The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 1/Life of Dr. Swift, Section I
SWIFT was descended from an ancient family in Yorkshire, of no small note, and considerable property. He was of the younger branch. His grandfather, the revd. Thomas Swift, was possessed of a good estate, and was distinguished above any man of his station in life, for his attachment to Charles I, and the sufferings he underwent in support of the royal cause, by which his fortune was entirely ruined. He had ten sons, and three daughters. Five of his sons went to seek their fortune in Ireland: the fourth of whom, Jonathan, was father to the famous doctor Swift. He had married Mrs. Abigail Erick, descended from an ancient family of that name in Leicestershire, but with little or no fortune. He died young, in about two years after his marriage, seven months before the birth of his only son; and as he was but just beginning the world, left his widow in very distressed circumstances.
Jonathan Swift, afterward the celebrated dean of St. Patrick's, was born on the 30th of November 1667, in Hoey's court, Dublin. When he was but a year old, he was, without the knowledge of his mother or relations, stolen away by his nurse, and carried to Whitehaven; which place she was under a necessity of visiting, on account of the illness of a relation, from whom she expected a legacy; and, as is usual among Irish nurses, she bore such an affection to the child, that she could not think of going without him. There he continued for almost three years; and she took such care of him, that he had learned to spell, and could read any chapter in the Bible before he was five years old.
At the age of six he was sent to the school of Kilkenny; and at fourteen admitted into the university of Dublin. The expense of his education being defrayed by his uncle Godwin Swift, the eldest of the brothers who had settled in Ireland. He was a lawyer of great eminence, and had made considerable sums of money, which were for the most part squandered away in idle projects. By means of which, soon after his nephew had entered the college, he found himself involved in great difficulties; and being father of a numerous offspring by four wives, he was under a necessity of reducing the stipend allowed to his nephew for his support at the university, as low as possible. The real situation of Godwin's affairs not being then known to the world, and as he was looked upon to be much the richest of the family, Swift's other relations seemed at that time to think that their aid was not at all necessary; so that he was obliged to make the best shift he could, with the wretched allowance that his uncle gave him. Thus was one of the most aspiring and liberal minds in the world, early checked and confined, by the narrowness of his circumstances; with this bitter aggravation to a generous spirit, that the small pittance afforded by his uncle, seemed to him, from the manner in which it was given, rather as an alms doled out for charity, than an act of beneficence due from so near a relation; who was supposed by him, as well as by the rest of the world, to be in circumstances that might have afforded a much more liberal stipend, without prejudice to his own family. Under this load did the spirit of Swift groan for the space of near seven years that he resided in the college of Dublin; which made so deep an impression on him, that he never afterward could think with patience of his uncle Godwin, nor could heartily forgive the neglect shown him during that time by his other relations.
The uneasy situation of mind which a young man of high spirit must have been in, under such circumstances, produced consequences likely to prove destructive of his future fortunes. For, in such a state, he could not bear to give the necessary application to some of the more dry parts of the academick studies, for which he had indeed naturally no great relish; but passed his time chiefly in reading books of history and poetry; which were better suited to his taste, and more calculated to relieve the troubles of his mind. In consequence of this, when the time came for his taking the degree of bachelor of arts, he was stopped, as he himself expresses it, for dullness and insufficiency. It is to be supposed that the word dullness was on this occasion used by Swift jocosely, as the cause assigned for stopping any person of a degree, is answering badly in any branch of literature appointed for that particular examination; which does not necessarily imply dullness, as it may as well proceed from idleness. But in Swift's case it was rather to be imputed to contumacy, than either the one or the other. For the fact is, there was one branch of the examination, on which the greatest stress was laid in those days, in which he could not be said to answer badly, for he did not attempt to answer at all. This account I had from his own lips. He told me that he had made many efforts, upon his entering the college, to read some of the old treatises on logick writ by Smeglesius, Keckermannus, Burgersdicius, &c. and that he never had patience to go through three pages of any of them, he was so disgusted at the stupidity of the work. When he was urged by his tutor to make himself master of this branch, then in high estimation, and held essentially necessary to the taking of a degree; Swift asked him, what it was he was to learn from those books? His tutor told him, the art of reasoning. Swift said that he found no want of any such art; that he could reason very well without it; and that as far as he could observe, they who had made the greatest proficiency in logick, had, instead of the art of reasoning, acquired the art of wrangling; and instead of clearing up obscurities, had learned how to perplex matters that were clear enough before. For his own part, he was contented with that portion of reason which God had given him, and he would leave it to time and experience to strengthen and direct it properly; nor would he run the risk of having it warped or falsely biassed, by any system of rules laid down by such stupid writers; of the bad effects of which he had but too many examples before his eyes, in those reckoned the most acute logicians. And accordingly he made a firm resolution that he never would read any of those books. Which he so pertinaciously adhered to, that though he was stopped of his degree the first time of sitting for it, on account of his not answering in that branch, he went into the hall a second time, as ill prepared in that respect as before; and would also have been stopped a second time, on the same account, if the interest of his friends, who well knew the inflexibility of his temper, had not stepped in, and obtained it for him; though in a manner little to his credit, as it was inserted in the college registry, that he obtained it Speciali gratia, by special favour; where it still remains upon record.
