1902 Encyclopedia > Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift
Anglo-Irish author

JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745), dean of St Patrick's, the greatest satirist of his own or perhaps of any age, was born in Hoey's Court, Dublin, November 30, 1667. Like Pope's, his family was of Yorkshire origin; in the time of Charles I. the representative of one branch had obtained a peerage, which expired with him. The first of his own immediate ancestors known to us was a clergyman, rector of St Andrew's, Canterbury, from 1569 to 1592, whose son succeeded him in that living, and whose grandson was the Rev. Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich in Herefordshire, renowned for his eccentricity, his mechanical ingenuity, and, above all, his stubborn devotion to Charles I. and the persecutions he underwent in consequence. Plundered thirty-six times, and ultimately ejected from his living, he died in 1658, leaving his thirteen children a small and greatly impoverished landed estate and the questionable advantage of a substantial claim on the gratitude of the restored sovereign. More fortunate than most ruined cavaliers, his oldest son Godwin soon obtained the attorney-generalship of the palatinate of Tipperary. This piece of good fortune naturally attracted other members of the family across the channel,—among them Jonathan, one of the youngest of nine brothers, but already husband of Abigail Ericke of Leicester, a lady of ancient descent and means more limited than his own. A student of law, but never called to the bar, Jonathan appears to have subsisted for some years on windfalls and casual employments. At length (1665) he became steward of the King's Inns (answering to the Inns of Court in England), an office of small emolument. Two years afterwards he died suddenly, leaving an infant daughter and a widow pregnant with the future dean of St Patrick's. So embarrassed had his circumstances been that, although considerable debts were owing to the estate, Mrs Swift was for the moment unable to pay the expense of his interment. Thus Swift's first experience of life was that of a dependant on the charity of his uncles, more particularly of Godwin ; and the inevitable bitterness of the situation was aggravated by the grudging manner in which the Tipperary official seemed to dole out his parsimonious help. In fact, the apparently prosperous relative was the victim of unfortunate speculations, and chose rather to be reproached with avarice than with imprudence. A virulent resentment became ingrained into the youth's whole nature, and, though ultimately acquainted with the real state of the case, he never mentioned his uncle with kindness or respect, Other relatives did more to merit his regard. Yet he took no pride in his Irish connexions or nativity, and a singular adventure in his infancy seems to have afforded him a pretext for insinuating that he was really born in England. When he was but two years old his nurse, a native of Whitehaven, was recalled to that town by an illness in her family. So attached had she become to her charge as to clandestinely carry him away with her, Mrs Swift was induced to consent to his remaining with her for a time, and the child spent three years in Cumberland. By his return his education had made considerable progress, and in the next year he was sent to the grammar school at Kilkenny. There can be no question as to the author of Gulliver having been a remarkable child, but unfortunately only one anecdote of his school-days has been preserved. It is the story, graphically narrated by himself, of his having once invested the whole of his pocket-money in the purchase of an old horse condemned to the knacker's yard, his momentary triumph over his school-fellows, and his mortification on discovering the uselessness of his acquisition,—an anecdote highly characteristic of his daring pride and ambition, and from which, instead of the moral he professed to discover, he might have derived an augury of the majestic failure of his life.

In April 1682 Swift matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he failed to distinguish himself. " By the ill-treatment of his nearest relations," he says, meaning especially his uncle Godwin, " he was so discouraged and sunk in his spirits that he too much neglected his academic studies, for some part of which he had no great relish by nature ; so that when the time came for taking his degree as bachelor of arts he was stopped of his degree for dulness and insufficiency, and at last hardly admitted in a manner little to his credit, which is called in that college speciali gratia, February 15, 1685." The college roll, nevertheless, shows that the only subject in which Swift absolutely failed was natural philosophy, including mathematics, in which the future author of the Voyage to Laputa was hardly likely to excel, nor is it surprising that a student of fitful and unruly temperament should have performed his obligatory theme negligenter. His examination in Greek and Latin was satisfactory, and the extent of desultory information evinced by his writings seems to prove that he had always been an industrious reader. His mortification made him reckless, and he repeatedly underwent academic censure during the next three years, though it is not certain whether some of the records supposed to apply to him do not in fact relate to his cousin Thomas.

Swift and Temple.

