1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:545-48.



JONATHAN SWIFT, one of the most remarkable men of the age, was born in Dublin in 1667. His father was steward to the society of the King's Inns, but died in great poverty before the birth of his distinguished son. Swift was supported by his uncle and the circumstances of want and dependence with which he was early familiar, seem to have sunk deep in his haughty soul. "Born a posthumous child," says Sir Walter Scott, "and bred up an object of charity, he early adopted the custom of observing his birth-day as a term, not of joy, but of sorrow, and of reading, when it annually recurred, the striking passage of Scripture in which Job laments and execrates the day upon which it was said in his father's house 'that a man-child was born.'" Swift was sent to Trinity college, Dublin, which he left in his twenty first year, and was received into the house of Sir William Temple, a distant relation of his mother. Here Swift met King William, and indulged hopes of preferment, which were newer realised. In 1692 he repaired to Oxford, for the purpose of taking his degree of M.A., and shortly after obtaining this distinction he resolved to quit the establishment of Temple and take orders in the Irish church. He procured the prebend of Kilroot, in the diocese of Connor, but was soon disgusted with the life of an obscure country clergyman with an income of £100 a-year. He returned to Moorpark, the house of Sir William Temple, and threw up his living at Kilroot. Temple died in 1699, and the poet was glad to accompany Lord Berkeley to Ireland in the capacity of chaplain. From this nobleman he obtained the rectory of Aghar, and the vicarages of Laracor and Rathveggan; to which was afterwards added the prebend of Dunlavin, making his income only about £200 per annum. At Moorpark, Swift had contracted an intimacy with Miss Hester Johnson, daughter of Sir William Temple's steward, and, on his settlement in Ireland, this lady, accompanied by another female of middle age, went to reside in his neighbourhood. Her future life was intimately connected with that of Swift, and he has immortalised her under the name of Stella.

In 1701, Swift became a political writer on the side of the Whigs, and on his visits to England, he associated with Addison, Steele, and Arbuthnot. In 1710, conceiving that he was neglected by the ministry, be quarrelled with the Whigs, and united with Harley and the Tory administration. He was received with open arms. "I stand with the new people," he writes to Stella, "ten times better than ever I did with the old, and forty times more caressed." He carried with him shining weapons for party warfare — irresistible and unscrupulous satire, steady hate, and a dauntless spirit. From his new allies, he received, in 1713, the deanery of St Patrick's. During his residence in England, he had engaged the affections of another young lady, Esther Vanhomrigh, who, under the name of Vanessa, rivalled Stella in poetical celebrity, and in personal misfortune. After the death of her father, this young lady and her sister retired to Ireland, where their father had left a small property near Dublin. Human nature has, perhaps, never before or since presented the spectacle of a man of such transcendent powers as Swift involved in such a pitiable labyrinth of the affections. His pride or ambition led him to postpone indefinitely his marriage with Stella, to whom he was early attached. Though, he said, he "loved her better than his life a thousand millions of times," he kept her hanging on in a state of hope deferred, injurious alike to her peace and her reputation. Did he fear the scorn and laughter of the world, if he should marry the obscure daughter of Sir William Temple's steward? He dared not afterwards, with manly sincerity, declare his situation to Vanessa, when this second victim avowed her passion. He was flattered that a girl of eighteen, of beauty and accomplishments, sighed for "a gown of forty-four," and he did not stop to weigh the consequences. The removal of Vanessa to Ireland, as Stella had gone before, to be near the presence of Swift — her irrepressible passion, which no coldness or neglect could extinguish — her life of deep seclusion, only chequered by the occasional visits of Swift, each of which she commemorated by planting with her own hand a laurel in the garden where they met — her agonizing remonstrances, when all her devotion and her offerings had failed, are touching beyond expression.

"The reason I write to you," she says, "is because I cannot tell it to you, should I see you. For when I begin to complain, then you are angry; and there is something in your looks so awful, that it strikes me dumb. O! that you may have but so much regard for me left, that this complaint may touch your soul with pity. I say as little as ever I can. Did you but know what I thought, I am sure it would move you to forgive me, and believe that I cannot help tolling you this, and live."

To a being thus agitated and engrossed with the strongest passion, how poor, how cruel, must have seemed the return of Swift!

Cadenus common forms apart,
In every scene had kept his heart;
Had sighed and languished, vowed and writ,
For pastime, or to show his wit;
But books, and time, and state affairs,
Had spoiled his fashionable airs;
He now could praise, esteem, approve,
But understood not what was love:
His conduct might have made him styled
A father, and the nymph his child.
That innocent delight he took
To see the virgin mind her book,
Was but the master's secret joy
In school to hear the finest boy.

The tragedy continued to deepen as it approached the close. Eight years had Vanessa nursed in solitude the hopeless attachment. At length she wrote to Stella, to ascertain the nature of the connexion between her and Swift; the latter obtained the fatal letter, and rode instantly to Marley abbey, the residence of the unhappy Vanessa. "As he entered the apartment," to adopt the picturesque language of Scott in recording the scene, "the sternness of his countenance, which was peculiarly formed to express the stronger passions, struck the unfortunate Vanessa with such terror, that she could scarce ask whether he would not sit down. He answered by flinging a letter on the table; and instantly leaving the house, mounted his horse, and returned to Dublin. When Vanessa opened the packet, she only found her own letter to Stella. It was her death-warrant. She sunk at once under the disappointment of the delayed yet cherished hopes which had so long sickened her heart, and beneath the unrestrained wrath of him for whose sake she had indulged them. How long she survived this last interview is uncertain, but the time does not seem to have exceeded a few weeks."

