Story type: Essay
They are but few and meanspirited that live in peace with all men.
–Tale of a Tub
Birrell, the great English essayist, remarks that, “Of writing books about Dean Swift there is no end.” The reason is plain: of no other prominent writer who has lived during the past two hundred years do we know so much. His life lies open to us in many books. Boswell did not write his biography, but Johnson did. Then followed whole schools of little fishes, some of whom wrote like whales. But among the works of genuine worth and merit, with Swift for a subject, we have Sir Walter Scott’s nineteen volumes, and lives by Craik, Mitford, Forster, Collins and Leslie Stephen.
The positive elements in Swift’s character make him a most interesting subject to men and women who are yet on earth, for he was essentially of the earth, earthy. And until we are shown that the earth is wholly bad, we shall find much to amuse, much to instruct, much to admire–aye, much to pity–in the life of Jonathan Swift.
His father married at twenty. His income matched his years–it was just twenty pounds per annum. His wife was a young girl, bright, animated, intelligent.
In a few short months this girl carried in her arms a baby. This baby was wrapped in a tattered shawl and cried piteously from hunger, for the mother had not enough to eat. She was cold, and sick, and in disgrace. Her husband, too, was ill, and sorely in debt. It was Midwinter.
When Spring came, and the flowers blossomed, and the birds mated, and warm breezes came whispering softly from the South, and all the earth was glad, the husband of this child-wife was in his grave, and she was alone. Alone? No; she carried in her tired arms the hungry babe, and beneath her heart she felt the faint flutter of another life.
But to be in trouble and in Ireland is not so bad after all, for the Irish people have great and tender hearts; and even if they have not much to bestow in a material way, they can give sympathy, and they do.
So the girl was cared for by kind kindred, and on November Thirtieth, Sixteen Hundred Sixty-seven, at Number Seven, Hoey’s Court, Dublin, the second baby was born.
Only a little way from Hoey’s Court is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. On that November day, as the tones from the clanging chimes fell on the weary senses of the young mother, there in her darkened room, little did she think that the puny bantling she held to her breast would yet be the Dean of the great church whose bells she heard; and how could she anticipate a whisper coming to her from the far-off future: “Of writing books about your babe there is no end!”
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The man-child was given to an old woman to care for, and he had the ability, even then, it seems, to win affection. The foster-mother loved him and she stole him away, carrying him off to England.
Charity ministered to his needs; charity gave him his education. When Swift was twenty-one years old he went to see his mother. Her means were scanty to the point of hardship, but so buoyant was her mind that she used to declare that she was both rich and happy–and being happy she was certainly rich. She was a rare woman. Her spirit was independent, her mind cultivated, her manner gentle and refined, and she was endowed with a keen sense of humor.
From her, the son derived those qualities which have made him famous. No man is greater than his mother; but the sons of brave women do not always make brave men. In one quality Swift was lamentably inferior to his mother–he did not have her capacity for happiness. He had wit; she had humor.
We have seen how Swift’s father sickened and died. The world was too severe for him, its buffets too abrupt, its burden too heavy, and he gave up the fight before the battle had really begun. This lack of courage and extreme sensitiveness are seen in the son. But so peculiar, complex and wonderful is this web of life, that our very blunders, weaknesses and mistakes are woven in and make the fabric stronger. If Swift had possessed only his mother’s merits, without his father’s faults, he would never have shaken the world with laughter, and we should never have heard of him.
In her lowliness and simplicity the mother of Swift was content. She did her work in her own little way. She smiled at folly, and each day she thanked Heaven that her lot was no worse. Not so her son. He brooded in sullen silence; he cursed Fate for making him a dependent, and even in his youth he scorned those who benefited him. This was a very human proceeding.
Many hate, but few have a fine capacity for scorn. Their hate is so vehement that when hurled it falls short. Swift’s scorn was a beautifully winged arrow, with a poisoned tip. Some who were struck did not at the time know it.
His misanthropy defeated his purpose, thwarted his ambition, ruined his aims, and–made his name illustrious.
Swift wished for churchly preferment, but he had not the patience to wait. He imagined that others were standing in his way, and of course they were; for under the calm exterior of things ecclesiastic, there is often a strife, a jealousy and a competition more rabid than in commerce. To succeed in winning a bishopric requires a sagacity as keen as that required to become a Senator of Massachusetts or the Governor of New York. The man bides his time, makes himself popular, secures advocates, lubricates the way, pulls the wires, and slides noiselessly into place.
