Chapter 5 of Stephan Karian’s Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript offers thorough and deeply informed analysis of one important and bibliographically complex poem from late in Swift’s career: “A Character, Panegyric and Description of the Legion Club.” Karian offers us what is both a “contextual and textual” approach to the poem, whereby he spends as much effort sussing out all the many and complex targets that this satire is engaging with as he does on painstakingly reconstructing the poem’s complex composition, distribution and revision history. “The text of the poem,” he writes, “exists in a state of confusion. Eight lines exist in various manuscripts and not others” and no one has been sure if they are attributable to Swift.
Synthesizing these two evidentiary strains, Karian draws some important and original conclusions about “The Legion Club:” 1) the variability of the texts that have come down to us boil down to the fact that the poem circulated in two main manuscript traditions, one of which included extra lines that were added to the poem after it initially written and circulated; 2) Swift was “solely responsible for the variant lines;” and 3) the effect of the revisions is to soften the satire’s wholesale denunciation of the Irish parliament and to take the heat off a political ally. In carefully registering exactly what moves Swift made and when in first drafting, then distributing, and then revising this poem., and by making legible the key roles played by his friends and literary collaborators, as well as his booksellers, the chapter offers us something more valuable, to my mind, than the resolving of a textual crux in an important satire. The social nature of Swift’s authorship, and the impact of such local pressures of political expediency, censorship, and the social networks of the Anglo-Irish book trade come into stark relief here, showing the extent to which we need to see Swift as a canny and opportune exploiter of the opportunities and constraints placed upon him. In this case, manuscript circulation enabled him to not only distribute a politically explosive satire with plausible deniability of his authorship, but also to intervene in the text and to revise its attack when the political situation shifted.
“The Legion Club,” as Karian explains, is a poem that’s attracted more praise than serious study. One of a very few long satires written by Swift late in his career (1720s-1730s), it would seem to be a peer with major poems such as “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” “Epistle to a Lady,” and “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift.” However, with its highly topical focus on a specific controversy involving encroachments against the lower clergy by Irish landowners, and with its vicious and personal attacks on recognizable MPs, “The Legion Club” is a “straightforward assault” that “does not even gesture toward a profound moral or aesthetic pronouncement” (133). By traversing a truly impressive range of evidence, from Swift’s correspondence to earlier political satires and lampoons written by Swift and others in his circle, Karian shows that the context of this poem is most assuredly Irish and local, but it is considerably broader than the immediate controversy over the Parliament’s plan to strip the church of a suddenly lucrative tithe that it had traditionally enjoyed. In fourteen closely-argued pages, Karian shows that Swift’s provocations were many and various—stemming from his outrage at the actions of specific members, as well as specific policies pursued by the body—and that the poem is best understood as “the understandable culmination of contempt for a group of individuals and an institution that, in Swift’s mind, seemed bent on destroying Ireland” (134).
And the poem’s “savage condemnation” is savage indeed, at least in its initial form. One of the real strengths of Karian’s approach is that he makes, to my mind, a convincing, if partly conjectural, case for the dating of the various stages of the poem’s composition and circulation. Relying on internal evidence from the text, as well carefully culled hints in Swift’s correspondence, Karian shows how the poem was first drafted in early spring 1736 after the first salvoes of the so-called “tithe of agistment” controversy but before the vote on the measure was actually took place in March. This was an expressly “clandestine poem” (133) which circulated in its entirety in manuscript in Ireland, and Karian shows that while the tithe controversy may have been the proximate cause of the poem, the satire itself is a blistering series of lampoons on a range of Swift’s enemies which doesn’t comment all that directly on the specifics of the tithe controversy. Thus the anticipated outrage of the tithe-stealing provided the pretext to ferociously settle a whole range of scores. “Given his past experience with the Parliament,” Karian tells us, “Swift expects the worst.” And so he prepared a poem, in advance of its anticipated occasion, that reflected those expectations.
The thing is, the worst didn’t actually happen. While the measure did pass in prejudice to the clergy, there was a sizable minority that didn’t vote in favor of the measure. 52 MPs came out against the bill, and Karian argues that this prompted Swift to revise his text with a number of small but significant changes. For example, in the earlier version, the MP William Harrison was called out name; Harrison, however, ended up siding with Swift, and so a later version excises Harrison and invites, instead, a different MP, one Carter, to “souse…in [his] own ex-crements.” Additionally, an early line that casts the entire Parliament as “three hundred brutes / All involv’d in Wild Disputes” is recast so that it only reads 200. The overall effect, Karian says, is to shift the poem from a general attack on the entire House to a more qualified attack on the majority. In this vein, the most important was the change made to the poem’s conclusion. The original version ends “on a powerful note” (160), with the speaker saying:
Keeper, I have seen enough,
Taking then a Pinch of Snuff;
I concluded, looking round’em,
May their God, the Devil confound ‘em.
