Swift was five years older than Steele and Addison, but he outlived the one by sixteen, the other by twenty-six years, and served as a living fire that ran from century to century, from Dryden to Pope. He could never forgive his birth in Dublin, which proved an irritating handicap in England; and it was cruel that his father, steward of the King’s Inns in Dublin, died before Jonathan appeared. The child was put out to nurse; the nurse took it to England, and returned it to its mother only when it was three years old. These adventures may have begotten in the boy a sense of orphaned insecurity. This must have been deepened by his being transferred to an uncle, who soon disposed of him, aged six, to a boarding school at Kilkenny. At fifteen he was sent to Trinity College, Dublin, where he remained for seven years. He barely scraped through, being especially negligent in theology. He was often delinquent, often punished, and he was reduced to precarious poverty when the uncle who was paying his expenses suffered final reverses and mental collapse (1688). On his uncle’s death (1689), and amid the uprising of Ireland for James II, Jonathan fled to England and his mother, who was living at Leicester on twenty pounds a year. Despite their long separation they got along reasonably well; he learned to love her, and visited her, now and then, till her death (1710).
Toward the end of 1689 he found employment, at twenty pounds a year and board, as secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park. Temple was then at the height of his career, the friend and adviser of kings; we must not berate him for failing to recognize genius in the twenty-two-year-old youth who came to him with some Latin and Greek, but also an Irish brogue, and furtive uncertainty about the relative functions of knives and forks. 81 Swift sat with the upper servants at the master’s table, 82 but the master always kept his distance. Yet Temple was kind. In 1692 he sent Swift to Oxford to acquire the M.A. degree; and he recommended him to William III, without result.
Meanwhile Jonathan was writing couplets. He showed some of them to Dryden, who told him, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet”—a prediction whose accuracy was beyond the young man’s appreciation. In 1694 Swift left Temple with a recommendation from his master; he returned to Ireland, was ordained an Anglican priest (1695), and was appointed to a small benefice at Kilroot, near Belfast. In Belfast he fell in love with Jane Waring, whom he called Varina; he proposed marriage, but she held him off until time should improve her health and his income. Unable to bear the dull isolation of a country parish, he fled from Kilroot in 1696, went back to Temple, and remained in Sir William’s service till the latter’s death.
During his first year at Moor Park Swift had met the Esther Johnson who was to become his “Stella.” Some gossip thought her the result of Sir William’s rare impulsiveness; more likely she was the daughter of a London merchant, whose widow had entered Lady Temple’s service. When Swift first saw her she was a girl of eight, delightful like all girls of eight, but too young to arouse in him any amorous unrest. Now, however, she was fifteen; and Swift, turning twenty-nine, soon discovered as her tutor that she had charms to rouse a savage breast priestly but starved. Black, shining eyes, raven hair, swelling bosom, “a gracefulness somewhat more than human in every motion, word, and action” (so he later described her), and “every feature of her face in perfection” 83—how could this Héloïse avoid awakening this Abélard?
Temple, dying (1699), left a thousand pounds to Esther, a thousand to Swift. After vain hopes of governmental employment, Swift accepted an invitation to become chaplain and secretary to the Earl of Berkeley, who had just been appointed a lord justice in Ireland. He acted as secretary on the journey to Dublin; but there he was dismissed. He asked for the deanery of Derry, which was falling vacant, but the new secretary, for a bribe of a thousand pounds, gave the place to another candidate. Swift denounced the Earl and the secretary to their faces as “a couple of scoundrels.” They quieted him with the rectory of Laracor, a village some twenty miles from Dublin, with a congregation of fifteen persons. Swift had now (1700) an income of £ 230, which Jane Waring thought might suffice for marriage. However, she was four years older than when he had proposed to her, and meanwhile he had discovered Esther. He wrote to Jane that if she would submit to enough education to make her a suitable companion in his home, if she would promise to accept all his likes and dislikes, and soothe his ill-humor, he would take her without inquiring into her looks or her income. 84 The affair ended.
Lonely in Laracor, Swift made frequent visits to Dublin. There, in 1701, he took his degree as a doctor of divinity. Later in that year he invited Esther Johnson and her companion, Mrs. Robert Dingley, to come and live in Laracor. They came, took lodgings near him, and during his absences in England they occupied the apartment he had rented in Dublin. “Stella” expected him to marry her, but he kept her waiting for fifteen years. She accepted her situation fretfully, but the force of his character and the sharpness of his intellect held her hypnotized to the end.