Swift lacked diplomacy. When matters did not seem to progress he grew wrathful, seized his pen and stabbed with it. But as he wrote, the ludicrousness of the whole situation came over him and, instead of cursing plain curses, he held his adversary up to ridicule! And this ridicule is so active, the scorn so mixed with wit, the shafts so finely feathered with truth, that it is the admiration of mankind. Vitriol mixed with ink is volatile. Then what? We just run Swift through a coarse sieve to take out the lumps of Seventeenth Century refuse, and then we give him to children to make them laugh. Surely no better use can be made of pessimists. Verily, the author of Gulliver wrote for one purpose, and we use his work for another. He wished for office, he got contempt; he tried to subdue his enemies, they subdued him; he worked for the present, and he won immortality.
Said Heinrich Heine, prone on his bed in Paris: “The wittiest sarcasms of mortals are only an attempt at jesting when compared with those of the great Author of the Universe–the Aristophanes of Heaven!”
Wise men over and over have wasted good ink and paper in bewailing Swift’s malice and coarseness. But without these very elements which the wise men bemoan, Swift would be for us a cipher. Yet love is life and hate is death, so how can spite benefit? The answer is that, in certain forms of germination, frost is as necessary as sunshine: so some men have qualities that lie dormant until the coldness of hate bursts the coarse husk of indifference.
But while hate may animate, only love inspires. Swift might have stood at the head of the Church of England; but even so, he would be only a unit in a long list of names, and as it is, there is only one Swift. Mr. Talmage averred that not ten men in America knew the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury until his son wrote a certain book entitled “Dodo.” In putting out this volume, young Benson not only gave us the strongest possible argument favoring the celibacy of the clergy, but at the same time, if Talmage’s statement is correct, he made known his father’s name.
In all Swift’s work, save “The Journal to Stella,” the animating motive seems to have been to confound his enemies; and according to the well-known line in that hymn sung wherever the Union Jack flies, we must believe this to be a perfectly justifiable ambition. But occasionally on his pages we find gentle words of wisdom that were meant evidently for love’s eyes alone. There is much that is pure boyish frolic, and again and again there are clever strokes directed at folly. He has shot certain superstitions through with doubt, and in his manner of dealing with error he has proved to us a thing it were well not to forget: that pleasantry is more efficacious than vehemence.
Let me name one incident by way of proof–the well-known one of Partridge, the almanac-maker. This worthy cobbler was an astrologer of no mean repute. He foretold events with much discretion. The ignorant bought his almanacs, and many believed in them as a Bible–in fact, astrology was enjoying a “boom.”
Swift came to London and found that Partridge’s predictions were the theme at the coffeehouses. He saw men argue and wax wroth, grow red in the face as they talked loud and long about nothing–just nothing. The whole thing struck Swift as being very funny; and he wrote an announcement of his intention to publish a rival almanac. He explained that he, too, was an astrologer, but an honest one, while Partridge was an impostor and a cheat; in fact, Partridge foretold only things which every one knew would come true. As for himself, he could discern the future with absolute certainty, and to prove to the world his power he would now make a prophecy. In substance, it was as follows: “My first prediction is but a trifle; it relates to Partridge, the almanac-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity, and find that he will die on the Twenty-ninth day of March, next.” This was signed, “Isaac Bickerstaff,” and duly issued in pamphlet form. It had such an air of sincerity that both the believers and the scoffers read it with interest.
The Thirtieth of March came, and another pamphlet from “Isaac Bickerstaff” appeared, announcing the fulfilment of the prophecy. It related how toward the end of March Partridge began to languish; how he grew ill and at last took to his bed, and, his conscience then smiting him, he confessed to the world that he was a fraud and a rogue, that all his prophecies were impositions; he then passed away.
Partridge was wild with rage, and immediately replied in a manifesto declaring that he was alive and well, and moreover was alive on March Twenty-ninth.
To this “Bickerstaff” replied in a pamphlet more seriously humorous than ever, reaffirming that Partridge was dead, and closing with the statement that, “If an uninformed carcass still walks about calling itself Partridge, I do not in any way consider myself responsible for that.”
The joke set all London on a grin. Wherever Partridge went he was met with smiles and jeers, and astrology became only a jest to a vast number of people who had formerly believed in it seriously.
When Benjamin Franklin started his “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” twenty-five years later, in the first issue he prophesied the death of one Dart who set the pace at that time as almanac-maker in America. The man was to expire on the afternoon of October Seventeenth, Seventeen Hundred Thirty-eight, at three twenty-nine o’clock.
Dart, being somewhat of a joker himself, came out with an announcement that he, too, had consulted the oracle, and found he would live until October Twenty-sixth, and possibly longer.
On October Eighteenth, Franklin announced Dart’s death, and explained that it occurred promptly on time, all as prophesied.
Yet Dart lived to publish many almanacs; but Poor Richard got his advertisement, and many staid, broad-brimmed Philadelphians smiled who had never smiled before–not only smiled but subscribed.
Benjamin Franklin was a great and good man, as any man must be who fathers another’s jokes, introducing these orphaned children to the world as his own.
