Dean Swift as a Human Being

An Irish author and poet long resident in Dublin, an ex-Senator of the Irish Free State, an intimate of George Moore, W . B. Y eats, and Janies Joyce, OLIVER ST. JOHN GOGARTY has cast his shadow in Joyce‘s Ulysses and shafts of his wit in many a volume of his reminiscences. He talks about Dean Swift as if he knew him, and his explanation of the Dean’s somewhat odd behavior is to be found in the very human essay which follows.



THE more we read the biographies of Dean Swift, the more we find ourselves confronted by a person who varies from an oddity to a monster, one who may hardly be included among “the kindly race of men.” He differs uniquely from any other character in history, yet most of his biographers leave us with an enigma. There is one exception, a short pamphlet by that most distinguished of the Abbey Theatre’s playwrights, Denis Johnston, who is also a trained lawyer. To him the solution of the jigsaw puzzle of Swift is due, and on his findings this essay is partly based.

Swift was born in No. 7 Hoey‘s Court, Dublin, in 1667, the seventh year of the reign of King Charles II. Seventy-eight years later he died in the Deanery of St. Patrick’s, close by the place of his birth. He was educated in Kilkenny School, the Irish Eton of the day, and at Trinity College, Dublin.

The strange adventures of his infant years when he was kidnaped by his nurse and taken to England at the age of three, and his mother’s attitude towards what appears to be a convenient kidnaping, need not concern us at the moment. We are concerned with his adult years, the best part of which were spent at Moor Park, Surrey, in England, the home of Sir William Temple.

Sir William, grandfather of the Sir William Temple of Moor Park where Swift is working, was the first of the Temples to come to Ireland. He was a classical scholar and he became the fourth Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. His son, Sir John, was Master of the Polls in Dublin and the author of a history of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. It is important to note that Sir John was a widower for forty years. His son, Sir William of Moor Park, was a more prolific writer and it was his works that Swift edited. This Sir William, after seven years‘ delay on account of her family’s opposition, married Dorothy Osborne, by whom he had seven children. In later life we find him residing at Moor Park with Swift acting as his secretary; but what is more fraught with Fate, Swift was also tutor to a little girl, Eslher Johnson, eight years old, who dwelt in a pretty cottage in the grounds with her mother, a Mrs. Johnson, who had been Sir William’s housekeeper. Her Swift instructed with an assiduity comparable to but happily more incomplete than Abélard‘s towards Héloïse. He called her “Stella.”

To the man of the world Sir William Temple, Ambassador to The Hague, Swift owed his knowledge of the great moiling life beyond the quiet close of Moor Park, the world of courts and of courtiers and of the struggle for preference and power. He studied for six weeks in Oxford and obtained an M.A. degree. Sir William defrayed his expenses. After being shuttled to and from Ireland, at last in London he became as influential as any man who was not a member of the Court or the government. He acted as a “lobbyist.” He was the means of obtaining offices for many a friend. Never for himself. This must not be attributed to any neglect on his part for, try as far as his pride permitted, it was not his luck to be preferred. A “go-between” we would call him now; but in his day such activities were normal. In fact influence was the only way to obtaining a “job.”

That he must have been somewhat overzealous even at a time when every man as a matter of course sought influence is apparent from an observation, by no means a friendly one, of bishop Kennett, who recorded in his diary for the year 1713 the swagger of Swift when he was at the height of his influence or interference in English politics, a member of a kind of inner cabinet with Harley, Harcourt, and St. John: —

Swift came into the coffee house and had a bow from everybody but me. When I came to the antechamber before prayers. Dr. Swift was the principal man of talk and business, and acted as minister of requests. He was soliciting the Earl of Arran to speak to his brother, the Duke of Ormonde, to get a chaplain’s place established in the garrison of Hull, for Mr. Fiddes, a clergyman in that neighbourhood, who had lately been in jail, and published sermons to pay fees. He was promising Mr. Thorold to undertake with my Lord Treasurer that according to his petition he should obtain a salary of £200 per annum, as minister of the English church at Rotterdam. He stopped F. Gwynne, Esq., going in with the red bag to the Queen, and told him aloud that he had something to say to him from my Lord Treasurer, He talked with the son of Dr. Davenant to be sent abroad, and took out his pocket book and wrote down several things as memoranda to do for him. . . . He instructed a young nobleman that the best poet in England was Mr. Pope (a Papist) who had begun a translation of Homer into English verse, for which, he said he must have them all subscribe. “For,” said he, “the author shall not begin to print till I have a thousand guineas for him. ”

Always bearing in mind the practices of the time in which he lived (and not unmindful of our own) there is no more blame to be attached to Swift for influencing those in power than there is to Wellesley (afterwards Duke of Wellington) for soliciting his brother in India for preferment.

