Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

IN the yearly visits which he made to London ... Swift passed much of his time at Lord Berkeley's, officiating as Chaplain to the family, and attending Lady Berkeley in her private devotions. After which, the Doctor, by her desire, used to read to her some moral or religious discourse. The Countess had at this time taken a great liking to Mr. Boyle's Meditations,and was determined to go through them in that manner; but as Swift had by no means the same relish for that kind of writing which her Ladyship had, he soon grew weary of the task, and a whim coming into his head, resolved to get rid of it in a way which might occasion some sport in the family; for which they had as high a relish as himself.

The next time he was employed in reading one of those Meditations, he took an opportunity of conveying away the book, and dexterously inserted a leaf on which he had written his own Meditation on a Broomstick; after which he took care to have the book restored to its proper place, and in his next attendance on my Lady, when he was desired to proceed to the next Meditation, Swift opened upon the place where the leaf had been inserted, and with great composure of countenance read the title, 'A Meditation on a Broom-stick'. Lady Berkeley, a little surprised at the oddity of the title, stopped him, repeating the words:

'A Meditation on a Broom-stick! Bless me, what a strange subject! But there is no knowing what useful lessons of instruction this wonderful man may draw from things apparently the most trivial. Pray let us hear what he says upon it.'

Swift then, with an inflexible gravity of countenance, proceeded to read the Meditation, in the same solemn tone which he had used in delivering the former. Lady Berkeley, not at all suspecting a trick, in the fullness of her prepossession was every now and then, during the reading of it, expressing her admiration of this extraordinary man, who could draw such fine moral reflections from so contemptible a subject; with which, though Swift must have been inwardly not a little tickled, yet he observed a most perfect composure of features, so that she had not the least room to suspect any deceit. Soon after, some company coming in, Swift pretended business and withdrew, foreseeing what was to follow. Lady Berkeley, full of the subject, soon entered upon the praises of those heavenly Meditations of Mr. Boyle.

'But', said she, 'the Doctor has been just reading one to me which has surprised me more than all the rest.'

One of the company asked which of the Meditations she meant. She answered directly, in the simplicity of her heart, 'I mean that excellent Meditation on a Broomstick'. The company looked at each other with some surprise, and could scarce refrain from laughing. But they all agreed that they had never heard of such a Meditation before.

'Upon my word,' said my Lady, 'there it is, look into that book and convince yourself.'

One of them opened the book, and found it there indeed, but in Swift's handwriting; upon which a general burst of laughter ensued; and my Lady, when the first surprise was over, enjoyed the joke as much as any of them; saying

'What a vile trick has that rogue played me. But it is his way, he never baulks his humour in anything.'

The affair ended in a great deal of harmless mirth, and Swift, you may be sure, was not asked to proceed any further in the Meditations.

Thomas Sheridan, The Life of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift (1785), pp. 37-9.

The knot of Wits used at this time [c. 1710] to assemble at Button's Coffee-house; and I had a singular account of Swift's first appearance there from Ambrose Philips, who was one of Mr. Addison's little senate. He said that they had for several successive days observed a strange clergyman come into the coffee-house, who seemed utterly unacquainted with any of those who frequented it; and whose custom it was to lay his hat down on a table, and walk backwards and towards at a good pace for half an hour or an hour, without speaking to any mortal, or seeming in the least to attend to anything that was going forward there. He then used to take up his hat, pay his money at the bar, and walk away without opening his lips....

This made them more than usually attentive to his motions; and one evening, as Mr. Addison and the rest were observing him, they saw him cast his eyes several times on a gentleman in boots, who seemed to be just come out of the country, and at last advance towards him as intending to address him. They were all eager to hear what this dumb, mad parson had to say, and immediately quitted their seats to get near him. Swift went up to the country gentleman, and in a very abrupt manner, without any previous salute, asked him, 'Pray, sir, do you remember any good weather in the world?' The country gentleman, after staring a little at the singularity of his manner, and the oddity of the question, answered, 'Yes, sir, I thank God, I remember a great deal of good weather in my time.! 'That is more', said Swift, 'than I can say; I never remember any weather that was not too hot, or too cold; too wet, or too dry; but, however God Almighty contrives it, at the end of the year 'tis all very well.' Upon saying this, he took up his hat, and without uttering a syllable more, or taking the least notice of anyone, walked out of the coffee-house, leaving all those who had been spectators of this odd scene staring after him, and still more confirmed in the opinion of his being mad.

