Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by John Nichol
Jonathan Swift (16671745)
[Jonathan Swift was born in Hoeys court, Dublin, on the 30th of November 1667. Belonging to a Yorkshire family and directly descended from a vicar in Herefordshire, one of whose younger sons, the poets father, married a Leicestershire lady, he was of unmixed English blood. A posthumous child, left in indigent circumstances, he was sent to school at Kilkenny, and then to Trinity College, Dublin, by the charity of his uncle Godwin, who died in 1688. Swift seems to have neglected the studies requisite to his degree, and having been plucked at his first examination only obtained it, on a second trial, Feb. 1686, speciali gratia. On the outbreak of the war, 1688, he fled to England, and found his way from Chester on foot to his mothers residence. She obtained for him the patronage of Sir William Temple, to whose wife she was related, and he remained at Moor Park for eleven years in the capacity of secretary to that accomplished statesman, at a salary of £20 a year. This residence, interrupted by a short absence during which he held an Irish country living in the diocese of Connor, brought him into the frequent society of Hester Johnson (Stella), an inmate of the same house, and reputed daughter of Sir Williams steward. In 1692 Swift went to Oxford, and was admitted there to a Masters degree. On occasion of this visit he produced his first versesan indifferent rendering of Horace (Odes ii. 18), followed a little later by his Pindaric Odes. A more substantial result of his studies in his masters library was The Battle of the Books. In 1694 he took Deacons, and in 1695 Priests orders. Ere his death in 1699 Sir William had from the king a promise of promotion for his clienta promise afterwards forgotten. In 1700 Swift accompanied Lord Berkeley to Ireland as chaplain, and obtained the living of Laracor in the county of Meath, at an income of £200 a year, which by the addition of the Prebend of Dunlavin was increased to £350. Initiated into the intrigues of party, he first came before the public as a champion of the Whigs, in his pamphlet entitled A Discourse on the contests and dissensions of Athens and Rome (1701). In 1704 appeared the Tale of a Tub, perhaps the wittiest of controversial works, and in 1708 the papers ridiculing the astrologer Partridge, under the signature of Isaac Bickerstaff. In 1710, with a change of opinion, quickened by chagrin at patronage deferred, Swift passed to the side of the Tories and became their most effective literary champion. His Conduct of the Allies (1712) brought about in 1713 the Peace of Utrecht, and the gratitude of Harley and Bolinbroke procured for him the Deanery of St. Patricks. During these years he spent a considerable portion of his time in London, exercised a commanding influence in literary and social circles, and was the leading patron of good and the scourge of bad writers. He maintained a close correspondence with Stella, and unfortunately won the affections of Miss Vanhomrigh (Vanessa), who followed him to Ireland and died there in 1723. In 1714, on the death of the Queen, Swifts hopes of further preferment being closed, he withdrew to his deanery, settled in Dublin and commenced Irishman for life. In 1716 he contracted a formal marriage with Miss Johnson. The Drapiers Letters were issued in 1724; they effectually stopped Woods pence, and made their author for a time the most popular man in Ireland. Gullivers Travels were published in 1727. Swift spent much of the year with Pope, but was recalled by the illness of Stella, who died in 1728. Shortly after this event he wrote to Bolinbroke, It is time for me to have done with the world. To another friend he remarked, gazing at a blasted elm, I shall be like that tree, and die first at the topa prediction realised in the gradual loss of his memory, sight, hearing, speech, and finally his reason. He died in Oct. 1745, and left his fortune, of about £10,000, to found a lunatic asylum in Dublin.]
DRYDEN, then the veteran of our literature, sitting in the dictators chair left vacant by Ben Jonson and waiting for Samuel Johnson, having perused an ode on the Athenian Society dating from Moor Park, February 14, 1691, hazarded the prediction, Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet. The unforgiven criticism has received from the judgment of posterity an assent qualified by respect for the strongest satirist of England and for an ability which cannot help making itself here and there manifest even in his verse.
