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The life of Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin online

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17jg. Tlio date, vrrongly given by oditionof Pope's Lettern, Vol. II. p.l88.


of " contemptus mundi " too easily and too j-oung. The gloom
that he felt eating into his own heart and poisoning his life,
the misanthropy for which he sometimes despised himself, but
from which he could not escape, was in Pope's mouth, as Smft
well knew, nothing but an affectation. The poet's dislikes
were of those who hm-t him, or who came athwart his path :
those of Swift were of human natiu-e as a whole. But it was
no unkindly trait in Swift that none of the weaknesses he saw
in Pope, lessened his feeling of habitual regard. " Farewell,
my dearest friend," are the words with which he closes almost
every letter, even as the gloom was becoming more settled, and
the shadow of coming calamity lengthening before him.

There was nothing inconsistent with Swift's dignity, in the
desire he expresses more than once to find a place in the
creations of his friends. The fame that his own works had
earned, was cast aside by him with something of contempt.
Any profits that they might have brought him, he had uniformlj'
neglected : and, with some cj'nicism, he declares that his object
in cultivating literature had been to gain that social distinction
which was not his by birth. But the honour which his friends
might bring him, he did not desj)ise. " Orna me," he says to
Pope in 1735, " I have the ambition, and it is very earnest as
well as in haste, to have one Epistle inscribed to me while I am
alive, and you just in the time when wit and wisdom are in the
height." So he had before said to Gaj', " I sometimes reproach
j'ou for not honoiuring me by letting the world know we are
friends." Aiad so again, as late as 1738, he begs of Bolingbroke,
if he wiites a history of his own time, "that my name maj'
be squeezed in amongst the few subalterns, quorum jyars parva
fui." If the desu'e is faultj', it is, at least, not on the side of
insufficient modesty, or of undue depreciation of his friends'
powers of assigning immortality.

Amongst the less famous correspondents of Swift's later years,
it would be unjust to omit one whose frank and outspoken
advice served him in better stead, perhaps, than the elaborate

466 LIFE OF JONATHAN SWIFT. [1727—1737.

affectations of his more brilliant literary compeers. This was
Lady Bettj' Germaine, a daughter, of Lord Berkelej', and the
friend of Swift in the eai'ly days of Dublin Castle and of Cran-
ford. Lady Betty had, if we are to believe the story told by the
Duchess of Marlborough, got into some trouble in her youth.
But these irregularities had been covered by a subsequent
marriage with Sir John Germaine, who had left her a wealthy
widow in 1718. She now lived at Draji^on in Northampton-
shire : and the scandals that were caused by early errors did
not prevent her mixing with the best society of England down
to a ripe old age. Of all Swift's later con-espondents, she
shews the most integrity, the most outspoken condemnation of
his faults, the most of that sincerity of friendship, which
eschews flattery. She sought to soothe his misanthropy ;
but when her efforts fail, she is not slow to rebuke his petu-
lance : and it might have been well for Swift if he had more
often heard words as plain as these from Lady Betty : —

" As to your creed in politics, I will heartily and sincerely subsorilDe to
it, (that I detest avarice in courts, corruption in ministers, scliisms in
religion, illiterate fawning betrayers of the Church in mitres). But at the
same time, I prodigiously want an infallible judge to determine when it is
really so : for, as I have lived longer in the world, and seenmany changes,
I know those out of power and place always see the faults of those in, with
dreadful large spectacles. * * * So e.\perience has taught me how wrong,
unjust, and senseless, party factions are ; therefore, I am determined never
wholly to believe any side or jiarty against tire other : and to show that I
will not, as my friends are in and out of all sides, so my house receives
them altogether : and those people meet here, who have, and would fight in
any other place."*

It was one of the symptoms of Swift's fretfulness during
these years, that comparatively small annoyances told on his
spirits in a degree that to a healthy man would have been
impossible. One of these sources of annoyance arose from
Lady Betty's friend, the Countess of Suffolk. In common with
the opposition faction, Swift had, in the later days of George

Lady Betty Oermaine to Swift, Feb. 28, 17^|.


