So Geographers in Afric-Maps
With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps;
And o’er unhabitable Downs [ o’er, over; Downs, dry hills
Place Elephants for want of Towns.
Swift (1733, 12, lines 179–82 [n1])
This quatrain is almost certainly the most famous English-language poem in map history. John Andrews (2009, 416) is right to have called the quatrain an “overworked phrase.” It has permeated writing on map history since the 1930s.
The source is the poem, On Poetry: A Rapsody, by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), published in London and Dublin in 1733 and repeatedly thereafter [n2]. Swift was an Anglo-Irish churchman who in 1713 became dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin (in the Anglican Church of Ireland). His satirical works, like Gulliver’s Travels (1726), might have become humorous children’s tales, but in his day they were read as vicious political and religious commentaries.
Other portions of On Poetry are routinely rehearsed by literary historians, but I don’t think that any have flourished to the same extent among historians generally. Consider the following:
To Statesmen would you give a Wipe, [ give a Wipe, clean a bottom
You print it in Italick Type.
When Letters are in vulgar Shapes,
’Tis ten to one the Wit escapes;
But when in CAPITALS exprest,
The dullest Reader smokes the Jest; [ smokes, gets
Swift (1733, 8, lines 95–100)
These six lines are overtly rude and satirical, like almost all of the poem. They clearly do not present an accurate depiction of actual typographic practices, and are not read as such. Rather, they are part and parcel of Swift’s complaints that hack writers emphasize the outward form of a poem rather than its content (Just 2004, 39–40). Lacking any sense of verisimilitude, these and other stanzas are not repeated ad nauseum by bibliographers, typographers, and any other lay or academic historians of the book.
But Swift’s four lines about geographers and their maps of Africa seemingly have none of the cynicism or obvious scurrility that characterize the rest of poem. They appear to modern eyes to be truthful, not satirical, and they are accordingly read in isolation as an historically valid critique of actual mapping practice.
But should they be?
(Hint: no. The widespread acceptance that the quatrain directly addressed maps and mapping is yet another unwarranted assumption fostered by the narcissistic ideal of cartography.)
Literality and Interpretation
Responsibility for isolating the quatrain from the rest of Swift’s work perhaps lies with the British geographer James Rennell who in the late eighteenth century was a prominent member of a group advocating for the exploration of the interior of (northern) Africa. For the first proceedings of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, in 1790, Rennell provided a new map and a brief account of its construction. In the latter, Rennell was dismissive of the unaesthetic and inelegant uniformity of the arid and semi-arid regions of northern Africa:
But the Public are not to expect, even under an improved system of African Geography, that the Interior Part of that Continent will exhibit an aspect similar to the others; rich in variety; each region assuming a distinct character. On the contrary, it will be meagre and vacant in the extreme. The dreary expanses of desart which often surround the habitable spots, forbid the appearance of the usual proportion of towns; and the paucity of rivers, added to their being either absorbed or evaporated, instead of being conduced in flowing lines to the ocean, will give a singular cast to its hydrography; the direction of their courses being, moreover, equivocal, through the want of that information, which a communication with the sea usually affords at a glance. Little as the Antients knew of the Interior Part of Africa, they appear to have understood the character of its surface; one of them comparing it to a leopard’s skin. Swift also, who loses no opportunity of being witty at the expence of mathematicians, diverts himself and his readers both with the nakedness of the land, and the absurdity of the map-makers. <quatrain> (Rennell 1790, 215–16)
For Rennell, Swift’s comments were both correct to characterize the African interior as arid and uninhabitable but also sarcastic of geographical practice. As European interest in Africa expanded to encompass more tropical regions, and there developed a greater appreciation of the variety of ecosystems than Rennell’s, the isolated quotation became a commentary on geographical practice.
As a geographical commentary, Swift’s quatrain has been broadly deployed in one of two ways, either as a literal account denoting a common mapping practice, or as a satire whose connotations demand interpretation. The quatrain has long been “canonical” for Africanists (Herbert 2001, 41), for whom it stands as a humorous and therefore effective description of the poor state of European knowledge of Africa during the early modern era and of how that ignorance was covered up (e.g., Wilson 1882, 494; Thomas-Stanford 1912, 134; French 1934; Riddell 1994, 86; McNulty 1995, 10; Wan 2014). From this foundation, the quatrain has been further deployed to emphasize the manner in which Europeans progressively mapped Africa in the nineteenth century as an integral part of the imperial project of bringing light to the so-called Dark Continent. This usage has occurred in works written both from a pro-imperial perspective (e.g., Earl Mountbatten in Anon. 1955, 398) and from one critical of imperialism (e.g., Mazrui 1969, 675; Baesjou 1988). The quatrain inevitably crops up in the relatively few general accounts by map historians of the regional mapping of Africa (e.g., Wallis 1986).