In 1688 Swift quitted the university, and, after a brief residence with his mother at Leicester, entered the family of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, near Farnham, as he declares for the advantage of Temple's conversation, but at least partly as an amanuensis. A distant relationship between his mother and Lady Temple appears to have recommended him to this post, which he found trying to his pride and independence. Temple was, as Swift admitted, " a man of sense and virtue," but his temper was exclusive, his manners formal, and he had retired from public affairs from self-regard and over-fastidiousness. If he solaced his voluntary ostracism by a comparison with the elegant retirement and lettered ease of Cicero, it did not therefore occur to him to compare his obscure Irish secretary with the Roman orator's amanuensis Tiro, who had, at least, invented shorthand. We, who know that in the patron's place the dependant would have governed the nation, need not be surprised at finding, full twenty years afterwards, the iron of servitude still rankling in the latter's haughty soul. He withdrew from Temple's service on a pretext of ill health from May 1690 to August 1691, but returned, and undoubtedly made himself useful to his employer, who on one occasion rendered him the medium of a confidential communication to King William, who had consulted Temple on the bill for triennial parliaments, then sanctioned by both branches of the legislature. Swift did his best to enforce Temple's arguments in favour of the measure, and was in after life wont to refer to the failure of his rhetoric as the most useful lesson his vanity had ever received. Struck, it would seem, rather by the physical than the mental endowments of the robust young Irishman, William offered him a troop of horse, a proposal which appears to have been subsequently commuted into a promise of church preferment. Swift had already (July 1692) proceeded to the degree of M.A. at Oxford, and the execution of his design to embrace the ecclesiastical profession was hastened by a quarrel with Temple, occasioned by the latter's reluctance to contract any definite engagement to provide for him. Throwing up his employment, he passed (May 1694) over into Ireland, but found his views impeded by the refusal of all the bishops to ordain him without some certificate of the regularity of his deportment while in Temple's family. Five months passed ere he could bring himself to solicit this favour from his old patron, which he ultimately did in a letter submissive in appearance, but charged to the full with smothered rage and intense humiliation. Forgiveness was easy to one in Temple's place and of Temple's disposition, and he not only despatched the requisite testimonials, but added a recommendation which obtained for Swift the living of Kilroot, in the diocese of Down and Connor (January 1695). His residence here was not fated to be of long duration. Temple, who knew his value and had not parted with him willingly, soon let him understand that a return was open to him, and Swift, whose resentment was cooled by time, and soothed by the acknowledgment' of his value to his patron, readily complied (May 1696). He continued to reside with Sir William till the latter's death in January 1699. No further disagreement troubled their intimacy, and Temple bequeathed Swift the charge of editing his writings, a laborious but not an unprofitable commission.

Early Writings and Settlement in Ireland.

Macaulay has justly indicated the familiarity with public writings acquired by Swift at Moor Park as one main cause of his subsequent distinction as a politician, and here too he laid, the foundation of his literary renown. He is reported to have read regularly for eight hours every day; and we have his own authority for his having, as early as 1691, "written and burned, and written again, more on all manner of subjects than perhaps any man in England." The only relics of these early days, however, belong to a species of composition in which he was little qualified to excel. He has, indeed, a name among the poets of England, but the merit of his verse is usually in the ratio of its approach to the sermo pedestris. Mistaking the nature of his powers, he must needs begin with Pindarics, and the result may be imagined. Yet his own simple account of his feelings while endeavouring composition proves that the mood was right though the channel was wrong, and that there was error as well as truth in his kinsman Dry den's severe and unforgiven remark, " Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet." Swift's first prose composition betrayed his resentment. In the Battle of the Boohs (1697), a satirical contribution to the controversy on the comparative merits of the ancients and the moderns raised by Perrault, but with especial reference to the question of the genuineness of the letters of Phalaris, on which his patron Temple had taken the wrong side, Swift for the first and last time committed a plagiarism, and sought to conceal it by an untruth. It is undoubtedly adapted, though certainly improved from, De Callières's Histoire Poétique de la Guerre nouvellement déclarée entre les Anciens et les Modernes. Here also his sarcasm for the first and last time recoiled upon himself. The satire against Dryden and Bentley wants, indeed, nothing but truth to be excellent; but the pictures of the former in his monstrous helmet and the latter in his patchwork mail yield in ludicrousness to the idea of the author of the Pindaric Odes presuming to ridicule the author of Absalom and Achitophel, and the inglorious student of Trinity College, Dublin, challenging the first philologist of the age on a question of classical scholarship. It is, however, to his credit that his learning was greater than that of the other writers on his side and his pretensions less. Swift's next literary labour was his edition of Temple's posthumous works, already mentioned. They appeared with a dedication to King William, which was to have made the editor a prebendary. A petition to this effect miscarried, as he always believed, through the negligence or ill-will of the nobleman who undertook to present it. Be this as it may, he had become too important to be overlooked, and soon obtained the post of secretary and chaplain to Earl Berkeley, one of the lords justices of Ireland. The better half of this appointment, however, escaped him on his arrival in that country, his secretaryship being transferred to a Mr Bushe, who, when Lord Berkeley had at length an opportunity of recompensing Swift's disappointment by the gift of the deanery of Derry, successfully exerted his influence in favour of another clergyman, who is asserted to have gained his interest by the judicious outlay of a thousand pounds. With bitter indignation Swift threw up his chaplaincy, but was ultimately reconciled to his patron by the presentation to the rectory of Agher, in Meath, with the united vicarages of Laracor and Rathbeggan. For the first time in his life he might now call himself his own master, and had an opportunity of exhibiting, free from suspicion of external constraint, that stern regard to duty which was not the least prominent feature of his character. In an age of general laxity—in a priest of an alien church, whose most energetic servants commonly succumbed to the mortifying conviction of their uselessness and the detestation they excited among the people for whom they laboured, the parishioners of Laracor found a clergyman whom they might have heard three times a week. The energy, however, which probably gained the respect, certainly failed to influence the convictions, of his Catholic flock. We have his own authority for reckoning his average congregation at "half a score"; and on one occasion his clerk Roger was his only auditor. In fact, his exertions in the pulpit were more meritorious than his achievements ; he entirely lacked the fire, the self-oblivion, the expansive geniality of the orator. He himself characterized his discourses as "pamphlets," and, if meant to imply their arid and argumentative character, the criticism is just. The author of the Tale of a Tub, which he had had by him since 1696 or 1698, must have felt conscious of powers capable of far more effective exercise; and his resolution to exchange divinity for politics must appear fully justified on a comparison of these inconclusive essays with another performance of the same period. The Discourse on the Dissensions in Athens and Borne (September 1700), written in the Whig interest, " without humour and without satire," and intended as a dissuasive from the pending impeachment of Somers and three other noblemen, received the honour, extraordinary for the maiden publication of a young politician, of being generally attributed to Somers himself or to Burnet, the latter of whom found a public disavowal necessary. Three years and a half later appeared a more remarkable work. Clearness, cogency, masculine simplicity of diction, are conspicuous in the pamphlet, but true creative power told the Tale of a Tub. " Good God ! what a genius I had when I wrote that book ! " was his own exclamation in his latter years. It is, indeed, if not the most amusing of Swift's satirical works, the most strikingly original, and the one in which the compass of his powers is most fully displayed. In his kindred productions he relies mainly upon a single element of the humorous,—logical sequence and unruffled gravity bridling in an otherwise frantic absurdity, and investing it with an air of sense. In the Tale of a Tub he lashes out in all directions. The humour, if less cogent and cumulative, is richer and more varied; the invention too, is more daringly original and more completely out of the reach of ordinary faculties. The supernatural coats and the quintessential loaf may be paralleled but cannot be surpassed; and the book is throughout a mine of suggestiveness, as, for example, in the anticipation of Carlyle's clothes philosophy within the compass of a few lines. At the same time it wants unity and coherence, it attains no conclusion, and the author abuses his digressive method of composition and his convenient fiction of hiatuses in the original manuscript. The charges it occasioned of profanity and irreverence were natural, but groundless. There is nothing in the book inconsistent with Swift's professed and real character as a sturdy Church of England parson, who accepted the doctrines of his church as an essential constituent of the social order around him, battled for them with the fidelity of a soldier defending his colours, and held it no part of his duty to understand, interpret, or assimilate them.