Even Stella, though ultimately united to Swift, dropped into the grave without any public recognition of the tie; they were married in secrecy in the garden of the deanery, when on her part all but life had faded away. The fair sufferers were deeply avenged. But let us adopt the only charitable — perhaps the just — interpretation of Swift's conduct; the malady which at length overwhelmed his reason might then have been lurking in his frame; the heart might have felt its ravages before the intellect. A comparison of dates proves that it was some years before Vanessa's death that the scene occurred which has been related by Young, the author of the "Night Thoughts." Swift was walking with some friends in the neighbourhood of Dublin. "Perceiving he did not follow us," says Young, "I went back, and found him fixed as a statue, and earnestly gazing upward at a noble elm, which in its uppermost branches was much decayed. Pointing at it, he said, 'I shall be like that tree; I shall die at the top.'" The same presentiment finds expression in his exquisite imitation of Horace (book ii. satire 6.), made in conjunction with Pope:—

I've often wished that I had clear
For life six hundred pounds a-year,
A handsome house to lodge a friend,
A river at my garden's end,
A terrace-walk, and half a rood
Of land, set out to plant a wood.

Well, new I have all this and more,
I ask not to increase my store;
But here a grievance seems to lie,
All this is mine but till I die;
I can't but think 'twould sound more clever,
To me and to my heirs for ever.

If I ne'er got or lost a great
By any trick or any fault;
And if I pray by reason's rules,
And not like forty ether fools,
As thus, "Vouchsafe, oh gracious Maker!
To grant me this and 'tother acre;
Or if it be thy will and pleasure,
Direct my plough to find a treasure!"
But only what my station fits,
And to be kept in my right wits;
Preserve, Almighty Providence
Just what you gave me, competence,
And let me in these shades compose
Something in verse as true as prose.

Swift was at first disliked in Ireland, but the Drapier's Letters and other works gave him unbounded popularity. His wish to serve Ireland was one of his ruling passions; yet it was something like the instinct of the inferior animals towards their offspring; waywardness, contempt, and abuse were strangely mingled with affectionate attachment and ardent zeal. Kisses and curses were alternately on his lips. Ireland, however, gave Swift her whole heart — he was more than king of the rabble. After various attacks of deafness and giddiness, his temper became ungovernable, and his reason gave way. Truly and beautifully has Scott said, "the stage darkened ere the curtain fell." Swift's almost total silence during the last three years of his life (for the last year he spoke not a word) appals and overawes the imagination. He died on the 19th of October 1745, and was interred in St Patrick's cathedral, amidst the tears and prayers of his countrymen. His fortune, amounting to about £10,000, he left chiefly to found a lunatic asylum in Dublin, which he had long meditated.

He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for feels and mad,
And showed, by one satiric touch,
No nation wanted it so much.

Gulliver's Travels and the Tale of a Tub must ever be the chief corner-stones of Swift's fame. The purity of his prose style renders it a model of English composition. He could wither with his irony and invective; excite to mirth with his wit and invention; transport as with wonder at his marvellous powers of grotesque and ludicrous combination, his knowledge of human nature (piercing quite through the deeds of men), and his matchless power of feigning reality, and assuming at pleasure different characters and situations in life, he is often disgustingly coarse and gross in his style and subjects; but his grossness is always repulsive, not seductive.

Swift's poetry is perfect, exactly as the old Dutch artists were perfect painters. He never attempted to rise above this "visible diurnal sphere." He is content to lash the frivolities of the age, and to depict its absurdities. In his too faithful representations, there is much to condemn and much to admire. Who has not felt the truth and humour of his "City Shower," and his description of "Morning"? Or the liveliness of his "Grand Question Debated," in which the knight, his lady, and the chambermaid, are so admirably drawn? His most ambitious flight is his "Rhapsody on Poetry," and even this is pitched in a pretty low key. Its best lines are easily remembered:

Not empire to the rising sun,
By valour, conduct, fortune won;
Not highest wisdom in debates
For framing laws to govern states;
Not skill in sciences profound,
So large to grasp the circle round,
Such heavenly influence require,
As how to strike the Muses' lyre.

Not beggar's brat on bulk begot,
Not bastard of a pedler Scot,
Not boy brought up to cleaning shoes,
The spawn of Bridewell or the stews,
Not infants dropt, the spurious pledges
Of gipsies littering under hedges,
Are so disqualified by fate
To rise in church, or law, or state,
As he whom Phoebus in his ire
Hath blasted with poetic fire.

Swift's verses on his own death are the finest example of his peculiar poetical vein. He predicts what his friends will say of his illness, his death, and his reputation, varying the style and the topics to suit each of the parties. The versification is easy and flowing, with nothing but the most familiar and commonplace expressions. There are some little touches of homely pathos, which are felt like trickling tears, and the effect of the piece altogether is electrical: it carries with it the strongest conviction of its sincerity and truth; and we see and feel (especially as years creep on) how faithful a depicter of human nature, in its frailty and weakness, was the misanthropic dean of St. Patrick's.