There is another anecdote recorded of him, of what passed between him and Dr. Arbuthnot in the same coffee-house. The Doctor had been scribbling a letter in great haste, which was much blotted; and seeing this odd parson near him, with a design to play upon him said, 'Pray, sir, have you any sand about you?' No,' replied Swift, 'but I have the gravel, and if you will give me your letter I'll p-ss upon it.' Thus singularly commenced an acquaintance between those two great wits, which afterwards ripened into the closest friendship.

Thomas Sheridan, The Life of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift (1785), pp. 40-1.

IN 1723 died Mrs. [i.e. Miss Esther] Van Homrigh, a woman made unhappy by her admiration of wit, and ignominiously distinguished by the name of Vanessa. . . . She was a young woman fond of literature, whom Decanus, the Dean (called Cadenus by transposition of the letters), took pleasure in directing and instructing; till, from being proud of his praise, she grew fond of his person. Swift was then about forty-seven, at an age when vanity is strongly excited by the amorous attention of a young woman. If it be said that Swift should have checked a passion which he never meant to gratify, recourse must be had to that extenuation which he so much despised, 'men are but men': perhaps, however, he did not at first know his own mind, and, as he represents himself, was undetermined. For his admission of her courtship, and his indulgence of her hopes after his marriage to Stella, no other honest plea can be found than that he delayed a disagreable discovery from time to time, dreading the immediate bursts of distress, and watching for a favourable moment. She thought herself neglected, and died of disappointment; having ordered by her will the poem to be published in which Cadenus had proclaimed her excellence, and confessed his love. The effect of the publication upon the Dean and Stella is thus related by Delany.

I have good reason to believe that they were both greatly shocked and distressed (though it may be differently) upon this occasion. The Dean made a tour to the South of Ireland, for about two months, at this time, to dissipate his thoughts, and give place to obloquy. And Stella retired (upon the earnest invitation of the owner) to the house of a cheerful, generous, good-natured friend of the Dean's, whom she also much loved and honoured. There my informer often saw her; and, I have reason to believe, used his utmost endeavours to relieve, support, and amuse her in this sad situation.
One little incident he told me of, on that occasion, I think I shall never forget. As her friend was an hospitable, open-hearted man, well-beloved and largely acquainted, it happened one day that some gentlemen dropped in to dinner who were strangers to Stella's situation; and as the poem of Cadenus and Vanessa was then the general topic of conversation, one of them said, 'Surely that Vanessa must be an extraordinary woman that could inspire the Dean to write so finely upon her.' Mrs. Johnson smiled, and answered 'that she thought that point not quite so clear; for it was well known the Dean could write finely upon a broomstick'.

Johnson, Lives iii. 31-33.

In the Spring of 1724 Swift published the first of his Drapier's Letters attacking the patent granted to William Wood for producing a new copper coinage for Ireland. He followed this up with three more letters, the fourth and severest of them appearing on 13 October. About a week later Lord Carteret, the new Lord Lieutenant, arrived in Ireland, and on the 27th he issued a proclamation offering a reward of £300 for a discovery of the authorship of the fourth letter.

THE day after the Proclamation was issued out against the Drapier, there was a full levee at the Castle. The Lord Lieutenant was going round the circle, when Swift abruptly entered the chamber, and pushing his way through the crowd never stopped till he got within the circle; where, with marks of the highest indignation in his countenance, he addressed the Lord Lieutenant with the voice of a Stentor that re-echoed through the room:

'So, my Lord Lieutenant, this is a glorious exploit that you have performed yesterday, in issuing a Proclamation against a poor shopkeeper whose only crime is an honest endeavour to save his country from ruin. You have given a noble specimen of what this devoted nation is to hope for from your government. I suppose you expect a statue of copper will be erected to you for this service done to Wood.'

