Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World

Thomas Keymer writes:

Swift once said his favourite writer was La Rochefoucauld, ‘because I found my whole character in him.’ But what did he mean? Not, surely, that he personally resembled a Grand Siècle courtier who prided himself on – among other incongruous attributes – mild passions, virtuous sentiments and flawless social polish. If it was in La Rochefoucauld’s writing, such as the celebrated Maxims of 1665, that Swift found his own character, then where exactly? If anything unites this vast, discontinuous collection of moral reflections, it’s an emphasis on character as outward performance, not inward essence. No doubt Swift was drawn to La Rochefoucauld’s view of self-love as central to human nature, and when presenting one of his best-known poems as ‘occasioned’ by the Maxims, picked a passage so cynical that La Rochefoucauld had purged it from his definitive edition of 1678. The epigraph to ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, Swift’s wry self-analysis of 1731, reads: ‘In the adversity of our best friends, we find something that doth not displease us.’ The poem goes on to identify Alexander Pope as his best friend.

(LRB 17 April 2014)