In going through the usual forms of disputation for his degree, he told me he was utterly unacquainted even with the logical terms, and answered the arguments of his opponents in his own manner, which the proctor put into proper form. There was one circumstance in the account which he gave of this, that surprised me with regard to his memory; for he told me the several questions on which he disputed, and repeated all the arguments used by his opponents in syllogistick form, together with his answers.
He remained in the college near three years after this, not through choice, but necessity; little known or regarded. By scholars he was esteemed a blockhead; and as the lowness of his circumstances would not permit him to keep company of an equal rank with himself, upon an equal footing, he scorned to take up with those of a lower class, or to be obliged to those of a higher. He lived therefore much alone, and his time was employed in pursuing his course of reading in history and poetry, then very unfashionable studies for an academick; or in gloomy meditations on his unhappy circumstances. Yet under this heavy pressure, the force of his genius broke out, in the first rude draught of the Tale of a Tub, written by him at the age of nineteen, though communicated to nobody but his chamber fellow Mr. Waryng; who, after the publication of the book, made no scruple to declare that he had read the first sketch of it in Swift's handwriting, when he was of that age.
Soon after this, his uncle Godwin was seized with a lethargy, which rendered him incapable of business; and then it was that the broken state of his affairs was made publick. Swift now lost even the poor support that he had before; but his uncle William supplied the place of Godwin to him, though not in a more enlarged way, which could not be expected from his circumstances; yet with so much better a grace, as somewhat lightened the burden of dependance, and engaged Swift's gratitude ward, who distinguished him by the title of the best of his relations. He had no expectation however of receiving any thing more from him than what was absolutely necessary for his support; and his chief hopes now for any thing beyond that, rested in his cousin Willoughby Swift, eldest son of his uncle Godwin, a considerable merchant at Lisbon. Nor was he disappointed in his expectations. For, soon after the account of his father's unhappy situation had reached Willoughby Swift at Lisbon, he, reflecting that his cousin Jonathan's destitute condition demanded immediate relief, sent him a present of a larger sum than ever Jonathan had been master of in his life before. This supply arrived at a critical juncture; when Swift, without a penny in his purse, was despondingly looking out of his chamber window, to gape away the time, and happened to cast his eye upon a seafaring man, who seemed to be making inquiries after somebody's chambers. The thought immediately came into Swift's head, that this might be some master of a vessel who was the bearer of a present to him from his cousin at Lisbon. He saw him enter the building with pleasing expectation, and soon after heard a rap at his door, which he eagerly opening, was accosted by the sailor with, — "Is your name Jonathan Swift?" "Yes!" "Why then I have something for you from master Willoughby Swift of Lisbon." He then drew out a large leathern bag, and poured out the contents, which were silver cobs, upon the table. Swift, enraptured at the sight, in the first transports of his heart, pushed over a large number of them, without reckoning, to the sailor, as a reward for his trouble; but the honest tar declined taking any, saying that he would do more than that for good master Willoughby. This was the first time that Swift's disposition was tried with regard to the management of money; and he said that the reflection of his constant sufferings through the want of it, made him husband it so well, that he was never afterward without some in his purse.