the First, cultivated the friendship of Mrs. Howard (as she then
was) as a probable counterpoise to the influence of Walpole.
The favour which Mrs. Howard enjoyed, however, was under-
mined by the tactics of the Princess of Wales — tactics so
strange in the domestic annals even of royalty that shrewd
observers may well have been blind to them until the clue to
the secret was obtained. The Princess, even after she became
Queen, ruled her husband by means of a favourite who was at
once the instrument of her dishonour and of her ambition.
Through the Queen, Walpole's influence continued : and that
of Mrs. Howard, created Countess of Suff'olk, was absolutely
set at nought. Upon her therefore fell the brunt of the opposi-
tion anger. By her they felt themselves deceived, disappointed,
and misled. Her insincerity, her courtier-lOie promises, her
indifference to friendship — all these became their theme ; and
Swift was not the least prominent in the denunciation, refusing
to Ksten to the apologies of Ladj^ Betty Germaine. He had
wrongs of his own — partly owing to the non-payment of the
thousand pounds, which had waited since the days of Lord
Oxford, and which he had hoped might now have been secm-ed.
Still worse. Swift fancied that she had misled him by a
suggestion of a settlement in England. The advice seems to
have been as honestly given by Mrs. Howard as she herself
avers. " If I cannot justify the advice I gave J'ou," she writes
in answer to his reproaches,* "from the success of it, I gave
you my reasons for it : and it was your business to have judged
of my capacity from the solidity of my arguments. If the
principle was false, you ought not to have acted upon it." The
retort is unanswerable : and nothing but the irritation of dis-
appointment and ill-health could have led Swift to charge his
mistake upon another rather than himself. A more worthy,
if not a more reasonable ground of ill-will, was'due to^^the fancied
neglect of Gay. Gay had written his Fables for one of the royal
children: and the appointment of Gentleman-Usher, which

* The Countess of Suffolk to Smift, Sept. 25, 1731.

H H 2

468 LIFE OP JONATHAN SWIFT. [1727—1737.

was offered as his reward, was deemed by himself and his friends
— Swift amongst the rest — unequal to his deserts. All these
causes served to feed Swift's anger. Even as early as 1727
he had written a character of Mrs. Howard, which, with some
flattering phrases, contains sarcasm in much gi-eater quantity.
The key-note of it is her excellence as a courtier. " In all
other offices of life she acts with justice, generosity, and truth."
"If she had never seen a Court, it is not impossible that she
might have been a friend." " Her talents as a courtier will
spread, enlarge, and multiply to such a degree, that her private
virtues, for want of room and time to operate, will be laid up
clean (like clothes in a chest), to be used and put on whenever
satiety, or some reverse of fortune, or increase of ill-health (to
which last she is subject) will dispose her to retire."

That Swift was not without his suspicions, when he wrote
these words, is clear. But they were probably intended, and
read, as a warning of possible failings rather than as an actual
picture of the reality. In 1730 and 1731, however, then- antici-
pations seem to Swift to be realized : and he tm'ns upon the
false promises of the favourite with an anger which she did not
deserve, and which Swift had earned no right to shew. It is
some satisfaction that the indignation shewed itself chiefly in
letters to Ladj^ Suffolk herself, and that although it cooled, it
did not end, their friendship.*

A trifling occasion still further complicated his relations to
the Court. In 1731, a counterfeit letter was sent to the Queen,
pm'porting to be from Swift, and praising, in terms so lavish as
to be absm'd, the Irish poetess, Mrs. Barber, whom Swift had
taken under his patronage and who was now in London, seeking
to extend her literary fame. The letter seems to assume that
the neglect of Mrs. Barber was a new instance of that disregard

* From certain expressions it lias to the Countess herself. Swift was

sometimes been supposed that Swift peevisli from disappointment, age and

changed from open Ilattery to some- ill-healtli : to be deceitful, either in

thing of concealed abuse. But nothing praise or blame, was to him im-

is more bitter than the letters addressed possible.


for Irish claims whicli distinguished England. Such a travesty
of his work as Drapier was enough to irritate Swift: but
still more was he annoyed at the supposition that he had sought
for anyone the patronage of the Queen. Both through Pope
and the Countess of Suifolk, he hastens, with almost needless
eagerness, to disavow the authorship of the obnoxious letter.
Its concoction still remains a mystery. Of all possible solu-
tions that is most unlikely which would ascribe it to Swift :
that most likely which would suppose it to be the work of some
foolish or indiscreet admirer of Mrs. Barber. Even the poor
authoress herself, much as her genius was overrated even in
Swift's estimate, was scarcely capable of conduct so damaging
to her own reputation as this.

