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Sept. 27, 2012 Volume 34, No. 6

Professor co-receives six-figure NEH grant to compile Swift’s poems for book series

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SWIFT SCHOLAR Over the next three years, Stephen Karian, associate professor of English, will work with a colleague on editing, introducing and annotating about 600 Swift poems for the Cambridge Works of Jonathan Swift. Photo by Rachel Coward


Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote some 600 poems

An MU English professor has been named co-recipient of a $225,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). 

Stephen Karian, associate professor of English, and James Woolley, an English professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., received the three-year Scholarly Editions Grant to edit the poems of the Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). 

The NEH grant, one of 26 awarded this year for the creation of scholarly editions, supports a printed edition and free online archive of Swift’s poems. The printed edition will appear as four volumes of the eighteen-volume Cambridge Works of Jonathan Swift, a series launched by Cambridge University Press in 2008. The online archive, which will include multimedia, will enable the user to search and compare manuscript and printed versions.

Besides the NEH, the University of Missouri’s PRIME Fund (which provides cost-match support for scholarly research) and a Research Board Grant from the University of Missouri System fund the project. 

 A paradoxical man

Jonathan Swift isn’t nearly as well known as other Irish authors such as W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. He was, however, the first Irish writer to receive accolades outside his country. Moreover, his biting satire and wit were major influences on other writers.

Swift was a man of many paradoxes. He was an Anglican priest whose writings were largely secular. He was sometimes (perhaps wrongly) characterized as misanthropic and had an outsized interest in natural bodily functions. Yet he also was a social butterfly devoted to bettering the lives of the Irish. 

He mocked England’s monarchy and Anglican bishops, but also felt they were necessary to keep order. He could write silly verses and sentences, and ones that went to the heart of the social and economic problems of eighteenth-century Britain. 

Though his writings are filled with contemporary issues and details, Swift wrote for the ages. “He was aware that fundamentally he was writing about something that transcends time and place,” said Karian, author of Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript (Cambridge University Press, 2010). 

“He offers a refreshing, clear-eyed, non-sentimental view of both the vices and virtues of human beings,” he said.

The poems

Karian’s interest in Swift began in high school with A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s most popular works. His satire and sense of social justice are evident in both. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift lampoons the Lilliputians’ politics for turning minor party differences into polar extremes. One wedge issue was that a political party wore slightly higher shoe heels than the other. 

Karian separates Swift’s poems into three types: the silly, the scatological and the political.

An example of the scatological is “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Swift spends most of its 144 lines describing the amorous deflation of Strephon after he sneaks into a beautiful woman’s vacant dressing room. Her comb is speckled with dandruff and dirt, and her stockings are “stain’d with the Marks of stinking Toes.” Finally, the young man lifts the commode lid. He is aghast.

Idealizing physical beauty is a fool’s game, Swift seems to say. 

But the poem is not so simple. “He is a very slippery writer,” Karian said. 

At poem’s end, Strephon is unable to look upon a fair maiden with pleasure until he learns his mistake: that the poles of humanity are dynamically one — stinking and beautiful. As flower gardens blossom from wormy dirt and fertilizer, so does the Lady radiate beauty after dolling herself up. “Such Order from Confusion sprung, / Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung,” Swift wrote. 

Historians discover a wealth of information on everyday eighteenth-century Britain in Swift’s poems, and lovers of satire can pull up a chair to watch a master at work.

In “A Description of a City Shower,” Swift turns on its head the commonplace contemporary pastoral poem of gentle rain falling on a countryside by describing a city downpour and its stomach-churning aftermath. At the time, British city sewer systems were rudimentary at best. Street gutters could be awash in all sorts of disgusting things after a torrential rain. “Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood, / Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, / Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood,” Swift wrote.

“A Description of the Morning” chronicles everyday happenings and moral failings: a man’s affair with his servant (“Now Betty from her master’s bed had flown”); a maid’s morning duties (“Now Moll had whirl’d her mop with dext’rous airs, / Prepar’d to scrub the entry and the stairs”); and boys walking to school with “satchels in their hands.”

Today’s reader can find much of interest in Swift’s satires of England’s Parliament, Royal Family and purveyors of social injustices, Karian said. “If students have trouble grasping the satirical targets, all they have to do is read today’s newspapers,” he said, where stories abound on political corruption, the vanity of the rich and the plights of the poor.

Swift took society down a notch, but he didn’t stop there. His works offered solutions. Regarding Ireland’s struggling economy, for example, he encouraged the Irish to purchase clothes manufactured in their native country rather than import clothes from England. 

“As much as he attacked people for their own stupidity and contributing to their own suffering, he also felt the need to help,” Karian said.