Swift’s elephants have also sustained an academic morality tale. The seeds for this lie in the quatrain’s apparent contrast of early modern and modern mapping: Henry Yule (1871, 1:172) quoted the quatrain in arguing that Marco Polo told a story to obscure the fact that he had not actually entered Samarkand; Edward Everett Hale (1882, 190) similarly used the quatrain as part of a general commentary on the general habit of covering up gaps in knowledge, specifically within a dialogue about the varying depictions of the Nile on early maps that served as a prologue to a summary of the modern exploration of the river. In more recent scholarship, the quatrain has become popular as a metaphor for all the clichés and presuppositions forced on scholarship in general by a lack of hard evidence (Herbert 2001; Alexander 2013) and as a reminder to scholars that “complacency about the knownness of the world is unfounded” (Seager 1985, 9). Finally, in a more postmodern take, the morality tale has been turned around, in that the quatrain suggests that those clichés and presuppositions were not logical interpolations of limited data but are manifestations of the imperialistic imposition of European desires and fascinations onto Africa (McLaughlan 2012, 103, esp. re nineteenth-century writers).
These literal and interpretive deployments of Swift’s quatrain also characterize its use by dedicated map historians. However, in interpreting the quatrain, map historians have pursued not a morality tale but an idealized narrative of the history of cartography.
Literal Readings by Map Historians
The literal reading of the quatrain as a generic, but curious, statement of an habitual mapping practice can be found as early as 1844, when a commentator wrote on the local history of the area that became Piccadilly, in London:
It was long before Portugal Street was obliterated from our maps, or the figures of deer were banished from the Green Park: <quatrain>. (Anon. 1844)
One of the first dedicated historians of cartography to draw upon Swift’s quatrain was Edward Luther Stevenson, in his 1921 account of early globes. In writing about the technique of globe making, he commented on the similarity of the look of terrestrial globes to plane maps:
In their general features, differences can hardly be said to exist between plane maps and globe maps. In the matter of adornment there is similarity; each following the practice of the time when constructed. As pictures and legends hold a place of prominence, particularly on mediaeval maps,[note 21] so even to the close of the period we have had under consideration, that is, the end of the eighteenth century, these adornments have place on globe maps, sometimes few, sometimes many, the same, if in picture, exhibiting the inhabitants of land and sea, if merely a legend, giving information of geographical importance on the terrestrial globe and of astronomical importance on the celestial, these legends being often placed in an artistic cartouch. (Stevenson 1921, 2:207–8)
Stevenson’s note 21, in the middle of this passage, further added:
21. Pictures are a particularly striking feature of the cloister maps of the middle ages. The idea of such adornments may have come down from Greek or Roman days. Plutarch tells us in his ‘Theseus’ that “Geographers crowd into the edge of their maps parts of the world about which they have no knowledge, adding notes in the margins to the effect that only deserts full of wild beasts and impassable marshes lie beyond.” Jonathan Swift, humorously referring to maps of the early period, writes <quatrain>. The early map makers as illustrators should be an interesting theme for a special monograph. (Stevenson 1921, 2:218n21)
I give these passages in full to indicate that, for Stevenson, Swift’s quatrain described a common, although perhaps not standard, practice stretching from antiquity (Plutarch) until at least the end of the eighteenth century (the end of time period covered by Stevenson). The generic nature of the situation was reinforced by Stevenson’s failure to provide a dated citation to Swift’s poem. The quatrain’s import—and humor—appeared timeless. In this respect, Swift’s quatrain has often been simply dropped into map histories as humorous leavening (e.g., King 1996, 57; Holt-Jensen 1999, 3; Headrick 2001, 96; Colley 2014, 149; Brooke-Hitching 2016, 8; Van Duzer 2017).