The quality of his mind showed alarmingly when, in 1704, he published in one volume The Battle of the Books and The Tale of a Tub. The former is a brief and negligible contribution to the controversy as to the relative merits of ancient and modern literature; butThe Tale of a Tub is a major exposition of Swift’s religious, or irreligious, philosophy. Rereading this work in later life, he exclaimed, “Good God! what a genius I had when I wrote that book!” 85 He loved it so much that in later editions he caressed it with fifty pages of nonsense in the form of prefaces and apologies. He prided himself on its complete originality; and though the Church had long since spoken of Christianity as the once “seamless robe of Christ” torn to pieces by the Reformation, no one—least of all the Carlyle of Sartor Resartus—has impugned the unprecedented force with which Swift here reduced all philosophies and religions to diverse garments used to clothe our shivering ignorance or conceal our naked desires.
What is man himself but a micro-coat, or rather a complete set of clothes with all its trimmings? . . . Is not religion a cloak; honesty a pair of shoes worn out in the dirt; self-love a surtout; vanity a shirt; and conscience a pair of breeches which, though a cover for lewdness as well as for nastiness, is easily slipped down for the service of both? If certain ermines and furs be placed in a certain position, we style a judge; and so an apt conjunction of lawn and black satin we entitle a bishop. 86
The garment allegory is carried out with thoroughness and finesse. Peter (Catholicism), Martin (Lutheranism and Anglicanism) and Jack (Calvinism) received from their dying father three new and identical coats (Bibles), and a will directing them how to wear these, and forbidding them ever to alter, add to, or diminish them by even a single thread. The sons fall in love with three ladies: the Duchess d’Argent (wealth), Mme. de Grands Titres (ambition), and the Countess d’Orgueil (pride). To please these ladies the brothers make certain changes in their inherited coats; and when the alterations seem to contradict their father’s will, they reinterpret it by scholarly exegesis. Peter wished to add some silver fringes (papal luxury); it was readily shown, on the most learned authority, that the word fringe in the will meant broomstick; so Peter adopted silver fringes, but denied himself broomsticks (witchcraft?). Protestants were delighted to find the keenest edge of satire falling upon Peter: upon his purchase of a large continent (purgatory), which he sold in various parcels (indulgences) over and over again; upon his sovereign and usually painless remedies (penances) for worms (gnawings of conscience)—for example, “to eat nothing after supper for three nights . . . and by no means to break wind at both ends together without manifest occasion”; 87 upon the invention of “a whispering office” (the confessional) “for the public good and ease of all such as are hypochondriacs or troubled with the colic”; upon “an office of insurance” (more indulgences); upon the “famous universal [Catholic] pickle” (holy water) as a preventive of decay. Enriched by these wise expedients, Peter sets himself up as the representative of God. He claps three high-crowned hats upon his head, and holds an angling rod in his hand; and when anyone wishes to shake his hand, he, “like a well-educated spaniel,” offers them his foot. 88 He invites his brothers to dinner, gives them nothing but bread, assures them that it is not bread but meat, and refutes their objections: “To convince you what a couple of blind, positive, ignorant, willful puppies you are, I will use but this simple argument. By G——, it is true, good, natural mutton as any in Leadenhall Market, and G——confound you both eternally if you offer to believe otherwise.” 89 The brothers rebel, make “true copies” of the will (vernacular translations of the Bible), and denounce Peter as an impostor; whereupon he “kicked them out of doors, and would never let them come under his roof from that day to this.” 90 Soon thereafter the brothers quarrel as to how much of their inherited coats they may discard or change. Martin, after his first anger, resolves on moderation, and recalls that Peter is his brother; Jack, however, tears his coat to shreds (Calvinist sects), and falls into fits of madness and zeal. Swift proceeds to describe the strange operations of wind (inspiration) in the “Aeolists” (Calvinist preachers); and has much fun—some quite unprintable—with their nasal speech, predestination theories, and idolatry of the Scriptural word. 91
So far the author’s own creed, Anglicanism, had come off with only minor scars. But as the tale proceeds Swift, changing coats for winds, apparently reduces not only the Dissenting theologies but all religions and philosophies to vaporous delusions:
If we take a survey of the greatest actions that have been performed in the world . . . , which are the establishment of new empires by conquest, the advance and progress of new schemes in philosophy, and the contriving, as well as the propagating, of new religions, we shall find the authors of them all to have been persons whose natural reason had admitted great revolutions, from their diet, their education, the prevalency of some certain temper, together with the particular influence of air and climate . . . For the human understanding, seated in the brain, must be troubled and overspread by vapors ascending from the lower faculties to water the invention and render it fruitful. 92
Swift gives, in unquotable physiological detail, what seemed to him a fine example of internal secretions generating mighty ideas, even Henry IV’s “Grand Design”: the French King had been inspired to war against the Hapsburgs by the thought of capturing on the way a woman (Charlotte de Montmorency) whose beauty had stirred up in him sundry juices, “which ascended to the brain.” 93 It was likewise with the great philosophers, who were rightly judged by their contemporaries to be “out of their wits.”
