CHAPTER XXVI. STEELE AND SWIFT.
Sir Richard Steele. Periodicals. The Crisis. His Last Days. Jonathan
Swift—Poems. The Tale of a Tub. Battle of the Books. Pamphlets. M. B.
Drapier. Gulliver's Travels. Stella and Vanessa. His Character and
Contemporary with Addison, and forming with him a literary fraternity, Steele and Swift were besides men of distinct prominence, and clearly represent the age in which they lived.
SIR RICHARD STEELE.—If Addison were chosen as the principal literary figure of the period, a sketch of his life would be incomplete without a large mention of his lifelong friend and collaborator, Steele. If to Bacon belongs the honor of being the first writer and the namer of the English essay, Steele may claim that of being the first periodical essayist.
He was born in Dublin, in 1671, of English parents; his father being at the time secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He received his early education at the Charter-House school, in London, an institution which has numbered among its pupils many who have gained distinguished names in literature. Here he met and formed a permanent friendship with Addison. He was afterwards entered as a student at Merton College, Oxford; but he led there a wild and reckless life, and leaving without a degree, he enlisted as a private in the Horse Guards. Through the influence of his friends, he was made a cornet, and afterwards a captain, in the Fusileers; but this only gave him opportunity for continued dissipation. His principles were better than his conduct; and, haunted by conscience, he made an effort to reform himself by writing a devotional work called The Christian Hero; but there was such a contrast between his precepts and his life, that he was laughed at by the town. Between 1701 and 1704 he produced his three comedies. The Funeral, or Grief a la Mode; The Tender Husband, and The Lying Lover. The first two were successful upon the stage, but the last was a complete failure. Disgusted for the time with the drama, he was led to find his true place as the writer of those light, brilliant, periodical essays which form a prominent literary feature of the reign of Queen Anne. These Essays were comments, suggestions, strictures, and satires upon the age. They were of immediate and local interest then, and have now a value which the writers did not foresee: they are unconscious history.
PERIODICALS.—The first of these periodicals was The Tatler, a penny sheet, issued tri-weekly, on post-days. The first number appeared on the 12th of April, 1709, and asserted the very laudable purpose “to expose the deceits, sins, and vanities of the former age, and to make virtue, simplicity, and plain-dealing the law of social life.” “For this purpose,” in the words of Dr. Johnson, “nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as study, but amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise is short. The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience.” One nom de plume of Steele was Isaac Bickerstaff, which he borrowed from Swift, who had issued party-pamphlets under that name.
The Tatler was a success. The fluent pen of Addison gave it valuable assistance; and in January, 1711, it was merged into, rather than superseded by, The Spectator, which was issued six days in the week.
In this new periodical, Steele wrote the paper containing the original sketch of Sir Roger de Coverley and The Club; but, as has been already said, Addison adopted, elaborated, and finished this in several later papers. Steele had been by far the larger contributor to The Tatler. Of all the articles in The Spectator, Steele wrote two hundred and forty, and Addison two hundred and seventy-four; the rest were by various hands. In March, 1713, when The Spectator was commencing its seventh volume, The Guardian made its appearance. For the first volume of The Guardian, Addison wrote but one paper; but for the second he wrote more than Steele. Of the one hundred and seventy-six numbers of that periodical, eighty-two of the papers were by Steele and fifty-three by Addison. If the writings of Addison were more scholarly and elegant, those of Steele were more vivacious and brilliant; and together they have produced a series of essays which have not been surpassed in later times, and which are vividly delineative of their own.
THE CRISIS.—The career of Steele was varied and erratic. He held several public offices, was a justice of the peace, and a member of parliament. He wrote numerous political tracts, which are not without historical value. For one pamphlet of a political character, entitled The Crisis, he was expelled from parliament for libel; but upon the death of Queen Anne, he again found himself in favor. He was knighted in 1715, and received several lucrative appointments.
He was an eloquent orator, and as a writer rapid and brilliant, but not profound. Even thus, however, he catered to an age at once artificial and superficial. Very observant of what he saw, he rushed to his closet and jotted down his views in electrical words, which made themselves immediately and distinctly felt.
