1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

Richard Ryan, in Biographica Hibernica. A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland (1819) 2:578-89.



A celebrated wit, and distinguished political writer, was born in Dublin on the 80th November, 1667, seven months after the death of his father; by which unfortunate event his mother had been so reduced in circumstances, that she was compelled to take refuge in the house of Mr. Godwin Swift, her husband's eldest brother, in Dublin, where Jonathan first saw the light.

The care of young Swift being entrusted by his mother to a nurse, this woman became so much attached to him, that, having occasion to visit a sick relative at Whitehaven, when he was about a year old, she took him with her unknown to his mother and uncle, who, when they afterwards discovered the place of his retreat, suffered him to remain there till he was better able to bear the fatigues of the voyage in his return; in consequence of which, he was not restored to them till he was four years old. This circumstance has given rise to an opinion, that he was a native of England; indeed, when displeased with the people of Ireland, he has been heard to say, "I am not of this vile country; I am an Englishman:" but the facts above related, are taken from an account left by him in his own hand-writing.

When six years old, he was sent to the school of Kilkenny, and at a proper age was admitted a student of Trinity college, Dublin. During the four years he passed in this seat of literature, he made so little progress in the usual and necessary studies, having given himself up without reserve to history and poetry, that, on an application for the degree of bachelor of arts, he was rejected. A similar fate would have attended his second attempt, had he not been relieved from it by the good offices of some of his friends, who obtained his admission to the degree, but not without the insertion of the words "speciali gratia," as a mark of degradation. This latter circumstance is said to have given rise to a curious misunderstanding some years afterwards, when he applied for the degree of master of arts in the university of Oxford. This is said to have been immediately granted with peculiar tokens of respect, that learned body construing those words as a mark of especial honour.

His uncle Godwin, having been attacked by a lethargy, which terminated in a total loss of speech and memory, Swift was deprived of the assistance he had expected from that relative in the guidance of his future pursuits. He, therefore, in 1688, went over to Leicester to consult with his mother, who recommended him to apply to Sir William Temple; to whose wife Mrs. Swift was distantly related. He was received by Sir William, who was at that time high in the confidence of the king, with great kindness; and his patron being lame of the gout, Swift used to attend his majesty in his walks in the garden, who treated him with great familiarity, and is said on one occasion to have offered him a troop of horse; this offer Swift thought proper to decline, having previously determined to take orders.

The return of a disorder which he had contracted in Ireland, by eating immoderately of fruit, and which, with some intermissions, continued to increase until it terminated in a total debility both of body and mind, compelled him in 1693, to visit his native country for the benefit of the air. From this visit he, however, derived but little advantage; and on his return to England, he again took up his residence in the house of Sir William Temple, who was then settled at Moor Parks near Farnham. He had previously taken orders at Oxford, and expected much advancement in the church from the kindness of his friend. In this he was disappointed; Sir William was too much attached to his company to provide for him elsewhere; and Swift rendered, perhaps, more irritable by the continuance of his complaint, quarrelled with him, and quitted his house "un beau matin," making his way on foot to his mother, at Leicester, with whom he remained until, by the interest of the viceroy, Lord Capel, he obtained the prebend of Kilroot, in the diocese of Connor, with about 100 a year.

His secession from the house of his benefactor continued not long. He was prevailed on by the entreaties of Sir William, debilitated by infirmities, and in want of a confidential friend, to resign the prebend and return to Moor Park. Here he remained till the death of Sir William, who left him a legacy, together with his posthumous works. These he collected and dedicated to King William, in the expectation of obtaining thereby a stall in the cathedral of St. Paul's, or in that of Westminster. He was disappointed; he retired from the court in dudgeon, and could never afterwards endure the name of William.

The Earl of Berkeley being appointed one of the lords justices of Ireland, Swift accompanied him in the capacity of chaplain and private secretary; but he was soon removed, under the pretence that the situation was not fit for a clergyman. To this disappointment succeeded another; the deanery of Derry became vacant, and it was the turn of the Earl of Berkeley to dispose of it; but instead of presenting it to swift as a recompence for his late usage, it was disposed of to another, and Swift was inducted to the livings of Laracor and Rathbeggin, in the diocese of Meath, which did not together amount to half its value.