Such was the opening of this great man's life; and from such a beginning, who could at that time have imagined that such mighty things were to ensue? He was now in his one and twentieth year; unqualified for any profession but that of the church; in which he had no prospect of succeeding from interest; and the disgraceful manner of his taking his degree, was a strong bar to any hopes on the score of merit. He had made no advances in any of the useful studies necessary to put a young man forward in the world; the recluseness of his life had rendered him little known; and a temper naturally splenetick, soured by the misery of his situation, did not qualify him much for making personal friends. How unpromising were the prospects of such a man, just entering into the world, under such circumstances! and yet it is to those very circumstances, probably, that the world owes, a Swift; to the want of money, want of learning, want of friends. Whoever is acquainted at all with the life and writings of Swift, must see that he had an uncommon share of spirit and fire in his constitution. Such as, had it not been kept under during the heat of youth, would probably have precipitated him into some extravagant courses. Nothing less than the lowness of his circumstances from his birth, could have kept that fire from bursting out; nothing less than the galling yoke of dependance, could have restrained that proud spirit within due bounds. His poverty and his pride were two excellent guards set over him, during that most dangerous time of life, to fix and keep him in a course of virtue. The one debarred him from excesses in the pleasurable gratifications of youth, which money only can procure; the other kept him from endeavouring to obtain from the purse of others, by mean compliances, any pleasures that he could not purchase from his own fund. Thus, necessarily fixed in a course of temperance, the practice of other moral duties became easy to him. And indeed there was no flaw to be found in his moral character, during his residence in the college, however low his parts might be rated.
Thus far I have shown the benefits which were probably derived to him from his want of fortune. I shall now show what advantages it is likely he derived from want of learning.
Had Swift met with sufficient encouragement to apply himself to the learning of the times; had his situation in the college been rendered easy to him, so that he might have pursued his studies with an undisturbed mind, had his emulation been rouzed in such a way as to make him enter into a competition with those of his own standing; it is highly probable, from the greatness of his parts, that he would have thrown all competitors at a distance. And in that case he might have acquired a fondness for those studies by which he obtained fame, however disagreeable they might have been to him at first. He might have proved the foremost logician, metaphysician, or mathematician of his time; he might have past his life, like some of the most eminent of his fellow students, in useless speculations; and instead of writing a Laputa, he might himself have been qualified for a professorship in the academy of that airy region.
Let us only suppose Swift to have been a distinguished scholar in the university, and we may reasonably suppose also, that, circumstanced as he was, his friends would have made him sit for a fellowship there, as the surest and best provision for any one so educated. Or else, encouraged by the hopeful expectations raised from the distinguished figure he made in the college, they would have pushed all their interest to have gotten him some small preferment in the church. In either of which cases, the Swift of the world might have been lost in a university monk, or a country vicar. On the other hand, the disgrace thrown on him in the college, deprived him of all hopes of preferment, and rendered his friends so cold to his interest, that he had no expectations of future support, but by changing the scene to another country; where only there was a field large enough for the exertion of those high talents, which yet in a great measure lay dormant in him.
And with respect to the third article, the want of friends; had it not been for that circumstance, he would not have been under a necessity of going to seek for new ones, in another country; and he might probably never have fallen into the hands of that particular friend, who was perhaps the only one living, capable of forming his mind to those great things which he afterward executed.
It was in the year 1688 that Swift left Ireland; he was then in his one and twentieth year. Suppose him landed in a country where he was utterly unknown, and without recommendatory letters that might introduce him to the acquaintance, or procure him the assistance of any one in that country, with regard to any future plan of life. Let us stop a while, and survey the future Swift, setting out on foot from Chester, in order to go to a mother, who was utterly incapable of affording him the least assistance, as she herself was chiefly supported by presents and contributions from her relations. One can hardly imagine a situation more hopeless with regard to externals: and with respect to his own internal powers, he had yet given no proofs of those which would not rather occasion despondency in his relations, than raise in them any hopes of his being able to push his own way in the world. And indeed at that juncture perhaps there were few living less qualified than he to do any thing for his own support.
The world was all before him where to choose
His place of rest, and Providence his guide.
And he seems indeed to have been then under the immediate guidance of Providence; for, hopeless as the end of such a journey might at that time have appeared, it proved in fact the means of all his future greatness.
After a residence of some months with his mother, he laid before her the uncomfortableness of his present situation, and the gloominess of his future prospects; requesting her advice what course he should pursue. She clearly saw that her son's case required the assistance of some powerful friend, and the unfortunate can seldom number such among their acquaintance. She recollected however that sir William Temple's lady was her relation; and that there had been a long intimacy between sir John Temple, father to sir William, and the family of the Swifts in Ireland; she knew also that a cousin german of her son's, the rev. Thomas Swift, had been chaplain to sir William Temple, and had been provided for by him in the church, on the score of family connexions. She recommended it therefore to her son to go to sir William, and make his case known to him.