HIS LAST DAYS.—Near the close of his life he produced a very successful comedy, entitled The Conscious Lover, which would have been of pecuniary value to him, were it not that he was already overwhelmed with debt. His end was a sad one; but he reaped what his extravagance and recklessness had sown. Shattered in health and ruined in fortune, he retreated from the great world into homely retirement in Wales, where he lived, poor and hidden, in a humble cottage at Llangunnor. His end was heralded by an attack of paralysis, and he died in 1729.
After his death, his letters were published; and in the private history which they unfold, he appears, notwithstanding all his follies, in the light of a tender husband and of an amiable and unselfish man. He had principle, but he lacked resolution; and the wild, vacillating character of his life is mirrored in his writings, where The Christian Hero stands in singular contrast to the comic personages of his dramas. He was a genial critic. His exuberant wit and humor reproved without wounding; he was not severe enough to be a public censor, nor pedantic enough to be the pedagogue of an age which often needed the lash rather than the gentle reproof, and upon which a merciful clemency lost its end if not its praises. He deserves credit for an attempt, however feeble, to reward virtue upon the stage, after the wholesale rewards which vice had reaped in the age of Charles II.
Steele has been overshadowed, in his connection with Addison, by the more dignified and consistent career, the greater social respectability, and the more elegant and scholarly style of his friend; and yet in much that they jointly accomplished, the merit of Steele is really as great, and conduces much to the reputation of Addison. The one husbanded and cherished his fame; the other flung it away or lavished it upon his colleagues. As contributors to history, they claim an equal share of our gratitude and praise.
JONATHAN SWIFT.—The grandfather of Swift was vicar of Goodrich, in Herefordshire. His father and mother were both English, but he was born in Dublin, in the year 1667. A posthumous child, he came into the world seven months after his father's death. From his earliest youth, he deplored the circumstances among which his lot had been cast. He was dependent upon his uncle, Godwin Swift, himself a poor man; but was not grateful for his assistance, always saying that his uncle had given him the education of a dog. At the University of Dublin, where he was entered, he did not bear a good character: he was frequently absent from his duties and negligent of his studies; and although he read history and poetry, he was considered stupid as well as idle. He was more than once admonished and suspended, but at length received his degree, Speciali gratia; which special act of grace implied that he had not fairly earned it. Piqued by this, he set to work in real earnest, and is said to have studied eight hours a day for eight years. Thus, from an idle and unsuccessful collegian, he became a man of considerable learning and a powerful writer.
He was a distant connection of Sir William Temple, through Lady Temple; and he went, by his mother's advice, to live with that distinguished man at his seat, Shene, in Moor Park, as private secretary.
In this position Swift seems to have led an uncomfortable life, ranking somewhere between the family and the upper servants. Sir William Temple was disposed to be kind, but found it difficult to converse with him on account of his moroseness and other peculiarities. At Shene he met King William III., who talked with him, and offered him a captaincy in the army. This Swift declined, knowing his unfitness for the post, and doubtless feeling the promptings of a higher ambition. It was also at Shene that he met a young girl, whose history was thenceforth to be mingled with his in sadness and sorrow, during their lives. This was Esther Johnson, the daughter of Temple's housekeeper, and surmised, at a later day, to be the natural daughter of Temple himself. When the young secretary first met her, she was fourteen years of age, very clever and beautiful; and they fell in love with each other.
We cannot dwell at length upon the events of his life. His versatile pen was prolific of poetry, sentimental and satirical; of political allegories of great potency, of fiction erected of impossible materials, and yet so creating and peopling a world of fancy as to illude the reader into temporary belief in its truth.
POEMS.—His poems are rather sententious than harmonious. His power, however, was great; he managed verse as an engine, and had an entire mastery over rhyme, which masters so many would-be poets. His Odes are classically constructed, but massive and cumbrous. His satirical poems are eminently historical, ranging over and attacking almost every topic, political, religious, and social. Among the most characteristic of his miscellaneous verses are Epigrams and Epistles, Clever Tom Pinch Going to be Hanged, Advice to Grub Street Writers, Helter-Skelter, The Puppet Show, and similar odd pieces, frequently scurrilous, bitter, and lewd in expression. The writer of English history consults these as he does the penny ballads, lampoons, and caricatures of the day,—to discern the animus of parties and the methods of hostile factions.