On receiving these preferments he went to reside at Laracor, whither he journied on foot, in a decent suit of black, with coarse worsted stockings, of which he had a second pair with a shirt in his pocket, a round slouched hat on his head, and a long pole, higher than himself, in, his hand. In this equipage he arrived on the fourth day at Laracor, where he found the curate, a very worthy man, sitting at the door of his house, smoking his pipe. "What is your name?" said Swift, very abruptly; and the old gentleman had scarcely answered, when he exclaimed, "Well, then, I am your master." It would be tedious to repeat the remainder of a dialogue commenced in so unfeeling a manner it will be sufficient to observe, that he retired in a much better humour, being highly pleased at some refreshment which he obtained, and at the manner in which it was served up by the wife of the curate.

The church at Laracor having been left by his predecessor in a very miserable condition, Swift laudably repaired it. Indeed, he performed the duties of his situation with the utmost punctuality and devotion; but though really pious in his heart, he could not forbear indulging the peculiarity of his humour, without reference to time or place. He gave notice of his intention to lead prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays; but on entering the church on the first of those days, he found no one there but Roger Cox, the parish clerk. The rector, however, ascended the desk, and rising up very gravely, began, "Dearly beloved Roger, the Scripture moveth you and me in sundry places," &c. and so proceeded to the end of the service.

In 1701, Swift took his doctor's degree, and shortly after the death of King William, went over to England, for the first time since his settling at Laracor. This journey he frequently repeated during the reign of Queen Anne, and soon became eminent as a writer. He had been educated among the Whigs, but at length attached himself to the Tories; because the Whigs, he said, had renounced their old principles, and received others, which their forefathers abhorred. It may, however, be necessary to observe, for the information of those who regard only the modern acceptation of those terms, that the Tories of the reign of Queen Anne, differed much from those now so designated; Tories of that day being the out-party, and consequently opposed to the abuses of the existing government.

We find scarcely any material circumstance recorded of Swift during several succeeding years of his life. He was principally engaged in endeavouring to overthrow the power of the Whigs, and on the change of administration, in 1710, he became a man of considerable consequence, although not filling any public situation. The following extract from the diary of Bishop Kennet, (who was no admirer of Swift) is sufficient evidence of the great extent of his power at this period of his life.

"Dr. Swift came into the coffee-house, and had a bow, from every body but me, who, I confess, could not but despise him. When I came to the anti-chamber to wait before prayers, Dr. Swift was the principal man of talk and business, and acted as a master of requests. He was soliciting the Earl of Arran to speak to his brother the Duke of Ormond, to get a chaplain's place established in the garrison of Hull for Mr. Fiddes, a clergyman in that neighbourhood, who had lately been in gaol, and published sermons to pay fees. He was promising Mr. Thorold to undertake with my lord treasurer, that according to his petition, he should obtain a salary of 200 per annum, as minister of the English church at Rotterdam. Then he stopped F. Gwynne, Esq. going in with his red bag to the queen, and told him aloud he had somewhat to say to him from my lord treasurer. He talked with the son of Dr. Davenant to be sent abroad, and took out his pocketbook and wrote down several things, as memoranda, to do for him. He turned to the fire, and took out his gold watch, and, telling the time of the day, complained it was very late. A gentleman said, 'he was too fast.' 'How can I help it,' says the doctor, 'if the courtiers give me a watch that won't go right?' Then he instructed a young nobleman, that the best poet in England was Mr. Pope (a Papist), who had begun a translation of Homer into English verse; for which 'he must have 'em all subscribe;' for, says he, the author shall not begin to print till I have a thousand guineas for him. Lord treasurer, after leaving the queen, came through the room beckoning Dr. Swift to follow him: both went off just before prayers."

Notwithstanding this great influence, he remained without preferment till 1713, when he was appointed Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, which, though in point of power and revenue, no inconsiderable promotion, appeared to the ambitious mind of Swift, merely an honourable and profitable banishment. In this temper he arrived in Ireland to take possession of his new honours; and his acrimony was not a little increased by his reception there. The people of Ireland, regarding him as a Jacobite, hooted and pelted him as he passed along the streets; and the chapter of St. Patrick's received him with the greatest reluctance, thwarting him in every particular he proposed. He was avoided as a pestilence, opposed as an invader, and marked out as an enemy to his country. Such was on this occasion the reception of a man whose popularity afterwards rose to so commanding a height, that he may be said to have governed the people of Ireland with absolute and unlimited power. He now made no longer a stay in Ireland than was requisite to establish himself in his deanery, and to pass through the necessary formalities and customs; or, in his own words—

—through all vexations,
Patents, instalments, abjurations,
First-fruits, and tenths, and chapter-treats,
Dues, payments, fees, demands, and — cheats.