He then went on for a long time inveighing in the bitterest terms against the Patent, and displaying in the strongest colours all the fatal consequences of introducing that execrable coin. The whole assembly were struck mute with wonder at this unprecedented scene. The titled slaves and vassals of power felt and shrunk into their own littleness in the presence of this man of virtue. He stood super-eminent among them, like his own Gulliver amid a circle of Lilliputians. For some time a profound silence ensued; when Lord Carteret, who had listened with great composure to the whole speech, made this fine reply, in a line of Virgil's:

Res dura et regni novitas me talia cogunt moliri. (Hard fortune, and the newness of my reign, compel me to such measures)

The whole assembly was struck with the beauty of this quotation, and the levee broke up in good humour....

Thomas Sheridan, The Life of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift (1785), pp. 215-216.

SWIFT was known over the whole kingdom by the title of THE DEAN, given to him by way of pre-eminence, as it were by common consent; and when THE DEAN was mentioned, it always carried with it the idea of the first and greatest man in the kingdom. THE DEAN said this; THE DEAN did that; whatever he said or did was received as infallibly right, with the same degree of implicit credit given to it as was paid to the Stagyrite of old or to the modern Popes. We may judge of the greatness of his influence from a passage in a letter of Lord Carteret to him, 24 March 1733, who was at that time Chief Governor of Ireland:

'I know by experience how much the City of Dublin thinks itself under your protection; and how strictly they used to obey all orders fulminated from the sovereignty of St. Patrick's.' And in the postscript to another of 24 March 1737, he says: 'When people ask me how I governed Ireland, I say that I pleased Dr. Swift'

Thomas Sheridan, The Life of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift (1785), p. 237.

SWIFT was delighted with the stir caused by the publication of Gulliver's Travels, and from Dublin he wrote gaily to Pope about some of the first reactions to his book. Among the less favourable comments he had to report were those of a real or apocryphal Irish bishop who said 'that book was full of improbable lies, and for his part he hardly believed a word of it'.

The Correspondence Of Jonathan Swift ed. Harold Williams (1963), iii. 189 (Swift To Pope, 27(?) November 1726)

DEAN SWIFT, in one of his pedestrian journeys from London towards Chester, took shelter from a summer tempest under a large oak on the roadside, at no great distance from Lichfield. Presently a man, with a pregnant woman, were driven by the like impulse to avail themselves of the same covert. The dean, entering into conversation, found the parties were destined for Lichfield to be married. As the situation of the woman indicated no time should be lost, a proposition was made on his part to save them the rest of the journey by performing the ceremony on the spot. The offer was gladly accepted, and thanks being duly returned, the bridal pair, as the sky brightened, were about to return; but the bridegroom suddenly recollecting that a certificate was requisite to authenticate the marriage, requested one, which the dean wrote in these words:

Under an oak, in stormy weather,
I joined this rogue and whore together;
And none but he who rules the thunder
Can put this rogue and whore asunder.

The Circle of Anecdote and Wit, By George Coleman, Esq (4th edition, 1832), p. 257. (Apparently not by George Coleman, the Younger).

I NEVER wake without finding life a more insignificant thing than it was the day before: which is one great advantage I get by living in this country, where there is nothing I shall be sorry to lose; but my greatest misery is recollecting the scene of twenty years past, and then all on a sudden dropping into the present. I remember when I was a little boy, I felt a great fish at the end of my line which I drew up almost on the ground, but it dropped in, and the disappointment vexeth me to this very day, and I believe it was the type of all my future disappointments.

The Correspondence Of Jonathan Swift ed. Harold Williams (1963), iii. 329 (Swift To Bolingbroke, 5 April 1729)

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