Perhaps no one who has written of Swift knew him so well as Delany. And this writer, who seems to have possessed a judicial quality far beyond most men, has told us that Swift was moral in conduct to the point of asceticism. His deportment was grave and dignified, and his duties as a priest were always performed with exemplary diligence. He visited the sick, regularly administered the sacraments, and was never known to absent himself from morning prayers.
When Harley was Lord Treasurer, Swift seems to have been on the topmost crest of the wave of popularity. Invitations from nobility flowed in upon him, beautiful women deigned to go in search of his society, royalty recognized him. And yet all this time he was only a country priest with a liking for literature.
Collins tells us that the reason for his popularity is plain: “Swift was one of the kings of the earth. Like Pope Innocent the Third, like Chatham, he was one to whom the world involuntarily pays tribute.”
His will was a will of adamant; his intellect so keen that it impressed every one who approached him; his temper singularly stern, dauntless and haughty. But his wit was never filled with gaiety: he was never known to laugh. Amid the wildest uproar that his sallies caused, he would sit with face austere–unmoved.
Personally, Swift was a gentleman. When he was scurrilous, abusive, ribald, malicious, it was anonymously. Is this to his credit? I should not say so, but if a man is indecent and he hides behind a “nom de plume,” it is at least presumptive proof that he is not dead to shame.
Leslie Stephen tells us that Swift was a Churchman to the backbone. No man who is a “Churchman to the backbone” is ever very pious: the spirit maketh alive, but the letter killeth. One looks in vain for traces of spirituality in the Dean. His sermons are models of churchly commonplace and full of the stock phrases of a formal religion. He never bursts into flame. Yet he most thoroughly and sincerely believed in religion. “I believe in religion, it keeps the masses in check. And then I uphold Christianity because if it is abolished the stability of the Church might be endangered,” he said.
Philip asked the eunuch a needless question when he inquired, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” No one so poorly sexed as Swift can comprehend spiritual truth: spirituality and sexuality are elements that are never separated. Swift was as incapable of spirituality as he was of the “grand passion.”
The Dean had affection; he was a warm friend; he was capable even of a degree of love, but his sexual and spiritual nature was so cold and calculating that he did not hesitate to sacrifice love to churchly ambition.
He argued that the celibacy of the Catholic clergy is a wise expediency. The bachelor physician and the unmarried priest have an influence among gentle womankind, young or old, married or single, that a benedict can never hope for. Why this is so might be difficult to explain, but discerning men know the fact. In truth, when a priest marries he should at once take a new charge, for if he remains with his old flock a goodly number of his “lady parishioners,” in ages varying from seventeen to seventy, will with fierce indignation rend his reputation.
Swift was as wise as a serpent, but not always as harmless as a dove. He was making every effort to secure his miter and crosier: he had many women friends in London and elsewhere who had influence. Rather than run the risk of losing this influence he never acknowledged Stella as his wife. Choosing fame rather than love, he withered at the heart, then died at the top.
The life of every man is a seamless garment–its woof his thoughts, its warp his deeds. When for him the roaring loom of time stops and the thread is broken, foolish people sometimes point to certain spots in the robe and say, “Oh, why did he not leave that out!” not knowing that every action of man is a sequence from off Fate’s spindle.
Let us accept the work of genius as we find it; not bemoaning because it is not better, but giving thanks because it is so good.
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Well-fed, rollicking priest is Father O’Toole of Dublin, with a big, round face, a double chin, and a brogue that you can cut with a knife.
My letter of introduction from Monseigneur Satolli caused him at once to bring in a large, suspicious, black bottle and two glasses. Then we talked–talked of Ireland’s wrongs and woman’s rights, and of all the Irishmen in America whom I was supposed to know. We spoke of the illustrious Irishmen who had passed on, and I mentioned a name that caused the holy father to spring from his chair in indignation.
“Shwift is it! Shwift! No, me lad, don’t go near him! He was the divil’s own, the very worsht that ever followed the swish of a petticoat. No, no; if ye go to his grave it’ll bring ye bad luck for a year. It’s Tom Moore ye want–Tom was the bye. Arrah! now, and it’s meself phat’ll go wid ye.”
And so the reverend father put on a long, black coat and his Saint Patrick’s Day hat, and we started. We were met at the gate by a delegation of “shpalpeens” that had located me on the inside of the house and were lying in wait.
All American travelers in Ireland are supposed to be millionaires, and this may possibly explain the lavish attention that is often tendered them. At any rate, various members of the delegation wished “long life to the iligant ‘merican gintleman,” and hinted in terms unmistakable that pence would be acceptable. The holy father applied his cane vigorously to the ragged rears of the more presumptuous, and bade them begone, but still they followed and pressed close about.
