1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

Anna Brownell Jameson, "Stella and Vanessa" Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 431-54.



It is difficult to consider Swift as a poet. So many unamiable, disagreeable, unpoetical ideas are connected with his name, that, great as he was in fame and intellectual vigor, he seems as misplaced in the temple of the muses as one of his own yahoos. But who has not heard of "Swift's Stella?" and of Cadenus and Vanessa? Though all will confess that the two devoted women, who fell victims to his barbarous selfishness, and whose names are eternally linked with the history of our literature, are far more interesting, from their ill-bestowed, ill-requited and passionate attachment to him, than by any thing he ever sung or said of them. Nay, his most elaborate, and his most admired poem — the avowed history of one of his attachments — with its insipid tawdry fable, its conclusion in which nothing is concluded, and the inferences we are left to draw from it, would have given but an ignominious celebrity to poor Vanessa, if truth and time, and her own sweet nature, had not redeemed her.

I pass over Swift's early attachment to Jane Waryng, whom he deserted after a seven years' engagement; she is not in any way connected with his literary history, — and what became of her afterwards is not known. He excused himself by some pitiful subterfuges about fortune; but it appears, from a comparison of dates, that the occasion of his breaking off with her, was his rising partiality for another.

When Swift was an inmate of Sir William Temple's family at Moor Park, he met with Esther Johnson, who appears to have been a kind of humble companion to Sir William's niece, Miss Gifford. She is said by some to have been the daughter of Sir William's steward; by others we are told that her father was a London merchant, who had failed in business. This was the interesting and ill-fated woman, since renowned as "Swift's Stella."

She was then a blooming girl of fifteen, with silky black hair, brilliant eyes, and delicate features. Her disposition was gentle and affectionate; and she had a mind of no common order. Swift sometimes employed his leisure in instructing Sir William's niece, and Stella was the companion of her studies. Her beauty, talents, and docility, interested her preceptor, who, though considerably older than herself, was in the vigor of his life and intellectual powers; and she repaid this interest with all the idolatry of a young unpractised heart, mingled with a gratitude and reverence almost filial. When he took possession of his living in Ireland, he might have married her; for she loved him, and he knew it. She was perfectly independent of any family ties, and had a small property of her own: but what were really his views or his intentions it is impossible to guess; nor are the reasons of that most extraordinary arrangement, by which he contrived to bind this devoted creature to him for life, and to enslave her heart and soul to him forever, without assuming the character either of a husband or a lover. He persuaded her to leave England; and, under the sanction and protection of a respectable elderly woman named Dingley, often alluded to in his humorous poems, to take up her residence near him at Laracor. Subsequently, when he became Dean of St. Patrick's, she had a lodging in Dublin. He was accustomed to spend part of every day in her society, but never without the presence of a third person; and when he was absent, the two ladies took possession of his residence, and occupied it till his return.

Two years after her removal to Ireland, and when she was in her twentieth year, Stella was addressed by a young clergyman, whose name was Tisdal; and sensible of the humiliating and equivocal situation in which she was placed, and unable to bring Swift to any explanation of his views or sentiments, she appears to have been inclined to favor the addresses of her new admirer. He proposed in form; but Swift, without in any way committing himself, contrived to prevent the marriage. Stella found herself precisely in the same situation as before, and every year increased his influence over her young and gentle spirit, as habit confirmed and strengthened the bonds of a first affection. She lived on in the hope that he would at length marry her, bearing his sullen outbreakings of temper, soothing his morbid misanthropy, cheering and adorning his life; and giving herself every day fresh claims to his love, compassion, and gratitude, by her sufferings, her virtues, her patient gentleness and her exclusive devotion; — and all availed not! During this extraordinary connection, Swift was accustomed to address her in verse. Some of these poems though worthless as poetry, derive interest from the beauty of her character, and from that concentrated vigor of expression which was the characteristic of all he wrote; as in this descriptive passage:—

Her hearers are amazed from whence
Proceeds that fund of wit and sense,
Which, though her modesty would shroud,
Breaks like the sun behind a cloud;
While gracefulness its art conceals,
And yet through every motion steals.
Say, Stella, was Prometheus blind,
And forming you, mistook your kind?
No; 'twas for you alone he stole
The fire that forms a manly soul;
Then, to complete it every way,
He moulded it with female clay:
To that you owe the nobler flame,
To this the beauty of your frame.