After all. Swift did achieve something. In spite of the long delays of the Court he got. the First Fruits remitted. The First Fruits were a tribute to the Throne of Queen Anne. Of this success he writes in that confidential diary of Ins which he addressed in letter form to Stella: “As I hope to live, I despise the credit of it out of an excess of pride and desire you will give me not the least merit when you talk of it.” The getting may have made the gift worthless in Ins eyes.

This Journal in Stella written in his “little language” lias been the subject of endless comment. He was not the only one who had recourse to l lit’ small or intimate language of a child. W c fmd Sterne using it in Ins letters to his daughter. Swift may have employed it as a kind of cipher. There is no doubt that he intended Stella to keep this, his diary, for his future reading.

On reading the Journal to Stella, Krafft-Ebing said that Swift was “sexually anaesthetic,” hut we have evidence to the contrary. Here are two of his letters concerning liaisons in his youth: —

This woman, my mistress with a pox, left one daughter, Anne by name. This Anne, for it must be she, about seven years ago writ me from London to tell me she was the daughter of Betty Jones, for that was my mistress’s name.

That is one on his own avowal; but

I could remember twenty women in my life to whom I have behaved myself in just the same way; and I profess without any other design than, that of entertaining myself when I am very idle or when something goes amiss in my affairs. This I have always done as a man of the world when I had no design for anything grave in it, and what I thought at worst a harmless impertinence. But whenever I begin to take sober resolutions, or, as now, to think of entering the Church, I never found it would be hard to put off this kind of folly at the porch.

Here is another letter, written to a Miss Varing whom he sued vehemently and called his “Vafina” after his fashion, only to he refused by her. When afterwards she confessed her willingness to marry him, what she got by way of a missive was this. After telling her that he would overlook her shortcomings in good looks and income, he proceeded: —

Have you such an inclination to my person and humour as to comply with my desires and way of living, and endeavour to make us both as happy as you can? Will you be ready to engage in those methods I shall direct for the improvement of your mind, so as to make us entertaining company for each other without being miserable when we are neither visiting nor being visited? Can you bend your love and esteem and indifference to others in the same way as I do mine?

This letter shows him most disadvantageously. Since we do not know what went to its making, judgment must be reserved; but one thing is plain and that is that no one who had any spirit could accept the position of the household drudge which was at the time apparently Swift’s requirement of a wife. Contrast this with the childish tenderness of his love for Stella.

Now we come 1o another Esther. She is Esther Vanhomrigh, daughter of a Lord Mayor of Dublin. She herself was given the freedom of that city. We find her living with her mother in London at the time that Swift was at the height of his power, He was familiar with the family, and he used their home to change his wig and gown. Very often he dined there. Esther, soon to become “Vanessa,” was an impulsive, generous, and passionate young woman. She was interested in books and was superior in intelligence to the young bloods of London who frequented the coffeehouses and the theaters. Her admiration for Swift and her flattery could not long be resisted by a heart that was hungering for admiration. She is never mentioned directly in his Journal to Stella.


I HAD been photographing a colored bust of Swift bewigged, which is set in a niche above a tavern in Werburgh Street at the corner of Hoey’s Court, when I decided to lunch at the lavish Dolphin, where they serve the best lunch in Dublin. There it was my good luck to find two eminent men of letters, Denis Johnsten and Lynn Doyle, the poet, Our talk covered many aspects of the life of the Dean. “I have always regarded him as a secondrate writer,” said Lynn Doyle. I could not be surprised at that because I knew well how exigent the speaker’s ideas of great writing were; and I had the conflicting opinions of Swift‘s commentators in mind. I asked Lynn how he came to such a conclusion.

“Swift never wrote out of his subconscious” was the answer.

