British periodical, 1710–1711, 1712–14
In November 1710 Jonathan Swift assumed the writing of a weekly paper consisting of a single political essay, in support of the policies of Robert Harley, the moderate Tory minister. The 13 numbers already produced (by several of the foremost Tory writers, most notably Henry St.John, Francis Atterbury, and Matthew Prior) had leaned too hard to the right to suit Harley’s bipartisan method. After Swift left off the project in June 1711, a few more numbers were written by Mary Delarivière Manley before the paper lapsed, to be revived in 1712 to run for two more years, with less distinction, under William Oldisworth; but the significance of the Examiner lies almost wholly in Swift’s 33 essays.
The signal distinction of Swift’s essays is their marriage of topical politics with a classical equanimity that sets a tone high above the raw-knuckled brawling of much Queen Anne period journalism. Writing from behind the veil of anonymity, Swift could lament the “mad, ridiculous Extreams” of both parties and profess a desire to lend a disinterested “impartial Hand” in the cause of national sanity (no. 16). Of course, Swift’s readers have always known that under this purportedly impartial treatment, the Whigs consistently come out the worse for wear. The justly famous no. 15, “Upon the Art of Political Lying,” for instance, decries a general decline in truth in favor of expediency but illustrates this general corruption by alluding only to Whig leaders, who, we are told, have overshadowed the “Father of lies” by their “continual Improvements” upon his art.
Compared to the frontal attacks of most contemporary political essayists, however, the allusiveness of this satire gives an impression of judiciousness and restraint.
Swift maintained this elevated tone, at least in the early numbers, by ignoring with cool contempt the attacks of opposing writers—“hedge-writers,” he calls them, or, in a delightfully disdainful phrase that is perhaps prescient of the Lilliputians, his “little Antagonists” (no. 18). The most persistent antagonist, Arthur Mainwaring, whose Medley was published each Monday to counter the Examiner of the preceding Thursday, ably criticized the the Examiner’s representations of the Whig leaders; but Swift kept to his satiric objects instead of being baited into defending his previous issues. As a result of this strategy—and of his obvious care with the composition—Swift’s best essays seem independent and self-contained in contrast to the skirmishing of other political periodicals of the day.
Even more essential to the impression of equanimity was the playfully indirect manner of Swift’s satire. In the essay commonly called the “Impeachment of Verres” (no. 18), for example, not until the midpoint does the real topic surface: the gluttonous exploitation of Ireland by Thomas Wharton during his recent term as Lord-Lieutenant. The opening paragraphs entertain the question of how one is to write on current politics without reflecting scandalously on specific politicians. Noting that some writers have mined ancient texts for parallel histories, the Examiner complains that his own search of Livy and Tacitus for a model of the corrupt senator or proconsul has failed to produce any that he could use “without doing Injury to a Roman memory.” The expectations aroused by these tantalizing preliminaries are not disappointed when Swift’s persona finally announces that he has found a workable parallel in Cicero’s orations impeaching Verres (whose name means “hog”), Roman Governor of Sicily, and presents a selective abstract of the speeches. Swift identifies his target only by highlighting precisely those abuses for which Wharton was criticized—selling public offices to the highest bidder, rendering the law arbitrary, defiling the churches (Verres stole statuary; Wharton smashed furniture and urinated on the altar). Although the reflections on Wharton made by this typology seem damning enough, the Examiner concludes the essay by noting his disappointment that “modern Corruptions are not to be parallel’d by ancient Examples, without having recourse to Poetry and Fable.” In this final move the Examiner evinces the detachment that rankled his opponents, as he treats the demolition of a prominent politician as though merely a thorny artistic exercise.
Arguably the most powerful Examiner essay, the “Bill of Ingratitude” (no. 17) makes a more open attack on its object, the abuses of office by Marlborough; yet the manner again demonstrates a detached irony. It was Swift’s task to deflate the charge by Whig writers that stripping Marlborough of command of the military was to reward heroic service with base ingratitude. The Examiner warms to the task by suggesting that with the enormous wealth he has accumulated from state gifts and privileges, the former Captain-General can hardly be pitied as neglected.
The master-stroke comes deep into the essay, when the Examiner inverts the charge that the British do not reward their heroes as honorably as did the Romans by tallying the gains of a Roman general, under the heading “Roman Gratitude,” against the gains of Marlborough in a second column, ironically headed “British Ingratitude.” Although the inclusion of a balance sheet in a political essay was not entirely new (Defoe had used the device in A Review of the Affairs of France [1704–13]), Swift recognized and took advantage of its potential for satire. The list of Roman gifts is lengthy, miscellaneous, and more honorific than substantial (a bull, a statue, a costly garment, and so on); by contrast, the British column seems meagre in number of gifts, but the items listed (estates, offices, grants, pensions) are followed by valuations in five and six digits. The last item in the British list, “Employments” valued at 100,000 pounds, is set across from “A Crown of Lawrel,” at two pence, dramatizing the magnitude of Marlborough’s gains and deftly implying that his aims were more pecuniary than heroic all along. Moreover, this one line of the account serves as an emblem for the disjuncture between the classical heritage of English (Tory) culture and the grasping commercial ambition of the Whigs.
The Tory readership of the Examiner—mostly rural gentry and parish priests—needed little persuading to believe the worst of the Whig leaders. What Swift provided them was an image of their own political orientation that communicated an unflappable confidence.
More than argument or style, it is this austere tone which distinguishes the Examiner from all of its contemporaries.
See also Periodical Essay
The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, vol. 3, edited by Herbert Davis, 1957
Swift vs. Mainwaring: “The Examiner” and “The Medley”, edited by Frank H.Ellis, 1985
Cook, Richard I., “‘Mr. Examiner’ and ‘Mr. Review’: The Tory Apologetics of Swift and Defoe,” Huntington Library Quarterly 2,9 (1966):127–46
Ellis, Frank H., “‘A Quill Worn to the Pith in the Service of the State’: Swift’s Examiner,” in Proceedings of the First Munster Symposium of Jonathan Swift, edited by Hermann J.Real and Heinz J.Vienken, Munich: Fink, 1985
Rembert, James A.W., Swift and the Dialectical Tradition, Basingstoke: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
Speck, W.A., “The Examiner Examined: Swift’s Tory Pamphleteering,” in Swift, edited by C.J.Rawson, London: Sphere, 1971
Speck, W.A., “The Examiner Re-Examined,” Prose Studies 16 (1993):36–43
►→ back to ►→ Encyclopedia of THE ESSAY
Please contact the author for suggestions or further informations: firstname.lastname@example.org;
MORE INFORMATION ON MY OTHER SITES:
architecture, literature, essays, philosophy, biographies