Almost immediately—starting with a review of Stevenson’s book (Pearson 1922)—historians omitted the allusion to Plutarch and took the quatrain at face value, as a description of common practice and of map makers’ horror vacui. The quatrain was sufficiently well known in 1937 that Leo Bagrow could simply refer to it en passant, as “Swift’s epigram,” in his editorial to volume 2 of Imago Mundi; John Andrews would do the same, seventy years later (Andrews 2009, 416). Literal interpretations of Swift’s “apparent truism” (Reinhartz 1997, 96) are common in the literature: map makers filled in the blanks as a matter of course (e.g., Jervis 1936, 43; Bagrow 1951, 199; Bagrow 1964, 215; Ristow 1967, 16; Tyner 1987, 458; Nobles 1993, 13–15; Carroll 1996, 77; Jacob 2006, 160 and 380n29; Just 2004, 112–13).
Some map historians have so completely accepted the truth of Swift’s observation that they have identified specific maps as having suggested the quatrain to Swift. Helen Wallis (1978, 37), followed by Philip Burden (2007, no. 475), tentatively selected a chart of the Atlantic and the West Indies by John Seller, first published in ca. 1676 and thereafter reprinted several times. Seller placed the map’s title in a large, African elephant cartouche set in the middle of the western Sahara:
Later commentators have been less tentative: see the proclamation in the New York Public Library’s map division's twitter feed (29 November 2017). In an alternative suggestion, it was Abraham Ortelius’s map of Prester John’s empire in the Theatrum orbis terrarum (after 1572/3) that induced Swift’s quatrain:
An undated entry in the Strange Maps blog, no. 434 took its image of this map from the Princeton University Library website and concluded with a note that a now-deleted page at that website had stated that “[t]his is certainly one of the maps that Swift had in mind when he wrote” his quatrain. Swift is known to have owned a late edition of the Theatrum, so this second identification has some degree of plausibility (Just 2004, 112).
But such a close relationship of the poem to any particular map is probably overstated, given that there is a very long tradition of showing elephants on maps of Africa, going back into the medieval period (Van Duzer 2013, 400). In fact, Seller derived his work, including the elephant cartouche, from an earlier, Dutch chart of the Atlantic by Jacob Aertsz. Colom (1655: Burden 1996, no. 312). From this perspective, the depiction of elephants on maps of Africa is in fact a truthful statement, a record of an element of the lands being mapped (George 1969, esp. 21).
The Narrative of Cartography’s Enlightened Reform
The mocking tone of the quatrain (Oberhummer 1909, 567) and its allusion to Plutarch’s critical comments has permitted a more figurative reading by map historians. In this interpretation, the quatrain is quite divorced from the parent poem, with its critique of poetry, and instead serves to specifically deride contemporary mapping practices. The implication is that Swift actively championed the eighteenth-century “reform” of cartography. [n3]
We can see this interpretation in, for example, Brian Harley’s argument for using “the term ‘silences’ … rather than the somewhat negative ‘blank spaces’ of the older literature,” which he bolstered by noting that “the negative—even derisory—attitude towards blank spaces on maps was already well established by the eighteenth century [as] most famously” illustrated in Swift’s quatrain (Harley 1988, 58 and 72n13). From here it is a small step to dismissing map decoration has having no “real value”:
Faced with a paucity of such data, mapmakers relied upon the ingenuity of their engravers to fill out their maps with decorative additions as trade caravans or wild animals, which may have added piquancy to the map but little else of real value. Such sharp practices evoked the following jibe from the even sharper pen of the satirist Jonathan Swift: <quatrain>. (Aijazuddin 2000, 4)
Such an almost willfully decontextualized interpretation of the quatrain was first made in the late 1930s by Erwin Raisz, the Hungarian-born geographer and map maker at Harvard University. Raisz was concerned, like W. W. Jervis (1933) had been just previously, to imbue the history of cartography with the perspective of academic cartographers working in Anglophone universities. In particular, Jervis and Raisz each reconfigured the existing master narrative of cartographic progress by adding the transformation of cartography from an “art” to a “science.” This narrative became so dominant in the post-war era (thanks in large part to Brown 1949 and Crone 1953) that it can seem like the history of cartography was always written this way (Delano Smith 2001). But the narrative was very much the creation of Raisz through his interpretation of Swift’s quatrain.
