Portrait of Jonathan Swift 
 The Life of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

JONATHAN SWIFT, Dean of St Patrick's, Dublin, British satirist, was born at No. 7 Hoey's Court, Dublin, on the 30th of November 1667, a few months after the death of his father, Jonathan Swift (1640-1667), who married about 1664 Abigaile Erick, of an old Leicestershire family. He was taken over to England as an infant and nursed at Whitehaven, whence he returned to Ireland in his fourth year. His grandfather, Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich near Ross, appears to have been a doughty member of the church militant, who lost his possessions by taking the losing side in the Civil War and died in 1658 before the restoration could bring him redress. He married Elizabeth, niece of Sir Erasmus Dryden, the poet's grandfather. Hence the familiarity of the poet's well-known "cooling-card" to the budding genius of his kinsman Jonathan: "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet."

The young Jonathan was educated mainly at the charges of his uncle Godwin, a Tipperary official, who was thought to dole out his help in a somewhat grudging manner. In fact the apparently prosperous relative was the victim of unfortunate speculations, and chose rather to be reproached with avarice than with imprudence. The youth was resentful of what he regarded as curmudgeonly treatment, a bitterness became ingrained and began to corrode his whole nature; and although he came in time to grasp the real state of the case he never mentioned his uncle with kindness or regard. At six he went to Kilkenny School, where Congreve was a schoolfellow; at fourteen he entered pensioner at Trinity College, Dublin, where he seems to have neglected his opportunities. He was referred in natural philosophy, including mathematics, and obtained his degree only by a special but by no means infrequent act of indulgence. The patronage of his uncle galled him: he was dull and unhappy. We find in Swift few signs of precocious genius. As with Goldsmith, and so many other men who have become artists of the pen, college proved a stepmother to him.

In 1688 the rich uncle, whose supposed riches had dwindled so much that at his death he was almost insolvent, died, having decayed, it would seem, not less in mind than in body and estate, and Swift sought counsel of his mother at Leicester. After a brief residence with his mother, who was needlessly alarmed at the idea of her son falling a victim to some casual coquette, Swift towards the close of 1689 entered upon an engagement as secretary to Sir William Temple, whose wife (Dorothy Osborne) was distantly related to Mrs Swift. It was at Moor Park, near Farnham, the residence to which Temple had retired to cultivate apricots after the rapid decline of his influence during the critical period of King Charles II's reign (1679-1681), that Swift's acquaintance with Esther Johnson, the "Stella"1 of the famous Journal, was begun. Stella's mother was living at Moor Park, as servant or dame de compagnie of Temple's strong-minded sister, Lady Giffard. Swift was twenty-two and Esther eight years old at the time, and a curious friendship sprang up between them. He taught the little girl how to write and gave her advice in reading.

On his arrival at Moor Park, Swift was, in his own words, a raw, inexperienced youth, and his duties were merely those of accountkeeper and amanuensis: his ability gradually won him the confidence of his employer, and he was entrusted with some important missions. He was introduced to William III during that monarch's visit to Sir William's, and on one occasion accompanied the king in his walks round the grounds. In 1693 Temple sent him to try and convince the king of the inevitable necessity of triennial parliaments. William remained unconvinced and Swift's vanity received a useful lesson. The king had previously taught him "how to cut asparagus after the Dutch fashion." Next year, however, Swift (who had in the meantime obtained the degree of M.A. ad eundem at Oxford) quitted Temple, who had, he considered, delayed too long in obtaining him preferment. A certificate of conduct while under Temple's roof was required by all the Irish bishops he consulted before they would proceed in the matter of his ordination, and after five months' delay, caused by wounded pride, Swift had to kiss the rod and solicit in obsequious terms the favour of a testimonial from his discarded patron. Forgiveness was easy to a man of Temple's elevation and temperament, and he not only despatched the necessary recommendation but added a personal request which obtained for Swift the small prebend of Kilroot near Belfast (January 1695), where the new incumbent carried on a premature flirtation with a Miss Jane Waring, whom he called "Varina." In the spring of 1696 he asked the reluctant Varina to wait until he was in a position to marry. Just four years later he wrote to her in terms of such calculated harshness and imposed such conditions as to make further intercourse virtually impossible.

In the meantime he had grown tired of Irish life and was glad to accept Temple's proposal for his return to Moor Park, where he continued until Temple's death in January 1699. During this period he wrote much and burned most of what he had written. He read and learned even more than he wrote. Moor Park took him away from brooding and glooming in Ireland and brought him into the corridor of contemporary history, an intimate acquaintance with which became the chief passion of Swift's life. His Pindaric Odes, written at this period or earlier, in the manner of Cowley, indicate the rudiments of a real satirist, but a satirist struggling with a most uncongenial form of expression. Of more importance was his first essay in satiric prose which arose directly from the position which he occupied as domestic author in the Temple household. Sir William had in 1692 published his Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning, transplanting to England a controversy begun in France by Fontenelle. Incidentally Temple had cited the letters of Phalaris as evidence of the superiority of the Ancients over the Moderns. Temple's praise of Phalaris led to an Oxford edition of the Epistles nominally edited by Charles Boyle. While this was preparing, William Wotton, in 1694, wrote his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, traversing Temple's general conclusions. Swift's Battle of the Books was written in 1697 expressly to refute this. Boyle's Vindication and Bentley's refutation of the authenticity of Phalaris came later.

