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that have been written about Swift's life without being able to say whether he was good or bad, admirable or contemptible; whether, although a clergyman, he was a Christian; whether he ever was in love, although idolized by excellent and beautiful ladies, whom he professed to admire, and called by fanciful names, Stella and Vanessa; whether he had any glimmer of such things as honour and friendship, although he was charitable and what was then called "patriotic;" or whether he had the highest appreciation of taste, refinement, poetry, or wit, although he wrote so many remarkable things, and had Pope and others to praise him as if he was almost superior to humanity.
Think of Stella, after she had suffered endless anxieties, and it is said, on very good authority, a secret marriage, which never led to their living to gether, or, indeed, to either peace or confidence, writing on his birthday—
"Long be the day that gave you birth,
To bear with dignity my sorrow,
And think of an editor speaking of him in this way: "The genius of Dr. Swift broke forth upon us in the year 1708 with such an astonishing blaze of humour, politicks, religion, patriotism, wit, and poetry, that the
productions of that one year alone would have been highly sufficient to have established his fame unto all eternity;" the productions spoken of being some semi-political pamphlets! Of these, and of many other things he published, my readers would not care to know more, but to show how he was praised I shall quote the same editor's estimate of one of these. "It is the most delicate, refined, complete, unvaried piece of irony, from the beginning to the end, that ever was written since the beginning of the world: and without dispute, if in the works of man there can be supposed any such thing as real perfection, we must allow it to consist in those amazing productions of wit and humour, which in all probability can never be excelled by any effort of genius, and beyond which it is impossible to frame any critical or distinct idea of the human faculties"!!!
Later biographers have not said quite so much as this, you may be sure; some of them have written much more about his character as a man than as an author, and I must say I think this is by far the most interesting point of view we can take of Swift. With all his various and powerful faculties, he was never able to get the great, who could have advanced him, to believe in his honesty; what he wished was to be made a bishop, but he was not so successful as to attain to that dignity; and he has been called the "most unhappy man that ever lived," for reasons not
so easily explained, but into which, I dare say, some of my readers, later in life, will find much interest to enquire. Then he had, more than any other man that ever wrote in English, a liking for saying nasty things, not so much things he should not say, but such as are in bad taste and offensive. These have been omitted in this publication. About two centuries before Swift's time, there appeared a French writer, Rabelais by name, a Benedictine monk, of very wonderful abilities of a satirical kind, who had the greatest delight in unbounded "freedom of speech," and Dean Swift has been compared to him. He was indeed the imitator of Rabelais, but it is remarkable as shewing a great difference in national tastes, that, whereas all the literature of France has been tainted by the writings of that one licentious humourist, Swift has had no imitators nor influence in that way; but on the contrary, he has been a warning to us, and we in England have entirely given up the notion that allusions and sayings that please the pigs are really witty or humorous.
66 matters of fact," as
But I must tell you some Captain Gulliver calls his history, about the author of the book. The family of the Swifts were of long standing in Yorkshire and Ireland; loyal men, clergynen many of them, attached to the Stuart family. The grandfather of the Dean, who had an estate and home in the parish of Goodrich, in Herefordshire,
where he was vicar, was said to have been plundered thirty-six times by the Parliamentary soldiers! On one of these occasions the last loaf of bread was taken, and the pap prepared for the infant in the cradle thrown out, the vessel containing it being worth carrying off, which infant is said to have been Jonathan, the father of our Dean. The exploits of this grandfather are "matters of fact" indeed, of the Gulliver sort; on one occasion he learned that 300 "rebel horse" were to cross a certain river to surprise the Cavaliers, whereupon Mr. Swift, having his head "mechanically turned," as his grandson terms it, without intending any joke, contrived certain pieces of iron, with three spikes, which he placed overnight in the ford, causing the rebels to lose 200 of their men, drowned or trod to death by the falling of their horses.
Another time he "quilted into his waistcoat" all the money he could collect, and having gone to a town held for the king, presented himself to the governor, who asked him what he could do for the king? "Give him my coat" said Mr. Swift, stripping it off; but the governor observing that it was not much worth, he added, "Then take my waistcoat too," which the governor immediately weighing in his hand, ordered it to be ripped up, wher it was found to be lined with three hundred broad pieces of gold; "a seasonable relief, and an extraordinary supply from a private clergyman with ten children, of a small estate, so
often plundered, and soon after turned out," says the Dean, his grandson.
So we think, and so Sir Walter Scott appears to have thought, as he does not mention the story at all in his account of Swift's ancestors; nor does that wonderfully successful exploit at the ford appear in any history. The sons of this fighting clergyman got good pickings in Ireland, where Jonathan, our hero, was born on the 30th November, 1667. He was a posthumous child, his father having died a few months before, without leaving sufficient to pay his funeral expenses; and the place of his birth, "a small house, now No. 7, Hoey's Court, Dublin, is still pointed out by the inhabitants of that quarter." From the time of his birth to the middle of his life, he was supported by his uncle, or by Sir W. Temple, in whose home he lived as secretary after leaving college. Indeed, the first few years of his life were spent away from his mother and family altogether; his nurse, a Whitehaven woman, having to leave Dublin for her native place, simply stole the child, and took care of him herself;-very good care, it would seem, for he could spell and was beginning to read when he was returned to his mother. The state of dependence and neglect in which his relatives reared him, he says himself, so discouraged and sunk his spirits, that he "was stopped of his degree at the University of Dublin, for dulness and insufficiency, and at last hardly admitted, in a manner little to his