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THERE can be no doubt of the audacious eccentricity of this reverend and dignified gentleman, - dignified by position, not by character, nor by seemly observance of even the common decencies of life. It is difficult to understand how Swift acquired his great reputation. Sir Walter Scott, in the feeblest paper he ever wrote (1824), pronounced him to be one of the greatest men this country had produced. One feels astounded that ...
THERE can be no doubt of the audacious eccentricity of this reverend and dignified gentleman, - dignified by position, not by character, nor by seemly observance of even the common decencies of life. It is difficult to understand how Swift acquired his great reputation. Sir Walter Scott, in the feeblest paper he ever wrote (1824), pronounced him to be one of the greatest men this country had produced. One feels astounded that such a sentence should have flowed from such a pen. No question that Dean Swift possessed a vigorous, sledge-hammer kind of intellect. He was a sort of clerical William Cobbett, wearing a gown instead of a smock-frock, but utterly deficient in the tenderness for women which was the most amiable characteristic of the Hampshire ploughman.
With the exception of Gulliver's Travels, nothing of Swift's really lives in the popular mind. The taste of readers has so far improved since his time that indecent coarseness no longer passes for wit, nor irreverent mockery of all that constitutes the grace and glory of life for profound, searching wisdom. The true solution of the enigma presented by the career of Dean Swift is, in my judgment, this - that he was in a certain morbid sense insane from an early age. The mental malady grew upon him with advancing years, and at last became apparent to the dullest observer, fully justifying the second line of an often-quoted couplet:-
"Down Marlboro's cheeks the tears of dotage flow,
And Swift expires a driveller and a show."
This much-talked-of Dean is commonly claimed by Irishmen as a countryman of theirs. No one would grudge the Isle of Saints such honour as that circumstance might be supposed to confer: but the fact is not so; except, to use a trite vulgarism, a man is a horse if he happens to be born in a stable. Jonathan Swift's father was a Yorkshireman, and married Mrs. Abigail Erick, of Leicestershire. Famous people were the Swifts of Yorkshire, if we are to believe the Dean's historiographers; though not by any means equal in historic lustre to the Ericks, - Mrs. Abigail Erick having been a direct descendant of Erick the Forester, who flourished in the days of William the Norman!
Mr. and Mrs. Swift, though rich in ancestral honours, were poor in an actual money sense. The father of the celebrated Dean was the youngest son of his father, and inherited a youngest son's portion. He accepted the situation or office of steward to the Society of King's Inn, Dublin; went to reside in that city; and there was born, before the expiration of the honey-year, if such a phrase be permissible, the subject of the present sketch, on the 30th of November 1667. His father died when he was about a year old, leaving his widow almost penniless. She had recourse to her deceased husband's brother, reputedly a "rich man, but not really so. Godwin Swift befriended her to an extent much beyond his real ability. Jonathan's education was secured, and ultimately he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He was not very successful in his studies there, and prone to all sorts of vagaries.
He incurred seventy penalties for gross offences against the discipline of the college, and was compelled to make a most humiliating apology to Mr. Owen Loyd, the Junior Dean. He, however, obtained a degree, which seems to have been conferred upon him more from compassion than as a guerdon of merit. Swift was already at war with the world; but with the astuteness which is often found in men of unsound but powerful intellect, he early determined to be on the right side of the world, which he secretly scorned and despised. He sketched the first rough outline of his Tale of a Tub, and showed it to his college friend Mr. Warying, who did not greatly approve of the High-Church dogmas which it set forth. He did not, however, suspect that the production was a sample of Jonathan Swift's rabid insincerity.