Essays and phantasies/A Note on Forster's Life of Swift

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A Note on Forster's Life of Swift by James Thomson (B.V.)
as published in Essays and phantasies


A NOTE ON FORSTER'S LIFE OF SWIFT.


May 1866.


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It is much to be regretted that Mr. Forster did not live to complete this work, which he meant to occupy three volumes; it is much to be desired that the materials he gathered during many years of preparation should be entrusted to some competent literary man, so that we may have a full and accurate biography not quite unworthy of the subject. As to this first volume, which is all that Mr. Forster accomplished, it merits the highest praise for its elaborate carefulness. We miss, indeed, the energy of the Lives of the Statesmen of the Commonwealth, and intense energy is demanded for the Life of Swift; we miss, also, some of the finer qualities that make the Life of Oliver Goldsmith such charming reading: the central figure and the central interest are here and there obscured by the multitude of subsidiary details; the contours are not always firm, nor the colours always clear; and we lament that the artist was not in a position to attempt this great picture in his prime, ere his hand grew somewhat tremulous, and his sight somewhat dim, and his natural strength was abated. But it is evident that what honest and earnest labour could effect he has effected, sparing no trouble to master and state the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; and this thoroughness of patient workmanship is so rare and precious in our current literature, that we might well for its sake condone far more serious deficiencies than we find here. With the work finished in the style of this volume, we should have, if not the classic Life of Swift, at any rate abundant and well-tested materials for such a Life, stored up and arranged with workmanlike skill and care. I must not omit to mention two things for which students will be grateful; a full index, and marginal notes of all the leading matters in the text.

In his Preface Mr. Forster states:—

"The rule of measuring what is knowable of a famous man by the inverse ratio of what has been said about him, is applicable to Swift in a marked degree. Few men who have been talked about so much are known so little. . . . Swift's later time, when he was governing Ireland as well as his deanery, and the world was filled with the fame of Gulliver, is broadly and intelligibly written. But as to all the rest, his life is a work unfinished, to which no one has brought the minute examination indispensably required, where the whole of a career has to be considered to get at the proper comprehension of single parts of it. The writers accepted as authorities for the obscurer portion are found to be practically worthless, and the defect is not supplied by the later and greater biographers. Johnson did him no kind of justice because of his too little liking for him; and Scott, with much hearty liking as well as a generous admiration, had too much other work to do. Thus, notwithstanding noble passages in both memoirs, and Scott's pervading tone of healthy, manly wisdom, it is left to an inferior hand to attempt to complete the tribute begun by those distinguished men."

Mr. Forster tells us that more than a hundred and fifty new letters had been placed at his disposal. He obtained additions to the fragment of autobiography first printed by Mr. Deane Swift; and questions raised by that autobiography in connexion with Swift's university career are settled by one of the Rolls of Trinity College which fell into his hands. "Two original letters written from Moor Park clear up that story of the Kilroot living which has been the theme of extravagant misstatement. Unpublished letters in the palace at Armagh . . . show clearly Swift's course as to questions which led to his separation from the Whigs." Mr. Forster also secured Swift's note books and books of account; a large number of unpublished pieces in prose and verse interchanged between himself and Sheridan; the copy of the Life by Hawkesworth enriched with MS. notes by Dr. Lyon, who had charge of Swift's person in his last illness; letters relating to Gulliver, some to Stopford, and some to Arbuthnot of peculiar value; an unpublished journal in Swift's handwriting, singular in its character, and of extraordinary interest, written on his way back to Dublin, amid grave anxiety for Esther Johnson (Stella), then dangerously ill; a copy of the first edition of Gulliver, interleaved for alterations and additions by the author, and containing several interesting passages, mostly in the Voyage to Laputa, which have never yet been given to the world; a copy of Swift's correspondence with his friend Knightley Chetwode during the seventeen years (1714-1731) which followed his appointment to the Deanery of St. Patrick's, "the richest addition to the correspondence of this most masterly of English letter-writers since it was first collected." To my mind the most interesting novelty in this first volume is contained in the Sixth Book (Appendix), under the heading of "Unprinted and Misprinted Journals"; being the restoration, by collation with the originals in the British Museum, of the genuine and complete text of the first one and the last twenty-four of the letters which make up what is called the Journal to Stella. Here for the first time we read, just as they were written, the "little language" and the caressing diminutives and abbreviations Swift used with his darling; the delightful, fantastic, secret, childish, infinitely tender babblement, never weary of repeating itself, welling up amidst and around the records of the ruggedest affairs of State, like perennial springs of pure sweet water in a region of savage rocks. He was fighting Titanically a Titanic battle; and night and morning, in bed before he rose, in bed before he slept, he found refreshment and peace in these infantine outpourings of innocent love. The sternest cynics have such soft places in their heart of hearts! incomparably softer than the softness of unctuous sentimentalists; liquid with living fountains where these are boggy with ooze.