A fortnight after his entrance on the deanery, Swift hastened back to London, where he continued busied in politics, and confederated with the greatest wits of the age till the death of Queen Anne. During this period he was constantly endeavouring to exchange his Irish promotion, so little was he pleased with his treatment there, for some correspondent dignity in England: but in this he was disappointed; and on the final stop which was put to his expectations by the death of the queen, he returned to his native country, where he continued many years devoured by spleen, or, according to his own expression, "like a poisoned rat in his hole."

During his previous residence at Laracor, he had invited to Ireland a Miss Johnson, daughter of Sir William Temple's steward, but who is better known by the name of Stella. She was accompanied by an elderly lady; and whatever attachment Swift might then have felt for her, the greatest care was taken to prevent scandal. They never lived in the same house, nor were they ever known to meet, except in the presence of a third person. When in England, in 1709, he was introduced to the family of Mrs. Vanhomrigh, the widow of a merchant of considerable opulence. Attaching himself much to them, he was soon regarded as one of the family, and during their familiarity, insensibly became a kind of preceptor to the daughters. The eldest, Miss Esther Vanhomrigh, better known by the name of Vanessa, of a character naturally vain and romantic, became attached to the man who was favoured, flattered, feared, and admired by the greatest men in the nation. Smitten at first with the character of Swift, her affections by degrees extended themselves to his person. He had taught her

That virtue, pleased by being shewn,
Knows nothing which it dare not own;
That common forms were not designed
Directors to a noble mind:

and she had heard the lessons with attention, and imbibed the philosophy with eagerness. The maxims suited her exalted mind; but the close connexion between soul and body, appeared to a female philosopher indissoluble, and she had conceived, that they should, in their enjoyments, remain united. She communicated these sentiments to her preceptor, but he seemed not to comprehend her meaning. He talked of friendship, of the delights of reason, of gratitude, respect, and esteem. He almost preached upon virtue, and muttered some indistinct phrases concerning chastity. In short, he put aside her proposal of marriage without absolute refusal. Such was their situation on Swift's return to Ireland; whither he was soon followed by the young ladies, who, on their mother's death, found themselves considerably embarrassed by the prodigality in which she had indulged. Their affairs, however, were soon arranged; and, on the death of the younger sister, shortly after, the remains of their fortune centered in Vanessa.

In his poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, Swift had published to the world what may be termed the story of their loves; but with base and unmanly cruelty, had affected to veil its termination in a mystery which was fatal to the reputation of his enamorata. Deserted by the world, and piqued at the coolness of Swift, who, however, visited her frequently, but answered her proposals of marriage merely by turns of wit, she at length became unable to sustain any longer her load of misery. She wrote to him a very tender letter, insisting upon a serious answer; an acceptance, or a refusal. His reply was delivered by his own hand. Throwing down the letter on her table with great passion, he hastened back to his house. From his appearance she guessed at the contents of his letter; she found herself entirely discarded from his friendship and conversation; her offers were treated with insolence and disdain; she met with reproaches instead of love, with tyranny instead of affection. She did not many days survive it; she testified her disgust and disappointment by cancelling the will she had made in his favour, and expired in all the agonies of despair.

It has been conjectured, that in this letter, Swift revealed to her the secret of his marriage with Stella, which was privately solemnized in 1716. With qualities almost entirely the reverse of those of Vanessa; mild, humane, polite, and pious, amiable both in mind and in person, and possessed of almost every accomplishment, her fate was little different. Whatever were his motives to this marriage, Swift continued to live with her on precisely the same terms as he had previously. Mrs. Dingly was still her inseparable companion, and it would be difficult to prove that Swift and Stella ever conversed alone. She never resided at the deanery, except during his fits of giddiness and deafness, and on his recovery she always returned to her lodgings, which were on the opposite side of the Liffey. A woman of her delicacy must repine at so extraordinary a situation. Absolutely virtuous, she was compelled by her husband, who scorned even to be married like any other man, to submit to all the outward appearances of vice. Inward anxiety affected by degrees the calmness of her mind and the strength of her body. She began to decline in her health in 1724, and from the first symptoms of decay, she rather hastened than shrunk back in the descent; tacitly pleased to find her footsteps tending to that place where they neither marry nor are given in marriage. It is said, that Swift did at length consent that she should be publicly acknowledged as his wife; but the core had rankled too deeply, her health had departed, and she exclaimed, "it is too late." She died in January 1727, absolutely a victim to the peculiarity of her fate; a fate which she merited not, an which she probably could not have incurred in an union with any other person. "Why the dean did not sooner marry this most excellent person," says the writer of his life; "why he married her at all; why his marriage was so cautiously concealed; and why he was never known to meet her but in the presence of a third person; are inquiries which no man can answer without absurdity."