Whig Connections. Pamphlets on the Church.

Before the publication of the Tale of a Tub, Swift had taken a step destined to exercise a most important influence on his life, by inviting two ladies to Laracor. Esther phlets Johnson, a dependant of Sir William Temple's (born in on the March 1681), whose acquaintance he had made in the church, otter's family, and whom he has immortalized as " Stella," came over with her chaperon, Mrs Dingley, and was soon permanently domiciled in his neighbourhood. The melancholy tale of Swift's attachment will be more conveniently narrated in another place, and is only alluded to here for the sake of chronology. Meanwhile the sphere of his intimacies was rapidly widening. He had been in England for three years together, 1701 to 1704, and counted Pope, Steele, and Addison among his friends. The success of his pamphlet gained him ready access to all Whig circles; but already his confidence in that party was shaken, and he "was beginning to meditate that change of sides which has drawn down upon him so much but such unjustifiable obloquy. The true state of the case may easily be collected from his next publications—The Sentiments of a Ghtirch of England Man, and On the Reasonableness of a Test (1708). The vital differences among the friends of the Hanover succession were not political, but ecclesiastical. From this point of view, Swift's sympathies were entirely with the Tories. As a minister of the church he felt his duty and his interest equally concerned in the support of her cause; nor could he fail to discover the inevitable tendency of Whig doctrines, whatever caresses individual Whigs might bestow on individual clergymen, to abase the Establishment as a corporation. He sincerely believed that the ultimate purpose of freethinkers was to escape from moral restraints, and he had an unreasoning antipathy to Scotch Presbyterians and English Dissenters. One of his pamphlets, written about this time, contains his recipe for the promotion of religion, and is of itself a sufficient testimony to the extreme materialism of his views. Censorships and penalties are among the means he recommends. His pen was exerted to better purpose in the most consummate example of his irony, the Argument against Abolishing Christianity. About this time, too (November 1707), he produced his best poem, Baucis and Philemon, which, as he frankly tells us, owes very much to the corrections of Addison.

Swift Joins the Tories. Activity as Ministerial Writer.

From February 1708 to April 1709 Swift was in Swift London, urging upon the Godolphin administration the claims of the Irish clergy to the first-fruits and tenths (' Queen Annes bounty ), already granted to their brethren in England. His having been selected for such a commission shows that he was not yet regarded as a 'writer, deserter from the Whigs, although the ill-success of his representations probably helped to make him one. By November 1710 he was again domiciled in London, and writing his Journal to Stella, that unique exemplar of a giant's playfulness, " which was written for one person's private pleasure and has had indestructible attractiveness for every one since." In the first pages of this marvellously minute record of a busy life we find him depicting the decline of Whig credit and complaining of the cold reception accorded him by Godolphin, whose penetration had doubtless detected the precariousness of his allegiance. Within a few weeks he had become the lampooner of the fallen treasurer, the bosom friend of Oxford and Bolingbroke, and the writer of the Examiner, a journal established as the exponent of Tory views (November 1710). He was now a power in the state, the intimate friend and recognized equal of the first writers of the day, the associate of ministers on a footing of perfect cordiality and familiarity. " We were determined to have you," said Bolingbroke to him afterwards; " you were the only one we were afraid of." He gained his point respecting the Irish endowments; and, by his own account, his credit procured the fortune of more than forty deserving or undeserving clients. The envious but graphic description of his demeanour conveyed to us by Bishop Kennet attests the real dignity of his position no less than the airs he thought fit to assume in consequence. The cheerful, almost jovial, tone of his letters to Stella evinces his full contentment, nor was he one to be moved to gratitude for small mercies. He had it, in fact, fully in his own power to determine his relations with the ministry, and he would be satisfied with nothing short of familiar and ostentatious equality. His advent marks a new era in English political life, the age of public opinion, created indeed by the circumstances of the time, but powerfully fostered and accelerated by him. By a strange but not unfrequent irony of fate the most imperious and despotic spirit of his day laboured to enthrone a power which, had he himself been in authority, he would have utterly detested and despised. For a brief time he seemed to resume the whole power of the English press in his own pen and to guide public opinion as he would. His services to his party as writer of the Examiner, which he quitted in July 1711, were even surpassed by those which he rendered as the author of telling pamphlets, among which The Conduct of the Allies and Remarks on the Barrier Treaty (November and December 1711) hold the first rank. In truth, however, he was lifted by the wave he seemed to command. Surfeited with glory, the nation wanted a convenient excuse for relinquishing a burdensome war, which the great military genius of the age was suspected of prolonging to fill his pockets. The Whigs had been long in office. The High Church party had derived great strength from the Sacheverell trial. Swift did not bring about the revolution with which, notwithstanding, he associated his name. There seems no reason to suppose that he was consulted respecting the great Tory strokes of the creation of the twelve new peers and the dismissal of Marlborough (December 1711), but they would hardly have been ventured upon if The Conduct of the Allies and the Examiners had not prepared the way. A scarcely less important service was rendered to the ministry by his Letter to the October Club, artfully composed to soothe the impatience of Harley's extreme followers. He had every claim to the highest preferment that ministers could give him, but his own pride and prejudice in high places stood in his way.

