Karian’s Chapter 5: The Texts and Contexts of “The Legion Club”


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.

7 Responses to “Karian’s Chapter 5: The Texts and Contexts of “The Legion Club””

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks, Al, for this fine, detailed look at chapter five and its import. Your commentary highlights why Karian’s book should interest more than solely bibliographers. Not many have the patience to do the type of detective work that he undertakes so proficiently, but such work by bibliographers provides a foundation on which many adopt as foundations for their own scholarship.

    As Al notes, Karian’s presentation of the tithe controversy furnished “the pretext to ferociously settle a whole range of scores” illustrates a more nuanced view of Swift as a satirist whose aims occupy the middle ground between the highly topical, local target and the broad brush of human corruption.

    We have also been using the term “social author” quite a bit in our discussions. In part because I abide by the notion that many hands are involved in producing books and other forms of printed and, with a difference in kind and degree, scribal matter, I have tended to view authorship as social in nature for a while now. So I wonder if the overall discussion Steve’s book has generated about Swift as a social author represents a specific reconsideration of Swift or is something more being said?


  2. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Al, for this helpful overview of another interesting chapter.

    I question whether it matters that much whether Swift made that last revision regarding Satan sparing the fifty-two MPs who voted against the resolution to repeal the tithe of agistment. Its addition intensifies the poem’s Biblical resonances. Not only do we have allusions to the cleansing of the Temple, and a blending of Christian Hell with the Virgilian underworld (with echoes of Aeneid 6 throughout), but this last addition gestures toward Abraham’s negotiations with God regarding sparing citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:30-32)–at least for those following the manuscript revisions. Abraham begins by asking God to spare punishment if 50 innocent citizens can be found and continues bargaining until he gets God to agree to spare punishment if there are only ten innocent citizens.

    Al rightly notes Steve’s interest in the poem’s contingency on networks of friends, coterie readers, and publishers. It was also dynamic in that it was supplemented to reflect responses to changing votes. Whoever changed the conclusion changed the force of the satire in such a way that suggests a collective conception of satire as a form of divine retribution–and thus, like Abraham’s God, requiring a changing of course when the right thing happened.


  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    While in terms of the poem’s Biblical resonances and the conveyance of those ties, in many ways it does not matter who was responsible for the revisions. Its Biblical and classical echoes would have been readily recognizable to coterie readers and collaborators and to readers of the printed text as well.

    Yet, in other ways it does matter–for example in discussions of Swift’s authorship of this poem and conceptions of authorship at the time. Such reasons provide the exigence for Karian’s reconstruction and attempts to identify Swift’s hand in these revisions.

    Although straying from Karian’s book, an article in today’s New York Times on plagiarism seems to be relevant in terms of changing conceptions of authorship and need for attribution.


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Good points (and an interesting article in the Times–thanks).

    I did not mean that efforts to establish Swift’s authorship were not important. What I meant was that the supplement might indicate–whoever wrote it–the kind of collective authorial game that Steve has presented. The author of the lines regarding the 52 picked up on the Biblical resonances and ran with them. It doesn’t, as Steve notes, necessarily make for great poetry, but it does indicate the kind of coterie writing that might have been taking place with this particular manuscript.

    I would be interested in hearing more about the question of attribution.


  5. alcoppola Says:

    Anna, that’s an elegant reading of the final couplet’s change of course! While those two lines (however exactly we decide to render them) don’t come out of nowhere, and indeed do pick up and play upon existing patterns of imagery and allusions in the poem, I do agree with Steve that they aren’t all that effective aesthetically. To spend 240 lines waging an all-out assault on the legion club, and then to end with the sudden conclusion that “honor” is due to anyone in the world of this poem, even if those 52 did vote justly–well, that strikes me as odd and unexpected to say the least.

    That said, I’m delighted by your suggesting a kinship between this last minute course correction and the fickleness of Abraham’s God. In a way, you couldn’t think of a more flattering thing to say about Swift’s use of satire. I guess I’m most interested, though, about what the implications of this are for Swift as a “social author,” to use Eleanor’s term. He might well have made the original change which then was disseminated by others hands across the circulating mss, or perhaps it was less “authoritative” than that, a jest of Swift’s half-remembered, perhaps never even said, that one reader felt free to subscribe to the text in a couplet which itself went viral. Or perhaps other readers wrote in what they thought Swift should have said or would have said once it became clear that the reality was not quite as grim as the prophecy. All of this conjecture, though, tends to solidify in my mind something which I don’t believe is conjectural at all–to rephrase your words, Anna, slightly–that satire itself was conceived of as a collective activity.

    I too, would be interested hearing more about the attribution questions at stake here, but also whether what we are talking about here does point toward a rethinking of traditional notions of Swift’s authorship. No Swiftian myself, I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess, but I’d love to be enlightened.


  6. Dave Mazella Says:

    Al, I’m going to push these comments further, because I too like this formulation of Eleanor’s about S as “social author,” without quite being sure where this takes us.

    I think one of the foundational texts for understanding satire is Freud’s On the Relation of Jokes to the Unconscious, which treats jokes and joking simultaneously as the most social of activities and as a recognizable trace of the workings of the unconscious hiding in plain sight. Freud’s paradigm of the three roles necessary for jokes to exist–joker, target, and bystander–suggests that there has to be a “public” for a joke to work, who get the psychic benefit of the joker’s aggression without doing the work.

    What your reading of ch. 5 and David’s reading of ch. 6 are suggesting is that (surprise surprise) there is a possibility of turnabout, where these artifacts are getting “completed” or really extended by their users in ways that may or may not have been intended by their originator.

    As we’ve been saying, it may not matter if Swift’s sense of the legion club is violated at the end of the poem, because at some level the point is to inspire as wide as possible a reaction and the rewriting activity, not to demand conformity with what he’d already written. Sometimes this activity will look like “shopping,” sometimes like “following a recipe,” sometimes like “poaching,” to use some of de Certeau’s favorite metaphors.

    I think that this mode of reading as writing/writing as reading is strongly represented in satire, because of its aggressive, often anonymous, and public nature, and that this effect of “completion” is even more strongly seen with the fluid interchange of manuscript and print at this particular historical moment. There are resemblances, but only resemblances, in the era of Churchill and Wilkes and poetry like the New Foundling Hospital for Wit. So there needs to be some kind of periodization for these generic effects.

    But in terms of Swift’s authorship, doesn’t this suggest an author who is always interacting with and adapting to an extraordinarily risky and unpredictable social environment?


  7. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Ann Cline Kelly’s Jonathan Swift and Popular Culture: Myth, Media, and the Man depicts Swift as just such an author as “who is always interacting with and adapting to an extraordinarily risky and unpredictable social environment.” Steve’s work extends that picture by his careful reconstruction of the dynamic between manuscript and print. And this formulation of “an extraordinarily risky and unpredictable social environment” points to historical specificity and the need to regard shifts in the context and circumstances for satire in later years.

    Al’s choice of “jest” recalled to mind Kelly’s discussion of jest books, a genre that displays a kinship, albeit frequently distant, with satire. But also I must echo his and David’s appreciation for Anna’s rich reading of the final couplets; it provides a take that recalls Swift’s cousin Dryden.


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