Swift's aim was limited to co-operation in what was then deemed the well-deserved putting down of Bentley by Boyle, with a view to which he represented Bentley and Wotton as the representatives of modern pedantry, transfixed by Boyle in a suit of armour given him by the gods as the representative of the "two noblest of things, sweetness and light." The satire remained unpublished until 1704, when it was issued along with The Tale of a Tub. Next year Wotton declared that Swift had borrowed his Combat des livres from the Histoire poetique de la guerre nouvellement declaree entre les anciens et les modernes (Paris, 1688). He might have derived the idea of a battle from the French title, but the resemblances and parallels between the two books are slight. Swift was manifestly extremely imperfectly acquainted with the facts of the case at issue. Such data as he displays may well have been derived from no authority more recondite than Temple's own essay.

In addition to £100, Temple left to Swift the trust and profit of publishing his posthumous writings. Five volumes appeared in 1700, 1703 and 1709. The resulting profit was small, and Swift's editorial duties brought him into acrimonious relation with Lady Giffard. The dedication to King William was to have procured Swift an English prebend, but this miscarried owing to the negligence or indifference of Henry Sidney, earl of Romney. Swift then accepted an offer from Lord Berkeley, who in the summer of 1699 was appointed one of the lords justices of Ireland. Swift was to be his chaplain and secretary, but upon reaching Ireland Berkeley gave the secretaryship to a Mr Bushe, who had persuaded him that it was an unfit post for a clergyman. The rich deanery of Derry then became vacant and Swift applied for it. The secretary had already accepted a bribe, but Swift was informed that he might still have the place for £1000. With bitter indignation Swift denounced the simony and threw up his chaplaincy, but he was ultimately reconciled to Berkeley by the presentation to the rectory of Agher in Meath with the united vicarages of Laracor and Rathbeggan, to which was added the prebend of Dunlavin in St Patrick's — the total value being about £230 a year.

He was now often in Dublin, at most twenty miles distant, and through Lady Berkeley and her daughters he became the familiar and chartered satirist of the fashionable society there. At Laracor, near Trim, Swift rebuilt the parsonage, made a fish-pond, and planted a garden with poplars and willows, bordering a canal. His congregation consisted of about fifteen persons, "most of them gentle and all of them simple." He read prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays to himself and his clerk, beginning the exhortation "Dearly beloved Roger, the Scripture moveth you and me in sundry places." But he soon began to grow tired of Ireland again and to pay visits in Leicester and London. The author of the Tale of a Tub, which he had had by him since 1696 or 1698, must have felt conscious of powers capable of far more effective exercise than reading-desk or pulpit at Laracor could supply; and his resolution to exchange divinity for politics must appear fully justified by the result. The Discourse on the Dissensions in Athens and Rome (September 1701), written to repel the tactics of the Tory commons in their attack on the Partition Treaties "without humour and without satire," and intended as a dissuasive from the pending impeachment of Somers, Orford, Halifax and Portland, received the honour, extraordinary for the maiden publication of a young politician, of being generally attributed to Somers himself or to Burnet, the latter of whom found a public disavowal necessary.

In April or May 1704 appeared a more remarkable work. Clearness, cogency, masculine simplicity of diction, are conspicuous in the pamphlet, but true creative power told the Tale of a Tub. "Good God! what a genius I had when I wrote that book!" was his own exclamation in his latter years. It is, indeed, if not the most amusing of Swift's satirical works, the most strikingly original, and the one in which the compass of his powers is most fully displayed. In his kindred productions he relies mainly upon a single element of the humorous — logical sequence and unruffled gravity bridling in an otherwise frantic absurdity, and investing it with an air of sense. In the Tale of a Tub he lashes out in all directions. The humour, if less cogent and cumulative, is richer and more varied; the invention, too, is more daringly original and more completely out of the reach of ordinary faculties. The supernatural coats and the quintessential loaf may be paralleled but cannot be surpassed; and the book is throughout a mine of suggestiveness, as, for example, in the anticipation of Carlyle's clothes philosophy within the compass of a few lines. At the same time it wants unity and coherence, it attains no conclusion, and the author abuses his digressive method of composition and his convenient fiction of hiatuses in the original manuscript. The charges it occasioned of profanity and irreverence were natural, but groundless. There is nothing in the book inconsistent with Swift's professed and real character as a sturdy Church of England parson, who accepted the doctrines of his Church as an essential constituent of the social order around him, battled for them with the fidelity of a soldier defending his colours, and held it no part of his duty to understand, interpret, or assimilate them.

In February 1701 Swift took his D.D. degree at Dublin, and before the close of the year he had taken a step destined to exercise a most important influence on his life, by inviting two ladies to Laracor. Esther, daughter of a merchant named Edward Johnson, a dependant, and legatee to a small amount, of Sir William Temple's (born in March 1680), whose acquaintance he had made at Moor Park in 1689, and whom he has immortalized as "Stella," came over with her companion Rebecca Dingley, a poor relative of the Temple family, and was soon permanently domiciled in his neighbourhood. The melancholy tale of Swift's attachment will be more conveniently narrated in another place, and is only alluded to here for the sake of chronology. Meanwhile the sphere of his intimacies was rapidly widening. He had been in England for three years together, 1701 to 1704, and counted Pope, Steele and Addison among his friends. The success of his pamphlet gained him ready access to all Whig circles; but already his confidence in that party was shaken, and he was beginning to meditate that change of sides which has drawn down upon him so much but such unjustifiable obloquy.