He compliments her sincerity and firmness of principle in four nervous lines:

Ten thousand oaths upon record
Are not so sacred as her word!
The world shall in its atoms end
Ere Stella can deceive a friend!

Her tender attention to him in sickness and suffering, is thus described, with a tolerable insight into his own character.

To her I owe
That I these pains can undergo;
She tends me like an humble slave,
And, when indecently I rave,
When out my brutish passions break,
With gall in every word I speak,
She, with soft speech, my anguish cheers,
Or melts my passions down with tears:
Although 'tis easy to descry
She wants assistance more than I,
She seems to feel my pains alone,
And is a Stoic to her own.
Where, among scholars, can you find
So soft, and yet so firm a mind?

These lines, dated March, 1724, are the more remarkable, because they refer to a period when Stella had much to forgive; — when she had just been injured, in the tenderest point, by the man who owed to her tenderness and forbearance all the happiness that his savage temper allowed him to taste on earth.

As Stella passed much of her time in solitude, she read a great deal. She received Swift's friends, many of whom were clever and distinguished men, particularly Sheridan and Delany; and on his public days she dined as a guest at his table, where, says his biographer [author's note: Sheridan's Life of Swift], "the modesty of her manners, the sweetness of her disposition, and the brilliance of her wit, rendered her the general object of admiration to all who were so happy as to have a place in that enviable society."

Johnson says that, "if Swift's ideas of women were such as he generally exhibits, a very little sense in a lady would enrapture, and a very little virtue astonish him;" and thinks, therefore, that Stella's supremacy might be "only local and comparative;" but it is not the less true, that she was beheld with tenderness and admiration by all who approached her, and whether she could spell or not, she could certainly write very pretty verses, considering whom she had chosen for her model for instance, the following little effusion, in reply to a compliment addressed to her:

If it be true, celestial powers,
That you have formed me fair,
And yet, in all my vainest hours,
My mind has been my care;
Then, in return, I beg this grace,
As you were ever kind,
What envious time takes from my face,
Bestow upon my mind!

She had continued to live on in this strange undefinable state of dependence for fourteen years, "in pale contented sort of discontent," though her spirit was so borne down by the habitual awe in which he held her, that she never complained — when the suspicion that a younger and fairer rival had usurped the heart she possessed, if not the rights she coveted, added the tortures of jealousy to those of lingering suspense and mortified affection.

A new attachment had, in fact, almost entirely estranged Swift from her, and from his home. While in London, from 1710 to 1712, he was accustomed to visit at the house of Mrs. Vanhomrigh, and became so intimate, that during his attendance on the ministry at that time, he was accustomed to change his wig and gown, and drink his coffee there almost daily. Mrs. Vanhomrigh had two daughters: the eldest, Esther, was destined to be the second victim of Swift's detestable selfishness, and become celebrated under the name of Vanessa.

She was a character altogether different from that of Stella. Not quite so beautiful in person, but with all the freshness and vivacity of youth — (she was not twenty,) and adding to the advantages of polished manners and lively talents, a frank confiding temper, and a capacity for strong affections. She was rich, admired, happy, and diffusing happiness. Swift, as I have said, visited at the house of her mother. His age, his celebrity, his character as a clergyman, gave him privileges of which he availed himself. He was pleased with Miss Vanhomrigh's talents, and undertook to direct her studies. She was ignorant of the ties which bound him to the unhappy Stella; and charmed by his powers of conversation, dazzled by his fame, won and flattered by his attentions, surrendered her heart and soul to him before she was aware; and her love partaking of the vivacity of her character, not only absorbed every other feeling, but, as she expressed it herself, "became blended with every atom of her frame."