But it is in his inimitable prose writings that Swift is of most value to the historical student. Against all comers he stood the Goliath of pamphleteers in the reign of Queen Anne, and there arose no David who could slay him.
THE TALE OF A TUB.—While an unappreciated student at the university, he had sketched a satirical piece, which he finished and published in 1704, under the title of The Tale of a Tub. As a tub is thrown overboard at sea to divert a whale, so this is supposed to be a sop cast out to the Leviathan of Hobbes, to prevent it from injuring the vessel of state. The story is a satire aimed against the Roman Catholics on the one hand, and the Presbyterians on the other, in order that he may exalt the Church of England as, in his judgment, free from the errors of both, and a just and happy medium between the two extremes. His own opinion of its merits is well known: in one of his later years, when his hand had lost its cunning, he is said to have exclaimed, as he picked it up, “What a genius I had when I wrote that book!” The characters of the story are Peter (representing St. Peter, or the Roman Catholic Church), Martin (Luther, or the Church of England), and Jack (John Calvin, or the Presbyterians). By their father's will each had been left a suit of clothes, made in the fashion of his day. To this Peter added laces and fringes; Martin took off some of the ornaments of doubtful taste; but Jack ripped and tore off the trimmings of his dress to such an extent that he was in clanger of exposing his nakedness. It is said that the invective was so strong and the satire so bitter, that they presented a bar to that preferment which Swift might otherwise have obtained. He appears at this time to have cared little for public opinion, except that it should fear his trenchant wit and do homage to his genius.
THE BATTLE OF THE BOOKS.—In the same year, 1704, he also published The Battle of the Books, the idea of which was taken from a French work of Courtraye, entitled “Histoire de la guerre nouvellement declaree entre les Anciens et les Modernes.” Swift's work was written in furtherance of the views of his patron, Temple, who had some time before engaged in the controversy as to the relative merits of ancient and modern learning, and who, in the words of Macaulay, “was so absurd as to set up his own authority against that of Bentley on questions of Greek history and philology.”
The Battle of the Books is of present value, as it affords information upon the opinions then held on a question which, in various forms, has been agitating the literary world ever since. In it Swift compares Dryden, Wotten, and Bentley with the old authors in St. James's Library, where the battle of the books is said to have taken place.
Upon the death of Sir William Temple, in 1699, Swift had gone to London. He was ambitious of power and money, and when he found little chance of preferment among the Whigs, he became a Tory. It must be said, in explanation of this change, that, although he had called himself a Whig, he had disliked many of their opinions, and had never heartily espoused their cause. Like others already referred to, he watched the political horizon, and was ready for a change when circumstances should warrant it. This change and its causes are set forth in his Bickerstaff's Ridicule of Astrology and Sacramental Test.
The Whigs tried hard to retain him; the Tories were rejoiced to receive him, and modes of preferment for him were openly canvassed. One of these was to make him Bishop of Virginia, with metropolitan powers in America; but it failed. He was also recommended for the See of Hereford; but persons near the queen advised her “to be sure that the man she was going to make a bishop was a Christian.” Thus far he had only been made rector of Agher and vicar of Laracor and Rathbeggin.
VARIOUS PAMPHLETS.—His Argument Against the Abolition of Christianity, Dr. Johnson calls “a very happy and judicious irony.” In 1710 he wrote a paper, at the request of the Irish primate, petitioning the queen to remit the first-fruits and twentieth parts to the Irish clergy. In 1712, ten days before the meeting of parliament, he published his Conduct of the Allies, which, exposing the greed of Marlborough, persuaded the nation to make peace. A supplement to this is found in Reflections on the Barrier Treaty, in which he shows how little English interests had been consulted in that negotiation.
