« PreviousContinue »
. THE ENGLISH HUMO RISTS
N treating of the English humorists of the past age, it is of the men and of their lives, rather than of their books, that I ask permission to speak to you; and in doing so, you are aware that I cannot hope to entertain you with a merely humorous or facetious story. Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin.” — a man full of cares and perplexities like the rest of us, whose Self must always be serious to him, under whatever mask or disguise or uniform he presents it to the public. And as all of you here must needs be grave when you think of your own past and present, you will not look to find, in the histories of those whose lives and feelings I am going to tr and describe to you, a story that is otherwise than serious, and often very sad. If Humor only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest about humorous writers than about the private life of poor Harlequin just mentioned, who possesses in common with these the power of making you laugh. But the men re
* The anecdote is frequently told of our performer RICH.
pity, your kindness—your scorn for
untruth, pretension, imposture—your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means and ability he comments on all the ordinary actions and pas. sions of life almost. He takes upon himself to be the week-day preacher, so to speak. Accordingly, as he finds, and speaks, and feels the truth best, we regard him, esteem him — sometimes love him. And, as his business is to mark other people's lives and peculiarities, we moralize upon his life when he is gone—and yesterday's preacher becomes the text for to-day's sermon. Of English parents, and of a good English family of clergymen,* Swift
* He was from a younger branch of the Swifts of Yorkshire. #. grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich, in Herefordshire, suffered for his loyalty in Charles I.'s time. That gentleman married Elizabeth Dryden, a member of the family of the poet. , Sir Walter Scott gives, with his characteristic minute
was born in Dublin in 1667, seven months after the death of his father, who had come to practise there as a lawyer. The boy went to school at Kilkenny, and afterwards to Trinity College, Dublin, where he got a degree with difficulty, and was wild, and witty, and poor. In 1688, by the recommendation of his mother, Swift was received into the family of Sir William Temple, who had known Mrs. Swift in Ireland. He left his patron in 1693, and the next year took orders in Dublin. But he threw up the small Irish preferment which he got and returned to Temple, in whose family he remained until Sir William's death in 1699. His hopes of advancement in England failing, Swift returned to Ireland, and took the living of Laracor. Hither he invited Hester Johnson,” Temple's natural daughter, with whom he had contracted a tender friendship, while they were both dependants of Temple's. And with an occasional visit to England, Swift now passed nine years at home. In 1709 he came to England, and, with a brief visit to Ireland, during which he took possession of his deanery of St. Patrick, he now passed five
ness in such points, the exact relationship between these famous men. Swift was “the son of Dryden's second cousin.” Swift, too, was the enemy of Dryden's reputation. Witness the “Battle of the Books: ”—“The difference was greatest among the horse,” says he of the moderns, “where every private trooper pretended to the command, from Tasso and Milton to Dryden and Withers.” . And in “Poetry, a Rhapsody,” he advises the poetaster to —
“Read all the Prefaces of Dryden,
“Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet,” was the phrase of Dryden to his kinsman, which remained alive in a memory tena: cious of such matters.
* “Miss Hetty,” she was called in the family — where her face, and her dress, and Sir William’s treatment of her, all made the real fact about her birth plain enough. Sir William left her a thousand pounds.
