In London With Doctor Swift

ONE of the most frequent charges brought against Swift is that of heartless cynicism. Writer after writer has dwelt upon this detestable quality with persistent emphasis. Even Thackeray, usually so charitable in his judgments, has tarnished with this charge, in The Lectures on the English Humorists and in Henry Esmond, the tribute which he pays to the man whom Addison justly called “the greatest genius of his age.” Yet there exists well-authenticated documentary evidence which is amply sufficient to refute this charge. That evidence is the minute diary which Swift kept during his residence in London in 1710-1713, and is popularly known as the Journal to Stella.1

The occasion which brought Swift to London was in itself trivial enough. On the 6th of February, 1704,2 Queen Anne had remitted, for the benefit of smaller benefices, a branch of the royal revenue technically known as the first fruits and tenths. The former of these was the first year’s entire profits of a church living, or other spiritual preferment; the latter, the tenth part of the annual profit of such preferment. They were a relic of the feudal ages, having been imposed originally by Innocent IV., and up to 1535 had gone to the Papal See. When by the easy method of a statute Henry VIII. made himself Head of the Church, the first fruits and tenths had reverted to the crown. But Queen Anne’s bounty — such was the popular name given to the Act of Remission — had only extended to the clergy of the English establishment, and Swift sought to secure a similar remission to the church in Ireland. In the last months of 1704 he had written, from the vicarage of Laracor, an earnest letter on the subject to Archbishop King, then in London. From time to time he made in vain personal application to various members of the Whig Junto, and on September 1, 1710, he landed at Chester on his way to London, to urge once more upon the ministry the claims of the Irish Church to share in Queen Anne’s bounty. He had left in their lodgings, opposite St. Mary’s Church in Dublin, Esther Johnson and her half companion, half confidante, Mistress Dingley. From the date of his landing to the time of return — June 6, 1713 — he kept a daily journal, which he forwarded at irregular intervals, averaging a fortnight apart, to Esther Johnson in the form of a letter. It is known that Esther Johnson faithfully and punctually answered these letters, but her replies are lost. The letters which Swift wrote were found among his papers after his death, and it is these letters which constitute the Journal to Stella.

The Journal is almost priceless as a contribution to the literature of the political history of the times, but it possesses a still greater value as a revelation of Swift’s personal character. At the close of that famous supper party given by Agathon to celebrate the triumph of his first tetralogy, the brilliant Alcibiades likens Socrates to ” the masks of Silenus, which may be seen sitting in statuaries’ shops, having pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle, and there are images of gods inside them.” The simile may not be inaptly applied to the dean of St. Patrick’s. The Swift of literature is not a figure to love. In the works of no other English writer of equal merit is there to be found so little of 舠the milk of human kindness.” The humor of The Tale of a Tub, the withering irony of the controversial pamphlets, the tragic misanthropy of Gulliver’s Travels, command intellectual admiration, but evoke no feeling of personal affection. The Journal to Stella is the key which opens the impassive mask of the satirist, behind which is disclosed the heart of the man who was sensitive to the delicate charm of a romantic passion, who was capable of disinterested acts of kindness, who was swayed by all those varied emotions which make the whole world kin.

Swift’s acquaintance with Esther Johnson dated from the time of his first residence with Sir William Temple at Moor Park. She was then a child of seven, and daughter of the widowed Mistress Bridget Johnson, who occupied the position of companion to Lady Giffard, Temple’s sister. Swift became her volunteer teacher, and fondness for the child ripened into love for the woman. Bridget Johnson re-married, and Esther Johnson, on the death of Temple, who had left her a small legacy, removed with Mistress Rebecca Dingley to Dublin, which became her permanent home. What considerations influenced Swift to resolutely forego the dream which he once entertained of living out his life by Stella’s side must ever remain a matter of conjecture. That he loved her dearly and sincerely must be evident to every impartial reader of the Journal.