His pamphlet on The Public Spirit of the Whigs, in answer to Steele's Crisis, was so terrible a bomb-shell thrown into the camp of his former friends, and so insulting to the Scotch, that L300 were offered by the queen, at the instance of the Scotch lords, for the discovery of the author; but without success.
At last his versatile and powerful pen obtained some measure of reward: in 1713 he was made Dean of St. Patrick's, in Dublin, with a stipend of L700 per annum. This was his greatest and last preferment.
On the accession of George I., in the following year, he paid his court, but was received with something more than coldness. He withdrew to his deanery in Dublin, and, in the words of Johnson, “commenced Irishman for life, and was to contrive how he might be best accommodated in a country where he considered himself as in a state of exile.” After some misunderstanding between himself and his Irish fellow-citizens, he espoused their cause so warmly that he became the most popular man in Ireland. In 1721 he could write to Pope, “I neither know the names nor the number of the family which now reigneth, further than the prayer-book informeth me.” His letters, signed M. B. Drapier, on Irish manufactures, and especially those in opposition to Wood's monopoly of copper coinage, in 1724, wrought upon the people, producing such a spirit of resistance that the project of a debased coinage failed; and so influential did Swift become, that he was able to say to the Archbishop of Dublin, “Had I raised my finger, the mob would have torn you to pieces.” This popularity was increased by the fact that a reward of L300 was offered by Lord Carteret and the privy council for the discovery of the authorship of the fourth letter; but although it was commonly known that Swift was the author, proof could not be obtained. Carteret, the Lord Lieutenant, afterwards said, “When people ask me how I governed Ireland, I said that I pleased Doctor Swift.”
Thus far Swift's literary labors are manifest history: we come now to consider that great work, Gulliver's Travels,—the most successful of its kind ever written,—in which, with all the charm of fiction in plot, incident, and description, he pictures the great men and the political parties of the day.
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS.—Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon's mate, finds himself shipwrecked on the shore of the country of Lilliput, the people of which are only six inches in height. His adventures are so vividly described that our charmed fancy places us among them as we read, and we, for a time, abandon ourselves to a belief in their reality. It was, however, begun as a political satire; in the insignificance of the court of pigmies, he attacks the feebleness and folly of the new reign. Flimnap, the prime minister of Lilliput, is a caricature of Walpole; the Big Indians and Little Indians represent the Protestants and Roman Catholics; the High Heels and Low Heels stand for the Whigs and Tories; and the heir-apparent, who wears one heel high and the other low, is the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II., who favored both parties in order to gain both to his purpose.
In his second voyage, that to Brobdignag, his satirical imagination took a wider range—European politics as they appear to a superior intelligence, illustrated by a man of sixty feet in comparison with one ofsix. As Gulliver had looked with curious contempt upon the united efforts of the Lilliputians, he now found himself in great jeopardy and fear when in the hands of a giant of Brobdignag. As the pigmy metropolis, five hundred yards square, was to London, so were London and other European capitals to the giants' city, two thousand miles in circumference. And what are the armies of Europe, when compared with that magnificent cavalry manoeuvring on a parade-ground twenty miles square, each mounted trooper ninety feet high, and all, as they draw their swords at command, representing ten thousand flashes of lightning?
The third part contains the voyage of Gulliver—no less improbable than the former ones—to Laputa, the flying island of projectors and visionaries. This is a varied satire upon the Royal Society, the eccentricities of the savans, empirics of all kinds, mathematical magic, and the like. In this, political schemes to restore the pretender are aimed at. The Mississippi Scheme and the South Sea bubble are denounced. Here, too, in his journey to Luggnagg, he introduces the sad and revolting picture of the Struldbrugs, those human beings who live on, losing all their power and becoming hideously old.
In his last voyage—to the land of the Houyhnhnms—his misanthropy is painfully manifest. This is the country where horses are masters, and men a servile and degraded race; and he has painted the men so brutish and filthy that the satire loses its point. The power of satire lies in contrast; we must compare the evil in men with the good: when the whole race is included in one sweeping condemnation, and an inferior being exalted, in opposition to all possibility, the standard is absurd, and the satirist loses his pains.