Of this kind were Epicurus, Diogenes, Apollonius, Lucretius, Paracelsus, Descartes, and others; who, if they were now in the world, . . . would, in this understanding age, incur manifest danger of phlebotomy [medical bleeding], and whips, and chains, and dark chambers, and straw. . . . Now I would gladly be informed how it is possible to account for such imaginations . . . without reference to . . . vapors ascending from the lower faculties to overshadow the brain, and there distilling into conceptions for which the narrowness of our mother-tongue has not yet assigned any other name beside that of madness or frenzy. 94
To similar “disturbance or transposition of the brain by force of certain vapors issuing up from the lower faculties,” Swift ascribes “all those mighty revolutions that have happened in empire, philosophy, and religion.” 95 He concludes that all systems of thought are winds of words, and that the wise man will not attempt to pierce to the inner reality of things, but will content himself with the surface; whereupon Swift uses one of the pleasant similes to which he had a turn: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” 96
This scandalous little book, blown up to 130 pages, established Swift at once as a master of satire—a Rabelais perfectionné, Voltaire was to call him. The allegory was verbally consistent with Swift’s profession of Anglican orthodoxy, but many readers felt that the author was a skeptic, if not an atheist. Archbishop Sharp told Queen Anne that Swift was little better than an infidel, 97 and Anne’s confidante, the Duchess of Marlborough, was of opinion that Swift
had long ago turned all religion into a Tale of a Tub and sold it for a jest. But he had taken it ill that the [Whig] ministry had not promoted him in the Church for the great zeal he had shown for religion by his profane drollery; and so [he] carried his atheism and his humor into service of their enemies. 98
Steele too called Swift an infidel, and Nottingham, in the House of Commons, described him as a divine “who is hardly suspected of being a Christian.” 99 Swift had read Hobbes, an experience not easily forgotten. Hobbes had begun with fear, passed to materialism, and ended as a Tory supporting the Established Church. It was small consolation to the men of religion that Swift made short work of philosophy:
The various opinions of philosophers have scattered through the world as many plagues of the mind as Pandora’s box did those of the body, only with this difference, that they have not left hope at the bottom . . . Truth is as hidden as the source of the Nile, and can be found only in Utopia. 100
Perhaps because he felt that truth was not meant for man, he resented with special warmth those religious sects that professed to have the “true religion,” and he scorned men who, like Bunyan and some Quakers, claimed to have seen or talked with God. He concluded, with Hobbes, that it was social suicide to let every man make his own religion; the result would be such a maelstrom of absurdities that society would be a madhouse. So he opposed free thought, on the ground that “the bulk of mankind is as well qualified for flying as thinking.” 101 He repudiated toleration. To the end of his life he supported the Test Act, which excluded from political or military office all but adherents of the Established Church. 102 He agreed with Catholic and Lutheran rulers that a nation should have only one religion; and, having been born into an England with an Established Anglican Church, he thought that a general and unified acceptance of that Church was indispensable to the process of civilizing Englishmen. These were theSentiments of a Church of England Man, this the Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May . . . Be Attended with Some Inconveniences—tracts which he published in 1708 on his way from the Whigs to the Tories.
