I wrote recently about Lilliput and Brobdignag and later returned to read the rest of Gulliver’s Travels, two wilder voyages to Laputa, the flying island – and also to the land of intelligent, philosophical horses, Houhynms, and the brutish and violent Yahoos, who Gulliver recognises as humans, degraded and bestial.
These are not the most popular of the Gulliver stories, and it easy to see why – there is no one simple, transfiguring idea so simple as being very large or very small – but there is much to marvel at. Some of his fiercest political satire was hidden in these voyages, and satire at the expense of other groups, too, such as the scientists of the Royal Society and their friends – in establishments which are dedicated to the improvement of life through all sorts of ridiculous processes, but which in fact make everything much worse – and revile traditionalists in agriculture, for example, as hopelessly unprogressive and even disloyal. Perhaps the best way of representing them is to quote a passage or two. Here, Gulliver is visiting the Academy in Lagado, a skit on the Royal Academy, to which Swift had a violent and irrational aversion:
The first Man I saw was of a meager Aspect, with sooty Hands and Face, his Hair and Beard long, ragged and singed in several Places. His Cloathes, Shirt, and Skin were all of the same Colour. He had been Eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put into Vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers. He told me he did not doubt in Eight Years more he should be able to supply the
with Sun-shine at a reasonable Rate; Governors Gardens
We next went to the School of Languages, where three Professors sate in Consultation upon improving that of their own country … The first Project was to shorten Discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one, and leaving out Verbs and Participles, because in reality all things imaginable are but Nouns. The other, was a Scheme for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great Advantage in Point of Health as well as Brevity. For it is plain, that every Word we speak is in some Degree a Diminution of our Lungs by Corrosion, and consequently contributes to the shortning of our Lives. An Expedient was therefore offered, that since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on. And this Invention would certainly have taken Place, to the great Ease as well as Health of the Subject, if the Women in conjunction with the Vulgar and Illiterate had not threatned to raise a Rebellion, unless they might be allowed the Liberty to speak with their Tongues, after the manner of their Ancestors; such constant irreconcilable Enemies to Science are the common People. However, many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the New Scheme of expressing themselves by Things, which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burthens, and take their Leave.
They are prodigiously nimble from their infancy. However, I once caught a young male of three years old, and endeavoured, by all marks of tenderness, to make it quiet; but the little imp fell a squalling, and scratching, and biting with such violence, that I was forced to let it go; and it was high time, for a whole troop of old ones came about us at the noise, but finding the cub was safe (for away it ran), and my sorrel nag being by, they durst not venture near us. I observed the young animal's flesh to smell very rank, and the stink was somewhat between a weasel and a fox, but much more disagreeable.
By what I could discover, the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all animals: their capacity never reaching higher than to draw or carry burdens. Yet I am of opinion, this defect arises chiefly from a perverse, restive disposition; for they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly spirit, and, by consequence, insolent, abject, and cruel. It is observed, that the red haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.