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By Margaret Kelleher

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B. Yeats, a tree with its branches symbolised the slow, patient evolution of a complex society and its institutions, then those who cut down trees and sold them off at sixpence a time were persons with no understanding of tradition or order. The woods as a whole had both a literal and metaphorical meaning. At a practical level, they were places in which rebels on the run from the crown forces might hide away; but in a more symbolic guise they also represented the unconscious, that place of secrecy where instincts were liberated.

As primogeniture took the place of custom, the old rule of poets as interpreters of rightful sovereignty was lost. Under the new laws, there was no place for them. Small wonder that these ruined aristocrats floated their poems on the market in a heavily ironical search for a buyer. Over two centuries before Charles 10 Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 Literature and politics Baudelaire lamented a similar loss of aura among French poets, now turning ´ tricks like harlots desperate to please a passing customer, Mathghamhain O hIfearn´ain asks: Ceist!

One source was a folk anecdote heard in the townland of Quilca, County Cavan (and one which has persisted down to our own time in Irish), but Swift gave the narrative a truly Anglo-Irish inflection by foregrounding in it the question of perception. Making great play with Gulliver’s pair of spectacles, he showed how readers identify with the big people in each phase of the story but forced them also to consider what the world must be like for those who feel themselves tiny in the face of overweening power.

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