Another annoyance of these later j^ears was the result, not of
Swift's proneness to irritation, but of his helpfulness to those
who sought his aid. We have seen how the curate, Matthew
Pilkington, and his wife, another of the aspiring authoresses of
Dublin, had managed to push themselves into his favour.
Over-estimating their literar}"- pretensions, and deceived as to
their honesty, Swift had pressed Matthew Pilkington on the
notice of his London friends. Alderman Barber,* whom Swift
had helped to fortune in the days of his power, was in 1732 on
the eve of his mayoralty; and Swift, who had brought Pilkington
to the notice of Pope and Gay and Arbuthnot, now begs Barber
to make him Chaplain dm-ing his year of office. The request
was granted ; but Swift soon found cause to repent of his recom-
mendation, when Pilkington shewed himself in his true colours,
as a coxcomb and a knave, t

* Mrs. Pilkington (^Memoirs, 1. p. his eyes, which were very black and

159), gives us a description of Barber sparkling."

from the life. " On account of his + Barber was obliged to reveal to

opposition to the Excise Act, he was Swift the knavery of his proUije : and

then the darling of the people. He Bolingbroke, with even more blunt-

was but indifferent as to his person, or ness, remonstrates : " Pray, Mr. Dean,

rather homely than otherwise ; but he be a little more cautious in your

had an excellent understanding, and recommendations." (BoUnglroke to

the liveliness of his genius shone in Smft, April 12, 1734).

470 LIFE OF JONATHAN SWIFT. [1727—1737.

In these later j^ears Swift's melancholy found relief nowhere
more easily than in those literary occupations that in earlier
days he had striven to thrust into the background, amongst the
stin-ing scenes of political activity. In literary fame, too,
which he had before neglected and despised. Swift now found a
solace amid his gloom. The tribute of that fame was offered from
strange sources, and it brought to Swift a content not unmixed
with something of irony.

In one of his latest letters to her. Swift tells Lady Suffollc
that he is resolved to have a hand " in state scribble no more."
The words referred to that angry fight that was now being
waged against Walpole's Ministrj^ under the guidance of
Bolingbroke, Wyndham, and Pulteney ; and it was well for
Swift's fame and for his comfort that in the main he refrained.
The anger against the Minister had lost even the dignity of a
party struggle, and had dwindled into the attacks of a selfish
faction, backed up by the exaggerated anathemas of a literary
clique. Swift's combats were now fought on Irish soil ; and
the time he could spai'e from his struggles there, was given to
work in which his genius found a miich more fitting channel. " I
have been several months," he writes to Gay,* with probable
exaggeration of his aversion to sustained effort, " \mting near
five hundred lines on a pleasant subject, only to tell what my
friends and enemies will say of me after I am dead." " My
poetical fountain is drained," he tells Pope ; t but it contmiied
nevertheless to flow copiously enough. The words to Gay de-
scribed one of his most characteristic pieces — the Verses on the
Death of Dr. Swift. Never attempting to rise into great heights
of poetry — studiouslj^ keeping himself to the note of ironical
humour which he has chosen, and which admits hints of bitter
cj'nicism, though it never allows these to break its equanimity
— Swift has here achieved a success which more elaborate

* Smift to Gay, Dec. 1, 1731. Scott Again the date is -wroDgly giyen by-
has misdated the letter. Scott.
t Smift to Pope, June 12, 1732.


poetry would have missed. Keen observation, subtle irony,
and bitter cynicism, never took a lighter or an easier di'ess.

Here shift the scene, to represent

How those I love my death lament ;

Poor Pope would grieve a mouth, and Gay

A week, and Arbuthnot a day ;

St. John himself will scarce forhear

To bite his pen, and drop a tear.

The rest will give a shrug, and cry,

" I'm sorry — hut we all must die I "

IndifEerence, clad in wisdom's guise,

All fortitude of mind supplies :

For how can stony bowels melt,

In those who never pity felt 1

When we are lashed, they kiss the rod

Resigning to the will of God."

The defence of his own political attitude, which the piece

contains, is bold enough ; but, as giving his own conception of his

task in satire, the lines that follow have even more of interest,

and that interest is all the deeper when we contrast their

sincerity with the pompous vapomings of Pope, at such times

as he is in the humour of advancing his frequent claims to

magnanimity :

" Perhaps I may allow the Dean
Had too much satire in his vein ;
And seem'd determined not to starve it.
Because no age could more deserve it.
Yet malice never was his aim ;
He lash'd the vice, but spared the name :
No individual could resent.
Where thousands equally were meant ;
His satire points at no defect,
But what all mortals may correct ;
For he abhorr'd that senseless tribe
Who call it humour when they gibe :
He spared a hump, or crooked nose.
Whose owners set not up for beaux.
True genuine dulness moved his pity,
Unless it ofEer'd to be witty.
Those who their ignorance confest,
He ne'er offended with a jest ;
But laugh'd to hear an idiot quote
A verse from Horace learn'd by rote.''