Swift Made Dean of St Patrick's. Fall of Tory Ministry.

Generous men like Oxford and Bolingbroke cannot have been unwilling to reward so serviceable a friend, especially when their own interest lay in keeping him in England. Notwithstanding, therefore, some dubious expressions in fall of Swift's letters, natural to the deferred hope, we need not doubt their having actually used their best efforts to obtain for him the vacant see of Hereford. Swift, however, had formidable antagonists in the archbishop of York, whom he had scandalized, and the duchess of Somerset, whom he had satirized. Anne was particularly amenable to the influence of priestly and female favourites, and it must be considered a proof of the strong interest made for Swift that she was eventually persuaded to appoint him to the deanery of St Patrick's, Dublin, vacant by the removal of Bishop Sterne to Dromore. It is to his honour that he never speaks of the queen with resentment or bitterness. In June 1713 he set out to take possession of his dignity, and encountered a very cold reception from the Dublin public. The dissensions between the chiefs of his party speedily recalled him to England. He found affairs in a desperate condition. The queen's demise was evidently at hand, and the same instinctive good sense which had ranged the nation on the side of the Tories, when Tories alone could terminate a fatiguing war, rendered it Whig when Tories manifestly could not be trusted to maintain the Protestant succession. In any event the occupants of office could merely have had the choice of risking their heads in an attempt to exclude the elector of Hanover, or of waiting patiently till he should come and eject them from their posts; yet they might have remained formidable could they have remained united. To the indignation with which he regarded Oxford's refusal to advance him in the peerage the active St John added an old disgust at the treasurer's pedantic and dilatory formalism, as well as his evident propensity, while leaving his colleague the fatigues, to engross for himself the chief credit of the administration. Their schemes of policy diverged as widely as their characters : Bolingbroke's brain teemed with the wildest plans, which Oxford might have more effectually discountenanced had he been prepared with anything in their place. Swift's endeavours after an accommodation were as fruitless as unremitting. His mortification was little likely to temper the habitual virulence of his pen, which rarely produced anything more acrimonious than the attacks he at this period directed against Burnet and his former friend Steele. One of his pamphlets against the latter (The Public Spirit of the Whigs) was near involving him in a prosecution, some invectives against the Scots having proved so exasperating to the peers of that nation that they repaired in a body to the queen to demand the punishment of the author, of whose identity there could be no doubt, although, like all Swift's writings, except the Proposal for the Extension of Religion, the pamphlet had been published anonymously. The immediate withdrawal of the offensive passage, and a sham prosecution instituted against the printer, extricated Swift from his danger.

Meanwhile the crisis had arrived, and the discord of Oxford and Bolingbroke had become patent to all the nation. Foreseeing, as is probable, the impending fall of the former, Swift retired to Upper Letcombe, in Berkshire, and there spent some weeks in the strictest seclusion. This leisure was occupied in the composition of his remarkable pamphlet, Free Thoughts on the State of Public Affairs, which indicates his complete conversion to the bold policy of Bolingbroke. The utter exclusion of Whigs as well as Dissenters from office, the remodelling of the army, the imposition of the most rigid restraints on the heir to the throne,—such were the measures which, by recommending, Swift tacitly admitted to be necessary to the triumph of his party. If he were serious, it can only be said that the desperation of his circumstances had momentarily troubled the lucidity of his understanding; if the pamphlet were merely intended as a feeler after public opinion, it is surprising that he did not perceive how irretrievably he was ruining his friends in the eyes of all moderate men. Bolingbroke's daring spirit, however, recoiled from no extreme, and, fortunately for Swift, he added so much of his own to the latter's MS. that the author was obliged to recall a production which might not improbably have cost him his liberty and his deanery. This incident but just anticipated the revolution which, after Bolingbroke had enjoyed a three days' triumph over Oxford, drove him into exile and prostrated his party, but enabled Swift to perform the noblest action of his life. Almost the first acts of Bolingbroke's ephemeral premiership were to order him a thousand pounds from the exchequer and despatch him the most flattering invitations. The same post brought a letter from Oxford, soliciting Swift's company in his retirement; and, to the latter's immortal honour, he hesitated not an instant in preferring the solace of his friend to the offers of St John. When, a few days afterwards, Oxford was in prison and in danger of his life, Swift begged to share his captivity ; and it was only on the offer being declined that he finally directed his steps towards Ireland, where he was very ill received. The draft on the exchequer was intercepted by the queen's death.