That I had to concede. Had not Dryden testified to it when he said, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet”? Poetry, in spite of his readiness in rhyme and his multitudinous verses, was as far away from Swift as from another great Dublin intellect and master of clear prose, George Bernard Shaw. To neither of them had the vision beautiful been vouchsafed.

Denis Johnston said, “The Black Book of the King’s Inns would repay anyone interested in research of the period. It has not yet been edited. In it we can see the handwriting of the Jonathan Swift who was reputedly the father of the famous Jonathan. Sometimes it is blotted and blurred. The writer was evidently drunk when he wrote. Sometimes there was no entry. He did not write at all.”

I said, “This was the man on whom Sir John Temple wished his mistress, Abigail Erick, when he thought that it was time to make provision for her.”

“He was about sixty-six,” Denis Johnston continued, still referring to Abigail’s husband. “He disappears from the picture. The entries cease in November, 1666. He died probably during the winter or in the spring of 1667. On the last day of the November following, his widow gave birth to a child — ten or eleven months later.”

I thought of how long Jonathan the Elder may have been ailing before his death. I thought of the consolation his widow got when she turned for comfort to Sir John Temple, her old protector. Enough to make her the mother of his child, who was christened Jonathan to add verisimilitude.

But Vanessa was the woman of whom I wanted information. I got it. She followed Swift to Ireland in 1715 despite his earnest attempts to dissuade her. She had property in what is now Celbridge Abbey. It was called Marlay Abbey in those days. We do not have to consult Walpole, who was an enemy of Swift, to sense a liaison between the passionate, generous Vanessa and the man who bred true to the Temples. In Dublin of the scandals there was some talk of Swift’s doubtful parentage. The gossips overshot the mark by suggesting that he was a son of Sir William Temple and, therefore, a half brother to Stella. The Revolution of 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne were distractions enough to keep the gossips busy with other 1 hemes. As Denis Johnston said, “A new generation had forgotten the old Master of the Rolls and connected Swift, with the son instead of with the father.”

But the jigsaw puzzle is solved. Every piece fits in if you realize that Swift, was the son of Sir John and the half brother of Sir William Temple. It makes him the uncle of little “Stella” Johnson, and not the half brother. But the relationship is enough to put marriage out of the question. The common law of England, not to mention church law, made such a relationship as marriage between an uncle and a niece incestuous.

Vanessa was living in Ireland for nine years. She could stand her equivocal position no longer. She wrote to Stella. Swift got the letter. He took horse to Marlay Abbey cold with fury. He threw her letter at Vanessa. The warm heart broke. It was the end of her and that affair.

As for Stella, the happy, the heroic, the witty, and the devoted, biographers make her out to be the victim of Swift’s sexual anaesthesia. She was his niece. Once that was revealed to her all was clear. She could have chosen anyone; but to her devotion to her old tutor she made a sacrifice which has been the cause both of mystery and of scandal. Was there ever a dilemma more acute than Swift’s? He could not marry Vanessa, who had claims on him sufficient to impel her to follow him to Ireland, without confessing his blood relationship with Stella, a secret not altogether his to divulge; nor could he marry Vanessa without putting Stella, if he kept the secret, in the most unjust and invidious position of a discarded mistress. Is it any wonder that Archbishop Narcissus King said mysteriously to Dr. Delaney, who had seen the Dean rush out distractedly, “You have just seen the most unhappy man on earth; but on the subject of his wretchedness you must never ask a question”?

When did Swift know of his illegitimacy? Surely when he began to regard himself as an Englishman. The fact that he condemned Ireland is enough to make us realize that he considered himself to be of a different breed.

How are we to make him human and understandable unless we grant that he was the victim of an unrightable wrong, and that he knew it? The wrong of his birth which he never confessed worked inwardly and filled him with innate dissatisfaction. He knew the magnitude of a power that unobtrusively ruled England for two years, and he knew that he could never lay claim to an origin which could make that intellectual superiority not seem upstart, extraordinary, and impertinent. To a mind of such sensitivity as Swift’s, illegitimacy was the greatest wrong that could be inflicted on him. Is it any wonder that injustice was the subject of his frenzy and his indignation? To this was added an inevitable corollary of another illegitimacy, the disabling him from marrying where his heart lay. He was sentenced to secrecy, celibacy, and, he imagined, contempt in high places.