The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 1/Introduction

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Notwithstanding the several attempts to gratify the curiosity of the world, in delineating the Life and Character of the immortal Swift, yet hitherto little satisfactory has been produced on that subject. The different, and often opposite lights in which he has been shown by the several writers, have occasioned an equal diversity of judgments in their several readers, according to their various prepossessions; and even the most candid are too often left in a state of doubt, through the want of having the truth laid before them supported by sufficient proofs.

Perhaps there never was a man whose true character has been so little known, or whose conduct at all times, even from his first setting out in life, has been so misrepresented to the world, as his. This was owing to several causes, which will be laid open in the following work. But the chief source of all the erroneous opinions entertained of him, arose from Swift himself, on account of some singularities in his character, which at all times exposed him to the shafts of envy and malice, while he employed no other shield in his defence, but that of conscious integrity.

He had, early in life, from causes to be hereafter explained, imbibed such a strong hatred to hypocrisy, that he fell into the opposite extreme; and no mortal ever took more pains to display his good qualities, and appear in the best light to the world, than he did to conceal his, or even to put on the semblance of their contraries.

This humour affected his whole conduct, as well in the more important duties, as in the common offices of life.

Though a man of great piety, and true religion, yet he carefully shunned all ostentation of it: as an instance of which, it is well known that during his residence in London, not being called upon by any duty to officiate publickly in his clerical capacity, he was seldom seen at church at the usual hours that pretenders to religion show themselves there; but he was a constant attendant on early prayers, and a frequent partaker of early sacraments.

Though generous and charitable in his nature to the highest degree, he seemed to part with money so reluctantly, and spoke so much about economy, that he passed for avaricious, and hardhearted.

His very civilities bore the appearance of rudeness, and his finest compliments were conveyed under the disguise of satire.

Lord Bolingbroke, who knew him well, in two words, summed up his character in this respect, by saying, that Swift was a hypocrite reversed.

In short, he always appeared to the world in a mask, which he never took off but in the company of his most intimate friends: and as the world can judge only by appearances, no wonder they were so much mistaken in the ideas formed of him.

When we consider that the time in which he made the chief figure in life, was a season wherein faction raged with the greatest violence; that he was looked upon as the principal champion of the tory cause, and therefore was the common butt at which all the writers on the whig side levelled their shafts; there will be no occasion to wonder, that out of the many calumnies poured out against him, some of them should stick. These were indeed so numerous, that we are told by himself, that in the space of not many years, upward of a thousand pamphlets and papers were written professedly against him; to which he never deigned to give an answer, nor endeavoured to wipe off any aspersion thrown on him. Thus by the former part of his character, just laid open, he afforded his enemies sufficient groundwork on which to raise what superstructure of calumny they pleased, and as no defence was made, it was daily suffered to increase. For he had very unwisely laid it down as a maxim, "To act uprightly, and pay no regard to the opinion of the world[1]."

Thus, while he was admired, esteemed, beloved, beyond any man of his time, by his particular friends, not only on account of his superiour talents, but his preeminence in every kind of virtue; he was envied, feared, and hated by his enemies, who consisted of a whole virulent faction to a man. And when we take in the general appetite for scandal, and the spirit of envy in the bulk of mankind, which delights in the humiliation of an exalted character, we shall not be surprised, that even among his own party, he found few advocates to vindicate his fame; and that he had no other support in this torrent of abuse, but the consciousness of his own rectitude, and the unalterable attachment of his intimate friends: among which number he could count such as were most eminent in those days, both for talents and virtue.

In this state Swift continued till the death of the queen; admired by all as a genius, detested by most as a man. All the world now knows, upon that event, with what implacable malice the whigs pursued their antagonists, as soon as they had got all power into their hands. This spirit raged still more violently in Ireland, than in England; the effects of which Swift sensibly felt on retiring to his deanery. The ill name he had obtained in London, followed him to Dublin: where he was the object of general hatred for some years. But when, in process of time, his true character came to be known, and his exemplary conduct gave the lie to the gross misrepresentations that had been made of him; when his spirit of patriotism broke forth into action, and saved his country from threatened ruin; when it was seen that the great object of his life was to promote publick good; that in the discharge of all moral and religious duties, he had no superiour; in the choice and extent of his charities, perhaps no equal; he obtained such a degree of publick favour, as no man in that country had ever reached. Praise was united to his name, admiration and affection to his person; and this just tribute was ever after paid to him during his life, and to his memory after his decease; till a certain author arose, bent upon sullying his fair fame, who, opening the channels of calumny, long covered over by time, and raking in them with a friendly industry, once more brought their foul contents to light. Nor was it an enemy that did this, but one who professed himself Swift's friend, and who was, during his lifetime, his greatest flatterer; I mean John earl of Orrery.