“Here, I’ll show you how to get rid of the dirty gang,” said his holiness. “Have ye a penny, I don’t know?”
I produced a handful of small change, which the father immediately took and tossed into the street. Instantly there was a heterogeneous mass of young Hibernians piled up in the dirt in a grand struggle for spoils. It reminded me of football incidents I had seen at fair Harvard. In the meantime, we escaped down a convenient alley and crossed the River Liffey to Old Dublin; inside the walls of the old city, through crooked lanes and winding streets that here and there showed signs of departed gentility, where now was only squalor, want and vice, until we came to Number Twelve Angier Street, a quaint, three-story brick building now used as a “public.” In the wall above the door is a marble slab with this inscription: “Here was born Thomas Moore, on the Twenty-eighth day of May, Seventeen Hundred Seventy-eight.” Above this in a niche is a bust of the poet.
Tom’s father was a worthy greengrocer who, according to the author of “Lalla Rookh,” always gave good measure and full count. It was ever a cause of regret to the elder Moore that his son did not show sufficient capacity to be trusted safely with the business.
The upper rooms of the house were shown to us by an obliging landlady. Father O’Toole had been here before, and led the way to a snug little chamber and explained that in this room the future poet of Ireland was found under one of his father’s cabbage-leaves.
We descended to the neat little barroom with its sanded floor and polished glassware and shining brass. The holy father ordered ‘arf-and-‘arf at my expense and recited one of Moore’s ballads. The landlady then gave us Byron’s “Here’s a Health to Thee, Tom Moore.” A neighbor came in. Then we had more ballads, more ‘arf-and-‘arf, a selection from “Lalla Rookh,” and various tales of the poet’s early life, which possibly would be hard to verify.
And as the tumult raged, the smoke of battle gave me opportunity to slip away. I crossed the street, turned down one block, and entered Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
Great, roomy, gloomy, solemn temple, where the rumble of city traffic is deadened to a faint hum:
“Without, the world’s unceasing noises rise,
Turmoil, disquietude and busy fears;
Within, there are the sounds of other years,
Thoughts full of prayer and solemn harmonies
Which imitate on earth the peaceful skies.”
Other worshipers were there. Standing beside a great stone pillar I could make them out kneeling on the tiled floor. Gradually, my eyes became accustomed to the subdued light, and right at my feet I saw a large brass plate set in the floor and on it only this:
Died Oct. 19, 1745
On the wall near is a bronze tablet, the inscription of which, in Latin, was dictated by Swift himself:
“Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Dean of this Cathedral, where fierce indignation can no longer rend his heart. Go! wayfarer, and imitate, if thou canst, one who, as far as in him lay, was an earnest champion of liberty—-“
Above this is a fine bust of the Dean, and to the right is another tablet:
“Underneath lie interred the mortal remains of Mrs. Hester Johnson, better known to the world as ‘Stella,’ under which she is celebrated in the writings of Doctor Jonathan Swift, Dean of this Cathedral. She was a person of extraordinary endowments and accomplishments, in body, mind and behavior; justly admired and respected by all who knew her, on account of her eminent virtues as well as for her great natural and acquired perfections.”
These were suffering souls and great. Would they have been so great had they not suffered? Who can tell? Were the waters troubled in order that they might heal the people?
Did Swift misuse this excellent woman, is a question that has been asked and answered again and again.
A great author has written:
“A woman, a tender, noble, excellent woman, has a dog’s heart. She licks the hand that strikes her. And wrong nor cruelty nor injustice nor disloyalty can cause her to turn.”
Death in pity took Stella first; took her in the loyalty of love and the fulness of faith from a world which for love has little recompense, and for faith small fulfilment.
Stella was buried by torchlight, at midnight, on the Thirtieth day of January, Seventeen Hundred Twenty-eight. Swift was sick at the time, and wrote in his journal: “This is the night of her funeral, and I am removed to another apartment that I may not see the light in the church which is just over against my window.” But in his imagination he saw the gleaming torches as their dull light shone through the colored windows, and he said, “They will soon do as much for me.”
But seventeen years came crawling by before the torches flared, smoked and gleamed as the mourners chanted a requiem, and the clods fell on the coffin, and their echoes intermingled with the solemn voice of the priest as he said, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
In Eighteen Hundred Thirty-five, the graves were opened and casts taken of the skulls. The top of Swift’s skull had been sawed off at the autopsy, and a bottle in which was a parchment setting forth the facts was inserted in the head that had conceived “Gulliver’s Travels.”
I examined the casts. The woman’s head is square and shapely. Swift’s head is a refutation of phrenology, being small, sloping and ordinary.
The bones of Swift and Stella were placed in one coffin, and now rest under three feet of concrete, beneath the floor of Saint Patrick’s.
So sleep the lovers joined in death.