Volume > Issue > Jonathan Swift, Proto-Feminist?

Jonathan Swift, Proto-Feminist?

A POET “WELL AHEAD OF HIS TIMES”

By Paul Krause | April 2022
Paul Krause is the Editor of VoegelinView and the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

There is a concerted effort by those in the academy to present Jonathan Swift’s progress poems — “Phyllis, or The Progress of Love” and “The Progress of Beauty” — as evidence of a feminist Swift, a Swift who was “well ahead of his times” in his presentation of women, as one contemporary academic writes. Beyond the fanciful psychoanalytic hermeneutic that attempts to divorce Swift from his own Christianity, ideological commitments have blinded postmodernists to Swift’s insights that were truly “well ahead of his times.” Far from being wellsprings of feminist positivity, Swift’s progress poems are critical condemnations of the emerging decadent and self-absorbed culture, and they could easily pass as criticisms of our contemporary narcissistic culture as well.

Swift (1667-1745) lived in turbulent and transformative times. He witnessed the Williamite coup and fled his native Ireland as Great Britain descended into civil war. A nominal Williamite supporter, his backing of the Williamite settlement was characteristic of the High Church Anglican party to which he belonged: Swift desired peace and a return to normalcy instead of pro-puritanical and nonconformist iconoclasm.

Swift also experienced the rise of fractional politics between the Whigs and Tories, which eventually laid bare his High Tory leanings. Writing for Tory newspapers, especially the Examiner, Swift took up his pen to slay the mightiest Whig who wielded the sword: John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. Social and political strife was rampant.

The bitter fighting was so extensive that upon regaining power, the Whigs launched investigations into all prominent Tory officeholders, which caused some, such as Lord Bolingbroke, to flee to France. Swift even considered himself in danger of being arrested by the Whig “cancel culture” of the early 18th century. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

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