The true state of the case may easily be collected from his next publications — The Sentiments of a Church of England Man, and On the Reasonableness of a Test (1708). The vital differences among the friends of the Hanover succession were not political, but ecclesiastical. From this point of view Swift's sympathies were entirely with the Tories. As a minister of the Church he felt his duty and his interest equally concerned in the support of her cause; nor could he fail to discover the inevitable tendency of Whig doctrines, whatever caresses individual Whigs might bestow on individual clergymen, to abase the Establishment as a corporation. He sincerely believed that the ultimate purpose of freethinkers was to escape from moral restraints, and he had an unreasoning antipathy to Scotch Presbyterians and English Dissenters. If Whiggism could be proved to entail Dissent, he was prepared to abandon it. One of his pamphlets, written about this time, contains his recipe for the promotion of religion, and is of itself a sufficient testimony to the extreme materialism of his views. Censorships and penalties are among the means he recommends. His pen was exerted to better purpose in the most consummate example of his irony, the Argument to prove that the abolishing of Christianity in England may, as things now stand, be attended with some inconveniencies (1708).

About this time, too (November 1707), he produced his best narrative poem, Baucis and Philemon, while the next few months witnessed one of the most amusing hoaxes ever perpetrated against the quackery of astrologers. In his Almanac for 1707 a Protestant alarmist and plot vaticinator styled John Partridge warned customers against rivals and impostors. This notice attracted Swift's attention, and in January 1708 he issued predictions for the ensuing year by Isaac Bickerstaff, written to prevent the people of England being imposed upon by vulgar almanac makers. In this brochure he predicts solemnly that on the 29th of March at 1 o'clock at night Partridge the almanac maker should infallibly die of a raging fever. On the 30th of March he issued a letter confirming Partridge's sad fate. Grub Street elegies on the almanac maker were hawked about London. Partridge was widely deplored in obituary notices and his name was struck off the rolls at Stationers' Hall. The poor man was obliged to issue a special almanac to assure his clients and the public that he was not dead: he was fatuous enough to add that he was not only alive at the time of writing, but that he was also demonstrably alive on the day when the knave Bickerstaff (a name borrowed by Swift from a sign in Long Acre) asserted that he died of fever. This elicited Swift's most amusing Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. in April 1709. The laughter thus provoked extinguished the Predictions for three years, and in 1715 Partridge died in fact; but the episode left a permanent trace in classic literature, for when in 1709 Steele was to start the Tatler, it occurred to him that he could secure the public ear in no surer way than by adopting the name of Bickerstaff.

From February 1708 to April 1709 Swift was in London, urging upon the Godolphin administration the claims of the Irish clergy to the first-fruits and twentieths ("Queen Anne's Bounty"), which brought in about £2500 a year, already granted to their brethren in England.2 His having been selected for such a commission shows that he was not yet regarded as a deserter from the Whigs, although the ill success of his representations probably helped to make him one. By November 1710 he was again domiciled in London, and writing his Journal to Stella, that unique exemplar of a giant's playfulness, "which was written for one person's private pleasure and has had indestructible attractiveness for every one since." In the first pages of this marvellously minute record of a busy life we find him depicting the decline of Whig credit and complaining of the cold reception accorded him by Godolphin, whose penetration had doubtless detected the precariousness of his allegiance. Within a few weeks he had become the lampooner of the fallen treasurer, the bosom friend of Oxford and Bolingbroke, and the writer of the Examiner, a journal established as the exponent of Tory views (November 1710).

He was now a power in the state, the intimate friend and recognized equal of the first writers of the day, the associate of ministers on a footing of perfect cordiality and familiarity. "We were determined to have you," said Bolingbroke to him afterwards; "you were the only one we were afraid of." He gained his point respecting the Irish endowments; and, by his own account, his credit procured the fortune of more than forty deserving or undeserving clients. The envious but graphic description of his demeanour conveyed to us by Bishop Kennet attests the real dignity of his position no less than the airs he thought fit to assume in consequence. The cheerful, almost jovial, tone of his letters to Stella evinces his full contentment, nor was he one to be moved to gratitude for small mercies. He had it, in fact, fully in his own power to determine his relations with the ministry, and he would be satisfied with nothing short of familiar and ostentatious equality. His advent marks a new era in English political life, the age of public opinion, created indeed by the circumstances of the time, but powerfully fostered and accelerated by him. By a strange but not infrequent irony of fate the most imperious and despotic spirit of his day laboured to enthrone a power which, had he himself been in authority, he would have utterly detested and despised. For a brief time he seemed to resume the whole power of the English press in his own pen and to guide public opinion as he would.

His services to his party as writer of the Examiner, which he quitted in July 1711, were even surpassed by those which he rendered as the author of telling pamphlets, among which The Conduct of the Allies and of the Late Ministry, in beginning and carrying on the Present War, and Remarks on the Barrier Treaty (November and December 1711) hold the first rank. In truth, however, he was lifted by the wave he seemed to command. Surfeited with glory, which it began, after Malplaquet, to think might be purchased at too heavy a cost, the nation wanted a convenient excuse for relinquishing a burdensome war, which the great military genius of the age was suspected of prolonging to fill his pockets. The Whigs had been long in office. The High Church party had derived great strength from the Sacheverell trial. Swift did not bring about the revolution with which, notwithstanding, he associated his name. There seems no reason to suppose that he was consulted respecting the great Tory strokes of the creation of the twelve new peers and the dismissal of Marlborough (December 1711), but they would hardly have been ventured upon if The Conduct of the Allies and the Examiner had not prepared the way. A scarcely less important service was rendered to the ministry by his Letter to the October Club, artfully composed to soothe the impatience of Harley's extreme followers. He had every claim to the highest preferment that ministers could give him, but his own pride and prejudice in high places stood in his way.

