Many critics like William Deans Howells; T.S. Eliot etc. have called Jonathan Swift the greatest writer of prose like T.S. Eliot says that
“Swift, the greatest writer of English prose, and the greatest man who has ever written great English prose.”
But there are reasons for this greatness. One of the main reasons is that Swift wrote in a very plain and downright style. He didn’t use any embellishments. At times, when Swift was writing serious stuff this same plain style appears dry but when writing humorously, this same plainness gives his wit a singular edge. Swift didn’t use ornate or rhetorical language; he said what he had to in simply without any affectation as Hugh Blair says
“His style is of the plain and simple kind; free of all affectation, and all superfluity; perspicuous, manly and pure.”
And at times, his style appears so simple that its seems like anybody with a little sense of writing could write like him but in this same simple ness of manner lies Swift’s greatness like Scott says
“Swift’s style seems so simple that one would think any child might write as he does, and yet if we try we find to our own despair that it is impossible.”
This same simplicity of style in Gulliver’s Travels corresponds to the naiveté and simplicity of Gulliver.
Another important feature of Swift’s prose is that he uses the common touch. In other words, everybody can understand his language that is why even children can read his books with so much enjoyment. Also, Swift addresses people as rational and political beings, making them his equals. For example, in Drapier’s Letters Swift uses the same language of the class which he is addressing i.e. rough and shrewd. Swift doesn’t write long sentences or speeches or difficult words. And he familiarizes with the people by using their own simple and at times coarse language.
Invention or imagination is an aspect witch makes Swift one of the greatest English writers. J.J. Hogan says
“One of Swift’s greatest outlets, of course, was invention.”
Although Swift has used many non-sensical and imaginary words, but these imaginary words have an underlying meaning. For example, Lindalino indicates “Dublin”, Nardac when broken down in German Narr (meaning fool) and doch (meaning still) turns into ‘still a fool’. Hekinah Degul can be translated, on grounds of similarity of sound, turns into ‘What in the devil’. Glumdalclitch can be divided into French ‘grand’ and Latin ‘altrix’ which in turn is combined to produce the meaning ‘enormous nurse’. The word Grildrig can be translated into ‘Girl-thing’ or ‘doll’. Swift also uses onomatopoeic words for example, Gulliver, Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Houyhnhnms, Yahoos etc. The name Lilliput suggest something small like in the word little, Brobdingnag suggest something, which is big.
The same way Houyhnhnms (pronounced Whinnims) sounds just like the neighing of a horse and Yahoo is the sound that people make when they are liberated. Even the names that Swift gives to characters are onomatopoeic like Gulliver which is similar in sound to gullible, the emperor’s name in Lilliput Golbasto Momaren Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue shows a little bit of the inflated nature of the emperor and the last part Mully Ully Gue sounds ridiculous after such a long, inflated name. And Swift tries to give meaning to these same words to create a sense of authenticity for example, in voyage II, Gulliver is described as being as big as a splacknuck. So, although some words sound totally non-sensical there, is, infact some sense and meaning behind them.
There are a few other ways in which Swift’s writing is so remarkable. One of them is that is that Swift creates authenticity through the use of archaic language (like the language used in the Old Testament) for example after his long nap, Gulliver says that he awaked after a long nap. Also, Swift goes into very minute detail of anything that he’s describing. Like he describes the exact latitude, longitude, dates, naval details, details about clothing, manners, etc. At times, these same details are very disgusting like he describes how he had to disburden himself in Lilliput or the beggars in Brobdingna, but these same disgusting details create realism.
One of the most prominent features of Swift’s writing is his satire, which is described by Jacques Barzun as more deadly than a trap. His satire is very bitter, it isn’t gentle at all. But the best thing about his satire is that he’s satirizing the society through somebody as naïve and gentle as Gulliver. Swift most corrosive satire is on women and politicians, although, at times he does satirize other people like the scientists in Voyage III of Gulliver’s Travels or the religious members through The Tale of a Tub.
Swift commonly uses situational satire to criticize or when he excessively praises someone, it’s a strategy of irony and Swift manipulates this praise for his own satiric ends.
So the main reasons why Swift’s prose is plain perfection is that he writes in a simple manner, uses common language, he uses imaginary and non-sensical words and gives authenticity to these words, the use of archaic language to give authenticity, the description of everything up to the minutest detail and the way in which Swift uses satire.