Chapter 1
Of Swift by J.M. Murry

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on 30 November 1667. He died there on 19 October 1745 and is buried in St Patrick's cathedral.

Jonathan Swift is the most enigmatic and paradoxical figure among the great ones of English literature. Many have remarked on the irony by which Gulliver's Travels, its entirety perhaps the most savage onslaught on humanity ever written, has come to be a classic of the nursery. Not so many have observed that this fate has befallen the greatest work of one who, at thirty-two, came to the solemn and strange resolve, which he seems to have kept religiously: 'Not to be fond of children, nor let them come near me hardly'; or we may consider the mysterious dispensation by which the stubborn champion of rationality ended his life an imbecile; or the paradox by which the child-hater found release in the extraordinary convention by which he insisted on addressing Stella in his letters not as herself but as a compound of herself and her older companion, and addressing this composite in an embarrassing sort of baby language; or even the singular adventure of his early childhood, when he was stolen from his mother by a devoted nurse and kept apart from her till he was three. No matter where or how we lay hold of the story of Swift's life and work, we are baffled by mystery and mystification, by conflict and contradiction. We are acutely conscious, in his writing, of an immense power at work, yet deliberately channelled and applied under an equally great power of repression; on a few rare occasions working freely, for the most part confined to a particular task, and for long periods entirely suppressed. We have, moreover, to take seriously his confession to Pope:

All my endeavours from a boy to distinguish myself were only for want of a great tide and fortune, that I might be used like a Lord by those who have an opinion of my parts whether right or it is wrong no great matter, and so the reputation of wit or great learning does the office of a blue ribbon, or of a coach and six horses.

Undoubtedly, Swift used his genius as the instrument of his ambition; and his ambition was for power. Not for any kind of power—but for the power which literary genius, sternly disciplined to the particular purpose, might achieve for its possessor—the power of being feared and courted by the great ones of the earth. That was how he liked to regard himself:

Grown old in politics and wit,
Caress'd by Ministers of state,
Of half mankind the dread and hate.

It was no delusion of greatness. He had achieved the position he sought. And he had stripped himself for the arduous and difficult race. He sternly refused to become a professional author. Only once in his life did he ever receive pay for any original work: when the publisher paid what Pope—or even Prior—made out of a book. Only once in his life did he put his own name to a piece of his writing: A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. The motives behind this sedulous anonymity were complex; but perhaps the chief was to maintain an aura of mystery and to give himself the maximum possibility of manoeuvre. And behind it all was a fierce pride, which could never bear to fail. Let that only be his, which could be nobody else's.

For the race he also stripped himself of the encumbrance of marriage. Volumes have been written, and will be written, concerning his relations with the two women who loved him, and indeed gave up their lives to loving him: Stella (Esther Johnson) and Vanessa (Esther Vanhomrigh). For the moment it is sufficient to say that, although he particularly enjoyed and was dependent upon the society of women, he deliberately renounced marriage as an impediment when he determined to make his career.

Twice he reached the pinnacle of his ambition, in two vastly different scenes. First, in 1710-13, when he became the incomparable literary champion of Harley's Tory ministry: when he potently assailed the Duke of Marlborough and defended the Treaty of Utrecht. No more consummate political journalism has ever been written than Swift's Examiners. The price he exacted for his services was to be admitted to the personal friendship of Harley and St John. Without that, they would never have got him, or certainly never have kept him.

He reached at it again, under adverse conditions, when he had been 'banished' to the deanery of St Patrick's, and the Tories had fallen at the death of Queen Anne. Then, after a long period of silence, he emerged as the champion of Irish economic independence and subsequently as the inspiriter of the nation-wide agitation against Wood's Halfpence. Almost in spite of himself, for he was an impassioned defender of the privileges of the Church of Ireland, he became the national hero of Protestants and Papists alike: the first of the kind. The 'Drapier's Letters' kindled a spark of Irish patriotism which did not cease to glow for two hundred years.

These were astonishing practical achievements for the written word. What was behind them; of what kind was the fund of genius of which this unique journalism was the narrowed applications First and foremost, a comic power of unparalleled intensity and alarming scope. On the rare occasions when Swift gave unfettered utterance, it appears as formidable and terrifying. Nothing seems sacred from its fierce power of destruction. When, as in A Tale of a Tub, he professed, perhaps sincerely, to use it in defence of the Church of England against the aberrations of Papism on the one side and Dissent on the other, his conscious purposes are nullified by the poetic fury of his universal irreverence. The authorities of the Church he professed to champion were horrified by his methods, which he himself afterwards aptly symbolized when Captain Lemuel Gulliver puts out the fire in the Empress's palace by pissing on it. In Gulliver's Travels itself its comic power ceases to be light-hearted. Humanity in his eyes is long past being a joke. The embers of the wild fun of A Tale of a Tub , are quenched in the fierce indignation which, as his chosen epitaph says, tore at his heart.

To attempt to analyse the causes of this comic intensity is vain. one must accept as a datum the demonic power of Swift's genius. But it is interesting to observe that it did not declare itself until he was thirty years of age. All that he wrote, or all that has survived of his writing, before 1697 is laborious, but curiously personal, attempts at Pindaric poetry in the manner of Cowley, quite unlike any of his later work in verse or prose. In these he reveals himself as one seeking poetic inspiration in his admiration for the great and good, though struggling with a strong impulse to attack the evil that threatened them. They end abruptly with a remark-able confession at once of thwarted affection and poetic failure, and conclude with a passionate denunciation of the ideal—and the poetic inspiration given by the ideal—as illusion:

And from this hour
I here renounce thy visionary power;
And since thy essence on my breath depends,
Thus, with a puff, the whole delusion ends.

The poem is the most naked piece of self-revelation in all Swift's writings. It plainly shows that some sort of psychological crisis preceded the manifestation of his formidable genius in the form we know. And it shows that one great factor in the crisis was his intense chagrin at not having achieved a secure place in the affections of Sir William Temple. It is worth bearing in mind that the Swift we know, the marks of whose suppressed passionate nature are so unmistakable, was at a critical moment an emotionally frustrated man.

« NEXT » « Swift » « Biographies » « Library »