Swifts satire is of two kinds: the party polemic of his earlier years, which culminated in 1724 in the Drapiers Letters, and the expression of a misanthropy as genuine as that of Shakespeares Timon, of a rage directed not against Dissent or Church or Whig or Tory, but mankind, finding mature vent in the most terrible libel that has ever been imagineda libel on the whole of his racethe hideous immortal mockery of the closing voyage of Gulliver. Such a work could only have been written by one born a cynic, doubly soured by some mysterious affliction, and by having had
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone,
till he had lost any original capacity he may have had for becoming a poet. His genius, moreover, was from the first as far removed from that peculiar to poetry as it is possible for any genius of the first rank to be. The power of Swifts prose was the terror of his own, and remains the wonder of after times. With the exception of a few clumsy paragraphs thrown off in haste, he says what he means in the homeliest native English that can be conceived. Disdaining even those refinements or shades of expression to which most writers touching on delicate or dangerous subjects feel compelled to resort, he owes almost nothing to foreign influence. I am, he wrote, for every mans working on his own materials, and producing only what he can find within himself: he consistently carved everything he had to set before his readers out of the plain facts with which he professed to deal. In his masterpieces there is scarce a hint from any known source, rarely a quotation: his sentences are self-sufficient, and fit the occasion as a glove the hand. In the Tale of a Tub he anticipates Teufelsdröckh in his contempt for trappings of speech as of person; he regarded fine language as leather and prunella. Though Swifts Allegories are abundant, he disdained ordinary metaphor, in the spirit in which Bentham defined poetry as misrepresentation. But towards the close of the seventeenth and during the early years of the eighteenth century, almost every English writerapart from those purely scientifichad to pay toll to what he called the Muses. Bunyan seems to have written his bad lines to italicise the distinction between the most highly imaginative prose and poetry. In the next age no one who addressed the general public could escape the trial; and Swifts verses are at least as worthy of preservation as Addisons. In following a fashion he also gratified a talent,nor Pope nor Byron had a greater,for fluent rhyme. Generally careless, often harsh, his versification is seldom laboured: his pen may run till it wearies the reader; but we see no reason in fall of energy why Swifts Hudibrastic jingle should cease, any more than why the waves of Spensers stanza should not roll for ever. The other merits of our authors verse are those of his prosecondensation, pith, always the effect, generally the reality, of sincere purpose, and, with few exceptions, simplicity and directness. The exceptions are in his unhappy Pindaric odes, and some of his later contributions to the pedantry of the age. The former could scarcely be worse, for they have almost the contortions of Cowley, without his occasional flow and elevation. Take the following lines from the Athenian Ode:
Just so the mighty Nile has suffered in its fame
Because tis said (and perhaps only said)
We ve found a little inconsiderable head
That feeds the huge, unequal stream.
And then how much and nothing is mankind,
Whose reason is weighed down by popular air,
Who by that vainly talks of baffling death:
And hopes to lengthen life by a transfusion of breath,
Which yet whoeer examines right will find
To be an art as vain as bottling up of wind.
As in Congreves Address to Silence, the force of cacophony can no further go. It may be said that these lines were the products of green, unknowing youth, but during the same years the same writer was maturing the Tale of a Tub. Swift had no ear save for the discords of the world, and in such cases a stiff regular measure, which is a sort of rhythmic policeman, is the only safe guard. Pindaric flights, unless under the guidance of the genius that makes music as it runs, invariably result in confusion worse confounded. Not least among our debts to Dryden may be ranked his fencing the ode from his cousin Swift. Of the pseudo-classic efforts of the latter, Cadenus and Vanessa, published in 1723, probably written about ten years earlier, may be taken as a type. No selection from his verses would be esteemed satisfactory that did not exhibit a sample of this once celebrated production: but, apart from the tragic interest of the personal warning it conveys, it is, as M. Taine says, a threadbare allegory in which the authors prosaic freaks tear his Greek frippery. The same critic justly remarks that Swift wore his mythology like a wig: that his pleading before Venus is like a legal procedure, and that he habitually turns his classic wine to vinegar. The other writers of the time had turned it into milk and water, but Prior and the rest had a grace to which Swift was a stranger. Their laughter is genuine though light; his was funereal and sardonic. His pleasantry is rarely pleasant, and he is never at heart more gloomy than when he affects to be gay. Most of his occasional verses, written at intervals from 1690 till 1733, are either frigid compliments or thinly veiled invectives, many of which, like the epigrams that disfigure the otherwise exquisite pages of Herrick, have all the coarseness with only half the wit of Martial. His addresses to women are, as might be expected, singularly unfortunate. He says truly of himself that he
could praise, esteem, approve,
But understood not what it was to love.
He can never get out of his satiric pulpit, and while saluting his mistresses as nymphs, he lectures them as school-girls. His verses to Stella, whom he came as near to loving as was for him possible, and whose death certainly hastened his mental ruin, are as unimpassioned as those to Vanessa, with whose affections he merely trifled. Swifts tendency to dwell on the meaner, and even the revolting facts of life, pardonable in his prose, is unpardonable in those tributes to Venus Cloacina, in which he intrudes on a ladys boudoir with the eye of a surgeon fresh from a dissecting-room or an hospital. His society verses are like those of a man writing with his feet, for he delights to trample on what others caress. Often he seems, among singing birds, a vulture screeching over carrion.
Of Swifts graver satiric pieces, the Rhapsody on Poetry has the fatal drawback of suggesting a comparison with The Dunciad. In The Beasts Confession, vivid and trenchant though it be, the author appears occasionally to intrude on the gardens of Prior and Gay. Had he been an artist in verse, he might have written something in English more like the sixth satire of Juvenal than Churchill ever succeeded in doing. But Swift despised art: he rode rough-shod, on his ambling cynic steed, through bad double rhyme and halting rhythm, to his end. War with the cold steel of prose was his business: his poems are the mere side-lights and pastimes of a man too grim to join heartily in any game. Only here and there among them, as in the strange medley of pathos and humour on his own death, there is a flash from the eyes which Popegood hater and good friendsaid were azure as the heavens, a touch of the hand that was never weary of giving gifts to the poor and blows to the powerful, a reflection of the universal condottiere, misanthrope and sceptic, who has a claim to our forbearance in that he detested, as Johnson and as Byron detested, cowardice and cant.