Johnson and Swift in Wales

  • Post author:
  • Post published:November 2, 2012
  • Post category:Latest

Our eighteenth Annual Fleeman Memorial Lecture was given at the 2012 AGM by inaugural President, Emeritus Professor Clive Probyn. Clive is a renowned international scholar of the 18the Century, specialising in Jonathon Swift and Dr Johnson.

He has also done distinguished scholarly work editing the novels of Australia’s Henry Handel Richardson, and is the winner of the prestigious Centennial Medal for Service to English and Australian Literature. He has published more than 20 books.

Clive treated members and friends to an engaging, scholarly account of Johnson’s and Swift’s view of Wales and the Welch, as revealed in their travel writings and letters.

Johnson, we were told, was somewhat ambivalent: we heard of his letter to Mrs Thrale – …’except for the woods of Bacchycraigh, what is there in Wales, that can fill the hunger of ignorance, or quench the thirst of curiosity’, but against this, we were taken to the opening lines of his poem London, where the ‘pure air’ of Cambria (Wales) is offered as a retreat from the ‘vice’ of London.

There was, however, nothing equivocal about Swift’s view, brought to a head when he was stranded in Holyhead awaiting fine weather for a passage to Dublin. It was Wales that gave him names for some of the minor characters in Gullivers Travels, and he drew on how he saw the Welsh people themselves for the revolting and despicable inhabitants of the land of the Houyhuhnms – the Yahoos.

A further, interesting point of difference was the modes of transport of the two travellers: Swift, a prodigious walker, saw the land from on foot, or from the back of a horse; whereas Johnson saw it from the comparative comfort of a coach, when, that is, he wasn’t climbing Mount Snowdon.