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THE ENGLISH HUMOURISTS
N treating of the English lumourists 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 humourous 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 try and describe to you, a story that is otherwise than serious, and often very sad. If Humour only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest about humourous 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 anecdote is frequently told of our performer Rich.
the men regarding whose lives and stories your kind presence here shows that you have curiosity and sympathy, appeal to a great number of our other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humourous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness—your scorn for untruth, pretension, impostureyour 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 passions 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 himsometimes love him. And, as his business is to mark other people's lives and peculiarities, we moralize upon his life when he is goneand yesterday's preacher becomes the text for to-day's sermon.
Of English parents, and of a good English family of clergymen, * Swift 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
* He was from a younger branch of the Swifts of Yorkshire. His grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Swist, 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 minuteness 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 reputa. tion. 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,
For these our critics much confide in,
To raise the volume's price a shilling.” “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet,” was the phrase of Dryden to his kinsman, which remained alive in a memory tenacious of such matters.
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 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” and “Gulliver's Travels." He married 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 until 1745, having passed the last five of the seventyeight years of his life with an impaired intellect and keepers to watch him.t
You know, of course, that Swift has had many biographers; his life has been told by the kindest and most good-natured of men,
* “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.
† 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 ! He once repeated slowly several times, “I am what I am.” The last thing he wrote
Scott, who admires but can't bring himself to love him; and by stout old Johnson, * 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
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 :
Here Irish wit is seen :
They build a magazine!” * 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 evil thereof !” Not to mention less important 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 passed on him by his father, who left his library 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 going on in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, afforded an opportunity of their being examined. One hears with 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! Phrenologists had a low opinion of his intellect from the observations they took.
Dr. Wilde traces the symptoms of ill health 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."