His first political associations after leaving Temple were with the Whigs, for these seemed to be the more progressive party, and the likelier to find a place for a man with more brains than money. In 1701 he published a Whiggish pamphlet hopefully. Halifax, Sunderland, and other Whig leaders welcomed him to the party, and promised him some preferment should they come to power. The promises were not fulfilled; perhaps these men feared Swift’s temper as unmanageable, and his pen as a double-edged sword. On an extended visit from Ireland to London in 1705 Swift won the friendship of Congreve, Addison, and Steele. Addison inscribed to him a copy of Travels in Italy with the words: “To Jonathan Swift, the most agreeable companion, the truest friend, and the greatest genius of his age, this work is presented by his most humble servant the author”; 103 but this friendship, like those of Jonathan with Steele and Pope, withered in Swift’s rising fire.
On another visit to London he amused himself by destroying a pretentious astrologer. John Partridge, a cobbler, sent forth each year an almanac rich in predictions based on the progress of the stars. In 1708 Swift issued a rival almanac under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. One of Isaac’s predictions was that at 11 P.M. on March 29 Partridge would die. On March 30 “Bickerstaff” published a letter triumphantly announcing that Partridge had died within a few hours of the predicted time, and stating in convincing detail the arrangements for the funeral. Partridge assured London that he was still alive, but Isaac retorted that this assurance was a forgery. The wits of the city took up the hoax; the Stationer’s Office struck Partridge’s name from its rolls; and Steele, inaugurating The Tatler in the following year, adopted Isaac Bickerstaff as its imaginary editor.
In 1710 Swift again left Laracor, this time as an emissary of the Irish bishops to ask that “Queen Anne’s Bounty” be extended to the Anglican clergy of Ireland. Godolphin and Somers, Whig members of the Queen’s Council, refused to grant this unless the clergy agreed to relax the Test Act. Swift strongly objected to such relaxation. The Whigs discovered that he was a Tory in religion, and Swift practically confessed himself a Tory in politics when he wrote: “I ever abominated that scheme of politics . . . of setting up a moneyed interest in opposition to the landed.” 104 He applied to the Tory leaders, Harley and Bolingbroke, received a hearty welcome, and became overnight a confirmed Tory. Made editor of the Tory Examiner, Swift signalized his style by describing the Whig Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, whose secretary was Swift’s friend Addison:
Thomas, Earl of Wharton, . . . by the force of a wonderful constitution, has some years passed his grand climacteric without any visible effects of old age, either in his body or his mind; and in spite of a continual prostitution to those vices which usually wear out both. . . . He goes constantly to prayers . . . and will talk bawdy and blasphemy at the chapel door. He is a Presbyterian in politics, an atheist in religion; but he chooses at present to whore withra papist. 105
Delighted with this assassination, the Tory ministers commissioned Swift to write a tract, The Conduct of the Allies (November, 1711), as part of their campaign to depose Marlborough and end the War of the Spanish Succession. Swift argued that the unpopular taxes levied to finance the long conflict with Louis XIV could be reduced by confining England’s share in it to the sea; and he stated with force the complaint of the landholders that the cost of the war fell too much upon the land, too little upon the merchants and manufacturers, who were doing quite well out of the war. As to Marlborough: “Whether this war was prudently begun or not, it is plain that the true spring or motive of it was the aggrandizing a particular family, and in short a war of the General and the [Whig] ministry, and not of the Prince or people.” 106 He summed up Marlborough’s emoluments at £ 540,000—“and the figure was not inaccurate.” 107 A month later Marlborough was condemned. His candid Duchess, who had the only tongue in England as sharp as Swift’s, viewed the matter from the Whig point of view in her memoirs:
The Rev. Mr. Swift and Mr. Prior quickly offered themselves to sale, . . . both men of wit and parts, ready to prostitute all they had in the service of well-rewarded scandal, being both of a composition past the weakness of blushing or of stumbling at anything for the interest of their new masters. 108
These rewarded their new servants. Matthew Prior was sent as a diplomat to France, where he acquitted himself well. Swift received no office, but was now so intimate with the Tory ministers that he was able to secure many a sinecure for his friends. He was the genius of generosity to those who did not cross him. He claimed later that he had done fifty times more for fifty people than Temple had ever done for him. 109 He persuaded Bolingbroke to help the poet Gay. He saw to it that the Tory ministry should continue the pension that Congreve had received from the Whigs. When Pope asked for subscriptions to finance him while translating Homer, Swift commanded all his friends and place-seekers to subscribe, and vowed that “the author shall not begin to print till I have a thousand guineas for him.” 110 He outshone Addison at the clubs. Almost every evening now he dined with the great, and brooked no superior airs from any of them. “I am so proud,” he wrote to Stella, “that I make all the lords come up to me . . . I was to have supped at Lady Ashburnham’s, but the drab did not call for us in her coach as she promised, but sent for us, and so I sent my excuses.” 111