Raisz laid out the new narrative in the first part of his manual on map design and production, General Cartography (Raisz 1938, 1–70), replacing the long-standing recognition that cartography had changed during the eighteenth century (because of industrialization and absolutism) with the new position that the enlightened, pan-European Age of Reason had caused cartography to change. A skilled map maker, Raisz objected to the “indiscriminate” manner with which Renaissance geographers had filled in empty spaces on their maps; to this end, he quoted Swift’s quatrain (Raisz 1938, 41). Raisz further used the quatrain as the lynchpin for a demonstration of cartography’s necessarily scientific revolution. With the quatrain in mind, he contrasted an early seventeenth-century Dutch map with a mid-eighteenth century French map of Africa:
The difference between these maps, Raisz claimed, was manifest in their form. The Dutch had been interested only in selling maps for “monetary profit,” but d’Anville and his colleagues were motivated by “scientific reputation” (Raisz 1938, 45). Raisz understood the baroque decoration of early modern geographical maps to be the product of an imbalance between cartographic art and science; the relationship had been even more imbalanced in the production of earlier, medieval maps, which seemed to lack any scientific foundation at all. For Raisz, cartographers finally attained the proper balance when the Age of Reason extirpated cartography’s overtly artistic and unscientific elements.
Swift’s quatrain thus became emblematic of a new scientific ethos for all cartography that took hold in the eighteenth century. And, in this respect, it has been widely quoted. It did sterling duty in Ronald Rees’s essay on how “science” claimed “cartography”:
Mapmaking as a form of decorative art belongs to the informal, prescientific phase of cartography. When cartographers had neither the geographical knowledge nor the cartographic skill to make accurate maps, fancy and artistry had free rein. The mapmaker’s dilemma and the customary solution to it were the target of Jonathan Swift’s satire in a much quoted quatrain … (Rees 1980, 62)
Norman Thrower (1972, 74; 1996, 110) proposed Swift’s quatrain as an overt reaction to, and rejection of, the “conjectural information” and “imaginary cartography” of pre-Enlightenment map makers in the face of all the new technologies and science of cartography. And Raisz’s comparison of decorative Dutch maps and d’Anville’s 1749 map, hinging on the quatrain, has been rehearsed by Lucy Chester (2000, 257), Isabelle Surun (2004, 118–21), and Éloi Ficquet (2010, 415). Indeed, d’Anville’s 1749 map has become the graphic emblem of cartography’s new scientific ethos, more than any of his other works, or those of Guillaume Delisle before him. The communal fixation on this map is specifically a result of Raisz’s reconfiguration of Swift’s poem.
An Opposite, Anti-Modern, and Anti-Geography Interpretation
Raisz’s cartographic interpretation of the quatrain requires an image of Swift as a champion of a new, improved cartography, but this very much runs counter to Swift’s well-known intellectual character. Swift’s satires targeted many of the debates then raging through the Anglican church and English culture more generally. He was very much an “Ancient” devoted to Classical learning and distrustful of its rejection by those “Moderns” who sought to create new moral principles grounded in reason and natural philosophy. Thoroughly conservative, Swift clung hard and fast to a timeless moral philosophy. Thus, in A Tale of a Tub (1704) he criticized both sides in an argument that had roiled the Church of Ireland in the 1690s, between two priests who had each sought to apply reason to the refinement of Anglican Protestantism, albeit to different ends (Craven 1986).
This anti-modern attitude has been the core of several readings of Swift’s quatrain, readings that attract attention based on their apparent sophistication. Nonetheless, these readings still depend on Raisz’s supposed Enlightened reformation of cartography and as such tend towards a circular logic.
Frederick Bracher (1944) argued that Swift dismissed all map making, whether old and baroque or new and plain, as being too rational. Bracher’s particular concern was Swift’s role in the creation of the four maps in his Gulliver’s Travels (1726), each of which depicted one of the mythical lands that Lemuel Gulliver had encountered:
All four maps in the first, 1726 edition of Gulliver’s Travels were made by tracing a portion of a known coastline from Herman Moll’s A New & Correct Map of the Whole World, first published in about 1707 and still in print in 1755 (Armitage and Baynton-Williams 2012, 130–49), to which was then added Swift’s fictional lands (Bracher 1944, 59–60; Reinhartz 1997, 95–96; Didacher 1997, 179–80). But the book was printed in London and the maps were created when Swift was in Dublin. Bracher posed several questions:
• were the maps complete fabrications added by the publisher, Andrew Motte, without Swift’s editorial intervention?
• had Swift suggested them, but they were executed without his oversight?
• had Swift actually drawn them himself?
