1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Jonathan Swift

Anonymous, in "The Augustan Age in England" The Album 1 (1822) 187-89.



SWIFT is the other great name of the reign of Anne — and of his merits also we are fast acquiring a more correct idea. We wish to speak only of his writings — but his personal character obtrudes itself into them at every turn. We cannot but say that we consider Swift to have been one of the worst men that ever lived. Each of the very frequent passages, in which the names of Stella and Vanessa occur, makes the heart rise with indignation against the cold-blooded, remorseless murderer of these unfortunates. The verses addressed, year after year, to Stella on her birthday, are the most revolting specimens of heartless falsity we ever remember to have seen. For a man to address these strains of periodical affection to one whose heart was breaking, and whose health was withering under the sense of his unkindness, is a mockery which the soul sickens to look upon. Vanessa, too — the confiding, generous, warm-hearted Vanessa — claims a large share of our compassion. Her case, perhaps, is the more pitiable of the two. Stella had more means of knowing the nature of the man to whom she trusted; and her less keen feelings, and greater endurance of disposition, if they served to protract her sufferings, certainly rendered them less severe. But Vanessa was one of those creatures whose affections are spontaneous and unbounded — a stab on which is a wound in a vital part. Her light-hearted playfulness — her buoyancy of spirit — served but to render more deadly the icy grasp of ill-requital, when it did fall on her; and assuredly, the deplorable contrast renders her sufferings doubly pitiable in our eyes. When once convinced of the hollow heartlessness of the man on whom she had lavished all the fondness of a loving heart, she bent beneath the blow, and sank, in a period awfully short, into the grave which was dug for her by him.

And yet this is the man who assumes the office of censor of his fellows; — who, in the tone of indignant virtue, deals forth pitiless anathemas against errors, which would appear snow-white if contrasted with the foulness of his own sins. A minister of Christ, his writings breathe an almost fiendish spirit of rancour and revenge — the founder of a madhouse — not in compassion to human infirmity, but, according to his own confession, in spleen against his country,

To shew, by one satiric touch,
No nation wanted it so much,—

he is himself driven into madness by the indulged violence of his own bad passions!

As an author, Swift is fast sinking into merited neglect. His works still retain a place on our shelves, from the influence of an established name but how seldom is one of his many volumes taken down from thence? His prose writings are chiefly political pamphlets, which ought never to have outlived their day — his verses are, for the most part, frantic lampoons on persons and things for whom the world has long ceased to care. Cadenus and Vanessa is an exception to this; it was intended as a love-compliment to Vanessa. A woman, to whom a man of Swift's fame addressed a copy of verses, had every conceivable reason to receive them with admiration; — but we will venture to assert, that if this poem were to be now presented to any young lady, it would be looked upon as a piece of tiresome, absurd, prosaic pedantry. Of the verses to Stella we have already spoken; but we may add, that they are as contemptible in poetry as they are odious in feeling.

That Swift, however, had great humour we are very far from denying — but it was humour of the coarsest and most filthy sort. His Lady's Dressing-room, indeed, and some other pieces of the same stamp, are only filthy, without any redemption of cleverness or wit: — but it must be confessed that the Polite Conversation — the Directions to Servants — and Gulliver's Travels — though far from being without his usual alloy — are humorous in the very highest degree. It is by these compositions, especially the latter, that, we think, Swift will ultimately be known. They, certainly, possess very great merit in their way. His Verses on his own Death, also, are one of his very best productions. They have a great deal of caustic humour, without being either furious or nasty — which is extremely rare in his writings. But are these few and second-rate compositions to place Swift in that high rank which he formerly held? Are they sufficient to make him a distinguished ornament of his age — a main cause of giving that age proud preeminence above others? — Surely no — as Swift's writings come to be more duly appreciated, he will be — and he is fast becoming — considered as a selfish, violent, and bad man, and an author in whom extreme filthiness, and virulence almost frantic, are at least as distinguished as any other qualities.