The cruel manner in which he has treated the memory of his friend Swift, as his lordship in the course of the work often affects to call him, had something so surprising in it, that people were at a loss how to account for it, except by supposing it to proceed from some uncommon degree of malevolence in his lordship's nature. But though he cannot be wholly cleared from an imputation of that sort, yet I am persuaded that his chief motive to it was not quite of so black a die. His father had, in his will, bequeathed his library from him; and this circumstance made the world conclude that he looked upon his son as a blockhead. This stung the young man to the quick; and we may see how deep an impression it made on him, by the account he gives of it in one of his letters to his son. It seems to have been the chief object of his life afterward, to wipe away this stigma, and convince the world of the injustice done him, by publishing some work that might do him credit as a writer. Conscious of his want of genius to produce any thing original, he applied himself diligently to a translation of Pliny's Letters; but he was so long about this task, and put it into so many hands to correct it, that Melmoth's excellent translation of the same work, slipped into the world before his, and forestalled this avenue to fame. Vexed at this disappointment, he looked out for some other way by which he might acquire literary reputation, and he found no field so suited to his talents, as that of criticism; since, to make a figure there, required neither genius, nor deep learning: and therefore he might, with ease, arrive at the title of a true critick, as described in the Tale of a Tub. Of whom it had been remarked, "That a true critick is a sort of mechanick set up with a stock and tools for his trade, at as little expense as a tailor." But Swift denies this position — "For, (says he) on the contrary, nothing is more certain, that it requires greater layings out to be free of the criticks company, than that of any other you can name. For, as to be a true beggar, it will cost the richest candidate every groat he is worth; so, before one can commence a true critick, it will cost a man all the good qualities of his mind: which, perhaps, for a less purchase, would be thought but an indifferent bargain." As his lordship has fairly paid the purchase, it would be hard if he should be denied the title.

The business now was, to find out a proper subject on which to exercise his talents in that way. As there never had been published any History of Swift's Life, he thought nothing could excite general curiosity more than some account of that extraordinary man. It is true he was supplied with but scanty materials for such a work; for though he had lived a short time in some degree of intimacy with Swift, yet it was only in the latter part of his life, when he was declined into the vale of years, when his faculties were impaired, when his temper, soured by disappointments, and his spirits sunk by continual attacks of a cruel disorder, made as great a change in his mind, as in his outward form, so that little of his former self remained. To draw his character at length, from observations made at such a period, was the height of injustice; and yet his lordship had no opportunity of knowing any thing of the brighter part of his days, but from common report. For, as Swift was the last man in the world to talk much of himself, his lordship's acquaintance with him furnished him with no materials of that sort; he therefore had recourse to common fame, which, as I have before shown, had been always busy in calumniating that great man; and with a cruel industry he collected and revived all the reports, which had formerly been spread to his disadvantage. His lordship's chief view in publishing this work, being to acquire celebrity as an author —

——————hominum volitare per ora

in order to obtain this end, he knew that satire was more likely to procure a rapid sale to the book, than panegyrick. All regard therefore to truth, justice, honour, and humanity, was to be sacrificed, whenever they came in competition with this great end.