Bracher thought that Swift himself could not have been involved in the original creation of the maps. To begin with, Swift himself had “so scornfully” noted the maps’ “lies and errors” that contradicted the geographical clues that Swift gave in the text—which had been enumerated by Moore (1941)—even though those clues were themselves contradictory. Moreover, Bracher (1944, 73) argued,
the voyages represented increments in that kind of “modern” knowledge, so dear to members of the Royal Society, which, while increasing man’s knowledge of the external world, was blandly indifferent to his moral improvement. Swift did not take geography more seriously than was necessary to satirize it; his carelessness with geographic details in Gulliver provides additional evidence of his contempt for natural, as opposed to moral, philosophy.
Furthermore, if Swift was only ever disdainful of geography, then his reference in the book to the geographer Herman Moll as “my worthy friend” could only have been facetious (Bracher 1944, 60). (Moll and the pirate/explorer William Dampier, on whom Gulliver was in part modeled, were the only two real people identified in Gulliver’s Travels.) Bracher’s overall conclusion was that Swift kept the maps in the first Dublin edition of the book, over which he did exercise control, for which he incurred the extra cost of having new plates engraved, because, Bracher (1944, 74) averred, if “the inaccuracies of the maps bewildered and irritated the reader, so much the better. [Swift] was not one to worry about misleading the amateur geographers in his audience.”
Bracher’s depiction of Swift as anti-modern and anti-geography, which did influence at least one later map historian (Woodward 1978, 190–92), was in some respects justified. Anna Neil (2002) suggested that Swift’s “distrust of geographical projects” stemmed from his conservativism and found expression in the opposition to “British mercantilist imperialism” that permeated Gulliver’s Travels. She could thus observe more particularly that the quatrain in On Poetry directly argued
that “savagery” is an invention of geography. Swift attacks geography as fraudulent learning, as a science that is always trying to cover the gaps and inconsistencies that it inevitably confronts by insisting on the barbarousness and barrenness of those regions about which it has little or no knowledge. Like the gaping lines of bad modern poetry, geographers’ texts are filled with fantastic figures that expose their authors’ want of knowledge more than they reveal the real character of the places and peoples they purport to represent. Formally linked by the couplet structure to such “gaps”, the “unhabitable downs” are just as probably a convenient cartographic fiction as a reliable depiction of little-explored parts of the world. Rather than accounting for some existing geocultural reality or providing reliable documentation about the kind of human beings to be found in a continent as enormous and unexplored as Africa, Swift points out, “savage pictures” are in fact the product of a dangerous modern ambition to map the entire globe fully and systematically. (Neil 2002, 83)
While the questions Neil raises about imagination and fiction are crucial in reading the quatrain (below), her overall reading can only make sense if one adheres to the modern idealization of cartography and the geographical dimension it anachronistically imposes on the debates between progressive Moderns and conservative Ancients.
By contrast, evidence adduced well after Bracher wrote suggests that Swift was indeed Moll’s friend. Not only did they move in the same circles when Swift was in London, Swift was perhaps not fundamentally dismissive of maps and map making (Reinhartz 1997, 89–96). Independently, Nicole Didicher (1997) noted that the frontispiece portrait of Gulliver was actively intended to be paradoxical, so why not the maps as well? After all, Swift was satirizing contemporary travel accounts, at a time when travelers’ accounts and their maps were not automatically trusted as truthful. While literary scholars (other than Bracher and Moore in the 1940s) have ignored the maps in the book, even as they study the book’s other imagery at length, Didicher argued that the maps should be treated, just like those other images, as being part of the book and therefore as expressions of Swiftian satire. If Swift did not collaborate on the maps, he at least approved of them, right from the start.
Didicher properly avoided the intellectual trap of evaluating maps strictly by their geographical accuracy and of presuming that such accuracy is the only standard by which others in the past evaluated maps (at least once cartography was supposedly infused with a scientific ethos). Swift might have been a culturally conservative Ancient, opposed to the newfangled morality of the Moderns, but to argue that he understood maps as necessarily and properly “scientific” in nature is to buy into Raisz’s reconfiguration of the history of cartography.
Swift was not committed to maps as being necessarily factual and correct and plain in style. How then should we read his quatrain?
