Category Archives: Literary Analysis & Critique

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!



Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your interests lies in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignity and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.

John Keats’ “Lamia”, and the Power of Human Imagination

It’s been awhile since I’ve read my collected writings of John Keats.  I admit many of his earlier poems are mediocre, but this only adds to the joy of seeing the development of his prose through the short time that he wrote.  By far Keats’s masterpiece is his poem “Lamia”, where he demonstrates his growth as a poet by taking his time to let the characters breath and roam free through well-paced narrative.

The title character, Lamia, appears to be beyond any consistent description:  “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-shaped, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d”(Keats, John. “Lamia,” lines 47-50).  Her appearance, both as serpent and woman, is filled with allegorical affirmations of her beauty, but it is a surreal beauty that lacks any real substance.  Akin to a pleasant dream, where the dreamer is engulfed by the euphoria overtaking his sleep, but cannot grasp the images around him because no matter how vivid and enticing they are, they are still simply imaginary.  This is the reality in which Lamia exists, completely dependent on a dreamer’s slumber to give her substance, which in essence is not much of a reality at all.  Even after being turned human by the god Hermes, Lamia’s entire existence rests on having others, namely her lover Lycius, unquestionably recognize her as the human being she is pretending to be.  And she knows that once the spell is broken, so is any claim she has to the material world:

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into a noisy world almost forlorn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell (lines 32-39).

Lamia exists as a thought, a passion, made real by the mind of the person that holds her image as true, but just as any thought, it can only be sustained for as long as a person is willing to, before it vanishes or is replaced.  Lamia’s existence appears to be just as capricious.

Keats’s Lamia is a creature whose entire interaction with the material world is determined by a person’s faithful acceptance of her human form.  Which is why all it takes to destroy Lamia is for the skeptical Apollonius to refuse to be mystified by her trance, “More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel: Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs; There was no recognition in those orbs” (lines 258-260).  And due to Apollonius’ wakeful eyes, Lamia’s fate is sealed, “Than with a frightful scream she vanished” (line 306).  Therefore, through this final exchange, Keats’s supernatural being turns out to be a nonbeing.  The fact that Lamia was endowed with the finest beauty and imagery might serve, in Keats’s view, to enhance man’s spiritual soul, but it does not change the fact that no matter how enticing or soul-fulfilling, Lamia is not material—hence not real.

Much of Keats’ personal convictions can be found in the text.  Where the mysteries and anomalies of life are accepted and revered–as Lamia’s character is revered throughout the poem–but the underlying cause of this experience is not externalized to an outside source, existing beyond the imagination of the individual person that has dreamed up the image.  Rather it is a reflection of man’s deep struggle with the mysteries of life, and his attempt to cope with his inability to sufficiently account for them.  Though despite all of this uncertainty, the unimaginable still has to be understood as being imaginary.

W.B. Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”, or the Labor of Poetry

If ever there was an ode to the labor that goes into composing a decent work of art, W.B. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse” would be its muse.  In this short poem, Yeats beautifully captures the agony that a poet endures through his struggle to write even one pleasing line, and the worth of the fleeting vindication that follows, allowing the poet to give the reader a rare glimpse into the mental strain that goes into the creation of an artful prose.

The clear message Yeats is eager to convey to the audience is the amount of unappreciated work that goes into composing a good poem, “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”  Despite the mental anguish a poet will place on himself to create a respectable contribution to his art, he knows that ultimately, once that grand epiphany comes and goes, all the hours of despair that preceded will lose all meaning in comparison to that one finite instant.  The poet exclaims that he would rather work the most physically strenuous forms of manual labor available, because, “to articulate sweet sounds together Is to work harder than all these, and yet Be thought an idler by the noisy set Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen.”  There is resentment in his tone, as the poet reflects on the way men of other professions scoff at his work, and refuse to recognize it as anything more than a profession of play.  The good poet’s talent is the source of his plight, for as his prose improves, the beauty of his work will mask the hardship which begot it.

