Page images



Swift to the lock a thousand sprites repair,
A thousand wings, by turns, blow back the bair!
And thrice they twitched the diamond in her ear;
Thrice she looked back, and thrice the foe drew near
Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close recesses of the virgin's thought :
As on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden be viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,
Resigned to fate, and with a sigh retired.

The peer now spreads the glittering forfex wide
To enclose the lock ; now joins it, to divide.
E'en then, before the fatal engine closed,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interposed;
Fate urged the shears, and cut the Sylpb in twain
(But airy substance soon unites again),
The meeting points the sacred hair dissever.
From the fair head, for ever, ani for ever!

[blocks in formation]

The life of the famous Dean Swift is a great tragedy. Through all the acts a dark gigantic genius moves, an intellectual Saul, towering by head and shoulders above his fellows, and possessed of an evil spirit, which does not quite abandon its wretched prey even when a pall of darkness settles on his ruined mind, and that dreadful silence of three years begins to unfold itself between a lurid life and the slumber of the narrow grave.

Swift was a Dublin man by birth, being born there in Hoey's Court in 1667. But his parents and his ancestors were English. His father, a mere bird of passage in Dublin, where he had come in the hope of getting some practice as a lawyer, died seven months before Jonathan's birth. At his uncle's expense he went to Kilkenny School, and then to Trinity College, Dublin ; but in neither did he distinguish himself above the average run of students. Indeed, his degree of B.A. was of the lowest class, a narrow escape from the disgrace of being plucked, which roused him to studious resolves. And to the steady industry of the next seven years he owed almost all the learning he ever had.

Dependence had all this while been burning like an acrid poison into the proud boy's soul. But his lessons in the hard school of adversity were not yet over. His uncle's death in 1688 flung him upon the world, and forced him to seek a shelter at Moor Park in the household of Sir William Temple, with whom his mother was slightly connected. Here for many years Swift continued to eat



bitter bread; waiting and looking out into the dim future for the time when he could break his chains, and smite tenfold for every stripe he had received. Standing mid-way between the elegantly selfish Sir William, who wrote and gardened and quoted the classics, and the liveried sneerers of the servants' hall, poor Swift gnawed at his own heart in disdainful silence, writhing helplessly under the lofty chidings of his Honour, and the vulgar insolence of his Honour's own man. We can well imagine the working of the swarthy features, the deadly concentrated light of the terrible blue eye, and the convulsive starts of the ungainly limbs, as those continual streams of petty scorn and malice trickled on the spirit of the morbidly sensitive youth, who felt them like molten lead, yet could not or dared not take revenge. At Temple's Swift met King William, who, walking in the garden, showed him how the Dutch cut their asparagus, and offered to make him a captain of horse. One cannot help wishing that Swift had accepted the troop. We should not, most probably, have had Gulliver's Travels on our shelves, but the sabreing of French dragoons might have acted as a safety-valve to the poisonous humours which so many years of bondage had generated in his breast; and the red coat would not have burned him to the bone, as the priest's cassock did, scorching him, as the poisoned shirt scorched Hercules, until the wretched man burst into shrieks of foaming rage.

In an evil hour Swift, who had already graduated as M.A. at Oxford, crossed to Dublin, took holy orders, and became prebend of Kilroot in Connor at £100 a year. But the life 1693 of a country parson was even worse misery to Swift than the wretchedness of Moor Park. Thither, accordingly, he returned, humbling himself in the dust before the great baronet. Then he became involved in his mysterious love-affair with Hester Johnson, daughter of Sir William's housekeeper, better known by Swift's pet name of Stella, whose black curls and loving eyes threw their spells around the lonely Levite.

Let us glance forward along the course of this strange and seemingly unfinished life, over which, from its very beginning, the




black shadow of final insanity cast a gloom, and see how the sad story of Swift's attachments comes to a close. Stella he seems to have loved deeply, but not so well that he could bend his gigantic ambition to a public marriage with her. By-and-by, before he became Dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin, a girl named Esther Vanhomrigh fell in love with him, and was encouraged by the flattered savage, who wrote poems in her praise. This lady was the unhappy Vanessa of his verse. The two hearts, thus moved with a strange tenderness for one who had little of the amiable in his nature, were kept dangling round him by the cruel genius, like silly moths round a lamp, until one after the other they were burned to ashes. It is said that Swift and Stella were secretly married in the Deanery garden; but the unfeeling man would not avow the union to the world, and she sank at last into the grave of sorrow.

The death of Temple in 1699 sent Swift to Ireland as the chaplain of Lord Berkeley. He soon became rector of Agher, and vicar of Laracor and Rathbeggan in Meath. But in his thirty-fourth

year he took his place in the ranks of political penmen 1701 by writing a pamphlet on the Whig side. His pen was

the lever, by which he meant to raise Jonathan Swift to

the pinnacle of clerical or political greatness. It certainly won for him the adoration of a country, and one of the highest niches in the temple of our literature; but it could not raise a mitre to his head, and he crushed it in his angry grasp till it began to drop nothing but gall. One of his three great works was the extraordinary. Tale of a

Tub; which was published, according to the author's state1704

ment, in order to divert the followers of Hobbes, author A.D. of the Leviathan, from injuring the vessel of the State,

just as sailors were wont to fling out a tub in order to turn aside a whale from his threatened dash upon their ship. The Leviathan, he says, “ tosses and plays with all schemes of religion and government, whereof many are hollow, and dry, and empty, and noisy, and wooden, and given to rotation.” Three brothers-Peter, Martin, and Jack-receive from their dying father





coats, which, if carefully kept clean, will last them all their lives. As the fashions change, they add to the simple coat shoulderknots, gold lace, silver fringes, embroidery of Indian figures, twisting the meaning of their father's will so as to give a seeming sanction to these innovations. Peter (evidently the apostle of that name, here taken to represent the Roman Catholic Church) locks up the will, assumes the style of a lord, and wears his coat proudly, as it is. His brothers, stealing a copy of the document, leave the great house, and begin to reform their coats. Martin (Luther) goes to work cautiously in stripping off the adornments, and leaves some of the embroidery alone lest he may injure the cloth. But Jack (Calvin) in his hot zeal plucks off all at once, and in so doing splits the seams, and tears away great pieces of the coat. Thus does Swift depict the corruptions of early Christianity, and the results of the Reformation, in a satire of uncommon power and strange, mad drollery. His sympathies are all with Martin, and Peter gets off better than Jack.

Disappointed in his hopes of preferment, Swift deserted from the Whig ranks, and soon his shot began to plough through the lines he had left. We cannot attempt to name the bitter and caustic pamphlets that were hurled by the renegade against his former friends. But his new allies dared not make a bishop of the man who had written the “Tale of a Tub.” The Deanery of St. Patrick's, Dublin, received in 1713, was 1713 the utmost they could do for him. And a short time afterwards the Tory government fell, leaving no resource to the disappointed Dean but to hide himself and his baffled hopes in Dublin. To a great and troubled spirit, such as Swift's, exile from the centre of conflict was a doom little better than burial alive.

For about six years he lived quietly, but not contentedly, in Dublin, employing his pen on various subjects. Then the rage against England, which had been festering in his heart through all these years, burst out. A pamphlet appeared advocating strongly the use of Irish manufactures in Ireland ;=undoubtedly a laudable work, if we could forget that it sprang more from hatred to England


« PreviousContinue »