In the eight surviving manuscripts that reflect the Swift’s later revisions, there is a final added couplet that unexpectedly blunts this universal condemnation, which variously reads:
Except the righteous fifty two,
To whom immortal Honour’s due.
Except the Glorious fifty two,
to whom immortal honours due.
Take them Satan as your due
All except the fifty two.
(There are two other variants as well.)
These variants are not new discoveries—indeed, the standard edition of Swift’s poems duly notes these variants but uses the earlier version of the poem as the copytext and makes no claims about why these variants exist or who might have made them. Karian’s detective work however, would have us restore them to the center of our critical attention, insofar as they show that “Swift seemed to recognize that in writing this poem, he had gone too far and needed to qualify, however slightly, his wholesale indictment of the entire House of Commons,” making revisions “for local effect…that at times clashed with the original conception of his poem” (149).
I think Karian’s work here shows us a good deal more. For the one thing, it makes me understand Swift’s satire, at least in this poem, as fixed upon a medium range target—it’s not taking the long view in issuing a grand metaphysical condemnation of Human Corruption, nor is it only locked up in the extreme foreground of personal abuse and political controversy. He wrote this poem to attack the Parliament in toto, in light of its past documented abuses and in expectation of a fresh outrage—and so he was thinking characteristically, training his satire upon the nature of the Parliament. In doing so, this allowed Swift to “work ahead,” as it were, to craft a devastating satire well in advance of the crucial moment in which it would need to be distributed. That moment, Karian explains, was not selected casually. It had nothing to do, actually, with the date of the tithe vote or the question of who voted what, but rather with date that Parliament recessed. Once Parliament was prorogued an author (or supposed author) could not be arrested at an MP’s say-so for breach of privilege. That considerable power did not extend beyond the end of the session, while the other avenues of punishment available thereafter would have probably involved a public, embarrassing and uncertain jury trial (146). Swift then knew himself to be placed in a tricky situation—he could not circulate the poem until parliament prorogued, but it needed to be available for more or less immediate release so as to have the maximum impact when the controversies were still fresh and his targets were still in town and close enough to be shamed face-to-face in public. The question of whether it was 300 scoundrels, or just 200, is really beside the main point for Swift; at most its an emergent, stubborn fact of the poem’s context that could be corrected downstream if need be, and which need not disturb the poem’s central aim.
Karian’s fine work on the manuscript trail also has the effect of showing us just how contingent the poem was on the actions of the networks of friends, coterie readers and booksellers that had a hand in its transmission. According to Karian’s account—which I find plausible and illuminating, but which is, as he admits, in some key particulars only conjectural—Swift entrusted his holograph manuscript of the poem (without the later revisions) to his friend Thomas Sheridan, who then in turn likely provided it to Faulkner, who was undertaking the printing of Swift’s works. Falkner thought the poem too risky to publish right away in Ireland, but he did furnish a copy to his colleague and collaborator, the London bookseller Bowyer. It was this copy that was printed by Bowyer in 1738. Meanwhile, however, Karian suggests that a series of copies were already making the rounds in Dublin, and it was to this near-at-hand set of mss that Swift made his revisions (and which formed the copy text for some early, unauthorized editions of the poem in 1736 published in London, which Karian says speaks to the wide, essentially uncontrolled circulation of a new clandestine poem supposed by Swift).
The big question here, whether it really was Swift who made these changes himself, is ultimately, to my mind at least, not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, although I do admit I’m inclined to credit most all of Karian’s claims. Who turned 300 into 200, and spared Harrison from the ordure? Karian says Swift himself, because the changes are so consistent across the mss he traces to Dublin in May 1736—texts which show “a highly centralized manner of textual circulation” that betrays the controlling hand of the Dean. Yet to do this, Karian has to waive away some seemingly important counter-evidence, namely that Swift in some of his letters to Sheridan speaks of the uncontrolled distribution of wildly emended and altered mss. That’s just smoke and mirrors, more bulwarks for plausible deniability if anyone was opening his mail, according to Karian, and he may well be right. But he isn’t certain. And these doubts start to really matter when we consider what really is the all-important final couplet that was added to the poem. Unlike the other revisions, this variant exists in very different forms across different mss. Karian says that this just reflects a slightly later stage of revision on Swift’s part, a last-second attempt to play politics and right the record, which he had to do once the poem was already circulating in multiple mss in Dublin. This is certainly possible, but couldn’t it also be a the work of one, or a few, or many other hands acting independently who felt the need to soften the blow before passing the text on to someone who might be unfairly involved in the general satire. None of the other revisions dramatically alter the force of the satire—Harrison, the 200, they’re all small changes to local concerns. But to suddenly end a poem this savage with “honors due” to the 52? That’s a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Why lay that at Swift’s feet, especially since he does complain of others’ altering his text, and since anonymous satire was a kind of participatory activity?
I should think it goes without saying that it is only due to Karian’s deep scholarship and thoughtful, transparent presentation that I can raise this concern at all.