Never be a saint

Never be a saint

In Brief

Having thought about the great Irish prose writer Jonathan Swift as a "hater of his kind" and a tortured genius, Stephen now recalls something that the great English poet John Dryden said to Swift: "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet." He applies the saying to his own earlier religiosity: "Cousin Stephen, you will never be a saint."

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As Thornton notes, the anecdote comes from Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). Johnson's biography of Swift is frequently critical (Boswell often observes that he had an inveterate prejudice against the Dean), and it begins with a snide glance at the question of the writer's nationality: “He was contented to be called an Irishman by the Irish; but would occasionally call himself an Englishman. The question may, without much regret, be left in the obscurity in which he delighted to involve it.”

Not long after comes the anecdote: "Swift began early to think, or to hope, that he was a poet, and wrote Pindarick Odes to Temple, to the King, and to the Athenian Society, a knot of obscure men, who published a periodical pamphlet of answers to questions, sent, or supposed to be sent, by Letters. I have been told that Dryden, having perused these verses, said, 'Cousin Swift you will never be a poet'; and that this denunciation was the motive of Swift’s perpetual malevolence to Dryden."

Anthony Burgess notes that the saying could apply just as effectively to Joyce, who had a "slender" poetic talent that "had to be enclosed in the irony of the great prose books for it to be effective. His verse talent is, in fact, close to that of Swift (Dryden was, of course and as always, right), and this is appropriate for the second man to draw great prose out of Ireland" (ReJoyce, 80). Stephen, who styles himself a poet but has few and slight poetic accomplishments, does not recognize the challenge to his own literary art. Instead, he genially mocks his youthful piety—a less threatening failure than his poetic pretensions.

JH 2016
Drawing of John Dryden, artist unknown. Source: