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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)
 
THE LAST years of Jonathan Swift furnish a partial clue, at least, to the mystery of his life. Against the black background of his gigantic intellect, overthrown “as an empire might be overthrown,” the mournful figures of Stella and Vanessa stand out, less as wronged women than as unfortunate women, whose love could not cope with the maladies of a mind where genius groaned in hateful marriage with insanity. From this same region of the abnormal emerge, as a kind of embodiment of Swift’s dark infirmity, the Yahoos of his great classic: his habitual bitterness and gloom must be traced, not, as is usual, to the beginning of his life, but to the end. He lived always in the shadow of the death of the mind; from his birth he was an imprisoned giant, whose struggles seemed only to fasten the coils ever closer and closer about him.  1
  He has been characterized as having been destitute of imagination, of spirituality, of the capacity to love; of being a negative spirit,—the Mephistopheles of English literature, whose sardonic laughter has chilled the hearts of generations of his readers. Yet Swift in his love and in his religion, at least, seems to have been an idealist of the most pronounced type. He appears to have been constantly striving to transmute passion into intellectuality; love, in particular, seems to have acted like subtle poison in his veins whenever it passed beyond the stage of tenderness. The coarseness in his writings seems rather flung out in a rage against animality than indulged in for fondness of it. Swift cannot be judged, indeed, by his loves or by his religious life. The sanity of his mighty intellect is most apparent in his political career, and in his political writings. Whenever his emotions are involved he is on dangerous ground, liable to vanish from the sight and comprehension of his fellows amid the mysterious labyrinths of a diseased mind.  2
  He was born on March 30th, 1667, at Hoey’s Court, Dublin; he was however of English parentage, and of an old and honorable family. There is a tradition that his grandfather was Dr. Thomas Swift, a clergyman whose devotion to Charles I. received the severest tests, and whose chief fortune was a family of thirteen or fourteen children. The eldest son, Godwin, was rewarded after the Restoration with the attorney-generalship of the palatinate of Tipperary in Ireland; thither went also a younger brother, Jonathan, the father of the future Dean, with his wife, Abigail Ericke of Leicester. His death occurred within a short time after this emigration, and seven months afterwards his son was born. The early education of the boy seems to have been conducted by his nurse, who had carried him to England secretly, when he was a mere infant, because she could not bear to be separated from him. Swift’s mother consented to his remaining with her. He did not return to Ireland until his sixth year, when he was sent by his uncle Godwin to Kilkenny grammar school, where Congreve and Berkeley were also educated. No evidence remains that Swift distinguished himself either in this school or in Dublin University, which he entered in 1682. In the latter institution it seems that he obtained his degree only by “special grace.” The logical, clear mind of the future author of the ‘Tale of a Tub’ could only be suffocated in the airless realms of scholasticism: he passed from the university with contempt for much of its teachings. His life at this time was embittered by poverty: he was growing into self-consciousness, realizing if dimly the exceptional nature of his powers; but with realization did not come opportunity. His uncle Godwin would do little for him; he had himself come into the world disheartened: the remoteness, the isolation of genius, was in his case intensified by a constitutional morbidness, which changed pin pricks to dagger thrusts. He went forth conquering and to conquer in the only way he knew: the way of the dominant intellect unswayed by emotion. By his mother’s advice he sought the patronage of his distant kinsman, Sir William Temple, the elegant dilettante of Moor Park. Between this courtier, whose intellect was as pruned and orderly as his own Dutch gardens, and the rough young Titan, forced by fate into the meek attitudes of the beneficiary, there could be little sympathy. Swift chafed under a life better suited to a dancing-master than to the future author of ‘Gulliver.’ The alleviations of his existence were his master’s library, to which he had free access, and a little bright-eyed girl,—the housekeeper’s daughter,—who loved him and was glad to be taught by him. This was Esther Johnson, or as she is better known, “Stella.” The little life was thus early absorbed into the great life, whose limits, then and afterwards, were to be always beyond its comprehension, but never beyond its love. The child and the man went hand in hand from that hour into their eternity of sorrowful fame.  3
  At Sir William Temple’s, Swift met many of the great statesmen of the day; being thus drawn into the congenial atmosphere of politics. It is recorded that he met King William there, who graciously showed him the Dutch method of preparing asparagus for the table. Tradition assigns Swift to a servant’s place in Temple’s household, but this is hardly probable. The retired statesman must have recognized the talents of his kinsman, for he sent him on one occasion to King William to persuade him to consent to the bill for triennial Parliaments. Swift hoped much from the King’s favor, but obtained little more than promises. His talents as a prose-writer seem to have been as yet unknown to him. His literary compositions were limited to Pindaric odes in praise of Sir William: they fully justify his cousin Dryden’s curt criticism, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”  4