Generous men like Oxford and Bolingbroke cannot have been unwilling to reward so serviceable a friend, especially when their own interest lay in keeping him in England. Harley by this time was losing influence and was becoming chronically incapable of any sustained effort. Swift was naturally a little sore at seeing the see of Hereford slipping through his fingers. He had already lost Waterford owing to the prejudice against making the author of the Tale of a Tub a bishop, and he still had formidable antagonists in the archbishop of York, whom he had scandalized, and the duchess of Somerset, whom he had satirized. Anne was particularly amenable to the influence of priestly and female favourites, and it must be considered a proof of the strong interest made for Swift that she was eventually persuaded to appoint him to the deanery of St Patrick's, Dublin, vacant by the removal of Bishop Sterne to Dromore. It is to his honour that he never speaks of the queen with resentment or bitterness. In June 1713 he set out to take possession of his dignity, and encountered a very cold reception from the Dublin public. The dissensions between the chiefs of his party speedily recalled him to England. He found affairs in a desperate condition. The queen's demise was evidently at hand, and the same instinctive good sense which had ranged the nation on the side of the Tories, when Tories alone could terminate a fatiguing war, rendered it Whig when Tories manifestly could not be trusted to maintain the Protestant succession. In any event the occupants of office could merely have had the choice of risking their heads in an attempt to exclude the elector of Hanover, or of waiting patiently till he should come and eject them from their posts; yet they might have remained formidable could they have remained united.

To the indignation with which he regarded Oxford's refusal to advance him in the peerage the active St John added an old disgust at the treasurer's pedantic and dilatory formalism, as well as his evident propensity, while leaving his colleague the fatigues, to engross for himself the chief credit of the administration. Their schemes of policy diverged as widely as their characters: Bolingbroke's brain teemed with the wildest plans, which Oxford might have more effectually discountenanced had he been prepared with anything in their place. Swift's endeavours after an accommodation were as fruitless as unremitting. His mortification was little likely to temper the habitual virulence of his pen, which rarely produced anything more acrimonious than the attacks he at this period directed against Burnet and his former friend Steele. One of his pamphlets against the latter (The Public Spirit of the Whigs set forth in their Generous Encouragement of the Author of the Crisis, 1714) was near involving him in a prosecution, some invectives against the Scottish peers having proved so exasperating to Argyll and others that they repaired to the queen to demand the punishment of the author, of whose identity there could be no doubt, although, like all Swift's writings, except the Proposal for the Extension of Religion, the pamphlet had been published anonymously. The immediate withdrawal of the offensive passage, and a sham prosecution instituted against the printer, extricated Swift from his danger.

Meanwhile the crisis had arrived, and the discord of Oxford and Bolingbroke had become patent to all the nation. Foreseeing, as is probable, the impending fall of the former, Swift retired to Upper Letcombe, in Berkshire, and there spent some weeks in the strictest seclusion. This leisure was occupied in the composition of his remarkable pamphlet, Some Free Thoughts on the Present State of Affairs, which indicates his complete conversion to the bold policy of Bolingbroke. The utter exclusion of Whigs as well as Dissenters from office, the remodelling of the army, the imposition of the most rigid restraints on the heir to the throne — such were the measures which, by recommending, Swift tacitly admitted to be necessary to the triumph of his party. If he were serious, it can only be said that the desperation of his circumstances had momentarily troubled the lucidity of his understanding; if the pamphlet were merely intended as a feeler after public opinion, it is surprising that he did not perceive how irretrievably he was ruining his friends in the eyes of all moderate men. Bolingbroke's daring spirit, however, recoiled from no extreme, and, fortunately for Swift, he added so much of his own to the latter's MS. that the production was first delayed and then, upon the news of Anne's death, immediately suppressed. This incident but just anticipated the revolution which, after Bolingbroke had enjoyed a three days' triumph over Oxford, drove him into exile and prostrated his party, but enabled Swift to perform the noblest action of his life. Almost the first acts of Bolingbroke's ephemeral premiership were to order him a thousand pounds from the exchequer and despatch him the most flattering invitations. The same post brought a letter from Oxford, soliciting Swift's company in his retirement; and, to the latter's immortal honour, he hesitated not an instant in preferring the solace of his friend to the offers of St John. When, a few days afterwards, Oxford was in prison and in danger of his life, Swift begged to share his captivity; and it was only on the offer being declined that he finally directed his steps towards Ireland, where he was very ill received. The draft on the exchequer was intercepted by the queen's death.