472 LIFE OF JONATHAN SWIFT. [1727—1737.

Shorter poetical pieces followed one another profusely
during these years, each telling us something of the restless
and fierce misanthropy and contempt that were extending
their thraldom day by day. The Beasts' Confession pictures
the transparent affectations of humanitj', by simihtudes of
brutes. He duly apologises for a comparison only too com-
plimentary to men ; but he has done his best by giving onty
the lowest orders of brutes — in describing the ass, who blames
nature that " he is a wit both born and bred ; " the swine, who
feels it needful to ask pardon if he " in diet was perhaps too
nice ; " the ape, who

" Found his virtues too severe
For our corrupted times to bear ; "

and the goat, whose vow of chastity must excuse his prudish

In 1731, the stiiTing lines on the Place of the Damned,
appeared, as a Broadsheet, in Dublin. Hell, he says, is where
the damned do mostly congregate. A catalogue, too clearly
embracing the very plagues of Irish society, so often satirised
by Swift, is given, and he closes thus : —

" Then let us no longer by Parsons be flammed,
For we know by these marks the place of the damned ;
And Hell to be sure is at Paris or Borne :
How happy for us that it is not at home."

To the same period most probably belong those verses. On
the Day of Judgment, which have come down to us only through
Lord Chesterfield's quotation of them in a letter to Voltaire.*
Short as they are, and although we may perhaps accept the
reason at which Chesterfield hints, as that of their suppression

* Cliesterfield to Voltaire, Aug. 27, it would be hard to produce another

1752. "La piece," says Chesterfield, passageinwhichSwiftis,i«!!e«i;io«aZZ)/,

" n'a jamais 6t6 imprimie, tous en so outspoken in his ridicule of a

devinerez bien la raison, mais elle est common belief as he is here. The

authentique. J'en ai I'original terit effect of what be says is often the

de sa propre main." The reason we are same ; but he is unconscious of the

meant to divine, is clearly the sarcasm bearing of his vrords. Here the ridicule

on an accepted dogma : and certainly is conscious and avowed.


by Swift himself, they yet serve as a condensed specimen
of Swift's skill of grim liumom- at its highest pitch :

" With a whirl of thought oppress'd,
I sunk from reverie to rest.
An horrid vision seiz'd my head ;
I saw the graves give up their dead !
Jove, arm'd with terrors, burst the skies,
And thunder roars, and lightning flies 1
Amaz'd, confus'd, its fate unknown.
The world stands trembling at his throne I
"While each pale sinner hung his head,
Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said :
' Offending race, of human kind,
By nature, reason, learning, blind,
You who through frailty step'd aside.
And you who never fell — through pride ;
You who in different sects were shamm'd,
And come to see each other damn'd ;
(So some folks told you, but they knew
No more of Jove's designs than you),
— The world's mad business now is o'er,
And I resent these pranks no more.
— I to such blockheads set my wit !
I damn such fools ! — Go, go, you're lit.' "

The year 1733 saw the Rhapsody on Poetry,* which stands
side by side with Pope's Epistle to Augustus, and transcends
the latter in its force of sweeping sarcasm. Comparing the
two poems, Pope's with all its marvellous skill, all its command
of metre and language, all the subtlety of its satire, yet falls
short of the other in variety. There is in the poem a reminis-
cence of Gulliver, in its contempt of humanity ; a reminiscence
of the Drapier, in its obstinate independence ; a reminiscence
of the Tale of a Tub, in the grasp and yet the simplicity of its
metaphor. As poetry, perhaps as a pure literary effort, it
is inferior to Pope ; but its power and resistless force of sarcasm
hold us in a gi'asp compai'ed with which Pope's highest efforts

* It was published anonymously in read of, who hides his head in a hole,

London in 1733. " Your method of while all Ms feathers and tail stick

concealing yourself," says Pope, " puts out." Pope to Sivi/t, Jan. 6, 173|.
me in mind of the Indian bird I have

