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I. Swift's origin-Character-Pride-Sensitiveness-His life in Sir William
II. His wit-His power, and its limits-Prosaic and positive mind-Holding
IV. The poet-Comparison of Swift and Voltaire-Gravity and harshness of his jests-Bickerstaff-Coarseness of his gallantry-Cadenus and Vanessa -His prosaic and realistic poetry-The Grand Question DebatedEnergy and sadness of his shorter poems-Verses on his own Death-His
V. The narrator and philosopher-A Tale of a Tub-His opinion on religion, science, philosophy, and reason-How he maligns human intelligence— Gulliver's Travels-His opinion on society, government, rank, and professions-How he maligns human nature-Last pamphlets-Composition of his character and genius.
N 1685, in the great hall of Dublin University, the professors en
spectacle a poor scholar, odd, awkward, with hard blue eyes, an orphan, friendless, poorly supported by the charity of an uncle, having failed once before to take his degree on account of his ignorance of logic, had come up again without having condescended to read logic. To no purpose his tutor set before him the most respectable folios— Smiglecius, Kechermannus, Burgerdiscius. He turned over a few pages, and shut them directly. When the argumentation came on, the proctor was obliged to reduce his replies into syllogism.' He was asked how he could reason well without rules; he replied that he did reason pretty well without them. This folly shocked them; yet he was received, though barely, speciali gratiâ, says the register, and the professors went away, doubtless with pitying smiles, lamenting the feeble brain of Jonathan Swift.
This was his first humiliation and his first rebellion. His whole life was like this moment, overwhelmed and made wretched by sorrows and hatred. To what excess they rose, his portrait and his history alone can show. He had an exaggerated and terrible pride, and made the haughtiness of the most powerful ministers and most mighty lords bend beneath his arrogance. A simple journalist, possessing nothing but a small Irish living, he treated with them on an equality. Harley, the prime minister, having sent him a bank bill for his first articles, he was offended at being taken for a paid man, returned the money, demanded an apology; he received it, and wrote in his journal: ‘I have taken Mr. Harley into favour again.'1 On another occasion, having observed that St. John, Secretary of State, looked upon him coldly, he rebuked him for it:
'One thing I warned him of, never to appear cold to me, for I would not be treated like a school-boy; that I expected every great minister who honoured me with his acquaintance, if he heard or saw anything to my disadvantage, would let me know in plain words, and not put me in pain to guess by the change or coldness of his countenance or behaviour; for it was what I would hardly bear from a crowned head; and I thought no subject's favour was worth it: and that I designed to let my Lord Keeper and M. Harley know the same thing, that they might use me accordingly.22
St. John approved of this, made excuses, said that he had passed several nights at 'business, and one night at drinking,' and that his fatigue might have seemed like ill-humour. In the minister's drawingroom Swift went up and spoke to some obscure person, and compelled the lords to come and speak to him:
'Mr. secretary told me the Duke of Buckingham had been talking to him much about me, and desired my acquaintance. I answered, it could not be, for he had not made sufficient advances. Then the Duke of Shrewsbury said, he thought the Duke was not used to make advances. I said, I could not help that; for I always expected advances in proportion to men's quality, and more from a duke than other men. 3
'Saw Lord Halifax at court, and we joined and talked, and the Duchess of Shrewsbury came up and reproached me for not dining with her: I said that was not so soon done; for I expected more advances from ladies, especially duchesses: She promised to comply.. Lady Oglethorp brought me and the Duchess of Hamilton together to-day in the drawing-room, and I have given her some encouragement, but not much.' 4
1 In Swift's Works, ed. W. Scott, 19 vols. 1814; Journal to Stella, ii. Feb. 13 (1710-11). He says also (Feb. 7): 'I will not see him (M. Harley) till he makes amends. . . . I was deaf to all entreaties, and have desired Lewis to go to him, and let him know that I expected farther satisfaction. If we let these great ministers pretend too much, there will be no governing them.'
Ibid. April 3, 1711.
3 Ibid. May 19, 1711.
Ibid. Oct. 7, 1711.
He triumphed in his arrogance, and said with a restrained joy, full of
'I generally am acquainted with about thirty in the drawing-room, and am so proud that I make all the lords come up to me. One passes half an hour pleasant enough.'
He carried his triumph to brutality and tyranny; writing to the
'I am glad you know your duty; for it has been a known and established rule above twenty years in England, that the first advances have been constantly made me by all ladies who aspired to my acquaintance, and the greater their quality, the greater were their advances.'1
The famous General Webb, with his crutch and cane, limped up two flights of stairs to congratulate and invite him; Swift accepted, then an hour later withdrew his consent, preferring to dine elsewhere. He seemed to look upon himself as a superior being, exempt from the necessity of ceremony, entitled to homage, caring neither for sex, rank, nor fame, whose business it was to protect and destroy, distributing also favours, insults, and pardons. Addison, then Lady Gifford, a friend of twenty years, having offended him, he refused to take them back into his favour until they had asked his pardon. Lord Lansdown, Secretary because! for War, being annoyed by an expression in the Examiner, Swift says:
'This I resented highly that he should complain of me before he spoke to me. I sent him a peppering letter, and would not summon him by a note, as I did the rest; nor ever will have anything to say to him, till he begs my pardon.'2
He treated art like man, writing a thing off, scorning the wretched necessity of reading it over, putting his name to nothing, letting every piece make its way on its own merits, unassisted, without the prestige of his name, recommended by none. He had the soul of a dictator, marred by power, and saying openly: All my endeavours from a boy to distinguish myself were only for want of a great title and fortune, that I might be treated like a lord. . . . Whether right or wrong, it is no great matter; and so the reputation of great learning does the work of a blue ribbon, or of a coach and six horses.' 3 But he thought this power and rank due to him; he did not ask, but expected them. 'I will never beg for myself, though I often do it for others.' He desired dominion, and acted as if he had it. Hatred and misfortune find their native soil in these despotic minds. They live like fallen kings, always insulting and hurt, all the miseries but none of the consolations of pride, unable to relish either society or solitude, too ambitious to be content with silence, too haughty to use the world, born for rebellion and defeat, destined by their passions and impotence to despair and to talent.