These four busy years of Swift's London life had not been entirely engrossed by politics. First as the associate of Steele, with whom he quarrelled, and of Addison, whose esteem for him survived all differences, afterwards as the intimate comrade of Pope and Arbuthnot, the friend of Congreve and Atterbury, Parnell and Gay, he entered deeply into the literary life of the period. He was treasurer and a leading member of the Brothers, a society of wits and statesmen which recalls the days of Horace and Maecenas. He promoted the subscription for Pope's Homer, contributed some numbers to the Tatler, Spectator, and Intelligencer, and joined with Pope and Arbuthnot in establishing the Scriblerus Club, writing Martinus Scriblerus, his share in which can have been but small, as well as John Bull, where the chapter recommending the education of all blue-eyed children in depravity for the public good must surely be his. His miscellanies, in some of which his satire made the nearest approach perhaps ever made to the methods of physical force, such as A Meditation upon a Broomstick, and the poems Sid Hamet's Rod, The City Shower, The Windsor Prophecy, The Prediction of Merlin, and The History of Vanbrugh's House, belong to this period. A more laboured work, his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712), in a letter to Harley, suggesting the regulation of the English language by an academy, is chiefly remarkable as a proof of the deference paid to French taste by the most original English writer of his day. His History of the Four Last Years of the Reign of Queen Anne is not on a level with his other political writings. To sum up the incidents of this eventful period of his life, it was during it that he lost his mother, always loved and dutifully honoured, by death; his sister had been estranged from him some years before by an imprudent marriage, which, though making her a liberal allowance, he never forgave.

The change from London to Dublin can seldom be an agreeable one. To Swift it meant for the time the fall from unique authority to absolute insignificance. All share in the administration of even Irish affairs was denied him; every politician shunned him; and his society hardly included a single author or wit. He "continued in the greatest privacy" and "began to think of death." At a later period he talked of "dying of rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole"; for some time, however, he was buoyed up by feeble hopes of a restoration to England. So late as 1726 he was in England making overtures to Walpole, but he had no claim on ministerial goodwill, and as an opponent he had by that time done his worst. By an especial cruelty of fate, what should have been the comfort became the bane of his existence. We have already mentioned his invitation of Esther Johnson and Mrs Dingley to Ireland. Both before and after his elevation to the deanery of St Patrick's these ladies continued to reside near him, and superintended his household during his absence in London. He had offered no obstacle in 1704 to a match proposed for Stella to Dr William Tisdall of Dublin, and, with his evident delight in the society of the dark-haired, brighteyed, witty beauty — a model, if we may take his word, of all that woman should be — it seemed unaccountable that he did not secure it to himself by the expedient of matrimony. A constitutional infirmity has been suggested as the reason, and the conjecture derives support from several peculiarities in his writings. But, whatever the cause, his conduct proved none the less the fatal embitterment of his life and Stella's and yet another's.

Portrait of Esther Vanhomrigh
    Esther (or Hester) Vanhomrigh
He had always been unlucky in his relations with the fair sex. In 1695 he had idealized "Varina."  Varina was avenged by Vanessa, who pursued Swift to far other purpose. Esther Vanhomrigh (b. February 14, 1690), the daughter of a Dublin merchant of Dutch origin, who died in 1703 leaving £16,000, had become known to Swift at the height of his political influence. He lodged close to her mother, was introduced to the family by Sir A. Fountaine in 1708 and became an intimate of the house. Vanessa insensibly became his pupil, and he insensibly became the object of her impassioned affection. Her letters reveal a spirit full of ardour and enthusiasm, and warped by that perverse bent which leads so many women to prefer a tyrant to a companion. Swift, on the other hand, was devoid of passion. Of friendship, even of tender regard, he was fully capable, but not of love. The spiritual realm, whether in divine or earthly things, was a region closed to him, where he had never set foot. As a friend he must have greatly preferred Stella to Vanessa. Marriage was out of the question with him, and, judged in the light of Stella's dignity and womanliness, this ardent and unreasoning display of passion was beyond comprehension. But Vanessa assailed him on a very weak side. The strongest of all his instincts was the thirst for imperious domination. Vanessa hugged the fetters to which Stella merely submitted. Flattered to excess by her surrender, yet conscious of his binding obligations and his real preference, he could neither discard the one beauty nor desert the other. It is humiliating to human strength and consoling to human weakness to find the Titan behaving like the least resolute of mortals, seeking refuge in temporizing, in evasion, in fortuitious circumstance.

He no doubt trusted that his removal to Dublin would bring relief, but here again his evil star interposed. Vanessa's mother died (1714), and she followed him to Ireland, taking up her abode at Celbridge within ten miles of Dublin. Unable to marry Stella without destroying Vanessa, or to openly welcome Vanessa without destroying Stella, he was thus involved in the most miserable embarrassment; he continued to temporize. Had the solution of marriage been open Stella would undoubtedly have been Swift's choice. Some mysterious obstacle intervened. It was rumoured at the time that Stella was the natural daughter of Temple, and Swift himself at times seems to have been doubtful as to his own paternity. There is naturally no evidence for such reports, which may have been fabrications of the anti-deanery faction in Dublin. From the same source sprang the report of Swift's marriage to Stella by Bishop Ashe in the deanery garden at Clogher in the summer of 1716. The ceremony, it is suggested, may have been extorted by the jealousy of Stella and have been accompanied by the express condition on Swift's side that the marriage was never to be avowed. The evidence is by no means complete and has never been exhaustively reviewed. John Lyon, Swift's constant attendant from 1735 onwards, disbelieved the story. It was accepted by the early biographers, Deane Swift, Orrery, Delany and Sheridan; also by Johnson, Scott, Dr Garnett, Craik, Dr Bernard and others. The arguments against the marriage were first marshalled by Monck Mason in his History of St Patrick's, and the conjecture, though plausible, has failed to convince Forster, Stephen, Aitken, Hill, Lane Poole and Churton Collins.