^74 LIFE OP JONATHAN SWIFT. [1727—1737.

seem weals: and almost tame. Quotation would mai* tlie force

of the satire. But, looking back to the days of the Pindaric

odes, and to the dread with which Swift once regarded his muse,

there is not a little of biographical interest in the two maxims

that follow :

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

Not beggar's brat on buUc begot
Not bastard of a pedlar Scot ;
Not boy brought up to cleaning shoes
The spawn of Bridewell or the stews
Not infants dropped, the spurious pledges
Of gypsies litter'd under hedges,
Are so disqualified by fate
To rise in Church, or law, or state,
As he whom Phffibus in his ire,
Has blasted with poetic fire."

Besides these, he tells Gay in 1731,* that he has " two
great works in hand — one to reduce the whole politeness, wit,
humom', and stj'le of England into a short system, for the use
of all persons of quality, and particularly of all maids of honour.
The other is of almost equal importance : I may call it the
Avhole duty of servants, in aboiit twenty several stations, fi'om
the steward and waiting woman, down to the scullion and
pantry boy." These two were the Polite Conversations, and the
Directions to Servants. The first of these has a special bio-
graphical interest. Swift was now interested, more than he
ever had been, in the fate of his books. Keenly striving to
increase his store of savings, he was perhaps more readj' now
than before to make them yield some gain. But poor Mrs.
Barber wrote to him, in extreme distress. Her literary
projects had failed, her health was broken, and debt was

* Swift to Gay, Aug. 28, 1731.


accumulating. Kindly as she had been received by Swift's
friends, the kindness did not feed her. To help her in these
straits, Swift, in one of the last years of his activity, sends her
the manuscript of the Polite Conversations, that she may make
of it what she can. The avaiice, the mercenary aims, the
cynical selfishness of Swift had, at least, the quality of singular

The other " great work," the Directions to Servants, has had
to stand the brmit of much severe criticism, from the days of
Orrery down to om- own. Orrery found it trifling : others have
dilated upon its grovelling view of human nature, and the
coarseness with which it is stained. Any discussion of these
traits must be reserved for our general estunate of Swift's
genius. To almost every part of that genius, doubtless, some-
tliing of the same coarseness clings ; but without the keen
insight, without the deliberate and relentless dissection, without
the plain and homely humour, without the contempt for con-
ventional grades of dignity, which are so distinctive of the
Directions to Servants, that genius could not exist.*

♦ Though imprinted during Swift's sible harm his book may do, by a prin-

life, the Directions to Servants was ciple not flattering to human morals :

handed about and discussed ; and this Omnia quse possunt soribi, plerique ma-

may have procured for Swiftthe doubt- gistro

^ ,, _e j.1. J J- J.- £ s Txirpia jam nullo facta docente tenent.
f ul honour of the dedication of a trans-
lation of a coarse Latin poem written From the name (taken from Saxon
in Germany, which seems not to have Grab') the title of the Grobians, for
been without suggestion for Swift's coarse, dirty fellows, became common,
own book. The Latin version was There was an English verse translation
entitled " F. DedeUndi Ludus Satyri- in 1739 which was dedicated to Swift,
cus de tiiorvm simpUcitate et rustici- and it had been preceded by another
tate, vulffo dictiis Groiianus ; " and is in 1605. On the whole this later
dated 1552. The purpose of this book English version, which is free, bears
may be gathered from the author's ofE the palm from the Latin for filth,
own description : There is a superficial similarity to his

Quae fuerant facienda veto, fugiendaqne own satire which makes it almost

mando certain that Swift knew the work : but

Ut doceam gestus fceda per acta bones ; ^^^ deeper meaning of his sarcasm, and

Forsitan haec aliquis jooularia scripta re- '^ ° , . ,

volvens ^'^^ lessons on human nature that it

His specnlnm vitae cemet incs«e suae. contains are, of course, wanting in the

He defends himself against the pos- verses of Dedekindus.

476 LIFE OP JOXATHAN SWIFT. [1727—1737.

Efforts so vigorous as these told of the old power, that for
thirty years had "inflamed Bations," and that could on
occasion be re-awakened and shake off its lethargy. But Swift
felt that the end of his activity was near. The thought was
none the more welcome because he knew that his genius had
not always been turned to the best account — that it had often,

Online LibraryHenry CraikThe life of Jonathan Swift, dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin → online text (page 43 of 54)