Literary Friendships and Miscellaneous Writings.

These four busy years of Swift's London life had not been entirely engrossed by politics. First as the associate frfend of Steele, with whom he quarrelled, and of Addison, whose esteem for him survived all differences, afterwards as the intimate comrade of Pope and Arbuthnot, the friend of Congreve and Atterbury, Parnell and Gay, he entered deeply into the literary life of the period. He was treasurer and a leading member of the Brothers, a society of wits and statesmen which recalls the days of Horace and Maecenas. He promoted the subscription for Pope's Homer, contributed some numbers to the Tatler, Spectator, and Intelligencer, and joined with Pope and Arbuthnot in establishing the Seriblerus Chib, writing Martinut Scriblerus, his share in which can have been but small, as well as John, Bull, where the chapter recommending the education of all blue-eyed children in depravity for the public good must surely be his. His fugitive productions during this period are very numerous, and mostly distinguished not only by pungent wit but by overflowing animal spirits. The most celebrated are the cruel but irresistibly ludicrous satires on the astrologer Partridge, a man in fact respectable for his sincere belief in his art, and no mean writer. Many of his best poems belong to this period. A more laboured work, his Memorial to Harley, proposing the regulation of the English language by an academy, is chiefly remarkable as a proof of the deference paid to French taste by the most original English writer of his day. His History of the Last Four Years of Queen Anne is not on a level with his other political writings. To sum up the incidents of this eventful period of his life, it was during it that he lost his mother, always loved and dutifully honoured, by death; his sister had been estranged from him some years before by an imprudent marriage, which, though making her a liberal allowance, he never forgave.

Stella and Vanessa.

The change from London to Dublin can seldom be an agreeable one. To Swift it meant for the time the fall from unique authority to absolute insignificance. All share in the administration of even Irish affairs was denied him ; every politician shunned him ; and his society hardly included a single author or wit. At a later period he talked of " dying of rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole"; for some time, however, he was buoyed up by feeble hopes of a restoration to England. So late as 1726 he was in England making overtures to Walpole, but he had no claim on ministerial goodwill, and as an opponent he had by that time done his worst. By an especial cruelty of fate, what should have been the comfort became the bane of his existence. We have already mentioned his invitation of Esther Johnson and Mrs Dingley to Ireland. Both before and after his elevation to the deanery of St Patrick's these ladies continued to reside near him, and superintended his household during his absence in London. He had frustrated a match proposed for Stella, and, with his evident delight in the society of the dark-haired, bright-eyed, witty beauty, a model, if we may take his word, of all that woman should be, it seemed unaccountable that he did not secure it to himself by the expedient of matrimony. A constitutional infirmity has been suggested as the reason, and the conjecture derives support from several peculiarities in his writings. But, whatever the cause, his conduct proved none the less the fatal embitterment of his life and Stella's and yet another's. He had always been unlucky in his relations with the fair sex. In 1694 he had idealized as " Varina" a Miss Waring, who then discouraged his attentions, but two years later made him advances in her turn. Swift's mind had also changed, and he could find no better way out of the difficulty than an insulting letter affecting to accept her proposal on terms which he knew must put it out of the question. Varina was avenged by Vanessa, who pursued Swift to far other purpose. Esther Vanhomrigh, the orphan daughter of a commissioner of Irish trade, had become known to Swift at the height of his political influence. He lodged close to her mother, and was a frequent guest at her table. Vanessa insensibly became his pupil, and he insensibly became the object of her impassioned affection. Her letters reveal a spirit full of ardour and enthusiasm, and warped by that perverse bent which leads so many women to prefer a tyrant to a companion. Swift, on the other hand, was devoid of passion. Of friendship, even of tender regard, he was fully capable, but not of love. The spiritual realm, whether in divine or earthly things, was a region closed to him, where he never set foot. As a friend he must have greatly preferred Stella to Vanessa ; and from this point of view his loyalty to the original object of his choice, we may be sure, never faltered. But Vanessa assailed him on a very weak side. The strongest of all his instincts was the thirst for imperious domination. Vanessa hugged the fetters to which Stella merely submitted. Flattered to excess by her surrender, yet conscious of his binding obligations and his real preference, he could neither discard the one beauty nor desert the other. It is humiliating to human strength and consoling to human weakness to find the Titan behaving like the least resolute of mortals, seeking refuge in temporizing, in evasion, in fortuitous circumstance. He no doubt trusted that his removal to Dublin would bring relief, but here again his evil star interposed. Vanessa's mother died (1714), and she followed him. Unable to marry Stella without destroying Vanessa, or to openly welcome Vanessa without destroying Stella, he was thus involved in the most miserable embarrassment; still, for a time he continued to temporize. At length, unable to bear any more Stella's mute reproach and his own consciousness of wrong, he gave a reluctant consent to a private marriage, which, as at least the weight of testimony seems to prove, though there is no documentary evidence, was accordingly performed. This was in 1716. At the same time he insisted on their union being kept a strict secret, justifying a demand really dictated by tenderness for Vanessa, and perhaps by the unavowable reason to which allusion has been made, on the most futile and frivolous pretexts. Never more than a nominal wife, the unfortunate Stella commonly passed for his mistress till the day of her death, bearing her doom with uncomplaining resignation, and consoled in some degree by unquestionable proofs of the permanence of his love, if his feeling for her deserves the name. Meanwhile his efforts were directed to soothe Miss Vanhomrigh, to whom he addressed Gadenus [Becaims] and Vanessa, the history of. their attachment and the best example of his serious poetry, and for whom he sought to provide honourably in marriage, without either succeeding in his immediate aim or in thereby opening her eyes to the hopelessness of her passion. In 1717, probably at his instance, she retired from Dublin to Marley Abbey, her seat at Celbridge. For three years she and Swift remained apart, but in 1720, on what occasion is uncertain, he began to pay her regular visits. Sir Walter Scott found the Abbey garden still full of laurels, several of which she was accustomed to plant whenever she expected Swift, and the table at which they had been used to sit was still shown. But the catastrophe of her tragedy was at hand. Worn out with his evasions, she at last (1723) took the desperate step of writing to Stella, or according to another account to Swift himself, demanding to know the nature of the connexion with him, and this terminated the melancholy history as with a clap of thunder. Stella replied by the avowal of her marriage, sent her rival's letter to Swift, and retired to a friend's house. Swift rode down to Marley Abbey with a terrible countenance, petrified Vanessa by his frown, and departed without a word, flinging down a packet which only contained her own letter to Stella. Vanessa died within a few weeks. She left the poem and correspondence for publication. The former appeared immediately, the latter was suppressed until it was published by Sir Walter Scott.