1 Swift's Works, xvii. p. 352.
2 Journal to Stella, iii., March 27, 1711-12.
3 Letter to Pope.
Sensitiveness in this case aggravated the stings of pride. this outward calmness raged furious passions. There was within him a ceaseless tempest of wrath and desire:
A person of great honour in Ireland (who was pleased to stoop so low as to look into my mind) used to tell me that my mind was like a conjured spirit, that would do mischief, if I would not give it employment.'
Resentment was deeper and hotter with him than with other men. Listen to the deep sigh of joyful hatred with which he sees his enemies under his feet:
'The whigs were ravished to see me, and would lay hold on me as a twig while they are drowning; and the great men making me their clumsy apologies.'1 'It is good to see what a lamentable confession the whigs all make of my ill usage.''
And soon after: Rot them, for ungrateful dogs; I will make them repent their usage before I leave this place.' He is satiated and contented; like a wolf or a lion, he cares for nothing else.
This fury led him to every sort of madness and violence. His Drapier's Letters had roused Ireland against the government, and the government had set up a proclamation offering a reward to any one who would denounce the Draper. Swift came suddenly into the receptionchamber, elbowed the groups, went up to the lord-lieutenant, with indignation on his countenance and thundering voice, and said:
'So, my lord, this is a glorious exploit that you performed yesterday, in suffering a proclamation against a poor shopkeeper, whose only crime is an honest endeavour to save his country from ruin.'
And he broke out into railing amidst general silence and amazement. The lord-lieutenant, a man of sense, answered calmly. Before such a torrent men turned aside. This chaotic and self-devouring heart could not understand the calmness of his friends; he asked them: 'Do not the corruptions and villanies of men eat your flesh, and exhaust your spirits ?'5
Resignation was repulsive to him. His actions, sudden and strange, broke in upon his silent moods like flashes of lightning. He was eccentric and violent in everything, in his pleasantry, in his private affairs, with his friends, with unknown people; he was often taken for a madman. Addison and his friends had seen for several days at the St. James' Coffee-house a singular parson, who put his hat on the table, walked for half an hour backward and forward, paid his money, and left, having attended to nothing and said nothing. They called him the mad parson. One day this parson perceives a gentleman 'just
1 Journal to Stella, ii., Sept. 9, 1710.
3 Ibid. Nov. 8, 1710.
5 Swift's Life, by W. Scott, i. 279.
Ibid. Sept. 30, 1710.
Swift's Life, by Roscoe, i. 56.
come out of the country, went straight up to him, and in a very abrupt manner, without any previous salute, asked him, "Pray sir, do you know any good weather in the world?" After staring a little at the singularity of Swift's manner and the oddity of the question, the gentleman answered, "Yes, sir, I thank God, I remember a great deal of good weather in my time." "That is more," said Swift, "than I can say. I never remember any weather that was not too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry; but, however God Almighty contrives it, at the end of the year 'tis all very well."' Another day, dining with the Earl of Burlington, the Dean said to the mistress of the house, Lady Burlington, I hear you can sing; sing me a song.' The lady looked on this unceremonious manner of asking a favour with distaste, and positively refused. He said, 'she should sing, or he would make her. Why, madam, I suppose you take me for one of your poor English hedgeparsons; sing when I bid you!' As the earl did nothing but laugh at this freedom, the lady was so vexed, that she burst into tears, and retired. His first compliment to her, when he saw her again, was, 'Pray, madam, are you as proud and as ill-natured now, as when I saw you last ?' People were astonished or amused at these outbursts; I see in them sobs and cries, the explosion of long overwhelming and bitter thoughts; they are the starts of a mind unsubdued, shuddering, rebelling, breaking the barriers, wounding, crushing, or bruising every one on its road, or those who wish to stop it. Swift became mad at last ; he felt this madness coming, he has described it in a horrible manner; beforehand he has tasted all the disgust and bitterness of it; he showed it on his tragic face, in his terrible and wan eyes. This is the powerful and mournful genius which nature gave up as a prey to society and life; society and life poured all their poisons in him.
He knew what poverty and scorn were even at the age when the mind expands, when the heart is full of pride,3 when he was hardly maintained by the alms of his family, gloomy and without hope, feeling his strength and the dangers of his strength. At twenty-one, as secretary to Sir W. Temple, he had twenty pounds a year salary, sat at the
1 Sheridan's Life of Swift.
3 At that time he had already begun the Tale of a Tub.
He addresses his muse thus, in Verses occasioned by Sir William Temple's late illness and recovery, xiv. 45:
2 W. Scott's Life of Swift, i. 477.
'Wert thou right woman, thou should'st scorn to look