Never more than a nominal wife at most, the unfortunate Stella commonly passed for his mistress till the day of her death (in her will she writes herself spinster), bearing her doom with uncomplaining resignation, and consoled in some degree by unquestionable proofs of the permanence of his love, if his feeling for her deserves the name. Meanwhile his efforts were directed to soothe Miss Vanhomrigh, to whom he addressed Cadenus and Vanessa, the history of their attachment and the best example of his serious poetry, and for whom he sought to provide honourably in marriage, without either succeeding in his immediate aim or in thereby opening her eyes to the hopelessness of her passion. In 1720, on what occasion is uncertain, he began to pay her regular visits. Sir Walter Scott found the Abbey garden at Celbridge still full of laurels, several of which she was accustomed to plant whenever she expected Swift, and the table at which they had been used to sit was still shown. But the catastrophe of her tragedy was at hand. Worn out with his evasions, she at last (1723) took the desperate step of writing to Stella or, according to another account, to Swift himself, demanding to know the nature of the connexion with him, and this terminated the melancholy history as with a clap of thunder. Stella sent her rival's letter to Swift, and retired to a friend's house. Swift rode down to Marley Abbey with a terrible countenance, petrified Vanessa by his frown, and departed without a word, flinging down a packet which only contained her own letter to Stella. Vanessa died within a few weeks. She left the poem and correspondence for publication. The former appeared immediately, the latter was suppressed until it was published by Sir Walter Scott.

Five years afterwards Stella followed Vanessa to the grave. The grief which the gradual decay of her health evidently occasioned Swift is sufficient proof of the sincerity of his attachment, as he understood it. It is a just remark of Thackeray's that he everywhere half-consciously recognizes her as his better angel, and dwells on her wit and her tenderness with a fondness he never exhibits for any other topic. On the 28th of January 1728, she died, and her wretched lover sat down the same night to record her virtues in language of unsurpassed simplicity, but to us who know the story more significantly for what it conceals than for what it tells. A lock of her hair is preserved, with the inscription in Swift's handwriting, most affecting in its apparent cynicism, "Only a woman's hair!" "Only a woman's hair," comments Thackeray; "only love, only fidelity, purity, innocence, beauty, only the tenderest heart in the world stricken and wounded, and passed away out of reach of pangs of hope deferred, love insulted and pitiless desertion; only that lock of hair left, and memory, and remorse, for the guilty, lonely wretch, shuddering over the grave of his victim." The more unanswerable this tremendous indictment appears upon the evidence the greater the probability that the evidence is incomplete. Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner.

Between the death of Vanessa and the death of Stella came the greatest political and the greatest literary triumph of Swift's life. He had fled to Ireland a broken man, to all appearance politically extinct; a few years were to raise him once more to the summit of popularity, though power was for ever denied him. Consciously or unconsciously he first taught the Irish to rely upon themselves and for many generations his name was the most universally popular in the country. With his fierce hatred of what he recognized as injustice, it was impossible that he should not feel exasperated at the gross misgovernment of Ireland for the supposed benefit of England, the systematic exclusion of Irishmen from places of honour and profit, the spoliation of the country by absentee landlords, the deliberate discouragement of Irish trade and manufactures. An Irish patriot in the strict sense of the term he was not; he was proud of being an Englishman, who had been accidentally "dropped in Ireland"; he looked upon the indigenous population as conquered savages; but his pride and sense of equity alike revolted against the stay-at-home Englishmen's contemptuous treatment of their own garrison, and he delighted in finding a point in which the triumphant faction was still vulnerable. His Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures, published anonymously in 1720, urging the Irish to disuse English goods, became the subject of a prosecution, which at length had to be dropped. A greater opportunity was at hand.

One of the chief wants of Ireland in that day, and for many a day afterwards, was that of small currency adapted to the daily transactions of life. Questions of coinage occupy a large part of the correspondence of the primate, Archbishop Boulter, whose anxiety to deal rightly with the matter is evidently very real and conscientious. There is no reason to think that the English ministry wished otherwise; but secret influences were at work, and a patent for supplying Ireland with a coinage of copper halfpence was accorded to William Wood on such terms that the profit accruing from the difference between the intrinsic and the nominal value of the coins, about 40%, was mainly divided between him and George I's favourite duchess of Kendal, by whose influence Wood had obtained the privilege. Swift now had his opportunity, and the famous six letters signed M. B. Drapier (April to Dec. 1724) soon set Ireland in a flame. Every effort was used to discover, or rather to obtain legal evidence against, the author, whom, Walpole was assured, it would then have taken ten thousand men to apprehend. None could be procured; the public passion swept everything before it; the patent was cancelled; Wood was compensated by a pension; Swift was raised to a height of popularity which he retained for the rest of his life; and the only real sufferers were the Irish people, who lost a convenience so badly needed that they might well have afforded to connive at Wood's illicit profits. Perhaps, however, it was worth while to teach the English ministry that not everything could be done in Ireland. Swift's pamphlets, written in a style more level with the popular intelligence than even his own ordinary manner, are models alike to the controversialist who aids a good cause and to him who is burdened with a bad one. The former may profit by the study of his marvellous lucidity and vehemence, the latter by his sublime audacity in exaggeration and the sophistry with which he involves the innocent halfpence in the obloquy of the nefarious patentee.