It was during these three years (1710–13) in England that he wrote the strange letters published in 1766–68 as the Journal to Stella. He needed someone as the confidante of his ducal dinners and political victories; besides, he loved the patient woman, now approaching thirty, but still waiting for him to make up his mind. He must have loved her, for sometimes he wrote to her twice a day, and he showed his interest in everything about her except marriage. We should never have expected, from so overbearing a man, such playful delicacies and fanciful nicknames, such jokes and puns and baby talk as Swift, not expecting their publication, poured into these letters. They are rich in caresses but poor in proposals, unless Stella could have read a promise of marriage in his letter of May 23, 1711: “I will say no more, but beg you to be easy till Fortune takes her course, and to believe that M.D.’s [Stella’s] felicity is the greatest goal I aim at in all my pursuits.” 112 Yet even in this correspondence he calls her “brat,” “fool,” “quean,” “jade,” “slut,” “agreeable bitch,” and other such terms of endearment. We catch the spirit of the man when he tells Stella:
I was this forenoon with Mr. Secretary at his office, and helped to hinder a man of his pardon, who is condemned for a rape. The Under Secretary was willing to save him, upon an old notion that a woman cannot be ravished; but I told the Secretary that he could not pardon him without a favorable report from the judge; besides, he is a fiddler, and consequently a rogue, and deserved hanging for something else; and so he shall swing. What; I must stand up for the honor of the fair sex! ’Tis true, the fellow had lain with her a hundred times before; but what care I for that? What? Must a woman be ravished because she is a whore? 113
Swift’s physical ailments may help us to understand his ill-humor. As early as 1694, aged twenty-seven, he had begun to suffer from vertigo in the labyrinth of the ear; occasionally and incalculably he experienced fits of dizziness and deafness. A famous Dr. Radcliffe recommended a complex liquid to be held in a bag inside Swift’s wig. The malady became worse with the years, and may have caused his insanity. Probably in 1717 he said to the poet Edward Young, pointing to a withering tree, “I shall be like that tree: I shall die at the top.” 114 This alone was enough to make him question the value of life, and certainly to doubt the wisdom of marriage. Probably he was impotent, but of this we have no certainty. He took to much walking to fend off physical decay; once he walked from Farnham to London—thirty-eight miles.
His malaise was heightened by a painful keenness of the senses, which often goes with sharpness of mind. He was especially sensitive to odors, in city streets and in human beings; he could tell at a smell the hygiene of the men and women whom he met; and he concluded that the human race stank. 115 His conception of a lovable woman was partly that
No noisome Whiffs or sweating Streams
Before, behind, above, below
Could from her taintless body flow. 116
He describes “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” and then the same lady on arising:
Corinna in the morning dizen’d
Who sees, will spew, who smells, be poison’d.
And his conception of a nice young woman is olfactory:
Her dearest comrades never caught her
Squat on her hams to make Maid’s water;
You’d swear that so divine a creature
Felt no necessities of nature.
In summer, had she walked the town,
Her armpits would not stain her gown;
At country dances not a nose
Could in the dog days smell her toes. 117
He himself was finically clean. And yet the writings of this Anglican divine are among the coarsest in English literature. His anger at life made him fling his faults into the face of his time. He made no effort to please, and every effort to dominate, for domination comforted his secret uncertainty of himself. He said that he hated (feared) all those whom he could not command; 118 this, however, was not true of his affection for Harley. He was angry in adversity, and arrogant in success. He loved power more than money; when Harley sent him fifty pounds for his articles he returned the bank note, demanded an apology, received it, and wrote to Stella, “I have taken Mr. Harley into favor again.” 119 He resented formality, and despised cant. The world seemed bent on defeating him, and he frankly returned its hostility. He wrote to Pope:
The chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it; and if I could compass that design without hurting my own person or fortune, I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen . . . When you think of the world, give it one lash the more at my request. 1 have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is towards individuals . . . I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Councillor Such-a-one and Judge Such-a-one; so with physicians (I will not speak of my own trade), soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man—although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. 120
He appears at this distance the least lovable of men, and yet two women loved him to their deaths. During these years in London he lived near a Mrs. Vanhomrigh, a rich widow with two sons and two daughters. When he could not secure an invitation to titled tables he dined with the “Vans.” The eldest daughter, Hester, then (1711) twenty-four, fell in love with him, forty-three, and told him so. He tried to pass this off as a transient humor, and explained that he was too old for her; she replied, hopefully, that he had in his books taught her to love great men (she read Montaigne at her toilet), and why should she not love a great man when she found him in the flesh? He was half melted. He composed a poem, intended for her eyes only, Cadenus and Vanessa, humorous and tragical. Vanessa was his name for her; Cadenus was an anagram for decanus, dean.