Swift, among his other lessons, took pains to impress her with his own favorite maxims (it had been well for both had he acted up to them himself) — "to speak the truth on all occasions, and at every hazard: and to do what seemed right in itself, without regard to the opinions or customs of the world." He appears also to have insinuated the idea, that the disparity of their age and fortune rendered him distrustful of his own powers of pleasing. She was thus led on, by his open admiration, and her own frank temper, to betray the state of her affections, and proffered to him her hand and fortune He had not sufficient humanity, honor, or courage, to disclose the truth of his situation, but replied to the avowal of this innocent and warm-hearted girl, first in a tone of raillery, and then by an equivocal offer of everlasting friendship.

The scene is thus given in Cadenus and Vanessa.

Vanessa, though by Pallas taught,
By love invulnerable thought,
Searching in books for wisdom'd aid,
Was in the very search betrayed....

Cadenus many things had writ;
Vanessa much esteemed his wit,
And call'd for his poetic works.
Meantime the boy in secret lurks;
And, while the book was in her hand
The urchin from his private stand
Took aim, and shot with all his strength
A dart of such prodigious length,
It pierced the feeble volume through,
And deep tranfix'd her bosom too.
Some lines, more moving than the rest,
Stuck to the point that pierced her breast,
And borne directly to the heart,
With paths unknown, increas'd her smart.
Vanessa, not in years a score,
Dreams of a gown of forty-four;
Imaginary charms can find,
In eyes with reading almost blind.
Cadenus now no more appears
Declin'd in health, advanc'd in years;
She fancies music in his tongue,
Nor farther looks, but thinks him young.

Vanessa is then made to disclose her tenderness. The expressions and the sentiments are probably as true to the facts as was consistent with the rhyme: but how cold, how flat, how prosaic! no emotion falters in the lines — not a feeling blushes through them! — as if an ardent but delicate and gentle girl would ever have made a first avowal of passion in this chop-logic style—

"Now," said the Nymph, "to let you see
My actions with your rules agree;
That I can vulgar forms despise,
And have no secrets to disguise;
I knew, by what you said and writ,
How dangerous things were men of wit;
You caution'd me against their charms,
But never gave me equal arms;
Your lessons found the weakest part,
Aim'd at the head, but reached the heart!"
Cadenus felt within him rise
Shame, disappointment, guilt, surprise, &c.

It is possible he might have felt thus; and yet the excess of his surprise and disappointment on the occasion, may be doubted. He makes, however, a very candid confession of his own vanity.

Cadenus, to his grief and shame,
Could scarce oppose Vanessa's flame;
And though her arguments were strong,
At least could hardly wish them wrong:
Howe'er it came, he could not tell,
But sure she never talked so well.
His pride began to interpose;
Preferred before a crowd of beaux!
So bright a nymph to come unsought!
Such wonder by his merit wrought!
'Tis merit must with her prevail!
He never knew her judgment fail.
She noted all she ever read,
And had a most discerning head!

The scene continues — he rallies her, and affects to think it all "Just what coxcombs call a bite," (such is his elegant phrase.) He then offers her friendship instead of love: the lady replies with very pertinent arguments; and finally, the tale is concluded in this ambiguous passage, in which we must allow that great room is left for scandal, for doubt, and for curiosity.

But what success Vanessa met
Is to the world a secret yet;—
Whether the nymph, to please her swain,
Talks in a high romantic strain,
Or whether he at last descends
To act with less seraphic ends;
Or to compound the business, whether
They temper love and books together;
Must never to mankind be told,
Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold.

Such is the story of this celebrated poem. The passion, the circumstances, the feelings are real, and it contains lines of great power; and yet, assuredly, the perusal of it never conveyed one emotion to the reader's heart, except of indignation against the writer; not a spark of poetry, fancy, or pathos, breathes throughout. We have a dull mythological fable, in which Venus and the Graces descend to clothe Vanessa in all the attractions of her sex:—

The Graces next would act their part,
And showed but little of their art;
Their work was half already done,
The child with native beauty shone,
The outward form no help required;—
Each, breathing on her thrice, inspired
That gentle, soft, engaging air,
Which in old times advanced the fair.