As a poet, Yeats is aware of the importance of perspective needed to add dimension to a poem’s message.  After the poet has had his say about his profession’s agony, a beautiful woman sitting by proclaims, “To be born woman is to know–Although they do not talk of it at school–That we must labour to be beautiful.”  Like the beauty of the poem, a woman understand the depth of labor necessary to make one’s attraction seem effortless; thus, a true sign of success is one which fails to emit any recognition of the toil that brought it about.  For the goal of all beauty (whether in art or in persons) is for it to be seen as naturally sublime, that is to say, devoid of forceful maneuvering.  This causes the poet to opine:

It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books.

Since the fall of Adam, mankind has been cursed to labor over all worthwhile things.  The poet specifically mention lovers, who will idly fret to emulate the the beautiful conceptions set out in “old books,” but also suggests the uselessness of the effort.  Time, the poet reminds us, is a winding act, carrying us along in a cyclical mode of existence.  Bringing the poem to its end on the despondent note, “That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” Like the happiness of a poet’s brief moment of artistic inspiration, time will fade it away, just as we fade away and grow.

Of course, the earlier allusion to a cyclical time refers to Yeats’s spiritual adherence to various forms of mysticism, which included the idea of cyclical forms of life.  Giving credence to the notion that “Adam’s Curse” is meant as a work of self-reflection for Yeats; letting the reader know that although the composition might seem effortless, the process by which it was created is anything but.  And, perhaps, persuade the public to appreciate the labor that goes into creating such great splendors of art.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Depravity of the Human Animal

The great feats of reason and resourcefulness of mankind is a cherished topic in literature.  Innumerable tales have been written (and will continue to be written) testifying to the way in which our ability to rationalize and contemplate the reality around us definitively separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom (indeed, some might even say, gives us dominion over it).  In defiance to this sentiment lies Jonathan Swift’s 1726 adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels, whose title character (Lemuel Gulliver) starts the story as an optimistic representation of human ingenuity, and finishes as a bitter misanthrope, disgusted at the innate depravity of his species.

Gulliver’s Travels is made up of four different voyages taken on by Lemuel Gulliver, an honest, kindhearted English ship’s surgeon, who has a tendency to find himself in fantastical situations and lands every few years.  The adventure most recognizable to the popular audience is probably Gulliver’s first voyage to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants stand only six inches high (the memorable depiction to readers is the part of the novel where Gulliver is lying down on the beach, bound down by billions of tiny ropes, as hundreds of miniature people are surrounding him).  The impression of Gulliver in this first story is that of a curious and reasonable man, who genuinely cares about the well-being of all human life he comes into contact with (from the very small inhabitants of Lilliput, to the gigantic natives of Brobdingnag he encounters on his second voyage).  However, a vital turn in the narrative occurs in Gulliver’s fourth and final voyage, when he finds himself stranded on an unknown land inhabited by an extraordinary race of intelligent horses (referred to as Houyhnhnms) who possess a superb capacity to reason (surpassing, in Gulliver’s opinion, even that of the human species he belongs to).  The Houyhnhnms are not the only inhabitants of this unmapped land; there also exist a species of savage humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are used by the Houyhnhnms in similar fashion to how Gulliver’s society uses barnyard animals.

Gulliver’s immediate reaction towards the Yahoos is to deny that such an obvious brute could be a member of the human species.  Being devoid of this sort of sentiment about human dignity, the more rational Houyhnhnms easily point out to Gulliver the anatomical similarity between himself and the Yahoos, forcing the narrator to reflect:

The beast and I were brought close together, and our countenances diligently compared, both my master [referring to the Houyhnhnm who takes Gulliver into his dwelling partly out of an anthropological curiosity to learn about (what is to him) the “peculiarly reasonable Yahoo”] and servants, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo.  My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure (pg. 249).

Thus, Gulliver is forced to admit to himself that he does indeed share a biological tie with the savage animals of this undiscovered land.  Yet, this does little to sooth the repugnance he feels towards the Yahoos (of which he now knows himself to be one; no matter how tamed and civilized of a variant):

Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at the time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitivity being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in this country (pg. 250).