The horses are the Houyhnhnms, (the name is an attempt to imitate a neigh,) a noble race, who are amazed and disgusted at the Yahoos,—the degraded men,—upon whom Swift, in his sweeping misanthropy, has exhausted his bitterness and his filth.
STELLA AND VANESSA.—While Swift's mysterious associations with Stella and Vanessa have but little to do with the course of English Literature, they largely affect his personality, and no sketch of him would be complete without introducing them to the reader. We cannot conjure up the tall, burly form, the heavy-browed, scowling, contemptuous face, the sharp blue eye, and the bushy black hair of the dean, without seeing on one side and the other the two pale, meek-eyed, devoted women, who watch his every look, shrink from his sudden bursts of wrath, receive for their infatuation a few fair words without sentiment, and earnestly crave a little love as a return for their whole hearts. It is a wonderful, touching, baffling story.
Stella he had known and taught in her young maidenhood at Sir William Temple's. As has been said, she was called the daughter of his steward and housekeeper, but conjectures are rife that she was Sir William's own child. When Swift removed to Ireland, she came, at Swift's request, with a matron friend, Mrs. Dingley, to live near him. Why he did not at once marry her, and why, at last, he married her secretly, in 1716, are questions over which curious readers have puzzled themselves in vain, and upon which, in default of evidence, some perhaps uncharitable conclusions have been reached. The story of their association may be found in the Journal to Stella.
With Miss Hester Vanhomrigh (Vanessa) he became acquainted in London, in 1712: he was also her instructor; and when with her he seems to have forgotten his allegiance to Stella. Cadenus, as he calls himself, was too tender and fond: Vanessa became infatuated; and when she heard of Swift's private marriage with Stella, she died of chagrin or of a broken heart. She had cancelled the will which she had made in Swift's favor, and left it in charge to her executors to publish their correspondence. Both sides of the history of this connection are fully displayed in the poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, and in theCorrespondence of Swift and Vanessa.
CHARACTER AND DEATH.—Pride overbearing and uncontrollable, misanthropy, excessive dogmatism, a singular pleasure in giving others pain, were among his personal faults or misfortunes. He abused his companions and servants; he never forgave his sister for marrying a tradesman; he could attract with winning words and repel with furious invective; and he was always anxiously desiring the day of his death, and cursing that of his birth. His common farewell was “Good-bye; I hope we may never meet again.” There is a painful levity in his verses On the Death of Doctor Swift, in which he gives an epitome of his life:
From Dublin soon to London spread,
'Tis told at court the dean is dead!
And Lady Suffolk, in the spleen,
Runs laughing up to tell the queen:
The queen, so gracious, mild, and good,
Cries, “Is he gone? it's time he should.”
At last the end came. While a young man, he had suffered from a painful attack of vertigo, brought on by a surfeit of fruit; “eating,” he says, in a letter to Mrs. Howard, “an hundred golden pippins at a time.” This had occasioned a deafness; and both giddiness and deafness had recurred at intervals, and at last manifestly affected his mind. Once, when walking with some friends, he had pointed to an elm-tree, blasted by lightning, and had said, “I shall be like that tree: I shall die first at the top.” And thus at last the doom fell. Struck on the brain, he lingered for nine years in that valley of spectral horrors, of whose only gates idiocy and madness are the hideous wardens. From this bondage he was released by death on the 19th of October, 1745.
Many have called it a fearful retribution for his sins, and especially for his treatment of Stella and Vanessa. A far more reasonable and charitable verdict is that the evil in his conduct through life had its origin in congenital disorder; and in his days of apparent sanity, the character of his eccentric actions is to be palliated, if not entirely excused, on the plea of insanity. Additional force is given to this judgment by the fact that, when he died, it was found that he had left his money to found a hospital for the insane, illustrating the line,—
A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind.
In that day of great classical scholars, Swift will hardly rank among the most profound; but he possessed a creative power, a ready and versatile fancy, a clear and pleasing but plain style. He has been unjustly accused by Lady Montagu of having stolen plot and humor from Cervantes and Rabelais: he drew from the same source as they; and those suggestions which came to him from them owe all their merit to his application of them. As a critic, he was heartless and rude; but as a polemic and a delineator of his age, he stands prominently forth as an historian, whose works alone would make us familiar with the period.