And Pallas is tricked by the wiles of Venus into doing her part. — The Queen of Learning

Mistakes Vanessa for a boy;
Then sows within her tender mind
Seeds long unknown to womankind,
For manly bosoms chiefly fit,—
The seeds of knowledge, judgment, wit.
Her soul was suddenly endued
With justice, truth, and fortitude,—
With honor, which no breath can stain,
Which malice must attack in vain;
With open heart and bounteous hand, &c.

The nymph thus accomplished is feared by the men and hated by the women, and Swift has shown his utter want of heart and good taste, by making his homage to the woman he loved, a vehicle for the bitterest satire on the rest of her sex. What right had he to accuse us of a universal preference for mere coxcombs, — he who, through the sole power of his wit and intellect, had inspired with the most passionate attachment two lovely women not half his own age? Be it remembered, that while Swift was playing the Abelard with such effect, he was in his forty-fifth year, and though

He moved and bowed, and talked with so much grace

Nor showed the parson in his gait or face,

he was one of the ugliest men in existence, — of a bilious, saturnine complexion, and a most forbidding countenance.

The poem of Cadenus and Vanessa was written immediately on his return to Ireland and to Stella, (where he describes himself devoured by melancholy and regret,) and sent to Vanessa. Her passion and her inexperience seem to have blinded her to what was humiliating to herself in this poem, and left her sensible only to the admiration it expressed, and the hopes it conveyed. She wrote him the most impassioned letters; and he replied in a style which, without committing himself, kept alive all her tenderness, and riveted his influence over her.

Meanwhile, what became of Stella? Too quick-sighted not to perceive the difference in Swift's manner, pining under his neglect, and struck to the heart by jealousy, grief, and resentment, her health gave way. His pitiful resolve never to see her alone, precluded all complaint or explanation. The Mrs. Dingley who had been chosen for her companion, was merely calculated to save appearances; — respectable, indeed, in point of reputation, but selfish, narrow-minded, and weak. Thus abandoned to sullen, silent sorrow, the unhappy Stella fell into an alarming state; and her destroyer was at length roused to some remorse, by the daily spectacle or the miserable wreck he had caused. He commissioned his friend Dr. Ashe, "to learn the secret cause of that dejection of spirits which had so visibly preyed on her health; and to know whether it was by any means in his power to remove it?" She replied, "that the peculiarity of her circumstances, and her singular connection with Swift for many years, had given great occasion for scandal; that she had learned to bear this patiently, hoping that all such reports would be effaced by marriage; but she now saw, with deep grief, that his behaviour was totally changed and that a cold indifference had succeeded to the warmest professions of eternal affection. That the necessary consequences would be an indelible stain fixed on her character, and the loss of her good name, which was dearer to her than life" [Author's note: Sheridan's Life of Swift, p. 316].

Swift answered that in order to satisfy Miss Johnson's scruples, and relieve her mind, he was ready to go through the mere ceremony of marriage with her, on two conditions; — first, that they should live separately exactly as they did before; — secondly, that it should be kept a profound secret from all the world. To these conditions, however hard and humiliating, she was obliged to submit: and the ceremony was performed privately by Dr. Ashe, in 1716. This nominal marriage spared her at least some of the torments of jealousy, by rendering a union with her rival impossible.