The first entry in the Journal,3 made at Chester, September 2, 1710, indicates Swift’s impatience to hear from Stella, for he begs her to remember that, while all other letters are to be sent in the care of Steele, hers are to be sent to St. James Coffee House so he may receive them sooner. His disappointment is great when, after arriving in London, he was handed a letter and “ hoped to see little MD’s hand, and it was only to invite me to a venison party.” When he had come into full favor with the ministry, when famous beauties craved an introduction and great lords were urgent in their invitations to dinner, her letters are still the chief event in his life. 舠 As hope saved, nothing gives Pdfr any sort of dream of happiness but a letter now and then from his own dearest MD. I love the expectation of it, and when it does not come I comfort myself that I have it yet to be happy with.” Her absence is forgotten for a time in reading her letters. “ When I find you are happy or merry, then it makes me so here; and I can hardly imagine you absent when I am reading your letters or writing to you. No, faith, you are just here upon this little paper, and therefore I see and talk with you every evening constantly.” No business will interfere with the pleasure he finds in writing, for “ it is just as if methinks you were here, and I prating to you and telling you where I have been.舠 Each letter, though only a mere scrap, is tenderly treasured. Bernage, a lieutenant in the Irish army, had through Stella interested Swift in his efforts to secure promotion, and afterwards became a terrible bore by his persistent correspondence. “ I would have burnt his last,舡 exclaims Swift with petulancy, " had I not seen Ppt’s hand at the bottom.” He is troubled lest one of her letters had been lost in a packet, which rumor said had been taken, and another he put away “ so safe that he could hardly find it.” He protests his love for her in ardent terms of passionate attachment. He loves her, and will, infinitely above all earthly things, better than his life “ a thousand millions of times, and he will swear it ten millions of times.” He prays God to “ bless his dearest MD, and all will be well.” She is his dearest life, his dearest, charming, poor, pretty thing. He drinks her health to himself “ a hundred thousand times,” and each letter closes with a tender valediction, not infrequently a fervent prayer for her safety and preservation. His love invests with a certain sacredness whatever she is fond of. Parsivol, his steward at Laracor, had written that he could sell the horse, little Johnson. “Sell it!” Swift exclaims. “ Pray let him know he shall sell his soul as soon. What ? sell anything that Ppt loves and may sometimes ride ? ”

He is always hers “ late and early,” and, waking or sleeping, she is ever in his thoughts, for he is constantly dreaming of her. “ I was dreaming the most melancholy things in the world of Ppt, and was grieving and crying all night,” he writes one morning, and the reality of his dream forces the fervent prayer from his lips, “God of his infinite mercy keep and protect you.” He is even sufficiently sentimental to re-read her letters before retiring, and then he will go to sleep and “dream of my own dear, roguish, impudent Ppt.” He is full of anxiety for her health and especially for her eyes, which had troubled her considerably. She is to dictate to Dingley so as not to strain her “little dear eyes.” If she will write, she is to shut her eyes and write just a line and no more, and Dingley may stand by and tell her when she goes too high or too low. He gives her a practical example by writing a line with his own eyes shut. “ Faith, I think it is better than when they are open,” is the comment he makes for her encouragement. His solicitude for her eyes spoils half the pleasure he finds in the dear, familiar handwriting. “ Why do you write, dear sirrah MD,” he says in gentle rebuke, “ when you find your eyes so weak that you cannot see? What comfort is there in reading what you write when one knows that?”

