Jonathan Swift was born in 1667, on the 30th of November. His father was a Jonathan Swift, sixth of the ten sons of the Rev. Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich, near Ross, in Herefordshire, who had married Elizabeth Dryden, niece to the poet Dryden’s grandfather. Jonathan Swift married, at Leicester, Abigail Erick, or Herrick, who was of the family that had given to England Robert Herrick, the poet. As their eldest brother, Godwin, was prospering in Ireland, four other Swifts, Dryden, William, Jonathan, and Adam, all in turn found their way to Dublin. Jonathan was admitted an attorney of the King’s Inns, Dublin, and was appointed by the Benchers to the office of Steward of the King’s Inns, in January, 1666. He died in April, 1667, leaving his widow with an infant daughter, Jane, and an unborn child.
Swift was born in Dublin seven months after his father’s death. His mother after a time returned to her own family, in Leicester, and the child was added to the household of his uncle, Godwin Swift, who, by his four wives, became father to ten sons of his own and four daughters. Godwin Swift sent his nephew to Kilkenny School, where he had William Congreve among his schoolfellows. In April, 1782, Swift was entered at Trinity College as pensioner, together with his cousin Thomas, son of his uncle Thomas. That cousin Thomas afterwards became rector of Puttenham, in Surrey. Jonathan Swift graduated as B.A. at Dublin, in February, 1686, and remained in Trinity College for another three years. He was ready to proceed to M.A. when his uncle Godwin became insane. The troubles of 1689 also caused the closing of the University, and Jonathan Swift went to Leicester, where mother and son took counsel together as to future possibilities of life.
The retired statesman, Sir William Temple, at Moor Park, near Farnham, in Surrey, was in highest esteem with the new King and the leaders of the Revolution. His father, as Master of the Irish Rolls, had been a friend of Godwin Swift’s, and with his wife Swift’s mother could claim cousinship. After some months, therefore, at Leicester, Jonathan Swift, aged twenty-two, went to Moor Park, and entered Sir William Temple’s household, doing service with the expectation of advancement through his influence. The advancement he desired was in the Church. When Swift went to Moor Park he found in its household a child six or seven years old, daughter to Mrs. Johnson, who was trusted servant and companion to Lady Gifford, Sir William Temple’s sister. With this little Esther, aged seven, Swift, aged twenty-two, became a playfellow and helper in her studies. He broke his English for her into what he called their “little language,” that was part of the same playful kindliness, and passed into their after-life. In July, 1692, with Sir William Temple’s help, Jonathan Swift commenced M.A. in Oxford, as of Hart Hall. In 1694, Swift’s ambition having been thwarted by an offer of a clerkship, of £120 a year, in the Irish Rolls, he broke from Sir William Temple, took orders, and obtained, through other influence, in January, 1695, the small prebendary of Kilroot, in the north of Ireland. He was there for about a year. Close by, in Belfast, was an old college friend, named Waring, who had a sister. Swift was captivated by Miss Waring, called her Varina, and would have become engaged to marry her if she had not flinched from engagement with a young clergyman whose income was but a hundred a year.
But Sir William Temple had missed Jonathan Swift from Moor Park. Differences were forgotten, and Swift, at his wish, went back. This was in 1696, when his little pupil, Esther Johnson, was fifteen. Swift said of her, “I knew her from six years old, and had some share in her education, by directing what books she should read, and perpetually instructing her in the principles of honour and virtue, from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life. She was sickly from her childhood until about the age of fifteen; but then grew into perfect health, and was then looked upon as one of the most beautiful, graceful, and agreeable young women in London, only a little too fat. Her hair was blacker than a raven, and every feature of her face in perfection.” This was the Stella of Swift’s after-life, the one woman to whom his whole love was given. But side by side with the slow growth of his knowledge of all she was for him, was the slow growth of his conviction that attacks of giddiness and deafness, which first came when he was twenty, and recurred at times throughout his life, were signs to be associated with that which he regarded as the curse upon his life. His end would be like his uncle Godwin’s. It was a curse transmissible to children, but if he desired to keep the influence his genius gave him, he could not tell the world why he refused to marry. Only to Stella, who remained unmarried for his sake, and gave her life to him, could all be known.
Returned to Moor Park, Swift wrote, in 1697, the “Battle of the Books,” as well as the “Tale of the Tub,” with which it was published seven years afterwards, in 1704. Perrault and others had been battling in France over the relative merits of Ancient and Modern Writers. The debate had spread to England. On behalf of the Ancients, stress was laid by Temple on the letters of Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigentum. Wotton replied to Sir William for the Moderns. The Hon. Charles Boyle, of Christ Church, published a new edition of the Epistles of Phalaris, with translation of the Greek text into Latin. Dr. Bentley, the King’s Librarian, published a “Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris,” denying their value, and arguing that Phalaris did not write them. Christ Church replied through Charles Boyle, with “Dr. Bentley’s Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris examined.” Swift entered into the war with a light heart, and matched the Ancients in defending them for the amusement of his patron. His incidental argument between the Spider and the Bee has provided a catch-phrase, “Sweetness and Light,” to a combatant of later times.
Sir William Temple died on the 27th of January, 1699. Swift then became chaplain to Lord Berkeley in Dublin Castle, and it was as a little surprise to Lady Berkeley, who liked him to read to her Robert Boyle’s “Meditations,” that Swift wrote the “Meditation on a Broomstick.” In February, 1700, he obtained from Lord Berkeley the vicarage of Laracor with the living of Rathbeggan, also in the diocese of Meath. In the beginning of 1701 Esther Johnson, to whom Sir William Temple had bequeathed a leasehold farm in Wicklow, came with an elder friend, Miss Dingley, and settled in Laracor to be near Swift. During one of the visits to London, made from Laracor, Swift attacked the false pretensions of astrologers by that prediction of the death of Mr. Partridge, a prophetic almanac maker, of which he described the Accomplishment so clearly that Partridge had much ado to get credit for being alive.
The lines addressed to Stella speak for themselves. “Cadenus and Vanessa” was meant as polite and courteous admonition to Miss Hester Van Homrigh, a young lady in whom green-sickness seems to have produced devotion to Swift in forms that embarrassed him, and with which he did not well know how to deal.
This discourse, as it is unquestionably of the same author, so it seems to have been written about the same time, with “The Tale of a Tub;” I mean the year 1697, when the famous dispute was on foot about ancient and modern learning. The controversy took its rise from an essay of Sir William Temple’s upon that subject; which was answered by W. Wotton, B.D., with an appendix by Dr. Bentley, endeavouring to destroy the credit of Æsop and Phalaris for authors, whom Sir William Temple had, in the essay before mentioned, highly commended. In that appendix the doctor falls hard upon a new edition of Phalaris, put out by the Honourable Charles Boyle, now Earl of Orrery, to which Mr. Boyle replied at large with great learning and wit; and the Doctor voluminously rejoined. In this dispute the town highly resented to see a person of Sir William Temple’s character and merits roughly used by the two reverend gentlemen aforesaid, and without any manner of provocation. At length, there appearing no end of the quarrel, our author tells us that the BOOKS in St. James’s Library, looking upon themselves as parties principally concerned, took up the controversy, and came to a decisive battle; but the manuscript, by the injury of fortune or weather, being in several places imperfect, we cannot learn to which side the victory fell.
I must warn the reader to beware of applying to persons what is here meant only of books, in the most literal sense. So, when Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the person of a famous poet called by that name; but only certain sheets of paper bound up in leather, containing in print the works of the said poet: and so of the rest.
Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.