Yet, within a year afterwards, we find this ill-fated rival, the yet more unhappy Vanessa, — more unhappy because endued by nature with quicker passions, and far less fortitude and patience, — following Swift to Ireland. She had a plausible pretext for this journey, being heiress to a considerable property at Celbridge, about twelve miles from Dublin, on which she came to reside with her sister; but her real inducement was her unconquerable love for him. Nothing could be more mal apropos to Swift than her arrival in Dublin: placed between two women, thus devoted to him, his perplexity was not greater than his heartless duplicity deserved: nothing could extricate him but the simple but desperate expedient of disclosing the truth, and this he could not or would not do: regardless of the sacred ties which now bound him to Stella, he continued to correspond with Vanessa and to visit her; but "the whole course of this correspondence precludes the idea of a guilty intimacy." She, whose passion was as pure as it was violent and exclusive, asked but to be his wife. She would have flung down her fortune and herself at his feet, and bathed them with tears of gratitude, if he would have deigned to lift her to his arms. In the midst of all the mortification, anguish, and heart-wearing suspense to which his stern temper and inexplicable conduct exposed her, still she clung to the hopes he had awakened, and which either in cowardice, or compassion, or selfish egotism, he still kept alive. He concludes one of his letters with the following sentence in French, "mais soyez assuree, que jamais personne au monde n'a ete aimee, honoree, estimee, adoree, par votre amie, que vous:" and there are other passages to the same effect, little agreeing with his professions to poor Stella: — one or the other, or both, must have been grossly deceived.

After declarations so explicit, Vanessa naturally wondered that he proceeded no farther; it appears that he sometimes endeavored to repress her overflowing tenderness, by treating her with a harshness which drove her almost to frenzy. There is really nothing in the effusions of Heloise or Mdlle de l'Espinasse, that can exceed, in pathos and burning eloquence, some of her letters to him during this period of their connection. When he had reduced her to the most shocking and pitiable state, so that her life or her reason were threatened, he would endeavour to soothe her in language which again revived her hopes—

Give the reed
From storms a shelter, — give the drooping vine
Something round which its tendrils may entwine,—
Give the parch'd flower the rain-drop, — and the meed
Of love's kind words to woman!
[Author's note: Mrs. Hemans]

It will be said, where was her sex's delicacy, where her woman's pride? Alas!—

La Vergogna ritien debile amore,
Ma debil freno e di potente amore.

In this agonizing suspense she lived through eight long years; till unable to endure it longer, and being aware of the existence of Stella, she took the decisive step of writing to her rival, and desired to know whether she was, or was not, married to Swift? Stella answered her immediately in the affirmative; and then, justly indignant that he should have given any other woman such a right in him as was implied by the question, she enclosed Vanessa's letter to Swift; and instantly, with a spirit she had never before exerted, quitted her lodgings, withdrew to the house of Mr. Ford, of Wood Park, and threw herself on the friendship and protection of his family.

This lamentable tragedy was now brought to a crisis. Swift, on receiving the letter, was seized with one of those insane paroxysms of rage to which he was subject. He mounted his horse, rode down to Celbridge, suddenly entered the room in which Vanessa was sitting. His countenance, fitted by nature to express the dark and fierce passions, so terrified her, that she could scarce ask him whether he would sit down? He replied savagely, "No!" and throwing down before her, her own letter to Stella, with a look of inexpressible scorn and anger, flung out of the room, and returned to Dublin.

This cruel scene was her death warrant [Author's note: Johnson's Life of Swift]. Hitherto she had venerated Swift; and in the midst of her sufferings, confided in him, idolized him as the first of human beings. What must he now have appeared in her eyes? — They say, "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned;" — it is not so: the recoil of the heart, when forced to abhor and contemn, where it has once loved, is far, — far worse; and Vanessa, who had endured her lover's scorn, could not scorn him, and live. She was seized with a delirous fever, and died "in resentment and in despair" [Author's note: Johnson, Sheridan, Scott]. She desired, in her last will, that the poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, which she considered as a monument of Swift's love for her, should be published, with some of his letters, which would have explained what was left obscure, and have cleared her fame. The poem was published; but the letters, by the interference of Swift's friends, were, at the time, suppressed.