He has scarcely reached London before he longs to be back. He hopes “ in God that Pdfr and Ppt will be together in a twelvemonth,” when “ I hope to eat my Michaelmas goose at my little goose’s lodgings.” He avows that he has not had one happy day since parting, and, writing of the misfortune of Mrs. Long, a famous beauty and standing toast at the Kit-Kat Club, who had been forced by adverse circumstances to exchange the gayeties of London for the monotony of secluded lodgings in the country, he expresses his pity in the forcible simile that “ it is just such an alteration in life as if Pdfr should be banished from Ppt and condemned to converse with Mrs. Raymond,舠 the bustling wife of the Vicar of Trim. He is genuinely pleased to learn that she has kept his birthday, and only wishes that he had been with her, for her presence can bring him happiness whatever be the weather or wherever the place. “ I have lived a scurvy, dull, splenetic day for want of Ppt,” he writes at the close of a rainy day which had kept him an involuntary prisoner in his lodgings. “ I often thought how happy I could have been had it rained eight thousand times more if Ppt had been with a body.” He would be glad to be in the same kingdom with her, even though she be at Wexford, and begs her “ to be easy till Fortune take her course, and to believe that MD’s felicity is the great end I am at in all my pursuits.” He becomes weary of the flatteries of ministers, the vexatious delays of courts, and wishes over and over again that they were together, in fact, that they had never parted. In his congratulations upon her birthday he includes a fervent prayer that this may be their last separation: “God Almighty bless Ppt, and send her a great many birthdays, all happy and healthy and wealthy, and with me ever together and never asunder again unless by chance.” He speculates with tender imaginings upon her pastimes and pleasures, her blunders at ombre at the house of the kindly Archdeacon Walls, her wild gallops from Dublin to Laracor, for she was an excellent and fearless horsewoman, and her walks and card-playing at Wexford, whither she had gone with Dingley to drink the waters. He seeks to beguile the irksome hours of separation by reminiscences of the past. The doctors had given up Sir Andrew Fountaine, but Swift declares he will live, because “ I found the seeds of life in him as I found them in poor dearest MD when she was ill many years ago,” he adds in support of his opinion, recalling an illness in the early life of Stella. St. John’s persistent disregard of wise advice in matters of diet calls to mind like fits of obstinacy in Stella. While, after telling how Prior swore that a pun made by Swift was the worst he (Prior) had ever heard, he adds, with great glee, “ I thought so too, but at the same time I thought it was most like Ppt’s that ever I heard.” Harley once asked Swift, in the Court of Requests, how long he had learned the trick of writing to himself. Swift explains the question to Stella by telling how Harley “ had seen your letter through the glass case at the coffee-house, and would swear it was my hand. ... I think I was little MD’s writing-master; ” and he more than once playfully resumes his former office of pedagogue by corrections of her spelling and criticism of her handwriting. There are frequent reminiscences of those early days at Moor Park. Some are bitter in their contempt for the Temple family, especially for the imperious Lady Giffard, but others are tender in their association with Stella, whose childish love and sympathy once gladdened the life of an awkward and untried student. He finds pleasure in talking to himself in the “ little language,” his playful mimicry of the childish prattle of Stella. “ All the while I was undressing myself,” he writes after an evening spent with Mrs. Manley, the author of the New Atalantis, “ there I was speaking monkey things in air just as if MD had been by, and did not recollect myself till I got into bed.” Referring to his favorite project, the formation of an academy for the improvement of the English language, he playfully declares, “ Faith, we shall never improve it so much as F W has done, sall we? No, faith, oor is char gangridge.” 1

Her good opinion is very dear to him, and he is anxious that she should not think he had deliberately broken faith with her by his protracted sojourn in London. He knows that “ Ppt repines inwardly at Pdfr’s absence,” and he assures her over and over again that it is business, not inclination, which detains him. Why should he not long to be with her, since he frankly confesses that among all the women of London famous for beauty, fashion, and wit he sees “ nothing among any of them that equals MD by a bar’s length.” His time is always at the service of her friends. Although not at all to his liking, he will serve Sterne, the dean of St. Patrick’s, who had come to London on business in connection with his prolocutorship of the Irish Convocation, “ because I suppose MD would have me.” Ann Johnson, Stella’s younger sister, is about to marry one Filby, and she begs Swift to interest himself in securing her future husband an office in the customs. Swift, at considerable personal inconvenience, does the best he can because “it is my delight to do good offices for people who want and deserve, and a tenfold delight to do it to a relation of Ppt’s whose affairs she has so at heart.” He begs her not to misunderstand any expressions of irritation at the importunities of office-seekers which may have crept into his letters. “ Ppt mistakes me,” he writes, referring probably to an apology in one of her letters for bothering him with a request to serve some friend. “ I am not angry at your recommending any one to me provided you will take my answer. Some things are in my way, and then I serve those I can. But people will not distinguish, but take things ill when I have no power ; but Ppt is wiser.” Everything which he has is hers. “ You are welcome as my blood to every farthing I have in the world, and all that grieves me is that I am not richer for MD’s sake.” His genuine regret at his inability to aid her is expressed in a half jocular strain. “ Why are not you a young fellow, that I might prefer you?” he exclaims after telling her of his success in securing for “little Harrison” the secretaryship to Lord Raby at The Hague.