The noise of the Drapier Letters had hardly died away when Swift acquired a more durable glory by the publication of Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World, in four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon and then a captain of several ships (Benjamin Motto, October 1726). The first hint came to him at the meetings of the Scriblerus Club in 1714, and the work was well advanced, it would seem, by 1720. Allusions show that it was circulated privately for a considerable period before its actual (anonymous) publication, on the 28th of October 1726. Pope arranged that Erasmus Lewis should act as literary agent in negotiating the manuscript. Swift was afraid of the reception the book would meet with, especially in political circles. The keenness of the satire on courts, parties and statesmen certainly suggests that it was planned while Swift's disappointments as a public man were still rankling and recent. It is Swift's peculiar good fortune that his book can dispense with the interpretation of which it is nevertheless susceptible, and may be equally enjoyed whether its inner meaning is apprehended or not. It is so true, so entirely based upon the facts of human nature, that the question what particular class of persons supplied the author with his examples of folly or misdoing, however interesting to the commentator, may be neglected by the reader. It is also fortunate for him that in three parts out of the four he should have entirely missed "the chief end I propose to myself, to vex the world rather than divert it."

The world, which perhaps ought to have been vexed, chose rather to be diverted; and the great satirist literally strains his power ut pueris placeat. Few books have added so much to the innocent mirth of mankind of the first two parts of Gulliver; the misanthropy is quite overpowered by the fun. The third part, equally masterly in composition, is less felicitous in invention; and in the fourth Swift has indeed carried out his design of vexing the world at his own cost. Human nature indignantly rejects her portrait in the Yahoo as a gross libel, and the protest is fully warranted. An intelligence from a superior sphere, bound on a voyage to the earth, might actually have obtained a fair idea of average humanity by a preliminary call at Lilliput or Brobdingnag, but not from a visit to the Yahoos. While Gulliver is infinitely the most famous and popular of Swift's works, it exhibits no greater powers of mind than many others. The secret of success, here as elsewhere, is the writer's marvellous imperturbability in paradox, his teeming imagination and his rigid logic. Grant his premises, and all the rest follows; his world may be turned topsy-turvy, but the relative situation of its contents is unchanged. The laborious attempts that have been made, particularly in Germany, to affiliate the Travels only serve to bring Swift's essential originality into stronger relief. He had naturally read Lucian and Rabelais — possibly Crusoe and the Arabian Nights. He had read as a young man the lunary adventure of Bishop Wilkins, Bishop Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac. He had read contemporary accounts of Peter the Wild Boy, the History of Sevarambes by D'Alais (1677) and Foligny's Journey of Jacques Sadeut to Australia (1693). He may have read Joshua Barnes's description of a race of "Pygmies" in his Gerania of 1675. He copied the account of the storm in the second voyage almost literally from Sturmy's Compleat Mariner. Travellers' tales were deliberately embalmed by Swift in the amber of his irony. Something similar was attempted by Raspe in his Munchausen sixty years later.

Swift's grave humour and power of enforcing momentous truth by ludicrous exaggeration were next displayed in his Modest Proposal for Preventing the' Children of Poor People from being a Burden to their Parents or the Country, by fattening and eating them (1729), a parallel to the Argument against Abolishing Christianity, and as great a masterpiece of tragic as the latter is of comic irony. The Directions to Servants (first published in 1745) in like manner derive their overpowering comic force from the imperturbable solemnity with which all the misdemeanours that domestics can commit are enjoined upon them as duties. The power of minute observation displayed is most remarkable, as also in Polite Conversation (written in 1731, published in 1738), a surprising assemblage of the vulgarities and trivialities current in ordinary talk. As in the Directions, the satire, though cutting, is good-natured, and the piece shows more animal spirits than usual in Swift's latter years. It was a last flash of gaiety. The attacks of giddiness and deafness to which he had always been liable increased upon him. Already in 1721 he complains that the buzzing in his ears disconcerts and confounds him. After the Directions he writes little beyond occasional verses, not seldom indecent and commonly trivial. He sought refuge from inferior society often in nonsense, occasionally in obscenity.

An exception must be made in the case of the delightful Hamilton's Bawn, and still more of the verses on his own death (1731), one of the most powerful and also one of the saddest of his poems. In The Legion Club of 1736 he composed the fiercest of all his verse satires. He hated the Irish parliament for its lethargy and the Irish bishops for their interference. He fiercely opposed Archbishop Boulter's plans for the reform of the Irish currency, but admitted that his real objection was sentimental: the coins should be struck as well as circulated in Ireland. His exertions in repressing robbery and mendicancy were strenuous and successful. His popularity remained as great as ever (he received the freedom of Dublin in 1729), and, when he was menaced by the bully Bettesworth, Dublin rose as one man to defend him. He governed his cathedral with great strictness and conscientiousness, and for years after Stella's death continued to hold a miniature court at the deanery. But his failings of mind were exacerbated by his bodily infirmities; he grew more and more whimsical and capricious, morbidly suspicious and morbidly parsimonius; old friends were estranged or removed by death, and new friends did not come forward in their place. For many years, nevertheless, he maintained a correspondence with Pope and Bolingbroke, and with Arbuthnot and Gay until their deaths, with such warmth as to prove that an ill opinion of mankind had not made him a misanthrope, and that human affection and sympathy were still very necessary to him.