On her death, and Stella's flight, Swift absented himself from home for two months, nor did any one know whither he was gone. During that time, what must have been his feelings — if he felt at all? what agonies of remorse, grief, shame, and horror, must have wrung his bosom! he had, in effect, murdered the woman who loved him, as absolutely as if he had plunged a poniard into her heart: and yet it is not clear that Swift was a prey to any such feelings; at least his subsequent conduct gave no assurance of it. On his return to Dublin, mutual friends interfered to reconcile him with Stella. About this time, she happened to meet, at a dinner-party, a gentleman who was a stranger to the real circumstances of her situation, and who began to speak of the poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, then just published. He observed, that Vanessa must have been an admirable. creature to have inspired the Dean to write so finely. "That does not follow," replied Mrs. Johnson, with bitterness; "it is well known that the Dean could write finely on a broomstick." Ah! how must jealousy and irritation, and long habits of intimacy with Swift have poisoned the mind and temper of this unhappy woman, before she could have uttered this cruel sarcasm! — And yet she was true to the softness of her sex; for after the lapse of several months, during which it required all the attention of Mr. Ford and his family to sustain and console her, she consented to return to Dublin, and live with the Dean on the same terms as before. Well does old Chaucer say,

There can be no man in humblesse him acquite
As woman can, no can be half so true
As woman be!

"Swift welcomed her to town," says Sheridan, "with that beautiful poem entitled Stella at Wood Park;" that is to say, he welcomed back to the home from which he had driven her, the woman whose heart he had wellnigh broken, the wife he had every way injured and abused, — with a tissue of coarse sarcasms, on the taste for magnificence, she must have acquired in her visit to Wood Park, and the difficulty of descending

From every day a lordly banquet
To half a joint — and God be thanket!

From partridges and venison with the right fumette, — to "Small beer, a herring, and the Dean." And this was all the sentiment, all the poetry with which the occasion inspired him!

Stella naturally hoped, that when her rival was no more, and Swift no longer exposed to her torturing reproaches, that he would do her tardy justice, and at length acknowledge her as his wife. But no; — it would have cost him some little mortification and inconvenience; and on such a paltry pretext he suffered this amiable and admirable woman, of whom he had said, that "her merits towards him were greater than ever was in any human being towards another;" and "that she excelled in every good quality that could possibly accomplish a human creature," — this woman did he suffer to languish into the grave, broken in heart, and blighted in name. When Stella was on her death-bed, some conversation passed between them upon this sad subject. Only Swift's reply was audible: he said, "Well, my dear, it shall be acknowledged, if you wish it." To which she answered with a sigh, "It is now too late!" [Author's note: Scott's Life of Swift] It was too late! — What now to her was womanhood or fame?

She died of a lingering decline, in January, 1728, four years after the death of Miss Vanhomrigh.

Thus perished these two innocent, warm-hearted and accomplished women; — so rich in all the graces of their sex — so formed to love and to be loved, to bless, and to be blessed, — sacrifices to the demoniac pride of the man they had loved and trusted. But it will be said, "si elles n'avaient point aime, elles seraient moins connues:" they have become immortal by their connection with genius; they are celebrated, merely through their attachment to a celebrated man. But, good God! what an immortality! won by what martyrdom of the heart! — And what a celebrity! not that with which the poet's love, and his diviner verse, crown the deified object of his homage, but a celebrity, purchased with their life-blood and their tears! I quit the subject with a sense of relief: — yet one word more.

It was after the death of these two amiable women, who had deserved so much from him, and whose enduring tenderness had flung round his odious life and character their only redeeming charm of sentiment and interest, that the native grossness and rancor of this incarnate spirit of libel burst forth with tenfold virulence. He showed how true had been his love and his respect for them, by insulting and reviling, in terms a scavenger would disavow, the sex they belonged to. Swift's master-passion was pride, — an unconquerable, all-engrossing, self-revolving pride: he was proud of his vigorous intellect, proud of being the "dread and hate of half mankind," — proud of his contempt for women, — proud of his tremendous powers of invective. It was his boast, that he never forgave an injury; it was his boast, that the ferocious and unsparing personal satire with which he avenged himself on those who offended him, had never been softened by the repentance, or averted by the concessions of the offender. Look at him in his last years, when the cold earth was heaped over those who would have cheered and soothed his dark and stormy spirit; without a friend — deprived of the mighty powers he had abused — alternately a drivelling idiot and a furious maniac, and sinking from both into a helpless, hopeless, prostrate lethargy of body and mind! — Draw, — draw the curtain, in reverence to the human ruin, lest our woman's heart be tempted to unwomanly exultation!