Five years afterwards Stella followed Vanessa to the grave. The grief which the gradual decay of her health evidently occasioned Swift is sufficient proof of the sincerity of his attachment, as he understood it. It is a just remark of Thackeray's that he everywhere half-consciously recognizes her as his better angel, and dwells on her wit and her tenderness with a fondness he never exhibits for any other topic. Yet he could never overcome his repugnance to acknowledge their union till she lay on her death-bed, when he was heard by Mrs Whiteway (his cousin, a lady of fortune and talent, who, though not residing with
him, superintended his household during his latter years) to say, " Well my dear, if you wish it, it shall be owned." She answered, "It is too late." On January 28, 1728, she died, and her wretched lover sat down the same night to record her virtues in language of unsurpassed simplicity, but to us who know the story more significant for what it conceals than for what it tells. A lock of her hair is preserved, with the inscription in Swift's handwriting, most affecting in its apparent cynicism, "Only a woman's hair ! " " Only a woman's hair," comments Thackeray; "only love, only fidelity, purity, innocence, beauty, only the tenderest heart in the world stricken and wounded, and passed away out of reach of pangs of hope deferred, love insulted, and pitiless desertion; only that lock of hair left, and memory, and remorse, for the guilty, lonely wretch, shuddering over the grave of his victim." The more unanswerable this tremendous indictment appears upon the evidence the greater the probability that the evidence is incomplete. Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner. The hypothesis to which we have referred must for ever remain an hypothesis, but better than any other it not only excuses but explains.

The Drapier's Letters.

Between the death of Vanessa and the death of Stella, as though withheld by an evil fate until he could no longer enjoy them, came the greatest political and the greatest literary triumph of Swift's life. He had fled to Ireland a broken man, to all appearance politically extinct; a few years were to raise him once more to the summit of popularity, though power was for ever denied him. With his fierce hatred of what he recognized as injustice, it was impossible that he should not feel exasperated at the gross misgovernment of Ireland for the supposed benefit of England, the systematic exclusion of Irishmen from places of honour and profit, the spoliation of the country by absentee landlords, the deliberate discouragement of Irish trade and manufactures. An Irish patriot in the strict sense of the term he was not; he looked upon the indigenous population as conquered savages; but his pride and sense of equity alike revolted against the stay-at-home Englishmen's contemptuous treatment of their own garrison, and he delighted in finding a point in which the triumphant faction was still vulnerable. His Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures, published anonymously in 1720, urging the Irish to disuse English goods, became the subject of a prosecution, which at length had to be dropped. A greater opportunity was at hand. One of the chief wants of Ireland in that day, and for many a day afterwards, was that of small currency adapted to the daily transactions of life. Questions of coinage occupy a large part of the correspondence of the primate, Archbishop Boulter, whose anxiety to deal rightly with the matter is evidently very real and conscientious. There is no reason to think that the English ministry wished otherwise; but secret influences were at work, and a patent for supplying Ireland with a coinage of copper halfpence was accorded to William Wood on such terms that the profit accruing from the difference between the intrinsic and the nominal value of the coins, about 40 per cent., was mainly divided between him and the duchess of Kendal, the king's mistress, by whose influence he had obtained the privilege. Swift now had his opportunity, and the famous letters signed M. B. Drapier (1724) soon set Ireland in a flame. Every effort was used to discover, or rather to obtain legal evidence against, the author, whom. Walpole was assured, it would then have taken ten thousand men to apprehend. None could be procured; the public passion swept everything before it; the patent was cancelled; Wood was compensated by a pension; Swift was raised to a height of popularity which he retained for the rest of his life; and the only real sufferers were the Irish people, who lost a convenience so badly needed that they might well have afforded to connive at Wood's illicit profits. Perhaps, however, it was worth while to teach the English ministry that not everything could be done in Ireland. Swift's pamphlets, written in a style more level with the popular intelligence than even his own ordinary manner, are models alike to the controversialist who aids a good cause and to him who is burdened with a bad one. The former may profit by the study of his marvellous lucidity and vehemence, the latter by his sublime audacity in exaggeration and the sophistry with which he involves the innocent halfpence in the obloquy of the nefarious patentee.

