W E all know what it is to feel hurt and angry, to feel that we are misunderstood, that no one loves us. At such times it may be we want to hurt ourselves so that in some mysterious way we may hurt those who do not love us. We long to die so that they may be sorry. But these feelings do not come often and they soon pass. We cry ourselves to sleep perhaps and wake up to find the evil thoughts are gone. We forget all about them, or if we remember them we remember to smile at our own foolishness, for we know that after all we are understood, we are loved. And when we grow old enough to look back upon those times, although we may remember the pain of them, we can see that sometimes they came from our own fault, it was not that we were misunderstood so much as that we were misunderstanding. Yet whether it be our own fault or not, when such times do come, the world seems very dark and life seems full of pain. Then think of what a whole life filled with these evil thoughts must be. Think of a whole life made terrible with bitter feelings. That would be misery indeed.
Yet when we read the sad story of the life of Jonathan Swift who has in Gulliver's Travels given to countless children, and grown- up people too, countless hours of pleasure, we are forced to believe that so he passed a great part of his life. Swift was misunderstood and misunderstanding. It was not that he had no love given to him, for all his life through he found women to love him. But it was his unhappiness that he took that love only to turn it to bitterness in his heart, that he took that love so as to leave a stain on him and it ever after. He had friendship too. But in the hands stretched out to help him in his need he saw only insult. In the kindness that was given to him he saw only a grudging charity, and yet he was angry with the world and with man that he did not receive more.
In the life of Jonathan Swift there are things which puzzle even the wisest. Children would find those things still harder to understand, so I will not try to explain them, but will tell you a little that you will readily follow about the life of this lonely man with the biting pen and aching heart.
Jonathan Swift's father and mother were very poor, so poor indeed that their friends said it was folly for them to marry. And when after about two years of married life the husband died, he left his young wife burdened with debts and with a little baby girl to keep. It was not until a few months after his father's death that Jonathan was born.
His mother was a brave-hearted, cheerful woman, and although her little son came to her in the midst of such sorrow she no doubt loved him, and his nurse loved him too. Little Jonathan's father and mother were English, but because he was born in Dublin, and because he spent a great deal of his life there, he has sometimes been looked upon as an Irishman.
Jonathan's nurse was also an Englishwoman, and when he was about a year old she was called home to England to a dying friend. She saw that she must go to her friend, but she loved her baby-charge so much that she could not bear to part from him. He had been a sickly child, often ill, but that seemed only to make him dearer to her. She held him in her arms thinking how empty they would fell without their dear burden. She kissed him, jealous at the thought that he might learn to know and love another nurse, and she felt that she could not part with him. Making up her mind that she would not, she wrapped him up warmly and slipped quietly from the house carrying the baby in her arms. She then ran quickly to the boat, crept on board, and was well out on the Irish Sea before it was discovered that she had stolen little Jonathan from his mother. Mrs. Swift was poor, Jonathan was not strong so the fond and daring nurse was allowed by the mother to keep her little charge until he was nearly four. Thus for three years little Jonathan lived with his nurse at Whitehaven, growing strong and brown in the sea air. She looked after him lovingly, and besides feeding and clothing him, taught him so well that Swift tells us himself, though it seems a little hard to believe, that he could spell and could read any chapter in the Bible before he was three.
After Jonathan's return to Ireland his uncle, Godwin Swift, seems to have taken charge of him, and when he was six to have sent him to a good school. His mother, meanwhile, went home to her own people in England, and although mother and son loved each other they were little together all through life. At fourteen Godwin Swift sent his nephew from school to Trinity College, Dublin. But Swift was by this time old enough to know that he was living on the charity of his uncle and the knowledge was bitter to his proud spirit. Instead of spurring him on the knowledge weighed him down. He became gloomy, idle, and wild. He afterwards said he was a dunce at college and "was stopped of his degree for dulness and insufficiency." But although at first the examiners refused to pass him, he was later, for some reason, given a special degree, granted by favor rather than gained by desert "in a manner little to his credit," says bitter Swift. Jonathan gave his uncle neither love nor thanks for his schooling. "He gave me the education of a dog," was how he spoke of it years after. Yet he had been sent to the best school in Ireland and to college later. But perhaps it was not so much the gift as the manner of giving which Swift scorned. We cannot tell.
Soon after Jonathan left college he went to live in the house of Sir William Temple. Temple was a great man in his day. He had been an Ambassador, the friend of kings and princes, and he considered himself something of a scholar. To him Swift acted as a kind of secretary. To a proud man the post of secretary or chaplain in a great house was, in those days, no happy one. It was a position something between that of a servant and a friend, and in it Swift's haughty soul suffered torments. Sir William, no doubt, meant to be kind, but he was cold and condescending, and not a little pompous and conceited. Swift's fierce pride was ready to fancy insults where none were meant, he resented being "treated like a schoolboy," and during the years he passed in Sir William's house he gathered a store of bitterness against the world in his heart.
But in spite of all his miseries real or imaginary, Swift had at least one pleasure. Among the many people making up the great household there was a little girl of seven named Esther Johnson. She was a delicate little girl with large eyes and black hair. She and Swift soon grew to be friends, and he spent his happiest hours teaching her to read and write. It is pleasant to think of the gloomy, untrained genius throwing off his gloom and bending all his talents to the task of teaching and amusing this little delicate child of seven.
With intervals between, Swift remained in Sir William's household for about five years. Here he began to write poetry, but when he showed his poems to Dryden, who was a distant kinsman, he got little encouragement. "Cousin Swift," said the great man, "you will never be a poet." Here was another blow from a hostile world which Swift could never either forget or forgive.