The character which Swift had acquired as a man of humour and wit, had in a great measure removed that odium which his politics had attached to him, when the appearance of his Proposal for the Use of Irish Manufactures, elevated him immediately into a patriot. Some little pieces of poetry to the same purpose, were no less acceptable and engaging, and he soon became a favourite of the people. His patriotism was as manifest as his wit, so peculiarly captivating to the natives of Ireland; he was pointed out with pleasure and respect as he passed along the streets: but the popular affection did not rise to its height till the publication in 1724, of the Drapier's Letters, those "brazen monuments" of his fame. A patent had been obtained by a person of the name of Wood, for the copper coinage, which was executed so badly and so low in value, as to become the general subject of complaint. In these letters, in a series of inimitable wit, and irresistible argument, the whole nation was advised to reject the base coin. The advice was followed; Wood decamped with his patent; the government was irritated to the extreme; and a large reward was offered by proclamation for the author of the letters.

On the day after the proclamation appeared against the Drapier, there was a full levee at the castle. The lord-lieutenant was going round the circle, when Swift entered the room with marks of the highest indignation in his countenance, and having pushed through the crowd, he addressed Lord Carteret, the viceroy, in a voice which echoed through the room, inveighing in the bitterest terms against Wood and his patent, and on the fatal consequences which must result from the introduction of base coin. The circle of obeisant courtiers was filled with astonishment at his audacity, and a dead silence prevailed for some minutes, which was broken by Lord Carteret who appropriately addressed the dean in this passage from Virgil:—

Res durae, et regni novitas, me talia cogunt
Moliri.

Nothing was talked of for some days but the intrepidity of the dean, and the ingenuity of Lord Carteret.

From this moment his popularity was unbounded. All ranks and professions listed themselves under the banner of the Drapier. The Drapier became the idol of Ireland, even to a degree of devotion, and bumpers were poured forth to the Drapier, as large and as frequent as to the glorious and immortal memory. Acclamations and vows for his prosperity attended him wherever he went, and his effigies were painted in every street in Dublin. He was consulted in all points relating to domestic policy in general, and to the trade of Ireland in particular; but he was more immediately regarded as the legislator of the weavers, who frequently came to him in a body to receive his advice for the regulation of their trade. And when elections were depending for the city of Dublin, many corporations refused to declare themselves till they had consulted his sentiments and inclinations. Over the populace he was the most absolute monarch that ever governed; and he was regarded by persons of every rank with veneration and esteem.

Melancholy is the lot of frail humanity. This idol of his country was becoming daily more subject to those attacks of giddiness and deafness which finally terminated in a total abolition of his mental functions. In 1736, while writing The Legion Club, a satire on the Irish parliament, he was seized with one of these fits, the effect of which was so dreadful, that he left the poem unfinished, and never afterwards attempted any composition which required a course of thinking, or perhaps more than one sitting to finish.

From this time his memory was perceived gradually to decline, and his passions to pervert his understanding. The attacks of his complaint became violent and frequent, and terminated in 1742, in a complete privation of reason. It would be distressing to humanity to detail the melancholy series of his few succeeding years; suffice it to say, that he expired without pang or convulsion, in October 1745, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.

Swift had always entertained a strong presentiment that he should fall into the melancholy condition we have described. "Walking," says Dr. Young, "with him and others, about a mile from Dublin, he suddenly stopped short; we passed on; but perceiving that he did not follow us, I went back and found him fixed as a statue, and earnestly gazing towards a noble elm, which in its uppermost branches was much decayed and withered. Pointing at it, he said, 'I shall be like that tree; I shall die at top.'"

It was probably also under the influence of this feeling, that he bequeathed the whole of his property, with the exception of a few trifling legacies, for the purpose of building an hospital for lunatics and idiots in Dublin; the regulations for which, as directed in his will, are peculiarly correct and appropriate. Even in so serious a composition he indulged himself occasionally in an ironical solemnity, carrying with it marks of his peculiar humour. Among others we find the following "Item; I bequeath to Mr. Robert Grattan, prebendary of St. Audeon's, my strong box, on condition of his giving the sole use of the said box to his brother, Dr. James Grattan, during the life of the said doctor, who has more occasion for it."

To attempt a delineation of the character of Swift, is needless. It would be superfluous to apply the epithet of wit to the author of Gulliver's Travels, and the Tale of a Tub; or to distinguish as a patriot the writer of the Drapier's Letters. His political works, though referring to so distant a period, are still occasionally quoted with respect; and few humorous tales are more frequently repeated than those of "Dean Swift."