George O'Brien at The American Scholar:
The final years of the 17th century and the early years of the 18th were turbulent times in England. The fate of the crown itself seemed to be in the balance, as did those of other institutions, Parliament and the Church of England. Yet, oddly, this period is also known as the Augustan Age of English literature—oddly, because the label connotes classical balance and proportion. And indeed such qualities are to be found in the period’s architecture as well as in the heroic couplets of its most accomplished poet, Alexander Pope. But expressions of neoclassical order were hard won, and for an idea of the challenges and complications of this decisive period in the evolution of the British polity, the life and works of Jonathan Swift are a very good place to start. Swift is not just the author of Gulliver’s Travels, though that most original and very alarming treatise on human nature would have been enough to make his name. He was also the author of a good deal of commentary, much of it bitingly satirical, on the manners and methods of the public scene in which he himself was immersed, partly in hopes of preferment. The fact that when these hopes were dashed he turned out to be an Irish patriot is only one of the many paradoxes of a career and a personality in which balance, order, establishment, and affiliation were problematic categories.