years in England, taking the most distinguished part in the political transactions which terminated with the death of Queen Anne. After her death, his party disgraced, and his hopes of ambition over, Swift returned to Dublin, where he remained twelve years. In this time he wrote the famous “Drapier's Letters ” ...} “Gulliver's Travels.” He marrie Hester Johnson, Stella, and buried Esther Vanhomrigh, Vanessa, who had followed him to Ireland from London, where she had contracted a violent passion for him. In 1726 and 1727 Swift was in England, which he quitted for the last time on hearing of his wife's illness. Stella died in January, 1728, and Swift not till 1745, having passed the last five of the seventy-eight years of his life with an impaired intellect and keepers to watch him.* You know, of course, that Swift has had many biographers; his life has been told by the kindest and most good-natured of men, Scott, who admires but can’t bring himself to love him; and by stout old Johnson,t
* Sometimes, during his mental affliction, he continued walking about the house for many consecutive hours; sometimes he remained in a kind of torpor. At times, he would seem to struggle to bring into distinct consciousness, and shape into expression, the intellect that lay smothering under gloomy obstruction in him. A pier-glass falling by accident, nearly fell on him. He said he wished it had 1. He 6nce repeated slowly several times, “I am what I am.” The last thing he wrote was an epigram on the building of a magazine for arms and stores, which was pointed out to him as he went abroad during his mental disease:—
“Behold a proof of Irish sense:
Besides these famous books of Scott's and Johnson's, there is a copious “Life” by Thomas Sheridan (Dr. Johnson’s “Sherry”), father of Richard Brinsley, and son of that good-natured, clever Irish Dr. Thomas Sheridan, Swift's intimate, who lost his chaplaincy by so unluckily choosing for a text on the King's birthday, “Sufficient for the day is the cvil thereof.” Not to mention less im
who, forced to admit him into the company of poets, receives the famous Irishman, and takes off his hat to him with a bow of surly recognition, scans him from head to foot, and passes over to the other side of the street. Dr. Wilde of Dublin,” who has written a most interesting volume on the closing years of Swift's life, calls Johnson “the most malignant of his biographers: ” it is not easy for an English critic to please Irishmen — perhaps to try and please them. And yet Johnson truly admires Swift: Johnson does not quarrel with Swift's change of politics, or doubt his sincerity of religion: about the famous Stella and Vanessa controversy the Doctor does not bear very hardly on Swift. But he could not give the Dean that honest hand of his ; the stout old gentleman puts it into his breast, and moves off from him.t
portant works, there is also the “Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift,” by that polite and dignified writer, the Earl of Orrery. His lordship is said to have striven for literary renown, chiefly that he might make up for the slight assed on him by his father, who left his ibrary away from him. It is to be feared that the ink he used to wash out that stain only made it look bigger. He had, however, known Swift, and corresponded with people who knew him. His work (which appeared in 1751) provoked a good deal of controversy, calling out, among other brochures, the interesting “Observations on Lord Orrery's Remarks,” &c., of Dr. Delany. * Dr. Wilde's book was written on the occasion of the remains of Swift and Stella being brought to the light of day — a thing which happened in 1835, when certain works so on in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin,afforded an o of their being examined. One hears wit surprise of these skulls “going the rounds” of houses, and being made the objects of dilettante curiosity. The larynx of Swift was actually carried off! hrenologists had a low opinion of his intellect from the observations they took: Dr. Wilde traces the symptoms of illhealth in Swift, as detailed in his writings from time to time. He observes, likewise, that the skull gave evidence of “diseased action * of the brain during life—such as would be produced by an increasing tendency to “cerebral congestion.”