Rereading Those Afric-Maps and Their Elephants
Certainly, we can no longer read the quatrain as emblematic of some supposedly new scientific ethos in mapping. In painting their picture of the scientific reformation of cartography, Jervis (1933), Raisz (1938), and their post-war popularizers (Brown 1949; Crone 1953) all conflated the development of a plain style with several other, distinct trends in mapping sciences, such as the solution of longitude, geodetic measurement of the earth’s size and shape, and the first successful implementation of statewide, triangulation-based, territorial surveys. Each of these trends has its own historical trajectory, driven by its own set of causes, within particular modes of mapping; the trajectories do not neatly align (see Edney 2017). To yoke them all together as a function of the Age of Reason—which itself dissolves into multiple, divergent strands as soon as it is scrutinized in any detail (see, e.g., Withers 2007)—is to accept unquestioningly the modern myth of cartography as a universal endeavor that has followed a single, common trajectory (at least across the Western world).
Careful analysis of the historical record readily demonstrates that each of the elements contributing to the supposed scientific ethos followed its own trajectory. In the case of the graphic rhetoric of world and geographical maps (note the specification of the mode), decorative elements persisted not only until the end of the eighteenth century, as Stevenson (1921) had noted, but beyond even into the twentieth century (Stone 1988; 1995, 226; Andrews 2009, 416). Raisz was correct to suggest a connection between decoration and commerciality, because commercial geographers have continued to use decoration, to different degrees and in different ways, in accordance with shifting trends in fashion and design; plain style, in this respect, is a function of specific commercial discourses, not a scientific ethos. We must recognize that even “mere” decoration on maps always does cultural work beyond the simple prettification of an image (hinted at by Just 2004, 112, drawing on Barber 1990). Moreover, the form and cultural significance of decoration on maps has varied considerably over time; detailed genealogies are needed to trace their shifting functions and connotations.
To read Swift’s quatrain without imposing unwarranted assumptions about Swift’s regard or disregard of geography, maps, and science, we should start by remembering that it was just one small part of a much larger work. Swift’s On Poetry was a cynical, satirical account of how a talentless hack might achieve success as a published poet and attract the political attention necessary to be appointed poet laureate. As with so much else, Swift took an established trope or time-honored tradition, in this case the ars poetica or manual explaining how to write poetry, and inverted it to powerful effect (Just 2004, 35, 37). At the same time, Swift structured the work as a rhapsody, which was understood in the eighteenth century to mean a series of parts in sequence but with no necessary connection or coherence (Just 2004, 57–59). The result is not an attack on poetry, but rather on the cynical and abusive practices of critics and politicians that abase and cheapen poetry.
The poem’s six sections are as follows, marked by changes in voice, by lines:
1–70) an apparently disinterested observer laments the poor situation of poetry within British culture;
l71–292) “an old experienc’d Sinner” gives cynical advice to the “young Beginner” on how to succeed commercially and politically as a poet (but not how to write good poetry);
293–418) another disinterested observer provides a detailed account of contemporary poets and poetry;
419–60) a digression on the nature of kings (the primary section omitted from initial printings because of their libelous character [see n1]);
461–516) the “old experienc’d Sinner” returns with examples, for the benefit of the “young Beginner,” of panegyric odes, the premiere poetic form for attracting political and financial patronage; and
517–47) a final mockery by the Sinner of excessively laudatory poesy produced by hack writers.
The quatrain on Afric-maps falls in the middle of the second section. It is the climax of a long series of couplets identifying many ways in which ambition leads the inexperienced poet to produce aesthetically unpleasing work as they press ahead with their poetry. After all, as Swift had already established, in the lines quoted above re typography, the form of the printed poem was as important as the actual lines in attracting patronage. So, should the fledgling poet wish to persevere, then reflect on style and the comments of critics on initial efforts:
But, first with Care employ your Thoughts,
Where Criticks mark’d your former Faults:
The trivial Turns, the borrow’d Wit;
The Similes that nothing fit;
The Cant which ev’ry Fool repeats,
Town-Jests, and Coffee-House Conceits:
Descriptions tedious, flat and dry,
And introduc’d the Lord knows why.
Swift (1733, lines 149–56)
After a series of comments about hiding the victims of one’s wit behind initial letters, Swift launches into a sequence of tortured similes for poetical missteps, culminating in the quatrain:
Or, oft when Epithets you link,
In gaping Lines to fill a Chink;
Like Stepping-stones to save a Stride,
In Streets where Kennels are too wide: [ kennel, surface drain
Or, like a Heel Piece, to support
A Cripple with one Foot too short; [ foot too short, a reference to poetic meter
Or, like a Bridge, that joins a Marish. [ marish, marsh
To Moor-lands of a diff’rent Parish:
So, have I seen ill-coupled Hounds
Drag diff’rent Ways in miry Grounds:
So, Geographers in Afric-Maps
With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps;
And o’er unhabitable Downs
Place Elephants for want of Towns.
Swift (1733, lines 169–82)
The quatrain functions in this position, capping a list of poetical flaws, because of its overt parallel to Plutarch’s life of Theseus, written ca. 75 CE [n4]. This was one of Plutarch’s pairings of biographies of comparable Greeks and Romans and he introduced it by explaining his decision to address the mythical founder of Athens as a logical parallel to Romulus, mythical founder of Rome:
Just as geographers…crowd on to the outer edges of their maps [πινακων, pinakōn] the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that “What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts,” or “blind marsh,” or “Scythian cold,” or “frozen sea,” so in the writing of my Parallel Lives, now that I have traversed those periods of time which are accessible to probable reasoning and which afford basis for a history dealing with facts, I might well say of the earlier periods “What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity.” (Plutarch 1914, 3)
That is, like ignorant history, ignorant poetry relied on invention, extravagance, and fable. Swift’s elephants were not decorations added to fill in or obscure gaps of knowledge about the interior of Africa, but emblems of the doubts and uncertainties that arise when fictions replace empirical truth. They are indicative of the false and forced connections decried by Swift in the immediately preceding couplets—the stepping stone placed within a too-wide sewer, the bridge between two communities and two landscapes that are otherwise quite different and unrelatable—or the crutch inserted solely to support an argument. These points are the same as those of the academic morality tale that the quatrain has at times illuminated, as discussed towards the head of this essay, about the clichés and presuppositions to which scholars revert when they lack hard data (Herbert 2001; Alexander 2013).
Yet there are, of course, elephants in Africa. Swift’s parallel with Plutarch would have been stronger had he written about, say, unicorns rather than elephants (not that any geographer depicted unicorns on African maps). By referencing an actual geographical practice, Swift’s quatrain has permitted modern commentators already predisposed to maps to read the quatrain as being literally, not figuratively, about maps and mapping. In a culture imbued with the ideal of cartography, the quatrain appears to be the one portion of On Poetry that is factual and not satirical. Despite the initial “so,” which should redirect the reader’s attention to the omitted stanzas that precede the quatrain, it is legitimately divorced from the rest of Swift’s poem and considered in isolation. And once isolated and propped up by the ideal, the quatrain has supported a large burden of cartographic interpretation.
There are limits to mapping. And this is one. The ideal’s narcissism might insist that any reference to maps must be read as being about maps, but this is manifestly not the case here. The quatrain appears within one of the resolutely satirical sections of On Poetry, and is uttered by an “old experienc’d Sinner.” The quatrain referenced a common geographical practice not to establish a factual critique of maps but to make a satirical point about poetry.
We map scholars simply need to get over ourselves.
n1. Elias, Fischer, and Woolley (1994) explained the poem’s subtle and significant modifications at the hands of Swift and later editors, notably the posthumous addition of some forty new lines that Swift had originally omitted, because they had attacked the king; see Just (2004, 51–55) for the initial determination that the poem was indeed deemed libelous and that only Swift’s popularity in Dublin had prevented his arrest. The line numbers used here are those provided by Elias, Fischer, and Woolley (1994) for the complete text, also used by Just (2004); in the original edition published by Huggonson, the quatrain comprises lines 176–79. The quatrain itself was not modified in later printings.
n2. A personal bête-noir: the careless use of the modern spelling of “rhapsody” in the work’s subtitle, even in library catalog entries for the first edition.
n3. Raisz’s interpretation of Swift as actively criticizing contemporary mapping practices has led to the quatrain bearing extensive evidentiary weight, as when Geoff Armitage and Ashley Baynton-Williams (2012, 143) extrapolated to claim that “Swift’s satire underscores his interest in educating the geographically illiterate.”
n4. A recent, literal reading of the quatrain did mention the quatrain’s connection to Plutarch, but incorrectly thought that the actual criticism came from “[John] Dryden’s introduction to his  translation of Plutarch’s Theseus,” so that the criticism was entirely modern and the literal interpretation justified (Monga 2003, 414–15). Dryden’s translation, edited by Arthur Hugh Clough in 1911 is available at http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/theseus.html.
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