She is the one confidante of his literary and political secrets. He had already confessed to her the authorship of The Tale of a Tub, formal acknowledgment of which had been withheld from Addison. The various papers contributed to the Examiner, and the humorous and satirical poems which charmed the wits or stirred the anger of prominent Whig politicians, are duly reported and her criticism requested. Memoranda of grave political movements involving the destinies of Europe are daily jotted down for her benefit. Men as discreet and reticent as Swift take only one woman into such confidence, and that is the woman in whom love has inspired perfect trust.

Nor is the human side of Swift’s character revealed alone in his love for Stella. His sympathies were quickly touched by misfortune. There was that “little Harrison” who had come fresh from the university to try his fortune in London, and had only a tutorship of forty pounds a year, but was rapidly running into debt at the tavern by supping with the wits and men of fashion. Swift takes a fatherly interest in the improvident lad, lectures him upon his extravagance, and finally makes him editor of the new Tatler. He corrects his protégé’s articles, dictates an occasional article for the paper, and generously overlooks many annoying indiscretions committed by the inexperienced editor. Subsequently he secures for him “ the prettiest employment in Europe,— secretary to Lord Raby, who is to be ambassador extraordinary to The Hague.” When Harrison returned to London in charge of the draft of the Barrier Treaty, having in the mean time been promoted to queen’s Secretary, Swift is indignant at finding that the “ poor brat ” has not been paid a groat of a very generous salary. Harrison is taken suddenly ill, and Swift has him removed to Knightsbridge, and, having obtained thirty guineas from Bolingbroke and an order on the treasury for a hundred pounds, sets out to see the poor invalid. What follows is best told in his own words : —

“ I took Parnell this morning, and we walked to see poor Harrison. I had the hundred pounds in my pocket. I told Parnell I was afraid to knock at the door; my mind misgave me. I knocked and his man, in tears, told me his master was dead an hour before. Think what grief this is to me. . . . Lord-treasurer was much concerned when I told him. I could not dine with Lordtreasurer nor anywhere else, but got a bit of meat toward evening. No loss ever grieved me so much. Poor creature ! . . . I send this away to-night, and am sorry it must go while I am in so much grief.”

Cynicism should be made of sterner stuff than to break into sobs like these in the presence of untimely death.

Congreve, the most brilliant of the comic dramatists of the Restoration, had been Swift’s school-fellow at Kilkenny. In 1711 he was living in retirement, chiefly dependent upon the fees incidental to the office of Commissioner of Wine Licenses, which he had secured by the aid of Halifax, the Whig Mæcenas. At the time of the Tory triumph, Congreve, partially blind and suffering from the gout, momentarily expected to be turned out of office. Swift secures the powerful protection of Harley for his old school friend, and after writing an account of the circumstances to Stella, adds the terse and modest comment, “ I have made a worthy man easy, and that is a good day’s work.” Then there was that unfortunate Patty Rolt, who was a constant pensioner upon his charity, and for whose " rogue of a husband ” he obtained leave to come to England from Port Mahon. He was not unmindful even of that superficial and ungrateful Steele, for he used every effort consistent with his own dignity to have his quondam friend retained in the office of Stamped Paper, which the latter had justly forfeited by his intemperate partisanship.