As the years went on Swift found his position grow more and more irksome. At last he began to think of entering the Church as a means of earning an independent livelihood and becoming his own master. And one day, having a quarrel with Sir William, he left his house in a passion and went back to Ireland. Here after some trouble he was made a priest and received a little seaside parish worth about a hundred pounds a year.
Swift was now his own master, but he found it dull. He had so few parishioners that it is said he used to go down to the seashore and skiff stones in order to gather a congregation. For he thought if the people would not come to hear sermons they would come at least to stare at the mad clergyman, and for years he was remembered as the "mad clergyman." And now because he found his freedom dull, and for various other reasons, when Sir William asked him to come back he gladly came. This time he was much happier as a member of Sir William's household than he had been before.
It was now that Swift wrote the two little books which first made him famous. These were The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. The Battle of the Books rose out of a silly quarrel in which Sir William Temple had taken part as to whether the ancient or the modern writers were the best. Swift took Temple's side and wrote to prove that the ancient writers were best. But, as it has been said, he wrote so cleverly that he proved the opposite against his will, for nowhere in the writings of the ancients is there anything so full of humor and satire as The Battle of the Books.
Swift imagines a real battle to have taken place among the books in the King's library at St. James's Palace. The books leave the shelves, some on horseback, some on foot, and armed with sword and spear throw themselves into the fray, but we are left quite uncertain as to who gained the victory. This little book is a satire, and, like all Swift's famous satires, is in prose not in poetry. In the preface he says, "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it." It is not a book that you will care to read for a long time, for to find it interesting you must know both a good deal about Swift's own times and about the books that fight the battle.
You will not care either for A Tale of a Tub. And yet it is the book above all others which one must read, and read with understanding, if one would get even a little knowledge of Swift's special genius. It was the book, nevertheless, which more than any other stood in his way in after life.
A Tale of a Tub like The Battle of the Books is a satire, and Swift wrote it to show up the abuses of the Church. He tells the story of three brothers, Peter, Martin and Jack. Peter represents the Roman Catholic, Martin the Anglican, and Jack the Presbyterian Church. He meant, he says, to turn the laugh only against Peter and Jack. That may be so, but his treatment of Martin cannot be called reverent. Indeed, reverence was impossible to Swift. There is much good to be said of him. There was a fierce righteousness about his spirit which made him a better parish priest than many a more pious man. He hated shams, he hated cant, he hated bondage. "Dr. Swift," it was said, "hated all fanatics: all fanatics hated Dr. Swift." But with all his uprightness and breadth he was neither devout nor reverent.
When Sir William Temple died Swift went back to Ireland, and after a little time he once more received a Church living there. But here, as before, his parish was very small, so that sometimes he had only his clerk as congregation. Then he would begin the service with "Dearly beloved Roger, the Scripture moveth you and me," instead of "Dearly beloved brethren," as the Prayer Book has it.
Sir William had left Swift some money; he had also left some to Esther Johnson, the little girl Swift used to teach. She had grown into a beautiful and witty woman and now she too, with a friend, went to Ireland, and for the rest of her life lived there near Swift.
The strange friendship between these two, between Esther Johnson and Swift, is one of the puzzles in Swift's life. That they loved each other, that they were life-long friends, every one knows. But were they ever married? Were they man and wife? That question remains unanswered.
Esther is the Persian word for star; Stella the Latin. Swift called his girl-friend Stella, and as Stella she has become famous in our literature. For when Swift was away from home he wrote letters to her which we now have under the name of the Journal to Stella. Here we see the great man in another light. Here he is no longer armed with lightning, his pen is no longer dipped in poison, but in friendly, simple fashion he tells all that happens to him day by day. He tells what he thinks and what he feels, where and when he dines, when he gets up, and when he goes to bed, all the gossiping details interesting to one who loves us and whom we love. And with it all we get a picture of the times in which he lived, of the politics of the day, of the great men he moved among. Swift always addresses both Stella and her companion Mistress Dingley, and the letters are everywhere full of tender, childish nonsense. He invented what he called a "little language," using all sorts of quaint and babyish words and strange strings of capital letters, M. D., for instance, meaning my dears, M. E., Madam Elderly, or D. D., Dear Dingley, and so on. Throughout, too, we come on little bits of doggerel rimes, bad puns, simple jokes, mixed up with scraps of politics, with threatenings of war, with party quarrels, with all kinds of stray fragments of news which bring the life of the times vividly before us. The letters were never meant for any one but Stella and Mistress Dingley to see, and sometimes when we are reading the affectionate nonsense we feel as if no one ought to have seen it but these two. And yet it gives us one whole side of Swift that we should never have known but for it. It is not easy to give an idea of this book, it must be read to be understood, but I will give you a few extracts from it:—
"Pshaw, I must be writing to those dear saucy brats every night, whether I will or no, let me have what business I will, or come home ever so late, or be ever so sleepy; but an old saying and a true one,
'Be you lords, or be you earls,
You must write to saucy girls.'
"The Queen was abroad
Another day he writes:—
"Pish, sirrahs, put a date always at the bottom of your letter, as well as the top, that I may know when you send it; your last is of November 3, yet I had others at the same time, written a fortnight after. . . . Pray let us have no more bussiness, busyness. Take me if I know how to spell it! Your wrong spelling, Madam Stella, has put me out: it does not look right; let me see, bussiness, busyness, business, bisyness, bisness, bysness; faith, I know not which is right, I think the second; I believe I never writ the word in my life before; yes, sure I must, though; business, busyness, bisyness.— I have perplexed myself, and can't do it. Prithee ask Walls. Business, I fancy that's right. Yes it is; I looked in my own pamphlet, and found it twice in ten lines, to convince you that I never writ it before. O, now I see it as plain as can be; so yours is only an s too much."