However grating such an application might be to the proud spirit of Swift, yet, as it was his only resource, he followed his mother's advice, and soon afterwards presented himself to sir William Temple at Shene, requesting his advice and assistance. Sir William was a man of too much goodness and humanity, not to take compassion on a young man born an orphan, without fortune, distressed from his cradle, and without friends or interest to push him forward in life; who at the same time had a double claim to his favour, as related by blood to a wife for whom he had the highest honour and affection; and as the offspring of a family with whom his father had lived in the closest ties of friendship. He accordingly received him cheerfully into his house, and treated him with that hospitable kindness which family connexions, and what was still more to a generous mind, his unfortunate situation demanded of him. But yet we do not find, for a long time, that his kindness to him was increased from motives of personal regard, on a nearer acquaintance with him. It is probable that sir William early sounded his depth of knowledge, and examined into the progress he had made in his studies; which was far from being so great as might have been expected from his course of education, and time of life. The first good office that sir William could do him, therefore, was to put him into a course of reading, in order that he might redeem lost time. Accordingly we find, that Swift, during his residence with sir William, applied himself with great assiduity to his studies; in which, for the space of eight years, he was employed, by his own account, at least eight hours a day, with but few intermissions. The first of these was occasioned by an illness, which he attributed to a surfeit of fruit, that brought on a coldness of stomach, and giddiness of head, which pursued him more or less during the remainder of his life. After two years residence at Moor Park, to which place he had removed with sir William when the troubles were ended, his state of health was so bad, that he was advised by physicians to try the effects of his native air toward restoring it. In pursuance of this advice he revisited Ireland; but finding himself growing worse there, he soon returned to Moor Park; where, upon the abatement of his illness, he renewed his application to his studies.
It does not appear that sir William Temple knew any thing of the value of his young guest, till about this time; and Swift himself says that it was then he began to grow into some confidence with him. The little progress Swift had made in learning at his first arrival at Shene, must have given sir William but a mean opinion of his capacity; and the few things which he wrote during his first two years residence with him, could have given him no very high idea of his genius. For Swift had at that time so far mistaken his talents, that he tried his strength only in Pindarick odes; in which, though there appeared some vigour of mind, and efforts of an uncommon genius, yet it was apparent that it was vigour improperly exerted, and the efforts of a genius misapplied. The sentiments were strained and crowded; and the numbers irregular and harsh. How then shall we account for the sudden change of sir William's sentiments toward him? It could not be on account of his progress in literature, for he had not had time enough to stand highly in the opinion of so distinguished a scholar as sir William was on that score. And indeed, with all his assiduity, it is probable that he had not then so far recovered lost time as to be master of the learning which his standing required. The most probable conjecture is, that Swift had, at his leisure, revised and corrected his Tale of a Tub, which was sketched out by him in the college, as was before mentioned, and now first showed it to sir William. A work, bearing such a stamp of original genius, must, in a man of sir William Temple's delicate taste, and nice discernment, have at once raised the author into a high place in his esteem, and made him look upon him afterward with very different eyes. Accordingly we find that, about this period, he trusted him with matters of great importance. He introduced him to king William, and suffered him to be present at some of their conferences. He employed him in a commission of consequence to the king, when he was unable to attend him himself, which required dexterity, and knowledge in the history of England. And above all, he consulted him constantly, and employed him in the revisal and correction of his own works.
In this situation Swift continued, still applying closely to his studies till the year 1692, when he went to Oxford in order to take his master's degree: to which he was admitted on the 5th of July 1692.
From his delaying so long to take this degree, it may be concluded that Swift was determined to prepare himself for it in such a way, as might do him credit in the eyes of the university, in order to wipe off the disgrace of the former. And we may judge that his progress in academick studies had been very small, when it required four years application before he thought himself qualified to appear at Oxford with that view. Nor can there be any other reason assigned for his not having done it sooner, as he was of sufficient standing to have applied for his master's degree in the first year of his residence at Moor Park. From the satisfaction he expresses at the behaviour of the university of Oxford, and the civilities he met with there, it is probable that he was not undistinguished as a scholar; and that he found the first end he proposed by his studies, fully answered.
