If the best advice one can give an aspiring writer of prose is to study the best models, then Jonathan Swift’s prose, as a lot of people who should know agree, provides the best model of all in English. A sentence by Swift is a miniature work of remarkable art:
But when a man’s fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding, as well as common sense, is kicked out of doors; the first proselyte he makes, is himself.
How true! But notice the unobtrusive rhythmical echo in those three metaphorical phrases as he holds his sentence in suspension in preparation for the punch of the brief main clause. That is the work of a master.
Eighteenth-century literature, including its superb prose, is hardly taught at all now in America, and although quite a lot of people may have heard of Gulliver’s Travels, most of them have probably never heard of Swift himself, let alone read him. If this new biography by Leo Damrosch encourages even a few people to read some of Swift’s writing, that is all to the good.
Jonathan Swift, born of English parents in Dublin in 1667, was brought up and educated in Ireland, but began by looking to England for a career, both as a writer and as a cleric. Unfortunately, the explosively witty comedy of A Tale of a Tub (1704), published, like all...