The letters become scarcer and scarcer with the decay of his faculties; at last, in 1740, comes one to his kind niece, Mrs Whiteway, of heartrending pathos:

"I have been very miserable all night, and to-day extremely deaf and full of pain. I am so stupid and confounded that I cannot express the mortification I am under both of body and mind. All I can say is that I am not in torture; but I daily and hourly expect it. Pray let me know how your health is and your family: I hardly understand one word I write. I am sure my days will be very few; few and miserable they must be. I am, for those few days, yours entirely - Jonathan Swift.

"If I do not blunder, it is Saturday, July 26, 1740.

"If I live till Monday I shall hope to see you, perhaps for the last time."

Account book entries continue until 1742.

In March 1742 it was necessary to appoint guardians of Swift's person and estate. In September of the same year his physical malady reached a crisis, from which he emerged a helpless wreck, with faculties paralysed rather than destroyed — "He never talked nonsense or said a foolish thing." The particulars of his case have been investigated by Dr Bucknill and Sir William Wilde, who have proved that he suffered from nothing that could be called mental derangement until the "labyrinthine vertigo" from which he had suffered all his life, and which he erroneously attributed to a surfeit of fruit, produced paralysis, "a symptom of which was the not uncommon one of aphasia, or the automatic utterance of words ungoverned by intention. As a consequence of that paralysis, but not before, the brain, already weakened by senile decay, at length gave way, and Swift sank into the dementia which preceded his death." In other words he retained his reason until in his 74th year he was struck down by a new disease in the form of a localized left-sided apoplexy or cerebral softening. Aphasia due to the local trouble and general decay then progressed rapidly together, and even then at 76, two more years were still to elapse before "he exchanged the sleep of idiocy for the sleep of death." The scene closed on the 10th of October 1745.

With what he himself described as a satiric touch, his fortune was bequeathed to found a hospital for idiots and lunatics, now an important institution, as it was in many respects a pioneer bequest. He was interred in his cathedral at midnight on the 22nd of October, in the same coffin as Stella, with the epitaph, written by himself, "Hic depositum est corpus Jonathan Swift, S.T.P., hujus ecclesiae cathedralis decani; ubi saeva indignatio cor ulterius lacerare nequit. Abi, viator, et imitare, si poteris, strenuum pro virili libertatis vindicem." The stress which Swift thus laid upon his character as an assertor of liberty has hardly been ratified by posterity, which has apparently neglected the patriot for the genius and the wit. Not unreasonably; for if half his patriotism sprang from an instinctive hatred of oppression, the other half was disappointed egotism. He utterly lacked the ideal aspiration which the patriot should possess: his hatred of villany was far more intense than his love of virtue. The same cramping realism clings to him everywhere beyond the domain of politics — in his religion, in his fancies, in his affections. At the same time, it is the secret of his wonderful concentration of power: he realizes everything with such intensity that he cannot fail to be impressive.

Except in his unsuccessful essay in history, he never, after the mistake of his first Pindaric attempts, strays beyond his sphere, never attempts what he is not qualified to do, and never fails to do it. His writings have not one literary fault except their occasional looseness of grammar and their frequent indecency. Within certain limits, his imagination and invention are as active as those of the most creative poets. As a master of humour, irony and invective he has no superior; his reasoning powers are no less remarkable within their range, but he never gets beyond the range of an advocate. Few men of so much mental force have had so little genius for speculation, and he is constantly dominated by fierce instincts which he mistakes for reasons. As a man the leading note of his character is the same — strength without elevation. His master passion is imperious pride — the lust of despotic dominion. He would have his superiority acknowledged, and cared little for the rest. Place and profit were comparatively indifferent to him; he declares that he never received a farthing for any of his works except Gulliver's Travels, and that only by Pope's management; and he had so little regard for literary fame that he put his name to only one of his writings. Contemptuous of the opinion of his fellows, he hid his virtues, paraded his faults, affected some failings from which he was really exempt, and, since his munificent charity could not be concealed from the recipients, laboured to spoil it by gratuitous surliness. Judged by some passages of his life he would appear a heartless egotist, and yet he was capable of the sincerest friendship and could never dispense with human sympathy. Thus an object of pity as well as awe, he is the most tragic figure in our literature — the only man of his age who could be conceived as affording a groundwork for one of the creations of Shakespeare. "To think of him," says Thackeray, "is like thinking of the ruin of a great empire." Nothing finer or truer could be said.

1 The name "Stella" is simply a translation of Esther. Swift may have learned that Esther means "star"
from the Elementa linguae persicae of John Greaves or from some Persian scholar; but he is more likely
to have seen the etymology in the form given from Jewish sources in Buxtorf's Lexicon, where the inter-
pretation takes the more suggestive form "Stella Veneris."

2 The grant of the first-fruits was to be made contingent on a concession from the Irish clergy in the
shape of the abolition of the sacramental test. This Swift would not agree to. He ultimately won his
point from Harley, and his success marks his open rupture with the Whigs.

Excerpted from:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed., vol. XXVI.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 225-7.

     Swift | Quotes | Works | Links | Essays | Books | 18th-century English Literature

Back to Jonathan Swift

Site copyright ©1996-2007 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
Created by Anniina Jokinen on October 16, 2006. Last updated January 24, 2007.