Noteworthy is Gulliver’s mention that “at the time” there existed few greater lovers of mankind, because it foreshadows the shift in sentiment the character will experience towards not just the Yahoos of this land, but the human species as a whole.  However, first one must explore how equally amazing Gulliver must seem to the Houyhnhnms, giving that there only exposure to humans are the Yahoos; whose intellectual capacity Gulliver’s “master” describes as, “the most unteachable of all brutes” (pg. 254).  To the dominant species of Houyhnhnmland, a Yahoo who possessed the ability to reason and communicate [with some struggle Gulliver eventually manages to learn the Houyhnhnm language] is perplexing beyond belief.  This gives hope to Gulliver that he can demonstrate to the noble Houyhnhnms that he is of a different disposition that the brutish Yahoos of their land, as he tries to satisfy his master’s curiosity by offering extensive descriptions of the various facets of civilized human society.  Unfortunately, this does little to dissuade the apparently obvious physical resemblance between himself and the Yahoos in any meaningful way.  The narrator’s Houyhnhnm master even goes so far as to point out the practical imperfection of Gulliver’s human form in comparison to both the savage Yahoos and his own horse-like shape:

He said I differed indeed from other Yahoos, being much more cleanly, and not altogether so deformed, but in point of real advantage he thought I differed for the worse.  That my nails were of no use either to fore or hinder-feet; as to my fore-feet, he could not properly call them by that name, for he never observed me to walk upon them; that they were too soft to bear the ground / He then began to find fault with other parts of my body, the flatness of my face, the prominence of my nose, my eyes placed directly in front, so that I could not look on either side without turning my head; that I was not able to feed myself without lifting one of my fore-feet to my mouth; and therefore nature had placed those joints to answer that necessity (pg. 261-62).

The importance of this exchange on Gulliver’s perception of humanity, and its place within the natural world, cannot be overstated.  Undoubtedly, Gulliver has spent his whole life with the presumption that the human form is the epitome of natural perfection (or, if not complete perfection, as close as any living being could ever hope to get).  Now, under scrutiny of an animal as distinct in form from humanity as any other creature, but whose ability to reason rivals the most educated of the human specimen, Gulliver is faced with the innumerable faults and imperfections of the human body–essentially shattering any inherent exceptionalism the man may have still held for his own species.  [This critique about the human form may have been one motivation for Jonathan Swift, a devout Anglican clergyman, to publish his book under a pseudonym, as it might have blasphemous implications to imply that man is no different/less perfect than any other animal.]  Moreover, the Houyhnhnm is so unimpressed by the human form, that he finds it impossible to imagine such a creature rising to any level of dominance and civility in any possible environment, due partly to the distrust we garner from other animals:

He observed every animal in this country naturally to abhor the Yahoos, whom the weaker avoided and the stronger drove from them.  So that supposing us to have the gift of reason, he could not see how it were possible to cure that natural antipathy which every creature discovered against us (pg. 262).

But more so due to the great cruelty human beings exhibit towards there own kind:

The Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned was the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves (pg. 280).

It is therefore established that, without ever even having laid eyes or possessing any prior knowledge of human societies, this Houyhnhnm still managed to deduce through the sheer use of his innate reason, how the deadliest predator to man, is man himself.  Furthermore, he points out to Gulliver that the roots of the conflict amongst the members of the human species are trivial conceits over inconsequential vanities that no other living being would bother quarreling over.

Unlike the human society Gulliver came from, the Houyhnhnms have no concept of politics, religion, art and literature, or tribal affiliations (though, according to Gulliver, there does seem to exist a social hierarchy amongst the Houyhnhnms, akin to a caste system); nor can they contemplate the need for such things.  It is for this reason that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master remarks that “instead of reason [humans] were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices” (pg. 267).  The human development of government and law to mediate our daily affairs is to the Houyhnhnms further indication human nature is antithetical to proper reasoning faculties:

That our government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature (pg. 279).

