1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 389-90.



JONATHAN SWIFT, a person who has carried one species of poetry, that of humorous satire, to a degree never before attained, was, by his parentage, of English descent, but probably born in Ireland. It is known that his father, also called Jonathan, having married a Leicestershire lady, died at an early age, leaving a daughter, and a posthumous son. His widow, being left in narrow circumstances, was invited by her husband's brother, Godwin, who resided in Dublin, to his house; and there, it is supposed, Jonathan was born, on November 30th, 1667. After passing some time at a school in Kilkenny, he was removed to Trinity College, Dublin in his 15th year; in which university he spent seven years, and then obtained with difficulty the degree of bachelor of arts, conferred special gratia. The circumstance affords sufficient proof of the misapplication of his talents to mathematical pursuits, but he is said to have been at this period engaged eight hours a day in more congenial studies.

So profuse are the materials for the life of Swift that it has become almost a vain attempt to give, in a moderate compass, the events by which he was distinguished from ordinary mortals; and it will therefore be chiefly in his character of a poetical composer that we shall now consider him. He was early domesticated with the celebrated statesman Sir William Temple, who now lived in retirement at Moor Park, but having made choice of the church as his future destination, on parting in some disagreement from Temple, he went to Ireland, with very moderate expectations, and took orders. A reconciliation with his patron brought him back to Moor Park, where he passed his time in harmony till the death of Sir William, who left him a legacy and his papers. He then accepted an invitation from the Earl of Berkeley, one of the Lords Justices of Ireland, to accompany him thither as chaplain and private secretary, and he continued in the family as long as his lordship remained in that kingdom. Here Swift began to distinguish himself by an incomparable talent of writing humorous verses in the true familiar style. several specimens of which he produced for the amusement of the house. After Lord Berkeley's turn to England, Swift went to reside at his living at Laracor, in the diocese of Meath; and here it was that ambition began to take possession of his mind. He thought it proper to increase his consequence by taking the degree of doctor of divinity in an English university; and, for the purpose of forming connections, he paid annual visits to that country. In 1701, he first engaged as a political writer; and, in 1704, he published, though anonymously, his celebrated Tale of a Tub, which, while it placed him high as a writer distinguished by wit ant humour of a peculiar cast, brought him under the heavy imputation, from which he was never able entirely to free himself, of being a scoffer against revealed religion.

His prospects of advancement in the political career were abortive, till 1710, when the Tories came into power. His connection with this party began in an acquaintance with Harley, afterwards Earl of Oxford, who introduced him to secretary St. John, afterwards Lord Bolingbroke, and he engaged the confidence of these leaders to such a degree, that he was admitted to their most secret consultations. In all his transactions with them he was most scrupulously attentive to preserve every appearance of being on an equality, and to repress every thing that looked like slight or neglect on their parts, and there probably is not another example of a man of letters who has held his head so high in his association with men in power. This was undoubtedly owing to that constitutional pride and unsubmitting nature which governed all his actions.

A bishopric in England was the object at which he aimed, and a vacancy on the bench occurring he was recommended by his friends in the ministry to the Queen; but suspicions of his faith, and other prejudices, being raised against him, he was passed over; and the highest preferment which his patrons could venture to bestow upon him was the deanery of St. Patrick's, in Dublin; to which he was presented in 1713, and in which he continued for life. The death of the Queen put an end to all contests among the Tory ministers; and the change terminated Swift's prospects, and condemned him to an unwilling residence in a country which he always disliked. On his return to Dublin his temper was severely tried by the triumph of the Whigs, who treated him with great indignity; but in length of time, by a proper exercise of his clerical office, by reforms introduced into the chapter of St. Patrick's, and by his bold and able exposures of the abuses practised in the government of Ireland, he rose to the title of King of the Mob in that capital.

His conduct with respect to the female sex was not less unaccountable than singular, and certainly does no honour to his memory. Early in life he attached himself to his celebrated Stella; whose real name was Johnson, the daughter of Sir William Temple's steward. Soon after his settlement at Laracor he invited her to Ireland. She came, accompanied by a Mrs. Dingley, and resided near the parsonage when he was at home, and in it when he was absent; nor were they ever known to lodge in the same house, or to see each other without a witness. In 1716, he was privately married to her, but the parties were brought no nearer that before, and the act was attended with no acknowledgment that could gratify the feelings of a woman who had so long devoted herself to him. About the year 1712, he became acquainted, in London, with Mrs. Esther Vanhomrigh, a young lady of fortune with a taste for literature, which Swift was fond of cultivating. To her he wrote the longest and most polished of his poems, entitled Cadenus and Vanessa; and her attachment acquired so much strength, that she made him the offer of her hand. Even after his marriage to Stella, Swift kept Miss Vanhomrigh in ignorance of this connection; but a report of it having at length reached her, she took the step of writing a note to Stella, requesting to know if the marriage were real. Stella assured her of the affirmative in her answer, which she enclosed to Swift, and went into the country without seeing him. Swift went immediately to the house of Miss Vanbomrigh, threw Stella's letter on the table, and departed, without speaking a word. She never recovered the shock, and died in 1728. Stella, with her health entirely ruined, languished on till 1728, when she expired. Such was the fate which he prepared for both.

Of the poems of Swift, some of the most striking were composed in mature life, after his attainment of his deanery of St. Patrick; and it will be admitted that no one ever gave a more perfect example of the easy familiarity attainable in the English language. His readiness in rhyme is truly astonishing; the most uncommon associations of sounds coming to him as it were spontaneously, in words seemingly the best adapted to the occasion. That he was capable of high polish and elegance, some of his works sufficiently prove; but the humorous and sarcastic was his habitual task which he frequently indulged beyond the bounds of decorum; a circumstance, which renders the task of selection from his works somewhat perplexing. In wit, both in verse and prose, he stands foremost in grave irony, maintained with the most plausible air of serious simplicity, and supported by great minuteness of detail. His Gulliver's Travels are a remarkable exemplification of his powers in this kind, which have rendered the work wonder fully amusing, even to childish readers, whilst the keen satire with which it abounds may gratify toe most splenetic misanthropist. In general, however, his style in prose, though held up as a model of clearness, purity, and simplicity, has only the merit of expressing the author's meaning with perfect precision.

Late in life, Swift fell under the fate which he dreaded: the faculties of his mind decayed before those of his body, and he gradually settled into absolute idiocy. A total silence for some months preceded his decease, which took place in October 1744, when he was in his 78th year. He was interred in St. Patrick's cathedral, under a monument, for which he wrote a Latin epitaph, in which one clause most energetically displays the state of his feelings: — "Ubi sarva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit." He bequeathed the greatest part of his property to an hospital for lunatics and idiots,

To show, by one satiric touch,
No nation wanted it so much.