For in April, 1713, the Queen had reluctantly appointed him dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In June he went to Ireland to be installed. He saw Stella, and wrote to Vanessa that he was dying of melancholy and discontent. 121 He returned to London (October, 1713), and shared in the debacle of the Tories in 1714. Politically powerless now that the Whigs whom he had attacked were triumphant under George I, he went back to hated Ireland and his deanery. He was unpopular in Dublin, for the Whigs who now ruled it hated him for his diatribes, and the Dissenters hated him for his insistence on excluding them from office. People hissed and booed him in the streets, and pelted him with gutter filth. 122 An Anglican clergyman expressed the view of his cloth in a poem which was nailed to the cathedral door:
Today this temple gets a Dean,
Of parts and fame uncommon;
Used both to pray and to profane,
To serve both God and Mammon . . .
The place he got by wit and rhyme,
And many ways most odd,
And might a bishop be in time
Did he believe in God. 123
He stood his ground bravely, continued to support the Tories, and offered to share Harley’s imprisonment in the Tower. He attended to his religious duties, preached regularly, administered the sacraments, lived simply, and gave a third of his income in charity. On Sundays he held open house; Stella then came to play hostess for him. Soon his unpopularity waned. In 1724 he published, under the pseudonym of M. B. Drapier, six letters denouncing the attempt of William Wood to make a large profit out of supplying Ireland with a copper currency. The Irish resented the proposal, and when “Drapier” was discovered to be Swift, the gloomy Dean became almost popular.
He might have had some moments of happiness had he been able to keep the Irish Channel between the two women who loved him. In 1714 Mrs. Vanhomrigh died, and “Vanessa” moved to Ireland to occupy a small property bequeathed to her by her father at Celbridge, eleven miles west of the capital. To be nearer the Dean, she took a lodging in Turnstile Alley, Dublin, a short distance from where Stella lived. She wrote to Swift, begging him to visit her, and warned him that if he failed to come she would die of grief. He could not resist her appeal, and now (1714–23) he went repeatedly and clandestinely to see her. When his visits became less frequent, her letters became more ardent. She had been born, she told him, with “violent passions, which terminate all in one, that inexpressible passion I have for you.” It would be useless, she told him, to try to turn her love to God; for “was I an enthusiast, still you’d be the deity I should worship.” 124
Perhaps he thought to break through this imprisoning triangle by marrying; perhaps Stella, conscious of a rival, demanded it as simple justice; and the balance of the evidence is that he did marry Stella in 1716. 125 Apparently he required her to keep the marriage secret; she continued to live apart; and probably the union was never consummated. Swift resumed his visits to Vanessa; not that he was merely a philanderer or altogether a brute, but presumably because he had not the heart to leave her hopeless, or he feared her suicide. His letters assured Vanessa that he loved and valued her above all things, and would do so to the end of his life. So the affair went on till 1723; then Vanessa wrote to Stella asking her point blank what was her connection with the Dean. Stella took the letter to Swift. He rode to Vanessa’s lodging, flung the letter down upon her table, terrified her with his angry looks, and, without a word, left her, never to see her again.
When Vanessa recovered from her fright she realized at last that he had been deceiving her. Hopelessness combined with a consumptive tendency to destroy what was left of her health; and within two months of that last interview she died (June 2, 1723), aged thirty-four. She took revenge in her will: she revoked an earlier testament that had made Swift her heir; she bequeathed her goods to Robert Marshall and George Berkeley, the philosopher; and she bade them publish, without comment, Swift’s letters to her, and his poem Cadenus and Vanessa. Swift fled on an obscure “southern journey” in Ireland, and did not reappear in his cathedral until four months after Vanessa’s death.
