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03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.

When Swift was revising Gulliver’s Travels in 1725, Francis Hutcheson had an essay about laughter published in three parts in the Dublin Weekly Journal. This essay criticised Hobbes’ account of laughter as arising from a sense of superiority and suggested other causes. In the third section published on 19th June 1725 Hutcheson gives the following example of an event that should not provoke laughter:

The enormous crime or grievous calamity of another is not itself a subject which can be naturally turned into ridicule: the former raises horror in us, and hatred, and the latter pity. When laughter arises on such occasions, it is not excited by the guilt or the misery. To observe the contortions of the human body in the air, upon the blowing up of an enemy’s ship, may raise laughter in those who do not reflect on the agony and distress of the sufferers; but the reflecting on this distress could never move laughter of itself.

The similarity of the image is striking. Hutcheson (as much as the Houyhnhnm master) sees laughter in such a case as showing a lack of reflection; the Houyhnhnm goes on to argue “yahoos” do not have reason, or they could not do such things. We might also (though Bohm does not) reflect that this may hold a mild rebuke to the writer of the anonymous essay – Swift had a darker view of humanity and was more sceptical of the power of reason than Hutcheson was.

Bohm suggests that Swift would plausibly have read this essay since the Dublin Journal was published by Faulkner, who supported Swift’s Drapier campaign. However Hutcheson’s essay was not published by Faulkner but by James Arbuckle. Arbuckle later published A Collection of Letters and Essays on Several subjects, lately Publish’d in the Dublin Journal in 1729, including these by Hutcheson, which is probably the cause of the confusion. However there is a good reason why Swift’s attention could have been drawn to the Dublin Weekly Journal and specifically to Hutcheson’s essay on laughter.

In the first part of the essay, published on 5th June 1725, Hutcheson gives an example of where laughter is provoked though no superiority is involved:

Thus how often do we laugh at some out-of-the-way description of natural objects, to which we never compare our state at all. I fancy few have ever read the City Shower without a strong disposition to laughter.

Michael Brown has suggested that this poem is most likely to be A Description of a City Shower, by Jonathan Swift (published in 1710). It’s highly plausible that someone of Swift’s acquaintance would have noticed and pointed this reference out to him, if Swift had not come across it himself. It would be very neat if Hutcheson’s nod at Swift’s genius should have received a nod back in Swift’s most famous work.

References

Bohm, Arnd (2002) “An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5”, Notes and Queries, Volume 49, Issue 3 (ebsco)

Swift, Jonathan (1892) Gulliver’s Travels From Project Gutenburg (originally printed 1726)

Hutcheson, Francis (1750)Reflections Upon Laughter (originally printed in The Dublin Weekly Journal, 1725).

A Description of a City Shower on PoetryFoundation.org

Brown, Michael (2002) Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719–1730, Four Courts Press.

Further reading

From the New Statesman archive: Frank Kermode on Jonathan Swift.

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