knows Swift cries out for annotation. It’s like with Alice in Wonderland. You need to be told what’s being parodied. Also you might like some help with the Biblical allusions. And sometimes you want to know if Swift is just making up words or what. For example, in “Modest Proposal,” he mentions, near the end, that the Irish have not learned to love their own country, and in this way they “differ from LAPLANDERS, and the inhabitants of TOPINAMBOO.” The reader goes: OK, number one, why does he say Laplanders there, and number two, is “Topinamboo” a real place, or is it like Dickens’s Borrioboola-Gha? Here, I am tempted to type out the relevant footnotes, but the TOPINAMBOO one is rather long. Just to allay curiosity I’ll throw down that it seems Swift assumed the barbarism of northern lands and their inhabitants, hence the Laplanders thing; and the Tupinamba were a group of much-maligned indigenous inhabitants of coastal Brazil. They are mentioned by Locke. They are probably the cannibals in Montaigne’s famous essay. All this, from the footnotes.
Almost every page of Swift is like this. Consequently, the typical amount of space given over to footnotes in the present edition is a third. It’s seldom less than a fourth. Now, granted, with a familiar text like the “Modest Proposal,” you can get good notes in many places, no need to spend seventy-five, eighty bucks on this supremo version. But try that with any of these out-of-the-way prose writings that would never make it into a Swift Selected. You’re gonna be out of luck. Suppose you want to read Swift’s serious proposals for improving the lot of the Irish in 1725. You can read the texts in the old Herbert Davis edition, but if you want the notes for Short View of the State of Ireland, or Proposal that All the Ladies and Women of Ireland Should Appear Constantly in Irish Manufactures, then this new Cambridge Edition is your only friend.
I predict Swift studies are going show a major up-tick, owing to these new volumes. Many young people with access to research libraries are going to find their way to the Dean by this route, and they’re going to learn a lot along the way. So I say hats off to the entire editorial staff of Struldbruggs at Luggnagg University, for their unfathomable erudition and tireless labor. Depend on it, Sir, this Swift is going to last a hundred years.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).