When he returned he gave his leisure to composing the most famous and savage satire ever directed against mankind. He wrote to Charles Ford that he was engaged upon a book that would “wonderfully rend the world.” 126 A year later it was complete, and he took the manuscript in person to London, arranged for its anonymous publication, accepted two hundred pounds for it, and went to Pope’s house in Twickenham to enjoy the expected storm. So in October, 1726, England received the Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. The first public reaction was one of delight with the circumstantial realism of the narrative. Many readers took it as history, though one Irish bishop (said Swift) thought it full of improbabilities. Most readers went no further than the voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, which were jolly narratives usefully illustrating the relativity of judgments. The Lilliputians were only six inches tall, and gave Gulliver a swelling sense of superiority. Political parties there were distinguished from each other by wearing high heels or low heels, and the religious factions were Big-Endians or Little-Endians as they believed in breaking eggs at the big end or the small end. The Brobdingnagians were sixty feet tall, giving Gulliver a new perspective of humanity. Their king mistook him for an insect, Europe for an anthill; and from Gulliver’s description of human ways he concluded that “the bulk of your natives [are] the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” 127 For his part Gulliver (suggesting the relativity of beauty) was repelled by the “monstrous breasts” of the Brobdingnagian belles.
The story weakens in Gulliver’s third voyage. He is pulled up by chain and bucket to Laputa, an island floating in the air and inhabited and governed by scientists, scholars, inventors, professors, and philosophers; here the details that elsewhere lent verisimilitude to the narrative are a bit silly, like the little bladders with which servants tap the ears and mouths of the profound thinkers to rouse them from dangerous absent-mindedness in their cogitations. The Academy of Lagado, with its fanciful inventions and decrees, is a feeble satire on Bacon’s New Atlantis and the Royal Society of London. Swift had no faith in the reform or rule of states by scientists; he laughed at their theories, and the early mortality thereof; and he predicted the overthrow of the Newtonian cosmology: “New systems of nature were but new fashions, which would vary in every age; and even those who pretend to demonstrate them from mathematical principles [Principia Mathematica, 1687] would flourish but a short period of time.” 128
So Gulliver moves on to the land of Luggnaggians, who condemn their greatest criminals not to death but to immortality. When these “Struldbrugs”
came to fourscore years, which is reckoned the extremity of living in their country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more, which arose from the dreadful prospects of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative; but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grandchildren. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. . . . Whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others are gone to an harbor of rest, to which they themselves never can hope to arrive. . . . They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld, and the women more horrible than the men. . . . From what I had heard and seen, my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated. 129
In Part IV Swift discarded humor for a sardonic excoriation of humanity. The land of the Houyhnhnms is governed by clean, handsome, genial horses, who speak, reason, and have all the marks of civilization, while their menial servants, the Yahoos, are men dirty, odorous, greedy, drunken, irrational, and deformed. Among these degenerates (wrote Swift in the days of George I)
there was a . . . ruling Yahoo [king] who was always more deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition, than any of the rest. . . . This leader had usually a favorite as like himself as he could get, whose employment was to lick his master’s feet. . . and drive the female Yahoos to his kennel; for which he was now and then rewarded with a piece of ass’s flesh [title of nobility?]. . . . He usually continues in office till a worse can be found. 130
By contrast the Houyhnhnms, being reasonable, are happy and virtuous; therefore they need no physicians, lawyers, clergymen, or generals. These gentlemanly horses are shocked by Gulliver’s account of Europe’s wars, and still more by the disputes that generated them—as “whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh [in the Eucharist]; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine”; 131 and they cut Gulliver short when he boasts how many human beings could now be blown up by the marvelous inventions which his race has invented.
When Gulliver returns to Europe he can hardly bear the smell of the streets and the people, who now all seem to be Yahoos.
