COMBING THE PUBLIC DOMAIN : CORRESPONDENCE
John Gay : 'Letter to Jonathan Swift' (17th November, 1726)
About ten days ago a book was published here of the travels of one Gulliver, which has been the conversation of the whole town ever since: the whole impression sold in a week: and nothing is more diverting than to hear the different opinions people give of it, though all agree in liking it extremely. It is generally said that you are the author; but I am told the bookseller declares, he knows not from what hand it came. From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet-council to the nursery. The politicians to a man agree, that it is free from particular reflections, but that the satire on general societies of men is too severe. Not but we now and then meet with people of greater perspicuity, who are in search for particular applications in every leaf; and it is highly probable we shall have keys published to give light into Gulliver's design. Lord —— is the person who least approves it, blaming it as a design of evil consequence to depreciate human nature, at which it cannot be wondered that he takes most offence, being himself the most accomplished of his species, and so losing more than any other of that praise which is due both to the dignity and virtue of a man. Your friend, my Lord Harcourt, commends it very much, though he thinks in some places the matter too far carried. The Duchess Dowager of Marlborough is in raptures at it; she says she can dream of nothing else since she read it: she declares that she has now found out that her whole life has been lost in caressing the worst part of mankind, and treating the best as her foes: and that if she knew Gulliver, though he had been the worst enemy she ever had, she should give up her present acquaintance for his friendship. You may see by this, that you are not much injured by being supposed the author of this piece. If you are, you have disobliged us, and two or three of your best friends, in not giving us the least hint of it while you were with us; and in particular Dr. Arbuthnot, who says it is ten thousand pities he had not known it, he could have added such abundance of things upon every subject. Among lady critics, some have found out that Mr. Gulliver had a particular malice to maids of honour. Those of them who frequent the church, say his design is impious, and that it is depreciating the works of the Creator.
Notwithstanding, I am told the princess has read it with great pleasure. As to other critics, they think the flying island is the least entertaining; and so great an opinion the town have of the impossibility of Gulliver's writing at all below himself, it is agreed that part was not writ by the same hand, though this has its defenders too. It has passed lords and commons, nemine contradicente; and the whole town, men, women, and children, are quite full of it.
Perhaps I may all this time be talking to you of a book you have never seen, and which has not yet reached Ireland; if it has not, I believe what we have said will be sufficient to recommend it to your reading, and that you will order me to send it to you.
But it will be much better to come over yourself, and read it here, where you will have the pleasure of variety of commentators, to explain the difficult passages to you.
We all rejoice that you have fixed the precise time of your coming to be cum hirundine prima; which we modern naturalists pronounce, ought to be reckoned, contrary to Pliny, in this northern latitude of fifty-two degrees, from the end of February, Styl. Greg., at furthest. But to us, your friends, the coming of such a black swallow as you will make a summer in the worst of seasons. We are no less glad at your mention of Twickenham and Dawley; and in town you know, you have a lodging at court.
The princess is clothed in Irish silk; pray give our service to the weavers. We are strangely surprised to hear that the bells in Ireland ring without your money. I hope you do not write the thing that is not. We are afraid that B—— hath been guilty of that crime, that you (like a houyhnhnm) have treated him as a yahoo, and discarded him your service. I fear you do not understand these modish terms, which every creature now understands but yourself.
You tell us your wine is bad, and that the clergy do not frequent your house, which we look upon to be tautology. The best advice we can give you is, to make them a present of your wine, and come away to better.
You fancy we envy you, but you are mistaken; we envy those you are with, for we cannot envy the man we love. Adieu.
JOHN GAY was an English poet and playwright, (1685-1732). He is perhaps most remembered for his play The Beggar's Opera.
Poet and essayist JONATHAN SWIFT, best known for his prose satire Gulliver's Travels, was born in Ireland in 1667, and died in 1745.
The Poetry Foundation website features biographies and examples of the writing of both John Gay, here, and Jonathan Swift, here.