From Oxford he paid a visit to his mother, and then returned to Moor Park. Not with a design of continuing there, for he now wanted to enter into the world; but in expectation of getting some preferment by means of sir William's interest with the king, which he had promised to exert in his behalf, and had already indeed obtained an assurance of that sort from his majesty. But Swift at this time entertained some suspicion, that sir William was not so forward on the occasion as he could wish; and the reason he assigned for it was, that sir William was apprehensive Swift would leave him, and upon some accounts, he thought him a little necessary to him. Swift was indeed by this time become very necessary to a man in the decline of life, generally in an ill state of health, and often tortured with the most excruciating disorders. The loss of such a companion as Swift, after such a long domestick intimacy, would have been like the loss of a limb. Besides, as he seems to have had nothing so much at heart in the latter part of his life, as the leaving behind him a corrected copy of all his writings, done under his own inspection, he could not bear the thought that Swift should leave him, till that point was accomplished. He had already experienced the use that he was of to him in that respect, and knew that his place was not easily to be supplied. And his ill state of health occasioned the work to advance but slowly, as it was only during the more lucid intervals he applied to it. On these accounts, sir William was in no haste to procure any preferment for his young friend, to the great mortification of Swift. In this uneasy state he continued at Moor Park two years longer, and then, quite wearied out with fruitless expectation, he determined at all events to leave sir William, and take his chance in the world. When this his resolution was made known to sir William, he received it with evident marks of displeasure; but that he might seem to fulfil his promise to Swift, of making some provision for him, he coldly told him, that since he was so impatient, it was not at that time in his power to do any thing more for him, than to give him an employment, then vacant in the office of the Rolls in Ireland, to the value of somewhat more than a hundred pounds a year. Swift immediately replied, "that, since he had now an opportunity of living, without being driven into the church for a maintenance, he was resolved to go to Ireland to take holy orders." To comprehend the full force of this reply, it will be necessary to know that sir William was well acquainted with Swift's intention of going into the church, from which he had been hitherto restrained only by a scruple of appearing to enter upon that holy office, rather from motives of necessity, than choice. He therefore saw through sir William's design, in making him the offer of an employment which he was sure would not be accepted by Swift. With great readiness and spirit therefore, he made use of this circumstance, at once to show a proper resentment of the indelicacy of sir William's behaviour toward him; and to assign an unanswerable motive for immediately carrying his long formed resolution into act. Their parting on this occasion was not without manifest displeasure on the side of sir William, and some degree of resentment, not ill-founded, on the part of Swift.
He procured a recommendation to lord Capel, then lord deputy of Ireland, from whom is uncertain, but it may be presumed, from the smallness of the provision made for him in consequence of it, that it was not a powerful one; and therefore, that sir William Temple had no share in it. He went over to Ireland, and was ordained in September 1694, being then almost 27 years old. Soon after this, lord Capel gave him the prebend of Kilroot in the diocese of Connor, worth about one hundred pounds a year. To this place Swift immediately repaired, in order to reside there, and discharge the duties of his office. He now for the first time enjoyed the sweets of independence; but these sweets were not of long duration, as he soon saw that the scene of his independence could not possibly afford him any other satisfaction in life. He found himself situate in an obscure corner of an obscure country, ill accommodated with the conveniencies of life, without a friend, a companion, or any conversation that he could relish. What a contrast was this to the delightful scene at Moor Park! replete with all the beauties, and adorned with every elegance, that could charm the senses, or captivate the fancy; and where the mind had a continual feast of the most rational and refined conversation. But still the spirit of Swift so far prized liberty above all other blessings in life, that had he had no other alternative, he would certainly have preferred that uncomfortable situation, to any state of dependance. But he now began to feel his own strength, and, conscious of his powers, could not conceive they were meant for so narrow a sphere as that of a small country living. He felt an irresistible impulse once more to launch into the world, and make his way to a station more suited to his disposition. In this temper of mind, he received accounts from his friends, that sir William Temple's ill founded resentment had subsided soon after his departure, and that he was often heard to lament the loss of his company. Soon after, upon receiving a kind letter from sir William himself, with an invitation to Moor Park, his resolution was at once fixed. He determined upon returning to England, but first resolved to resign his living. As there were some singular circumstances attending this resignation, I shall relate them exactly as I received them from a gentleman of veracity, who declared he had the account from Swift himself. He said, that soon after he had come to this determination, he was taking his customary walk, and met an elderly clergyman riding along the road, After the usual salutation, he fell into discourse with him; and was so pleased with what passed between them, that he invited him to dinner, and easily prevailed on him to be his guest for a day or two. During this time Swift found that he was a man of great simplicity of manners, good sense, some learning, and unaffected piety. And upon inquiring into his circumstances, learned that he had only a curacy of forty pounds a year, for the maintenance of a wife and eight children. Swift lamented his situation, and told him that he had some interest which he would exert in his behalf, and endeavour to procure him a living, if he would only lend him his black mare to carry him to Dublin; for Swift was not at