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Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World
Leo Damrosch
Yale University Press, 2013
592 pp., $40.00

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Gulliver's Travels (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift)
Gulliver's Travels (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift)
Jonathan Swift
Cambridge University Press, 2012
907 pp., $170.00

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Karen Swallow Prior

"Imitate Him If You Dare"

On Jonathan Swift.

I have one word to say upon the subject of profound writers, who are grown very numerous of late; and I know very well the judicious world is resolved to list me in that number. I conceive therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers as with wells—a person with good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there: and often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and a-half under-ground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep upon no wiser reason than because it is wondrous dark.—A Tale of a Tub

So pronounces the fictional hack author of A Tale of a Tub, Jonathan Swift's most brilliant and—dare I say it? profound—work, a 1704 satire on modern abuses of religion and learning, and on all those daring to think themselves immune to such. This chaotic, digressive, function-following-form masterpiece smashes what Swift saw as the false idols of his day: nominalism and materialism, sectarianism and scientism, systematizers and "projectors," pretended wit and religious zealotry, hack writing and facile hermeneutics—to name a few.

If there were just one author I wish all thoughtful Christians would read, it would be Jonathan Swift, who lived from 1667 to 1745. Despite his secure place in the canon of great literature, Swift might be one of the most under-read and under-appreciated writers therein. Harold Bloom, whose literary and religious proclivities are the antitheses of Swift's, proclaims in his book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds that he rereads A Tale of a Tub "twice a year, religiously, because it devastates and is so good for me." It is, Bloom writes, "the most salutary corrective for someone of visionary tendencies or Romantic enthusiasms."

It's a corrective for the rest of us, too. In particular, the allegorical portions of the work, centered on the ...

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