Satirists like Gulliver's Travels author Jonathan Swift help keep us young – Scotsman comment

Gulliver’s Travels has been reduced in the minds of many to the status of a children’s book.

A rare portrait of Jonathan Swift, thought to be the earliest likeness of the author (Picture: Stewart Attwood/Lyon & Turnbull/PA Wire)
A rare portrait of Jonathan Swift, thought to be the earliest likeness of the author (Picture: Stewart Attwood/Lyon & Turnbull/PA Wire)

But this is perhaps a consequence of the extraordinary imagination it displays. During his epic journeys, Lemuel Gulliver discovers a land of tiny people, another of giants, and then finds himself conversing with intelligent horses horrified by the depravities of humankind.

Even though the author, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), wrote the book in his 50s, he appears to have retained almost child-like sensibilities that enabled him to see through the pretensions, foolishness and formalised absurdities of society in a way others could not.

So it is interesting to look upon his earliest known likeness. The painting, which has been sold for more than £81,000 at auction, shows Swift as a teenager when he was a student at Dublin College, and not yet recognised as the satirical genius he became.

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The fact Gulliver’s Travels has stood the test of time so well is utterly remarkable. Even people who fundamentally disagree with Swift’s world view recognise its worth.

George Orwell wrote in an essay that “in a political and moral sense I am against him so far as I understand him. Yet curiously enough he is one of the writers I admire with least reserve, and Gulliver’s Travels, in particular, is a book which it seems impossible for me to grow tired of”.

As we get older, there is a tendency to start to see the state of the world as simply the way things are. Satirists like Swift help remind us of our faults and keep us young with a youthful desire for a better world.

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