that time possessed of a horse. The clergyman readily consented, and went home on foot; promising to meet him at any time he should appoint on his return. Swift went to town, and represented the poor curate's case to his patron in such strong terms, as soon prevailed on him to consent that Swift's living should, upon his resignation, which was proposed at the same time, be made over to him. Nor was this a difficult point to accomplish, as, beside motives of humanity, it was for the interest of the patron to accept of an old incumbent of near sixty years of age, in the room of a young one of twenty seven. Swift, having dispatched this business, returned as soon as possible to the country, and gave notice to the old clergyman to meet him. He found him at his door on his arrival, and immediately upon their going into the parlour put the presentation into his hand, desiring him to read it. Swift said, that while he was doing so, he kept his eyes steadily fixed on the old man's face, in which the joy of finding that it was a presentation to a living, was visibly expressed; but when he came to that part of the writing which mentioned the name of the living, and found that it was Swift's own which he had resigned in his favour, he looked at him for some time in silence, with such a mixed emotion of astonishment and gratitude in his countenance, as presented to Swift one of the most striking pictures of the mind expressed in the face, he had ever seen; and he said, that he never before had felt such exquisite pleasure of mind as he did in that hour. Nor is this to be wondered at, since it was the first opportunity he ever had of letting loose that spirit of generosity and benevolence, whose greatness and vigour, when pent up in his own breast by poverty and dependance, served only as an evil spirit to torment him. And when we consider the nature of this action in all its circumstances, that the object of it was the worthy father of a numerous family, for whom it was impossible he could make any provision from so poor an income as he then possessed; that the motive to it was pure disinterested benevolence, without any alloy, as the man was a stranger to him, and therefore there could be no incentive to it from ties of blood or friendship; that the gift was such as would brighten the latter days of a well spent life, though hitherto clouded with indigence, and make a whole family happy; and lastly, that this gift was not like that of a wealthy man, who might easily spare it without feeling the loss, but the whole visible income Swift possessed for present and future support, the sole means in his power of preserving that independance which he had so long sighed for, and at last with difficulty obtained: it is no wonder, I say, all these circumstances considered, that the great mind of Swift should have exulted in so glorious an opportunity, of paying off at once, the large debt, which, from the narrowness of his circumstances, he had been contracting all his life, to benevolence.
After seeing his successor established in the living, he soon settled his affairs, and set out for Dublin, in his way to England. The old man, before his departure, pressed him to accept of his black mare, which was the most valuable of his possessions, as a small token of his gratitude; and Swift was too well acquainted with the sensibility of a generous heart, under obligations, to hurt him by a refusal.
With about fourscore pounds in his pocket, which by his own account was all his worldly wealth at that time, Swift once more embarked for England, and arrived at Moor Park in the year 1695, after somewhat more than a year's absence.
To all appearance he had but little bettered his condition by his journey to Ireland. He was now returned to the same state of dependance, which had before proved so irksome to him, that he determined to break away from it, at all hazards. But there were several circumstances which contributed to make his present state, though still dependant, of a very different nature from the former. In the first place, his situation now was not the effect of necessity or constraint, but the object of his choice. In the next, he was highly gratified with an opportunity of showing his regard and attachment to sir William, by returning voluntarily to him, when it was in his power to have lived independently, though he scorned to be compelled into it from motives of necessity. Then, by so readily complying with sir William's request, and giving up all his visible support in order to do so, he had laid him under such an obligation as entitled him to all future favours, which might be in his power to bestow. Accordingly we find, that Swift's mind being now perfectly at ease, and sir William considering his return, with all its circumstances, in the most obliging light, these two great men lived together to the time of sir William's death, in the most perfect harmony, and with marks of mutual confidence and esteem. Nor do we find during that space, which was almost four years, that Swift was at all pressing on the score of preferment promised him; which, had he been so, he would certainly have obtained; but, from a true generosity of mind, he seemed determined to stay with his friend in order to cheer his latter days, which were embittered by illness and pain, and required such a cordial to make life supportable; and to lay aside all views with regard to himself, till his friend's death should release him from the benevolent task, and leave him at liberty to pursue his own interest.
During this space Swift's time was fully and usefully employed. He devoted eight hours a day, as before, to the prosecution of his studies. His function as a clergyman was confined to a private family, but he was regular in the discharge of it, having stated times in the morning and evening for their meeting together at prayers. He took upon himself the office of preceptor to a young lady, niece to sir William Temple, residing in his house, teaching her English, and directing her in a proper course of reading. At the same time miss Johnson, afterward so well known by the name of Stella, was a fellow student with the other young lady, and partook of the benefit of the same instruction. Miss Johnson was daughter to sir William Temple's steward; and was at that time about fourteen years of age, beautiful in her person, and possessed of such fine talents, as made Swift take great delight in cultivating and forming her mind. At this time too he writ his famous Digressions to be found in the Tale of a Tub; and the Battle of the Books, in honour of his great and learned friend.