Gulliver's Travels.

The noise of the Drapier's letters had hardly died away Gulliver's when Swift acquired a more durable glory by the publication of Gulliver's Travels in 1726. The work had been at least partly written by 1722, and the keenness of the satire on courts and statesmen suggests that it was planned while Swift's disappointments as a public man were still rankling and recent. It is Swift's peculiar good fortune that his book can dispense with the interpretation of which it is nevertheless susceptible, and may be equally enjoyed whether its inner meaning is apprehended or not. It is so true, so entirely based upon the facts of human nature, that the question what particular class of persons supplied the author with his examples of folly or misdoing, however interesting to the commentator, may be neglected by the reader. It is also fortunate for him that in three parts out of the four he should have entirely missed " the chief end I propose to myself, to vex the world rather than divert it." The world, which perhaps ought to have been vexed, chose rather to be diverted; and the great satirist literally strains his powers ut pueris placeat. Few books have added so much to the innocent mirth of mankind as the first two parts of Gulliver; the misanthropy is quite overpowered by the fun. The third part, equally masterly in composition, is less felicitous in invention; and in the fourth Swift has indeed carried out his design of vexing the world at his own cost. Human nature indignantly rejects her portrait in the Yahoo as a gross libel, and the protest is fully warranted. An intelligence from a superior sphere, bound on a voyage to the earth, might actually have obtained a fair idea of average humanity by a preliminary call at Lilliput or Brobdingnag, but not from a visit to the Yahoos. While Gulliver is infinitely the most famous and popular of Swift's works, it exhibits no greater powers of mind than many others. The secret of success, here as elsewhere, is the writer's marvellous imperturbability in paradox, his teeming imagination, and his rigid logic. Grant his premises, and all the rest follows; his world may be turned topsy-turvy, but the relative situation of its contents is unchanged. The pains he took to be correct are evinced by the care with which, as Prof. De Morgan has shown, he calculated the proportions of Lilliput and Brobdingnag to ordinary humanity on the basis of 1 to 12 and 12 to 1 respectively, and his copying the description of the storm word for word from Sturmy's Gompleat Mariner. By such accuracy and consistency he has given the wildest fiction imaginable an air of veracity rivalling Defoe.

Swift's grave humour and power of enforcing momentous Swift's truth by ludicrous exaggeration were next displayed in his latter Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents, by fattening and eating them (1729), a parallel to the Argument against Abolishing Christianity, and as great a masterpiece | of tragic as the latter is of comic irony. The Directions to Servants in like manner derive their overpowering comic force from the imperturbable solemnity with which all the misdemeanours that domestics can commit are enjoined upon them as duties. The power of minute observation displayed is most remarkable, as also in Polite Conversation (written in 1731, published in 1738), a surprising assemblage of the vulgarities and trivialities current in ordinary talk. As in the Directions, the satire, though cutting, is good-natured, and the piece shows more animal spirits than usual in Swift's latter years. It was a last flash of gaiety. The attacks of giddiness and deafness to which he had always been liable increased upon him, and his literary compositions became confined to occasional verses, not seldom indecent and commonly trivial, with the exception of his remarkable lines on his own death and the delightful Hamilton's Bawn, and to sallies against the Irish bishops, in whose honest endeavours to raise the general standard of their clergy he could only see arbitrary interference with individuals. He fiercely opposed Archbishop Boulter's plans for the reform of the Irish currency, but admitted that his real objection was sentimental: the coins should be struck as well as circulated in Ireland. His exertions in repressing robbery and mendicancy were strenuous and successful. His popularity remained as great as ever, and, when he was menaced by the bully Bettesworth, Dublin rose as one man to defend him. He governed his cathedral with great strictness and conscientiousness, and for years after Stella's death continued to hold a miniature court at the deanery. But his failings of mind were exacerbated by his bodily infirmities; he grew more and more whimsical and capricious, morbidly suspicious and morbidly parsimonious; old friends were estranged or removed by death, and new friends did not come forward in their place. For many years, nevertheless, he maintained a correspondence with Pope and Bolingbroke, and with Arbuthnot and Gay until their deaths, with such warmth as to prove that an ill opinion of mankind had not made him a misanthrope, and that human affection and sympathy were still very necessary to him. The letters become scarcer and scarcer with the decay of his faculties; at last, in 1740, comes one to his best Dublin friend, Mrs Whiteway, of heart-rending pathos :— "I have been, very miserable all night, and to-day extremely deaf and full of pain. I am so stupid and confounded that I cannot express the mortification I am under both of body and mind. All I can say is that I am not in torture; but I daily and hourly expect it. Pray let me know how your health is and your family: I hardly understand one word I write. I am sure my days will be very few; few and miserable they must be. I am, for those few days, yours entirely,—Jonathan Swift.

" If I do not blunder, it is Saturday, July 26, 1740. " If I live till Monday I shall hope to see you, perhaps for the last time."

Insanity and Death.