OTHER WRITERS OF THE AGE.
Sir William Temple, 1628-1698: he was a statesman and a political writer; rather a man of mark in his own day than of special interest to the present time. After having been engaged in several important diplomatic affairs, he retired to his seat of Moor Park, and employed himself in study and with his pen. His Essays and Observations on Government are valuable as a clue to the history. In his controversy with Bentley on the Epistles of Phalaris, and the relative merits of ancient and modern authors, he was overmatched in scholarship. In a literary point of view, Temple deserves praise for the ease and beauty of his style. Dr. Johnson says he “was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose.” “What can be more pleasant,” says Charles Lamb, “than the way in which the retired statesman peeps out in his essays, penned in his delightful retreat at Shene?” He is perhaps better known in literary history as the early patron of Swift, than for his own works.
Sir Isaac Newton, 1642-1727: the chief glory of Newton is not connected with literary effort: he ranks among the most profound and original philosophers, and was one of the purest and most unselfish of men. The son of a farmer, he was born at Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, after his father's death,—a feeble, sickly child. The year of his birth was that in which Galileo died. At the age of fifteen he was employed on his mother's farm, but had already displayed such an ardor for learning that he was sent first to school and then to Cambridge, where he was soon conspicuous for his talents and his genius. In due time he was made a professor. His discoveries in astronomy, mechanics, and optics are of world-wide renown. The law of gravitation was established by him, and set forth in his paper De Motu Corporum. His treatise on Fluxions prepared the way for that wonderful mathematical, labor-saving instrument—the differential calculus. In 1687 he published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which all his mathematical theories are propounded. In 1696 he was made Warden of the Mint, and in 1699 Master of the Mint. Long a member of the Royal Society, he was its president for the last twenty-four years of his life. In 1688 he was elected member of parliament for the university of Cambridge. Of purely literary works he left two, entitled respectively, Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, and a Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended; both of which are of little present value except as the curious remains of so great a man.
Viscount Bolingbroke (Henry St. John), 1678-1751: as an erratic statesman, a notorious free-thinker, a dissipated lord, a clever political writer, and an eloquent speaker, Lord Bolingbroke was a centre of attraction in his day, and demands observation in literary history. During the reign of Queen Anne he was a plotter in favor of the pretender, and when she died, he fled the realm to avoid impeachment for treason. In France he joined the pretender as Secretary of State, but was dismissed for intrigue; and on being pardoned by the English king, he returned to England. His writings are brilliant but specious. His influence was felt in the literary society he drew around him,—Swift, Pope, and others,—and, as has been already said, his opinions are to be found in that Essay on Man which Pope dedicated to him. In his meteoric political career he represents and typifies one phase of the time in which he lived.
George Berkeley, 1684-1753: he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and soon engaged in metaphysical controversy. In 1724 he was made Dean of Derry, and in 1734, Bishop of Cloyne. A man of great philanthropy, he set forth a scheme for the founding of the Bermudas College, to train missionaries for the colonies and to labor among the North American Indians. As a metaphysician, he was anabsolute idealist. This is no place to discuss his theory. In the words of Dr. Reid, “He maintains ... that there is no such thing as matter in the universe; that the sun and moon, earth and sea, our own bodies and those of our friends, are nothing but ideas in the minds of those who think of them, and that they have no existence when they are not objects of thought; that all that is in the universe may be reduced to two categories, to wit, minds and ideas in the mind.” The reader is referred, for a full discussion of this question, to Sir William Hamilton's Metaphysics. Berkeley's chief writings are: New Theory of Vision, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, and Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. His name and memory are especially dear to the American people; for, although his scheme of the training-college failed, he lived for two years and a half in Newport, where his house still stands, and where one of his children is buried. He presented to Yale College his library and his estate in Rhode Island, and he wrote that beautiful poem with its kindly prophecy:
Westward the course of empire takes its way:
The four first acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time's noblest offspring is the last.