1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 3:395-96.



DR. JONATHAN SWIFT, a native of Ireland, but descended from a respectable English family, was born in Dublin in the year 1667.

Of a man so eminent in literature, and who ran such a long, active, and luminous career, we can only record a few prominent facts. His biographers, both from friendly and hostile motives, have detailed every incident of his life with sufficient minuteness; and we have only to skim the surface of their various compilations.

The infancy of Swift passed without any distinction. He early lost his father; but under the patronage of an uncle he received a classical education; and at the age of fourteen was admitted a member of Trinity college, Dublin. Oppressed by narrow circumstances, and disgusted with dry academical studies, he passed at the university for a dunce, and obtained at last a degree, special gratia.

This reflection on his diligence, for he must have felt that he did not want talents, roused the dormant faculties within him, and he became a regular and assiduous student, of which he produced many proofs in the following years of his life. His Gulliver's Travels, the Tale of the Tub, his poems, letters, sermons, political tracts &c. are all evidences of a mind richly stored with learning, and of a genius of no ordinary cast.

In consequence of a family connection with Sir William Temple, who resided at Richmond, he became acquainted with King William III. who it seems intended to promote him in the army; but Swift determined in favour of an ecclesiastical life; and having taken orders, his first preferment was the prebend of Kilroot, worth about 100 a year.

From his acquaintance with Sir William Temple, he acquired a taste for politics, and formed an intimacy with the leading men both in literature and state in this country, which he frequently visited, though he never held any preferment out of Ireland. After many disappointments in being provided for in England, he was made dean of St. Patrick in Dublin, in which situation he became very popular among his countrymen.

Of his mysterious intimacy with Miss Johnson, the celebrated Stella, and of Miss Vanhomrigh, the no less celebrated Vanessa, it is difficult to speak. Sheridan has been anxious to place it in the most favourable point of view, but the transaction, so far as respects Miss Johnson, cannot be defended, unless we admit an idea he is said to have been impressed by, of his being too nearly related to her for the union solicited. In fact, notwithstanding his wit, humour, and satire, in which he was almost unrivalled in his own or any other age, it is impossible love the man, though we may admire the author.

It is allowed both by friends and enemies, that his attendance upon the public service of the church was regular and uninterrupted; and the impressive examples which his warmest advocate has brought of humanity and tenderness of heart, his little ostentation as to fortune, fame, and rank, cannot be denied; but it is with some grains of allowance for the ardency of friendship, we can admit the blazing encomiums with which Mr. Sheridan closes his eulogy. "When we consider his character as a man, perfectly free from vice, with few frailties, and such exalted virtues; and as an author, possessed of such uncommon talents, such an inexhaustible fund of wit, joined to so clear and solid an understanding; when we behold these two characters united in one and the same person, perhaps it will not be thought too bold an assertion to say, that his parallel is not to be found either in the history of ancient or modern times."

Some years before his death, he had the misfortune to lose his intellects; and with a singular presentiment of the calamity which befel himself, he left the greatest part of his fortune to found an hospital for ideots and lunatics. He died in 1745, and was buried in St. Patrick's cathedral.