One or two incidents recorded in the Journal may be aptly quoted as illustrating Swift’s genuinely sympathetic nature. Mary, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Ormond, had married, on October 21, 1710, Lord Ashburnham, who was considered the greatest parti in England. Swift had always been fond of the young bride, whom he had known in Ireland during the term of her father’s lord-lieutenaey, and in whom he detected a resemblance to Stella. On January 3d he is greatly moved by her unexpected death, and he closes his letter to Stella with the melancholy words, “I hate life when I think it exposed to such accidents; and to see so many thousand wretches burdening the earth, while such as her die, makes me think that God did never intend life for blessing.” After the treacherous assassination of the Duke of Hamilton at the close of the famous duel with Lord Mohun in Hyde Park, Swift hastens to visit the duchess. “ I never saw so melancholy a scene,” he tells Stella, “for indeed all reasons for real grief belong to her. . . . She has moved my very soul.”He does his best to comfort the unhappy woman, and, with considerate thoughtfulness born of genuine pity, opposes her removal to other lodgings, “ because it had no room backward, and she must have been tortured with the noise of the Grub Street screamers mentioning her husband’s murder in her ears.” On still another eventful occasion Swift proved how genuinely human he was in his sympathies. On the seventh anniversary of the queen’s accession he was playing cards in the drawing-room of Lady Catherine Morris, when the son of the Duke of Arundel brought the news of the stabbing of Harley in the cockpit at Whitehall by the Marquis of Guiscard, a brokendown and discredited French adventurer.

“ My heart is almost broke,” he writes to Stella, and begs her to overlook the abrupt sentences of his letter. “ Pardon my distraction. I now think of all his kindness to me. The poor creature now lies stabbed in his bed by a desperate French Popish villain. Good-night and God preserve you both and pity me; I want it.” “ Mr. Harley is still mending this evening, but not at all out of danger,” he writes on the following night, “and till then I can have no peace. Good-night . . . and pity Pdfr.”

These are strange outbursts of feeling, strange confessions of the need of human sympathy, to fall from the lips of a selfish and arrogant cynic.

In one of the letters in the Journal Swift tells Stella that “ Pdfr is going to be very busy ; not Pdfr but t’ other I.” Full justice has been done by reader and critic to “ ‘t other I,”that relentless satirist, so stern in his condemnation of shams, so morbidly acute to the weaknesses, the follies, and the sins of humanity. But the world has been strangely indifferent to the Pdfr,— the poor, dear, foolish rogue, the enthusiastic lover, the loyal friend, the kindly and sympathetic heart, — just as the Athenian crowd may have passed and repassed the statuaries’ shops in the Agora, and have little suspected that the majestic figure of a god was concealed behind the mocking face of the mask of Silenus.

Henry F. Randolph.

  1. The last twenty-five letters of the Journal, covering the period of February 9, 1712/1711—June 6, 1713, were first published by Hawkesworth in 1766; the forty preceding letters, commencing with the entry made at Chester on September 2, 1710, and completing the series, by Johnston of Ludgate Hill in 1768. Both Hawkesworth and Mr. Deane Swift, the editor of the first forty letters, made unauthorized alterations in the text of the “little language, ” that is, the words written to convey the effect of Esther’s childish mispronunciations. The originals of the letters edited by Deane Swift are no longer extant; those edited by Hawkesworth are in the British Museum. Copious extracts from these latter are given in their original form by Mr. Forster in his Life of Swift.
  2. That is, according to the old style of reckoning, the civil year commencing on March 25th instead of January 1st.
  3. In the Journal, Swift, and Esther Johnson (she was not called Stella until long afterwards) are never mentioned by name, but by a series of ciphers which were Swift’s invention, and which Mr. Forster translates as follows: “ He is himself throughout Pdfr, sometimes Podefar and F R, or other fragments of what may be assumed to be Poor Dear Foolish Rogue. She is Ppt, presumably Poppet or Poor Pretty Thing; but MD, My Dear, is also for the most part her designation, though it occasionally comprises Mrs. Dingley, who has the further designation of M E, Madam Elderly ; D or D D, Dingley or Dear Dingley, Standing only and always for her exclusively.” The Life of Jonathan Swift, vol. i. In the extracts from the Journal given in the present article, MD stands invariably for Esther Johnson alone.
  4. No, faith, yours is charming language. The “F W" stands for foolish wench, one of Swift’s many terms of endearment for Stella, as Lear speaks of Cordelia as " my poor fool.”