Swift—The "Journal to Stella"
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Esther is the Persian word for star; Stella the Latin. Swift
"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,
"The Queen was abroad
Another day he
"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