I have quoted Mr. Forster's very fair judgment on the biographies by Dr. Johnson and Sir Walter Scott. It must be added that of the two writers of most authority who have since dealt with the life and character of Swift, Macaulay does him even less justice than did Johnson, and Thackeray not much more. Both, and Thackeray in particular, were impressed by the supremacy of his genius; but both were essentially out of sympathy with the man. Thackeray, although vulgarly charged with cynicism, was less a cynic than a worldling of genius who had cynical moods. He had a great deal of genuine respect for the established, the customary, the common-place, and was altogether more ironical in tone than in fact when he classed himself among the Snobs he satirised so keenly, though he was certainly a very superior specimen of the class. One of the common threads interwoven with the finer and richer threads of his fabric, was a very soft sentimental "religious" nerve connecting his heart and brain, and this was terribly shocked by Swift's daring and strenuous handling of the most formidable problems presented by our religions, our life, and our world. Moreover, Thackeray's thoroughly English domestic sentiments, his English worship of home and the ordinary public strict relations of husband and wife and family, were revolted by the mysterious duplex relations of Swift with Stella and Vanessa; relations, I may observe, whose full tragic development does not come within the scope of this volume, and which in their worst entanglement it does not appear that Mr. Forster could have done much to unravel.

Macaulay, historiographer in chief to the Whigs, and the great prophet of Whiggery which never had or will have a prophet, vehemently judged that a man who could pass over from the celestial Whigs to the infernal Tories must be a traitor false as Judas, an apostate black as the Devil. In truth, Swift was never an extreme partizan of either faction, and tried to moderate both; being Whiggish in his acceptance of the Revolution, and Toryish in his Church views. However, Macaulay, who has always exquisite pleasure and conscientious satisfaction in showing that our great writers who were not steadfast Whigs were just as ignoble morally as they were noble intellectually, paints him in the most lurid colours, and gives us a very terrific portrait indeed, which has merely the disadvantage of being altogether unlike the original, or any other man known to sober history. This, by the way, is a disadvantage pretty common to Macaulay's portraits, which are not developed organically like Carlyle's, but put together in mosaic work, and on glass for the love of brilliancy; he having a fine eye for the dazzle and contrast of colours, if none for their temperance and harmony. He diligently gathers all the pieces required for his purpose, shows them to us one by one, and announces triumphantly: All the materials are here, as you see for yourselves, gentlemen, each duly numbered and authenticated; and we expect to behold a likeness, though a glaring and composite one. But at the last moment he puts them in the kaleidoscope (or kakeidoscope) of his idiosyncrasy, gives some rapid twirls and flourishes, and no mortal can guess what strange shape they shall have taken when finally settled for exhibition. In contemplating, not without bewilderment, his portrait of Swift, one cannot help muttering: This is really very fine in the way of the dreadful, my rhetorical lord; but if we could only have, to hang beside it, Swift's portrait of you!

Though, his parents being thoroughly English, Swift was in no sense Irish save by accident of birth-place and the mockery of fortune which banished him to Ireland for the last thirty years of his life, the warm-hearted Irish have never ceased to love and revere the memory of the Dean, who was not only a model of sagacious private charity, but who championed the cause of their then oppressed and outraged country with a courage and constancy equalled by few, with a power and effect equalled by none, for no one else has approached him in massiveness and energy of genius. The English generally, like Dr. Johnson, have done him no kind of justice because of too little liking for him. It is doubtful whether they even read him. The children, of course, delight in the fabulous marvels of Gulliver, but the grown-up people care not to study its lessons. At first I was tempted to blame Mr. Forster for occupying space in a book like this, not intended for the uneducated vulgar, with accounts of such classics as the Battle of the Books and the Tale of a Tub. But on reflection it seemed highly probable that Mr. Forster was much better acquainted than myself with the public of Mudie and Smith, and that the information he furnished was accurately gauged to their ignorance. It is queer to think of our so-called educated classes needing formal introductions to these works, and then read how a gardener's lad of eleven, trudging in blue smock frock, with red garters tied under his knees, from Farnham to Kew, spent his last threepence at Richmond on the Tale of a Tub, and records: "It delighted me beyond description, and produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on until it was dark without any thought of supper or bed." He slept where he had been reading, in a field by a haystack, and goes on to say of his wonderful threepenny book: "I carried it about with me wherever I went, and when I—at about twenty years old— lost it in a box that fell overboard in the Bay of Fundy in North America, the loss gave me greater pain than I have since felt at losing thousands of pounds." But this rustic was William Cobbett, the only man since Swift who has known how to write in prose for the masses with something of the same irresistible directness and vigour.

Too strong and terrible for Thackeray and Macaulay, Swift is much more so for the average middle-class John Bull, who, while among the bravest of the brave in many respects, is one of the most timorous of mortals face to face with disagreeable truths, truths that perturb his eupeptic comfort, truths hostile to his easy old-fashioned way of thinking without thought, especially if these truths affront his fat inertia in religious, moral, or social questions.[1] This middle-class John Bull, well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed, with a snug balance at his banker's, is the most self-satisfied of optimists, and is simply disgusted and alarmed by a fellow, who as a Dean ought surely to have been contented and sleekly jolly, who never omitted when his birthday came round to read the words of Job: "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived;" who asked a friend, "Do not the corruptions and villanies of men eat your flesh and exhaust your spirits?" and who wrote of himself in his epitaph: "Ubi sæva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit."

  1. Elsewhere I had written on the same occasion: "To our mind, for sheer strength and veracity of intellect, Swift is unsurpassed, and scarcely- equalled, in the whole range of English writers, rich as the greatest of these are in energy and sincerity. He was much too strong and veracious even for such men as Johnson, Macaulay, and Thackeray; Scott alone of his biographers was genial and large-minded enough to appreciate him, and Scott had not the time to hunt out and sift the necessary documents. As for the general English public, with its soft-hearted and soft-headed sentimental optimism, a genius of such stern and unblenching insight is damned at once and for ever by being denounced as a cynic. It loves to blubber till tear-dry over its Dickens and Farjeon."—Copes Tobacco Plant, April 1876.