My wife and family received me with great surprise and joy, because they [had] concluded me certainly dead; but I must freely confess that the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust, and contempt . . . As soon as I entered the house my wife took me in her arms, and kissed me; at which, having not been used to the touch of that odious animal [man] for so many years, I fell in a swoon for almost an hour. . . . During the first year I could not endure my wife or children in my presence, the very smell of them was intolerable . . . The first money I laid out was to buy two young . . . horses, which I keep in a good stable; and next to them the groom is my greatest favorite, for I feel my spirit revived by the smell he contracts in the stable. 132
The success of Gulliver exceeded the author’s dreams, and might have mollified his olfactory misanthropy. Readers enjoyed the spare and limpid English, the circumstantial details, the hilarious obscenities. Arbuthnot predicted for the book “as great a run as John Bunyan”—i.e., as for Pilgrim’s Progress. Doubtless Swift owed something to that book, more to Robinson Crusoe, something, perhaps, to Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoires comiques des états et empire de la lune. What was quite new was the awful cynicism of the later parts, and even this found admirers. Marlborough’s Duchess, now in her rasping old age, forgave Swift his attacks upon her husband in consideration of his attacks upon mankind. Swift, she declared, had given “the most accurate account of kings, ministers, bishops, and courts of justice that is possible to be writ.” Gay reported that she “is in raptures with the book, and can dream of nothing else.” 133
Swift’s triumph was soured by the publication, in the same year as Gulliver, of his poem Cadenus and Vanessa. Hester Vanhomrigh’s executors had obeyed her injunction to print it, and had not asked the author’s permission. It appeared in separate editions in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh. It was a cruel blow to Stella, for she saw how many of the loving phrases once addressed to her had been repeated to Vanessa. Shortly after that revelation she took sick. Swift crossed to Ireland to comfort her; she improved, and he returned to England (1727). Soon news came to him that she was dying. He sent hurried instructions to his cathedral aides that “Stella must not die in the Deanery.” 134 He came back to Dublin, and once more she rallied; but on January 28, 1728, she died, aged forty-seven. Swift broke down, and was too ill to attend her funeral.
Thereafter he lived in Dublin (as he wrote to Bolingbroke) “like a poisoned rat in a hole.” 135 He extended his charities, gave a pension to Mrs. Dingley, and helped Richard Sheridan in his youthful scrapes. Apparently a cruel man, he was touched to bitter wrath by the poverty of the Irish people, and was shocked by the number of child beggars in Dublin’s streets. In 1729 he issued the most ferocious of his ironies: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country.
I have been assured . . . that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or ragout. I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males . . . That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune throughout the Kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and, seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good . . .
Those who are more thrifty . . . may flay the carcass, the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen. . . .
Some persons of desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people who are aged, diseased, or maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts, what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter; because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. . . .
I think the advantages [of] the proposal which I have made are obvious and many . . . For first, . . . it would greatly lessen the number of Papists with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies . . . Thirdly, whereas the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old and upward, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune . . . who have any refinement in taste . . .
The strange and sometimes revolting productions of Swift’s pen, especially after Stella’s death, suggest the germs of insanity. “A person of great honor 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.” 136 This unhappy misanthrope, whose visible faults left him in a glass house while he pelted humanity with vengeful satire, asked a friend, “Do not the corruptions and villainies of men eat your flesh and exhaust your spirit?” 137 His anger at the world was an extension of his anger at himself; he knew that despite his genius he was diseased in body and soul, and he could not forgive life for having denied him health, normal organs, peace of mind, and advancement proportionate to his mental power.
Life’s cruelty to him took its final form in the day-by-day impairment of his sanity. After 1728 his avarice grew even amid his charities; he grudged the food he fed to his guests, and the wine he served to his friends. 138 His vertigo became worse, and he could never tell at what inauspicious moment it might send him reeling in his chancel or in the street. He had refused to wear spectacles; now his sight was so poor that he had to give up reading. Some of his friends died, some shunned his temper and gloom. “I have often thought of death,” he wrote to Bolingbroke, “but now it is never out of my mind,” 139 and he began to long for it. He kept his birthday as a day of mourning. “No wise man,” he wrote, “ever wished to be younger.” 140 His regular farewell to his visitors, in these final years, was, “Good night; I hope I shall never see you again.” 141
Definite symptoms of madness appeared in 1738. In 1741 guardians were appointed to take care of his affairs and watch lest in his outbursts of violence he should do himself harm. In 1742 he suffered great pain from the inflammation of his left eye, which swelled to the size of an egg; five attendants had to restrain him from tearing out his eye. He went a whole year without uttering a word. His misery ended on October 19, 1745, in his seventy-eighth year. His will left his fortune, twelve thousand pounds, to build an insane asylum. He was buried in his own cathedral, under an epitaph chosen by himself:
Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor ulterius lacerare nequit
—“where bitter indignation can no longer tear his heart.”