Houyhnhnms live in an anarchistic social structure; there are no formal laws, but there is complete orderliness, maintained by the animals’ unwillingness to be stirred by emotive factors when it comes to evaluating the reality of life.  They have no interest in deceit (lacking a proper word for lying or evil), and while they do express joy, friendship, and hatred, they do so without the indication that there lies any deeper meaning behind their emotions besides a reaction to the workings of the natural world.  Thus, to the Houyhnhnms, the great innovations of human intellect–created to shelter, protect, inspire, and entertain us–are testaments to out depravity; our inability to be satisfied with what nature has given us.  We need a supervising authority, because we cannot trust ourselves to behave orderly.  To Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master, human gluttony is an ideal indication of our shortcomings as a species:

For if [the Houyhnhnm said] you throw among five Yahoos as much food as would be sufficient for fifty, they will, instead of eating peaceably, fall together by the ears, each single one impatient to have all to itself (pg. 280).

My master continuing his discourse said there was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious than their undistinguishing appetite to devour every thing that came in their way (pg. 281-82).

The reader must keep in mind that Swift’s novel is written as a satire against the conceit of his own society, thus the prose often takes on a hyperbolic tone whenever Gulliver affirms the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm species.  The purpose of this is more than likely to further point out the contrasting flaws of the human animal, when forced to look past its self-credited righteousness.

Gulliver’s time spent with the Houyhnhnms causes him to development an intense hatred of not just the Yahoos of this unknown land, but humankind as a whole.  He sees human interests as being predominantly preoccupied with vanities and trivialities, whereas the Houyhnhnms concern themselves with more virtuous pursuits:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with the general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions of ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it (pg. 288).

How exactly the Houyhnhnms manage to maintain this level of ultra-stoicism, is left rather vague by the author, but a possible explanation is presented by Gulliver:

It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain, and beyond our knowledge we cannot be either.  So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown amongst the Houyhnhnms (pg. 288).

The Houyhnhnms do not muse or speculate about abstract mental concepts, therefore they possess no means by which to fall prey to ideological quarrels.  This causes Gulliver to pine for the tranquility enjoyed by his hosts, and emulate their behavior for his own betterment.  He has no desire to return to human society, and be surrounded by vain Yahoos (let alone interact with them).  Even the very knowledge of his Yahoo nature stirs in him shame at belong to this repulsive species:

When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person (pg. 300).

Unfortunately for Gulliver, the Houyhnhnms eventually concluded that the innate nature of the Yahoos renders them an unteachable brute, thus to have him live amongst the Houyhnhnm as an equal would be unimaginable.  However, since Gulliver has demonstrated some capability of reason, he was potentially even more dangerous on account that he might be inclined one day to organize the Yahoos against the Houyhnhnms.  Thus, he was exhorted to leave Houyhnhnmland and return to his own place of origin, which he did–begrudgingly.  Upon his return to England, Gulliver is a shell of the humanist he was at the onset of his first voyage; disgusted at the sight of his own kind, and unable to bring himself to bear the stench and presence of even his own family (who to him are now no different from any other Yahoo), he finds some level of peace conversing to his horses (whose anatomy fondly reminds him of the Houyhnhnms), living his life with the modest goal “to behold my figure in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature” (pg. 317).

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s is a work of satire, and should be read as such.  The obvious criticism of human conceit and vanity is the most overt message contained within Gulliver’s final voyage, but what needs to be mentioned is also the apparent lifelessness that comes along with the Houyhnhnms’ dedication to reason.  Devoid of emotional appeals, they do not quarrel, but they also lack imagination, and insight no aesthetic inspiration.  So, to me, the subtler point found hidden in Swift’s prose is that even if the impossible was to be done, and the depravity of human nature could be overcome, and man could learn to be as reasonable as the noble Houyhnhnm, if we remove ourselves of the very facets in life that give us the most meaning and value–despite their contributions to our faults and irrationalities–will we also be giving up the very things that make us human to begin with?


Swift, Jonathan.  Gulliver’s Travels, (Signet Classics: NewYork), 1726.  1960 reprint.