  In 1692 Swift took his degree of M. A. from the University of Oxford, where he had been most kindly received: he always retained affection and gratitude for this foster-mother; and it was perhaps under her tutelage that he entered into the full consciousness of his powers. In 1695, Moor Park having become impossible as a residence, he parted from his patron in anger; going immediately to Ireland, where he sought ordination to the diaconate, but was refused it unless he could present a letter of recommendation from Sir William Temple. Swift hesitated five months; finally submitted to the humiliation: was ordained deacon and priest, and obtained the small living of Kilroot, where he remained but a short time; returning to Moor Park at the earnest solicitation of Sir William, who had learned to Appreciate, in part at least, Swift’s powers. Their relations from that time until Sir William’s death in 1699 were cordial, Swift remaining in his household until the end. He found the little Esther grown into a comely girl of sixteen. From the time of Sir William’s decease he took her under his protection; by his advice she took up her residence in Ireland in 1708, with her chaperon Mrs. Dingley, and was thenceforth known in the eyes of the world as Swift’s dearest friend, and perhaps his wife. The mystery of his relationship to her has never been solved. One thing is certain: that her love was the solace of his life, and that his feeling towards her was of that exquisite tenderness in which alone he seemed to find peace.  5
  After his patron’s death, Swift obtained the office of chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley; but was disappointed in not receiving the secretaryship also. He failed to obtain the rich deanery of Derry, for which he had applied; and was finally presented with the living of Laracor, and two or three others, which netted him about £230. At Laracor he took up his abode for a short time. Later he became chaplain to the Duke of Ormond, and afterwards to the Earl of Pembroke. His frequent visits to London with these statesmen drew him gradually into the domain of political life, and familiarized him with the political parties and ideals of the time. His own brilliant political career was opened in 1701, by the publication of the ‘Discourse on the Contests and Dissensions in Athens and Rome.’ The occasion of this pamphlet was the conflict in the Houses of Parliament over the proposed impeachment by the Tory party of Somers and three other Whigs, who had participated in the Partition Treaty. Swift upheld those who resisted the impeachment; thus gaining a strong foothold with the Whigs, and winning the confidence of the leaders of the party. He might be called the father of the political pamphlet. In his hands it became a tremendous power, moving the people as a rushing mighty wind. It is in the political pamphlet that Swift’s powers are seen at their zenith: his incomparable command of satire, his faultless logic, his universal common-sense, his invective, vivid and deadly as lightning, here receive consummate expression; added to these gifts he was a master of homely English prose. His English is the most popular English that was ever written: its perfection is in its simplicity and clearness. The gigantic intellect revealed itself to babes: Swift’s prose was at once a lamp to the unlettered and a star to the scholar.  6
  Until 1710 Swift remained in close conjunction with the Whigs, but his change in politics was as inevitable as it was organic. “Whoever has a true value for Church and State,” he writes, “should avoid the extremes of Whig for the sake of the former, and the extremes of Tory on account of the latter.” And again: “No true lover of liberty could unite with extreme Tories, no true lover of Church with extreme Whigs.” Swift’s political position is here summed up. He was, moreover, too much of a genius to be rabid in the cause of a party. His enthusiasm and his idealism found expression in the upholding of the ecclesiastical tradition. Swift has been accused of shallowness and infidelity in his relations to the Church; but his religious pamphlets, at least, witness to an intense devotion to her cause. It is true without doubt that he concealed his religious feeling, as he concealed his affections, under the mask of indifference, even of raillery; but he must be judged in both sentiments by the law of contraries. He is a remarkable example of a “hypocrite reversed.”  7
  It was during his connection with the Whig party that Swift wrote those pamphlets which indicated that he must throw in his lot eventually with the Tories. The ‘Tale of a Tub’ appeared in 1704: in this marvelous satire the genius of Swift reaches its highest mark. The three divisions of Christendom—the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan—are represented by three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, to each of whom their father has bequeathed a coat warranted with good usage to wear forever. The vicissitudes of these coats represent the changes through which their owners, the churches, have passed in the course of centuries. Underneath the veil of satire, Swift’s preference for the Anglican Church can be clearly traced. To this same era of his life belong his ‘Sentiments of a Church of England Man,’ his ‘Letter to a Member of Parliament concerning the Sacramental Test,’ and his famous ‘Argument against the Abolition of Christianity.’ In this pamphlet he gravely points out the “inconveniences” which might follow such abolition. “Great wits love to be free with the highest objects; and if they cannot be allowed a God to revile and denounce, they will speak evil of dignities, abuse the government, and reflect upon the ministry”!  8