Would we have liked to live with him 4 That is a question which, in dealing with these people's works, and thinking of their lives and peculiarities, every reader of biographies must put to himself. Would you have liked to be a friend of the great Dean I should like to have been Shakspeare's shoeblack—just to have lived in his house, just to have worshipped him— to have run on his errands, and seen that sweet serene face. I should like, as a young man, to have lived on Fielding's staircase in the Temple, and after helping him up to bed perhaps, and opening his door with his latch-key, to have shaken hands with him in the morning, and heard him talk and crack jokes over his breakfast and his mug of small beer. Who would not give something to pass a night at the club with Johnson, and Goldsmith, and James Boswell, Esq., of Auchinleck : The charm of Addison's companionship and conversation has passed to us, by fond tradi-_ tion—but Swift # If you had been his inferior in parts (and that, with a t respect for all persons present, fear is only very likely), his equal in mere social station, he would have bullied, scorned, and insulted you; if, undeterred by his great reputation, you had met him like a man, he would have quailed before you,” and
have an unaccountable prejudice against Swift; for I once took the liberty to ask him if Swift had personally offended him, and he told me he had not.”—Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides. * Few men, to be sure, dared this experiment, but yet their success was encouraging. One gentleman made a point of asking the Dean whether his uncle Godwin had not given him his education. Swift, who hated that subject o and, indeed, cared little for his kindred, said, sternly, “Yes; he gave me the education of a dog.” “Then, sir,” cried the other, striking his fist on the table, “you have not the gratitude of a dog!” Other occasions there were when a bold face gave the Dean pause, even after his Irish almost-royal position was established. But he brought himself into greater danger on a certain occasion, and the amusing circumstances may be once
f “He [Dr. Johnson] seemed to me to l more repeated here. He had unsparingly
not had the pluck to reply, and gone home, and years after written a foul epigram about you — watched for you in a sewer, and come out to assail you with a coward's blow and a dirty bludgeon. If you had been a lord with a blue ribbon, who flattered his vanity, or could help his ambition, he would have been the most delightful company in the world. He would have been so manly, so sarcastic, so bright, odd, and original, that you might think he had no object in view but the indulgence of his humor, and that he was the most reckless, simple creature in the world. How he would have torn your enemies to pieces for you! and made fun of the Opposition His servility was so boisterous that it looked like independence; * he would have done your errands, but with the air of patronizing you, and after fighting your battles, masked, in the street or the press, would have kept on his hat before your wife and daughters in the drawing-room, content to take that sort of pay for his tremendous services as a bravo.t
lashed the notable Dublin lawyer, Mr. Sergeant Bettesworth —
“So at the bar, the booby Bettesworth,
The Sergeant, it is said, swore to have his life. He presented himself at the deanery. The Dean asked his name. “Sir, I am Sergeant Bett-es-worth.” * In what regiment, pray?” asked Swift. A guard of volunteers formed themselves to defend the Dean at this time. * “But, my Hamilton, I will never hide the freedom of my sentiments from you. I am much inclined to believe that the temper of my friend Swift might occasion his English friends to wish him hap#. y and properly promoted at a distance. is spirit, for I would give it the proper name, was ever untractable. The motions of his genius were often irregular. He assumed more the air of a patron than of a friend. He affected rather to dictate than to advise.”— ORRERY. f “. . . An anecdote, which, though only told by Mrs. Pilkington, is well attested, bears, that the last time he was in
London he went to dine with the Earl of Burlington, who was but newly married. The Earl, it is supposed, being willing to have a little diversion, did not introduce him to his lady nor mention his name. After dinner said the Dean, ‘Lady Burlington, I hear you can sing; sing me a song.” The lady looked on this unceremonious manner of asking a favor with distaste, and positively refused. He said, * She should sing, or #. would make her. Why, madam, I suppose you take me for one of your poor English hedge-parsons; sing when I bid you.” As the Earl did nothing but laugh at this freedom, the lady was so vexed that she burst into tears and retired. His first compliment to her when he saw her again was, ‘Pray, madam, are you as proud and ill-natured now as when I saw you last?” To which she answered with great good-humor, ‘No, Mr. Dean; I’ll sing for you if you please.” From which time he conceived a great esteem for her.”—Scott's Life, “. . . He had not the least tincture of vanity in his conversation. He was, per. haps, as he said himself, too proud to be vain. When he was polite, it was in a manner entirely his own. In his friendships he was constant and undisguised. He was the same in his enmities.”—ORRERY. * “I make no figure but at court, where I affect to turn from the lord to the meanest of my acquaintances.” – Journal to Stella. “I am plagued with bad authors, verse and prose, who send me their books and poems, the vilest I ever saw; but I have given their names to my man, never to
‘let them see me.” –Journal to Stella.
The following curious paragraph illustrates the life of a courtier: —
“Did I ever tell you that the Lord Treasurer hears ill with the left ear, just as I do? . . . I dare not tell him that I am so, for fear he should think that I counterfeited to make my court 1 °Journal to Stella.