The event did credit to his lordihip's sagacity, for the work had a rapid sale, and soon ran through a variety of editions. This was owing to several causes. The whigs were then a great majority of the nation, and in possession of all the power. Though their animosity against those of the opposite party had somewhat subsided, yet was it far from being wholly extinguished. They had always entertained an implacable hatred to Swift, as the great champion of the other side; which was not extinguished by his death, as in the case of others, because his immortal works still continued a living war against the base measures they pursued. It was with delight therefore they read over a work, which painted him in the same colours, in which they had always endeavoured to represent him. The bulk of mankind, finding that the accounts there given, coincided with the general prejudices founded on common fame, readily received them as true. And that spirit of envy, an inmate in the breasts of most men, which delights in seeing those of superiour talents degraded, and brought down more to a level with themselves, was highly gratified by the perusal of that book. Nor was it the least cause of an extensive sale, that it was written by a lord; a thing so rare in latter times! Wonder, usually accompanied by a bad taste, looks out only for what is uncommon; and if a work comes abroad under the name of a thresher, a bricklayer, or a lord, it is sure to be eagerly sought after by the million.

To these, and similar causes, was owing the favourable reception this book met with; which, in itself, contains little that could be approved of by men of true taste. What relates to Swift's Life, from the scantiness of his materials, does not take up a sixth portion of the whole. The greater part of the remainder, consists of useless or invidious criticisms on his works. Yet all this not being sufficient to make up a just volume, (according to the booksellers phrase) he has eked it out from his commonplace book, in order to show his learning, by introducing several dissertations, foreign to the subject in hand: such as those on madness, idiotism; characters of Homer, Aristotle; of Ramus, Scotus, and Aquinas; of Epicurus, Descartes, and Gassendi. Remarks upon the writings of lord Bacon, Milton, Harrington, Algernon Sidney, lord Clarendon, Dr. Sprat, sir William Temple, Addison, lord Bolingbroke, &c. with many other impertinencies.

Not long after the publication of this work, there came out an answer to it, under the title of "Observations on lord Orrery's Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Swift," afterward known to be written by Dr. Delany; who from an early and long intimacy with the dean, was able to refute most of the facts, upon which his lordship grounded his observations, by producing uncontrovertible proofs to the contrary. Yet, though this book was written with great spirit, and carried the evidence of truth with it; as it was an anonymous publication, it was little attended to, except by those who wished well to the memory of the dean. Besides, truth is not the object sought after by those, who are desirous of remaining in an errour. Swift has an observation on this head which will be found to be generally true. "The ill talent of the world is such, that those who will be at pains enough to inform themselves in a malicious story, will take none at all to be undeceived; nay, will be apt with some reluctance to admit a favourable truth." This observation was never more strongly verified than in the case before us; for, while the book which calumniated Swift's character, and endeavoured to depreciate his talents, though poorly written, went through a great number of editions; the single one of the Answer, incomparably superiour in every thing which can recommend writings of that kind, still remains unsold.

But whatever favourable reception this book met with in England, never did I know such a universal indignation as was excited in all ranks of people, by the publication of it in Ireland. They were the only proper judges of his character, who had an opportunity of knowing his conduct, during a residence of so many years. If they admired him for his genius, they almost adored him for his virtues. In his publick capacity, he was one of the truest patriots that ever lived; and for the many important services he did his country, he was hailed by the general voice pater patriæ. In his private life, of the strictest morals; and in the discharge of his clerical duties, of exemplary piety. His charities were boundless, and the whole business of his life was, doing good. As party animosities had long before subsided, he had few enemies left; and even those few, when their hatred, together with their fear, had been buried in his grave, joined in doing all justice to his memory. To calumniate the character of such a man, was thought little less than sacrilege; and the rage of the people was such, that it vented itself even on the poor printer of the work, who became for a long time the object of publick odium. It was happy for his lordship that he did not pay a visit to that country during the ferment, for he would, most assuredly, have been grossly insulted by the populace, and avoided by all of a superiour rank.

Dr. Delany's Answer was followed by another from Deane Swift, esq. As it came from a near relation of the dean's, it, at first, excited some expectation; which was soon succeeded by disappointment, and the work consigned to oblivion. Where let it rest.

On the publication of a new edition of Swift's works, the proprietors applied to Dr. Hawkesworth to write his Life. He was an author of no small eminence; a man of clear judgment, and great candour. He quickly discerned the truth from the falsehood; wiped away many of the aspersions that had been thrown on Swift's character; and placed it, so far as he went, in its proper light. But as he had no new materials of his own, and was confined to such only as were contained in former publications, the view he has given of his life is very imperfect; many of the most important articles are omitted, and others still left in a very doubtful state.

The last writer who has given any account of Swift, is Dr. Johnson; who seems to have undertaken this task, rather from the necessity he was under of taking some notice of him in the course of his Biographical History of the English Poets, than from choice. He has presented us only with a short abstract of what he found in Dr. Hawkesworth, for which he makes the following apology. "An account of Dr. Swift has been already collected with great diligence and acuteness, by Dr. Hawkesworth, according to a scheme which I laid before him in the intimacy of our friendship. I cannot therefore be expected to say much of a life, concerning which I had long since communicated my thoughts, to a man capable of dignifying his narration, with so much elegance of language, and force of sentiment." Accordingly he has produced little new on the subject, except some observations of his own, which are far from being favourable to the character of Swift. It is much to be lamented, that a man of his great abilities did not choose to follow his friend Hawkesworth in the paths of just and candid criticism, instead of associating himself with lord Orrery to the band of true criticks. Of which body he has shown himself no unworthy member, not on this occasion only, but in the many severe strictures passed on the lives and writings of some of the greatest geniuses this country has produced; to the no small indignation of their several admirers, and to the great regret of the doctor's own. As this work is more likely to be generally read than any of the others, both on account uf the great reputation of the author, and as it will of course present itself to the eyes of all who shall go through his collection of lives, I shall hereafter take an opportunity of making some comments upon those passages, which tend to depreciate and misrepresent the character of so great a man.

These several publications, which place the life and character of Swift in very different, and often opposite points of light, have occasioned great diversity in the judgments formed of them by the world, according to the different degrees of prejudice, or candour, in their several readers. But as the sale of the first essay on this subject, written by lord Orrery, was infinitely superiour to that of all the others put together, the prepossessions in favour of the accounts delivered by him, have, for reasons already assigned, made too deep an impression on the bulk of mankind, to be easily erased. I have before taken notice of the scantiness of his materials, which yet he has not ranged in any regular order; and which consist chiefly of detached facts and unconnected anecdotes, so that there is no appearance of a whole. The portrait he has drawn of him, puts one in mind of certain paintings to be seen at the optician's in St. Paul's churchyard, where we behold some scattered and distorted features, covered with blotches of various colours, so that we cannot discover what it is intended to represent: till, by the application of a cylindrical mirror, we are surprised to see start forth, a face of the finest proportioned features, and most beautiful complexion. By such an application of the mirror of truth I hope to show Swift in a similar light.

I have long wished for leisure to set about this task, which a life spent in a variety of laborious occupations has hitherto prevented. And even now I am obliged to suspend pursuits of more advantageous kind with regard to myself, in order to accomplish it. But, reflecting, at this advanced period of life, on the near approaches of old age, which might soon disqualify me from carrying my design into execution, I determined to postpone all other considerations, that might stand in the way of an object I have had so much at heart. The love I had to his person, and the reverence in which I was taught, from my earliest days, to hold his character, and with which I had an opportunity of being well acquainted, on account of the long intimacy subsisting between him and my father; and, above all, the means I have in my power of rescuing his good name from the aspersions thrown on it by foulmouthed calumny, have made me think it an indispensable duty, no longer to delay doing justice to his memory.

From the above acknowledgment of my early prepossessions in his favour, it may be thought that I shall prove not an unprejudiced historian: but, though I am conscious to myself that I shall never be guilty of any wilful misrepresentations, I know too well how little weight all professions of impartiality carry with them on such occasions, to trouble the reader with any. I desire no credit to be given to assertions or opinions not supported by the most convincing proofs: which therefore, in all disputable points, I hope I shall be indulged in producing at full length. And I doubt not but that the display of Swift's true character and conduct in life, though to the confusion of his maligners, and disappointment of the envious and malevolent, will give great satisfaction to all good minds; as it is of moment to the general cause of religion and morality, to make it appear, that the greatest genius of the age was, at the same time, a man of the truest piety, and most exalted virtue.

  1. Miss Vanhomrigh, in one of her letters to him, has the following passage. "You once had a maxim, which was — To act what was right, and not mind what the world would say."