  About the year 1709 Swift showed himself to be more in sympathy with the Tory than with the Whig party, and from that time on he employed all the resources of his great intellect to further their aims: the full establishment of the Church of England’s authority, and the termination of the Continental war. He founded an organ of his party, the Examiner; and through this paper he directed the course of public opinion with unparalleled acumen and political tact. During these years he had close friendship with Pope and Congreve, Addison and Steele, with Arbuthnot and Halifax and Bolingbroke; but notwithstanding his popularity and his acknowledged eminence, his chances for preferment were never great. The stupid Queen Anne could have little appreciation of his genius; she was moreover in the hands of injudicious female advisers. It was with difficulty that the deanery of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, was obtained for him in 1713. He did not remain there long after his installation, but hurried back to England at the urgent request of his political friends, to reconcile the two leaders, Oxford and Bolingbroke. Oxford’s fall and Bolingbroke’s elevation to the ministry occurred soon afterwards; it is remembered to the eternal honor of Swift that he did not desert Oxford in his ill-fortune, although tempted with golden baits to do so. The death of the Queen, and the consequent collapse of the Tory party, occurring soon after, Swift retired to his deanery in Dublin.  9
  For the detailed account of Swift’s London career, the world is indebted to his journal to Stella,—those circumstantial, playful letters which he wrote to her, sometimes in the “little language” of her childhood, sometimes in the strong, tense prose of the great statesman. In any case it was the language of his heart, a tongue whose full meaning was known alone to him and Stella. It is always tender, never passionate: Stella assumed, at least, to be content with tenderness; and because she did so, she remained the one serene influence of his stormy life.  10
  Had “Vanessa” possessed the wisdom of her rival, her tragedy might never have been written; as it was, she demanded of the great Dean, like Semele of Jupiter, that which could only destroy her. His love, could she have had it, would have been only less destructive than his hate: in the calm of friendship lay the only safety of the women on whom Swift bestowed his approbation.  11
  “Vanessa,” or Esther Vanhomrigh, was the daughter of a wealthy widow residing in London, where Swift first made her acquaintance. He recognized the high quality of her intelligence, and for a time directed her studies. She at last confessed her love to him: he answered in the poem of ‘Cadenus and Vanessa,’ designed to show her that his feeling for her was only that of friendship. He allowed her however to follow him to Ireland, and he even called upon her frequently in her home there. She at last wrote to Stella, demanding to know the true relationship existing between her and the Dean. Tradition says that Stella showed the letter to him; and that he, in a paroxysm of rage, rode post-haste to Vanessa’s house, cast the letter at her feet, and departed without a word. However that may be, she died not long after,—presumably of a broken heart.  12
  After Swift’s return to Ireland, he wrote many pamphlets in the interests of the Irish people, thus making himself enormously popular with them. The condition of Ireland at that time was most deplorable: the industries had been destroyed by the act forbidding the importation of Irish cattle to England; the currency was disordered; famine threatened the land. The Drapier letters were written to discredit the English government by the accusation, proved false, of imposing a debased copper coinage on Ireland. In a well-known pamphlet he proposes that the children of the peasantry in Ireland should be fattened for the table, thus keeping down the population and supplying an article of nutritious food. It is this pamphlet which is so completely misunderstood by Thackeray in his ‘English Humourists,’ and which has led many to judge Swift as an inhuman monster. The humor of it is indeed terrible, but the cause of its being written was even more terrible. It was under such pleasantries that Swift hid his heart.  13
  In 1726 ‘Gulliver’s Travels’—one of the greatest books of the century—appeared. Only Swift could have written a nursery classic which is at the same time the most painful satire on human nature ever given to the world. In the monstrous conception of the Yahoos, there is an indication of something darker and more sinister than mere misanthropy.  14
  In 1728 Stella died. The last barrier between him and that unknown horror that lurked in some shadowy region of his mighty intellect, was thus removed. After her death he declined visibly. The last years of his life were spent in madness and idiocy. He died in 1745, and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  15
  No figure in the whole range of English men of letters is more striking than Swift’s; no figure is less intelligible. Judgment of him must always contain an element of presumption. It is as little in place as judgment of a giant forest oak, twisted and wrenched by the lightning of Jove.  16
 
 
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