In his elegy "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," W.H. Auden wrote the line: "For poetry makes nothing happen." Certainly Auden's poetry makes nothing happen, but that he wrote this flawed line in relation to Yeats is especially ironic since Ireland's greatest poet deeply involved himself–and his art–in the cause of Irish independence. In wielding his pen on behalf of his countrymen, Yeats very consciously followed in the footsteps of one of his personal touchstones, Jonathan Swift.
Poet, essayist, and Dean of Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral, Swift is best known for his blistering satire of humanity, Gulliver's Travels. In a letter to his friend and fellow poet Alexander Pope, Swift famously confided his credo:
I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians–I will not speak of my own trade–soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them.*
But long before Dean Swift trained his savage wit on the world at large, he had gained a reputation in English political circles as a pen to be feared, specifically as pamphleteer for the Whig party and then the Tory party. One of my favorite examples of how art can indeed make things happen was brought off by this great man who claimed his constant goal was "to vex the world rather than divert it" but could never walk away from a good cause.
Even though Swift had been "banished" back to Ireland after the Tories fell from power in 1714, he still had many friends with well-placed ears in London. Through his contacts, Swift caught wind of a scheme that could adversely effect Ireland. In 1722, an ironmonger named William Wood bribed his way into securing a patent to make half-pence coins which would be circulated only in Ireland. The coins were supposed to be copper, but Wood put his scrap metals to base use, minting sub-par specimens–"brass half-pence" Swift dubbed them–that literally weren't worth their weight.
Sleazy government contracts are not an invention of modern American politics.
Swift saw the dangers that these debased coins could wreak on Ireland's currency. And he bristled at the injustice that these worthless slugs, ostensibly coin of the realm, would be used exclusively in Ireland. It was another example of how Ireland was exploited and forever relegated to second-class status in the pecking order of the four crowns.
Swift went into action. He began the writing and distribution of a series of pamphlets. As Dean of St. Patrick's, he had to be careful, so he wrote the pamphlets under a pseudonym: M.B., Drapier. Aside from protecting Swift, the Drapier persona–a hard-working Irish artisan and small-business owner–endeared him to the general Irish populace, especially his native Dubliners. The first pamphlet, which hit the streets in March 1724, was titled A Letter to the Shop-keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People of Ireland. The inclusion of that last group was a deft touch.
Over the course of seven pamphlets, Swift exposed the inner workings, as well as the economic implications, of Wood's half-pence scheme. The humble "Drapier" carefully stressed the king's innocence (and his absolute loyalty to his sovereign), always focusing the blame on Wood, depicting him for the scoundrel that he was. Still, some of Swift's arguments came tantalizingly close to sedition. The finest and most dangerous of Swift's arguments came in the fourth of the Drapier's Letters, published October 22, 1724 and addressed "To the Whole People of Ireland" in which he boldly–and correctly–asserted:
I have looked over all the English and Irish statutes, without finding any law that makes Ireland depend upon England, any more than England does upon Ireland. We have indeed obliged ourselves to have the same king with them; and consequently they are obliged to have the same king with us.
Perhaps I'm slightly prejudiced by my Irish ancestry, but those two sentences bring me great pleasure!
The humble Drapier brought down a storm of controversy on the heads of William Wood and Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Public outcry and threat of a national boycott forced Walpole to withdraw the patent in 1725. Like David and Goliath, Swift's pen prevailed over a seemingly invincible, or rather, irreversible, foe.
At the height of the controversy, a reward of £300 was offered by the Irish Privy Council to anyone who could identify the pamphlet's author. Though it was widely known in Dublin who "M.B., Drapier," enemy of Wood's brass half-pence, really was, no one handed Swift up–not even for 300 pounds sterling. Dublin's misanthropic Dean was hailed ever after as the "Hibernian patriot" and "darling" of the Irish people.
Perhaps the greatest justice that art can effect is that it outlasts every tyranny, the corrupt regimes and murderous despots, the pogroms and purges, Jim Crow and Yellow Stars, Plessy v. Ferguson and Bowers v. Hardwick. Even slimy profiteers looking to turn a little pig iron into gold. Of course, the remedial benefits and timeless lessons of great art are little consolation to the victims. Or as Robert Lowell once quipped, Horace may be an immortal poet but he's not around to collect his royalties.
Art raises awareness, it enables coalitions, it can be the proverbial pebble tossed into the still pond. But sometimes the artist must aim for results in the here-and-now. The Drapier's Letters, while deviously clever and admirably eloquent, are not great literature per se. Swift didn't intend them to be. He had a specific end to achieve: justice. His mission was tactical, not strategic; he used his art to make things happen immediately.
For the stern edification of future generations, Swift had something else in store, a satirical masterpiece about a traveler named Lemuel Gulliver.
*Letter to Alexander Pope, September 29, 1725