In March 1742 it was necessary to appoint guardians of Swift's person and estate. In September of the same year his physical malady reached a crisis, from which he emerged a helpless wreck, with faculties paralysed rather than destroyed. " He never talked nonsense or said a foolish thing." The particulars of his case have been investigated by Dr Bucknill and Sir William Wilde, who have proved that he suffered from nothing that could be called mental derangement until the "labyrinthine vertigo " from which he had suffered all his life, and which he erroneously attributed to a surfeit of fruit, produced paralysis, " a symptom of which was the not uncommon one of aphasia, or the automatic utterance of words ungoverned by intention. As a consequence of that paralysis, but not before, the brain, already weakened by senile decay, at length gave way, and Swift sank into the dementia which preceded his death" (Craik, Life of Swift). The scene closed on October 19, 1745. With what he himself described as a satiric touch, his fortune was bequeathed to found a hospital for idiots and lunatics. He was interred in his cathedral, in the same coffin as Stella, with the epitaph, written by himself, " Hie depositum est corpus Jonathan Swift, S.T.P., hujus ecclesiae cathedralis decani; ubi sajva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit. Abi viator, et imitare, si poteris, strenuum pro virili libertatis vindicem."

Personal and Literary Character.

The stress which Swift thus laid upon his character as Personal an assertor of liberty has hardly been ratified by posterity, ^ which has comparatively neglected the patriot for the .jjj^g, genius and the wit. Not unreasonably; for if half his patriotism sprang from an instinctive hatred of oppression, the other half was disappointed egotism. He utterly lacked the ideal aspiration which the patriot should possess : his hatred of villainy was far more intense than his love of virtue. The same cramping realism clings to him everywhere beyond the domain of politics,—in his religion, in his fancies, in his affections. At the same time, it is the secret of his wonderful concentration of power : he realizes everything with such intensity that he cannot fail to be impressive. Except in his unsuccessful essay in history, he never, after the mistake of his first Pindaric attempts, strays beyond his sphere, never attempts what he is not qualified to do, and never fails to do it. His writings have not one literary fault except their occasional looseness of grammar and their frequent indecency. Within certain limits, his imagination and invention are as active as those of the most creative poets. As a master of humour, irony, and invective he has no superior; his reasoning powers are no less remarkable within their range, but he never gets beyond the range of an advocate. Few men of so much mental force have had so little genius for speculation, and he is constantly dominated by fierce instincts which he mistakes for reasons. As a man the leading note of his character is the same,—strength without elevation. His master passion is imperious pride,—the lust of despotic dominion. He would have his superiority acknowledged, and cared little for the rest. Place and profit were comparatively indifferent to him ; he declares that he never received a farthing for any of his works except Gulliver's Travels, and that only by Pope's management ; and he had so little regard for literary fame that he put his name to only one of his writings. Contemptuous of the opinion of his fellows, he hid his virtues, paraded his faults, affected some failings from which he was really exempt, and, since his munificent charity could not be concealed from the recipients, laboured to spoil it by gratuitous surliness. Judged by some passages of his life he would appear a heartless egotist, and yet he was capable of the sincerest friendship and could never dispense with human sympathy. Thus an object of pity as well as awe, he is the most tragic figure in our literature,—the only man of his age who could be conceived as affording a groundwork for one of the creations of Shakespeare. " To think of him," says Thackeray, " is like thinking of the ruin of a great empire." Nothing finer or truer could be said.

Swift's correspondence is the best authority for his life. Of his contemporaries, we are mainly indebted to his panegyrist Delany and his detractor Lord Orrery. Hawkesworth compiled the particulars of his life, and published what was the standard edition of his works till the appearance of Sir "Walter Scott's in 1814. This edition is not likely to be superseded, but might with great advantage be reissued with amendments and additions. The biography prefixed is based on Hawkesworth, but is far more copiously and elegantly written. At the same time the author's views are frequently conventional, his judgments superficial, and his good nature has made him too indulgent to his hero. The late John Forstcr subjected all available records of Swift's life to the most diligent scrutiny, and in 1S75 published the first volume, coming down to 1711, of a biography intended to have been completed in three volumes. Invaluable in many respects, it exhibited the process as well as the result of biography, and hence threatened to be too long Mr H. Crai, succeeding to the post vacated by Forster's death, judiciously reduced the scale, and produced in one volume (1882) a work which will long rank as the standard one on the subject. Remarkable monographs on Swift have been produced by Leslie Stephen in the "Men of Letters" series, Dr Johnson in the Lives of the Poets, Thackeray in the English Humourists. Mr Stephen is anxiously impartial; Johnson's acuteness is perverted by his antipathy; Thackeray, as is natural in a novelist, has dwelt disproportionately on the romantic side of Swift's history, and his pity for Stella and Vanessa forms too large an element in his general judgment. But he has, better than any one else, apprehended the fearfully tragic element in Swift's character and fortunes. Swift's early life has been carefully investigated by Dr Barrett of Trinity College, and the final epoch of his life by Monck Mason and Sir William Wilde. His greatness is exaggerated and his failings are extenuated in two brilliant articles in the Quarterly Review, vols. cli. and clvi. Minor points in his life and writings have received much elucidation from numerous inquirers, specially the late Mr Charles Dilke and Colonel F. Grant. Mr Stanley Lane Poole has edited selections from his works and correspondence, with excellent notes and prefaces, and has prepared a valuable bibliography. (R. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries