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Swift and Kavanagh: United by a common language

Friday, 1 December, 2017

“The Fame our Writers is usually confined to these two Islands, and it is hard it should be limited in Time, as much as Place, by the perpetual Variations of our Speech.” So wrote Jonathan Swift in 1712. He was concerned about the state of the English language so he penned a public letter to Robert Harley, leader of the government, proposing the appointment of a group of experts to advise on English usage. His model was the Académie Française, which had been supervising French since 1634.

A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue advocated that “some Method should be thought of for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever,” and this should be done, argued Swift, “by rejecting ‘very defective’ grammatical forms and restoring some antiquated words ‘on account of their Energy and Sound.'” Like all such proposal down through the long history of English, it came to nothing, and no official overseer of the language exists.

Swift’s advocacy of “proper” English reminds us that Ireland, despite its relatively small population, has produced some of the most gifted writers of the language. Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett are up there with Swift, and Bram Stoker and C.S. Lewis can be added to the list, if one is feeling expansionary. The poet Patrick Kavanagh belongs in this pantheon, too, because his language a mix of of Swift’s classicism and the Hiberno-English that was used by all those who tilled the “stony grey soil of Monaghan.” In 1948, in Poetry in Ireland To-day, he noted:

“Having written all this another question arises in my mind — the question as to whether it will be necessary to our native identity to carry on an artificial ‘Celtic Mode or ‘Note’ — now that the Gaelic language is dead. To carry on such an artificial language would be to be false if it did not arise naturally from life. It is not, as I have said before, language that denotes a man’s spiritual identity.”

And with that, we end our celebration of the 350th anniversary of the birth of the satirist Jonathan Swift and our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Our posts this week have paid tribute to these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. To recap: On Monday, we had a joke by Swift; Tuesday, a poem by Kavanagh; Wednesday, we looked at Swift’s Drapier’s Letters, and yesterday we had Kavanagh’s take on the entire Irish literary racket.

“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style,” said Jonathan Swift and Patrick Kavanagh followed his advice. Long may the two of them be remembered.

A Proposal by Swift


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