In the year 1699, sir William Temple died, leaving Swift a legacy, and the care, trust, and advantage, of publishing his posthumous writings. As he had also obtained a promise from king William, that he would give Swift a prebend either of Canterbury or Westminster, he thought he had made a sufficient return for all his merits toward him, and that he left him in the high road to preferment.
Before we accompany Swift into the world, let us review the manner of his passing his life, from the time that we stopped to survey him on his way to Leicester, when, forlorn and hopeless as his condition was, the unseen hand of Providence was guiding him to the means of all his future greatness, in placing him under the hospitable roof of sir William Temple. However bounteous nature had been, in bestowing on Swift extraordinary talents, yet were they of such a kind, as required much time and application to bring them to perfection, and fit them to answer their destined ends. He had missed the usual season of cultivating those talents, but at the same time he had escaped the danger of their being perverted and misapplied. His mind had not been straitlaced into that fashionable shape which seemed most beautiful to the eyes of pedantry, but was suffered to reach its full growth according to the course of nature. Thus did it attain an unusual size, vigour, and ease. He did not enter seriously upon his studies till his understanding was mature; thus all that he read was to some useful end, nor was his memory charged with those important trifles, about which the scholastick world is generally so busy. He read the classicks at a time when he could penetrate into their profoundest depths, and enrich himself with the spoils of their hidden treasures; not at the usual season of boyishness, when the weak sight can be regaled only with such flowery beauties as are pointed out to it on the surface. Thinking for himself as a man, he soon saw that no science was so valuable to man, as that of human nature. He judged that the best way to obtain a general knowledge of that, was from history; and a more particular view of it, from studying mankind. He could not possibly have been better situate than at Moor Park, to have made observations on the higher and more refined life; and he studiously sought all opportunities, during his little excursions and journies, to make himself acquainted with low life; often preferring the conveyance of waggons, and their inns, to those of coaches. Scenes of middling life must, of course, often fall in his way; and where, to a boundless curiosity, there was added from nature an uncommon penetration, it is no wonder he became such an adept in the knowledge of man, and of the world. A science essentially necessary to him to make that figure which he afterward did in life.
His situation at sir William Temple's was indeed in every respect the happiest that could have been chosen, to prepare this great genius for the complicated part he was to act in the world. Swift was to figure as a writer, as a politician, as a patriot. And where could a young man have found such a director and assistant in fitting him for the performance of these several parts, as sir William Temple; who was himself one of the finest writers, one of the ablest statesmen, and the truest lover of his country, that had been produced in that, or perhaps in any other age?
It was from the frequent revisal of that great man's works, under his own inspection, that Swift acquired his first lights with regard to propriety and purity of style, which he was afterward allowed to carry to a greater degree of perfection than any English writer whatsoever. The high opinion he entertained of sir William's works in this respect, was known to me from the following circumstance. When I was an undergraduate in the college, he recommended it to me to lay aside some portion of time every day for the study of English; and when I asked him what authors he would advise me to read, he immediately replied, sir William Temple; not, said he, his latter works, written during or after his long residence abroad, for his style became then somewhat corrupted by the introduction of newfangled foreign words and phrases, which he fell into by conversing and writing so much in foreign languages; but such of his works as were written before his going ambassador to Nimeguen. And after him, added he, I do not know any writer in our language that I would recommend to you as a model. I had upon this occasion a fair opportunity of paying him a just compliment; but I knew his detestation of any thing that carried the appearance of flattery with it, too well, to make mention of his own works to him.
With respect to politicks, it must be allowed that there was no man of that age better qualified than sir William Temple, not only to instruct Swift in the general system of politicks pursued in the several states of Europe, but likewise to lay open to him all the arcana of state, all the most secret springs of action, with regard to publick affairs, both foreign and domestick, during his time; in which he himself had born so principal a part: and with regard to patriotism, sir William Temple must be allowed to have been the most shining example of that noblest of virtues, produced in that age; as he passed all the vigorous part of his life in the most indefatigable endeavours for the good of his country, upon the most disinterested principles; never having received any reward, nor seeming solicitous about any, for a long series of the most important services rendered to his king and country, often at his own expense; and at last nobly declining the highest station to which a subject could be raised, when offered to him, as it was at a time of life, when he found the vigour of his mind so far abated, that he did not think himself equal to the arduous employment of first minister. And with respect to private virtue, there could not have been a more illustrious example placed before the eyes of a young man, than that of an old courtier, who during the dissolute reign of Charles II had singly at court maintained his integrity unshaken, and his morals untainted.
Under the direction of such a tutor, such a guide, under the influence of such an example; how happily was the most dangerous season of life passed in studious retirement, far from the dangers and temptations of a corrupt world.
When we reflect that Swift was first brought up in the school of adversity (who though she be a severe mistress, yet does she generally make the best scholars) and that he was thence removed to another lyceum, where presided a sage, in whom were blended Socratic wisdom, stoical virtue, and Epicurean elegance; we must allow his lot to have been most happily cast for forming a great and distinguished character in life. Nor did he fail to answer the high expectation that might be raised of a young man endowed by nature with uncommon talents, which were improved to the utmost by a singular felicity of situation, into which fortune had thrown him.
Let us now accompany Swift into the world, from entering into which he was happily detained till his thirty-first year. His mind was now stored with variety of useful knowledge; his understanding had arrived at its utmost maturity and strength; his fancy was in its prime; and his heart, long filled with the noblest affections toward God, and toward man, swelled with impatience for proper opportunities of discharging his duty to both. With such abilities, and such dispositions, behold him now entering on the great stage of the world, to perform the character allotted to him in the drama of life, that of an able, bold, and unwearied champion, in the cause of religion, liberty, and virtue.
- For farther particulars of Swift's family, see the Appendix.
- Sir William Temple's own place of residence was a seat which he had purchased, called Moor Park, near Farnham in Surry; but at the time of the Revolution, as Moor Park grew unsafe by lying in the way of both armies, sir Wiiliam went back to his house at Shene, which he had given up to his son.
- Two of these odes, as being the first that have appeared of his poetical writings, are placed, on that account only, at the head of the first volume of his poems in [The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 18/Letter from Jonathan Swift to the Athenian Society - 1#xviii-241|this edition]].
- Sir William had been ambassador and mediator of a general peace at Nimeguen before the Revolution. In this character he contracted a close intimacy with the prince of Orange; who, after he had ascended the English throne, frequently visited him at Shene, and took his advice in affairs of the utmost importance. Sir William being then lame of the gout, substituted Swift to attend his majesty in his walks round the gardens; who admitted him to such familiarity, that he showed him how to cut asparagus in the Dutch fashion; and once offered to make him a captain of horse. But Swift appears to have fixed his mind very early on an ecclesiastical life; and it is therefore probable, that upon declining this offer, he obtained a promise of preferment in the church; for in a letter to his uncle William, dated 1692, he says,——"I am not to take orders till the king gives me a prebend."
- Thus Swift expresses himself in a letter to his uncle William, dated Moor Park, November 29, 1692.
- See his account of this, in his letter to his cousin , dated June 3, 1694. Swift
- As many may be curious to know of what nature his studies were, the following account of the books which he read in one year, preserved in his own handwriting, may afford some satisfaction. From Jan. 7, 1696-7.
Lord Herbert's Harry VIII. fol.
Sleidan's Comment, abstracted, fol.
Council of Trent, abstracted, fol.
Horace, 9 vols.
Sir William Temple's Memoirs
Histoire de Chypre
Voyage de Syam
Mémoires de Maurier
Lucius Florus, ter.
Collier's Essays, 2 vols.
Sir John Davies, of the Soul
Conformité de Religion, &c.
Dialogues des Morts, 2 vols.
Histoire de Mr. Constance
Histoire de Cotes de, &c.
Diodorus Siculus, abstr. fol.
Cyprian & Irenæus, abstr. fol.
Voyage de Maroce, &c.
Ælian. Vol. I.
Homer, Iliad, & Odyss.
Bernier's Grand Mogol, 2 vols.
Burnet's Hist. of Reform. fol.
Oeuvres mèlées, 5 vols.
From Jan. 7, 1697-8.
Thucydides, by Hobbes, abstr. fol.
Vossius de Sibyllinis.
- Such was the love and attention which Swift showed to this great man, that in his last illness he kept a daily register of the variations which appeared in his constitution, from July 1, 1698, to the 27th of January following, when he concludes with this note, "he died at one o'clock in the morning, and with him all that was great and good among men."