Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope
Thomas Hudson, National Portrait Gallery, London, Alexander Pope

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Samuel Johnson's Quarrel With Jonathan Swift



Johnson’s Interpretation of Swift’s Life and Personality 8 Hawkesworth and Johnson on Swift’s Political and Religious Views 25

Some Reactions to Johnson’s Life of Swift 31

Johnson’s Judgment of Swift’s Writing 42


Political Satire 54

The Extent of Johnson’s Ridicule 72

Social Satire 81

Abuses of Learning 88


Nature and Reason 110

Attitudes toward Women 118

The Foundation for Marriage 128

Swift’s Portrait of Stella as and Eighteenth-Century

Gentlewomen 140






Johnson, it is well-known, had conceived a prejudice against Swift. His friends trembled for him when he was writing that life, but were pleased, at last, to see it executed with temper and moderation.1

--Arthur Murphy

This comparative study of Swift and Johnson is an attempt to “illuminate the often puzzling antagonisms” felt for Swift as a person and as a writer by Johnson.”2 It is also, hopefully, the beginning of an assessment of Johnson’s part in the Swiftian tradition. By Swiftian tradition I mean the various images we have of Swift as a man and a style of writing that is characterized by a pungent, concrete and active use of language.

It would be out of place here to attempt a complete listing of Swiftian satire, but two main qualities apply to certain examples of Johnson’s writings. The first one is a convincing portrayal of the absurd and the second is a tragic sense of life which can be sensed in some of his satire. Both Swift and Johnson support Christian and humanistic values when faced with confusion, disbelief, and puerile speculation. In the welter of man’s vanity and foolishness, they search for his dignity.

There have been other comparative studies of Swift and Johnson. Milton Voight describes W.B.C. Watkins’ chapter, “Vive la Bagatelle,” in Perilous Balance as a “modest but perceptive comparative study of Swift and Johnson” (Voight, p.185).

Watkins believes that Johnson attacks Swift whenever he sees him succumb to the melancholy and despair that he himself was fighting against. This short study has been influential in establishing a standard explanation for Johnson’s reactions to Swift.

Major critics such as Walter Jackson Bate and W.K.Wimsatt accept Watkins’ interpretation. Though Watkins’ use of his material is at times conjectural, it still remains the most impressive effort to explain the problem of Johnson’s attitude toward Swift.

There also have been a number of studies of Swift’s early biographers. In the parade of biographies, criticism on Johnson’s Life of Swift runs from Thomas Sheridan’s bitter denunciation to a recent tendency of finding Johnson’s work reasonably objective. Donald Berwick 3 rightly observes that serious criticism of Swift begins with Johnson. Philip Sun, 4 who does an admirable job of cataloging Swift’s character traits as they have come down from the eighteenth-century biographies, also praises Johnson’s performance. While Berwick and Sun’s dissertations are primarily concerned with diverse reactions to Swift’s life, I am primarily concerned with Johnson’s reaction, which, though it is critical, is consistent with his major literary principles. This discussion lays the groundwork for Johnson’s part in the Swiftian tradition.

Johnson’s critique of Swift’s life suggests that he thought Swift was often extreme in his attempt to be reasonable; indeed, he often describes Swift as “unreasonable.” However, when he sees Swift’s “wit, confederated with truth,” he does not hesitate to say so.

Perhaps the key to understanding Johnson’ attitude toward Swift lies in his fairy tale, The Fountains. The heroine of that story must surrender her own and other people’s happiness as well, in order to have the gift of wit. Wit enables her to see how the world fails to measure up to reason, and it provides her with all the language of wit to destroy the contentment of others. It leaves her with nothing else but to prepare for her death in order to keep from losing more friends and from discovering more bitter truths.

A recent study by Paul Fussell, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism, discusses Swift and Johnson, along with several other eighteenth-century writers, such as Dryden, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burke, and Gibbon. These men are described as Augustan Humanists in order to indicate a unity of thought and rhetoric from the early to the late eighteenth century. Fussell is helpful in drawing Swift and Johnson together through their writings, but in relating them to a larger circle of writers he obscures the special problem of seeing Johnson’s part in the Swiftian tradition.

Another recent study by Arieh Sachs, Passionate Intelligence, considers Swift along with Johnson for an analysis of Johnson’s views on reason and imagination. This book, though, is not a comparative study of Swift and Johnson. Other writers, like W.K. Wimsatt and Bertrand Bronson, have made passing references to the relationship between Swift and Johnson, but as yet there have been no full scale attempts to relate these two major legendary figures of eighteenth century literature.

My thesis is that Swift and Johnson are engaged in the same effort to reconcile nature to reason. Their concern with nature is mainly human nature, rather than the nature of the scientist or speculative philosopher. They both steer a middle course between Shaftesbury’s idea of humanity’s natural benevolence and Mandeville’s view of innate selfishness. The tendency since Boswell’s biography of Johnson is to view Johnson as closer to Shaftesbury and Swift more on Mandeville’s side of this issue, but Johnson is much closer to both Swift and Mandeville. For them, in the words of Johnson, man by instinct is “no better than a wolf.”

Moral feeling and values are created and cultivated through reason, which they regard as the effects of human experience, rather than an “inner light of reason.” The most important task for reason is to guide and control human nature comprised of the passions, appetites, desires, and will. As such, reason is more than the cognitive faculty. Reason actively participates in the formation of all subjective human experience.5

Swift’s and Johnson’s effort to reconcile nature to reason is complicated by their recognition of the pejoration of these words into “cant,” that is, iconic rhetoric, and by their desire to avoid “deistic, stoical, anti-Christian, utopian, perfectionistic, or merely cynical thought” (Voight, p. 143). As satirists, Swift and Johnson ridicule reason when it is mechanical or divorced from human instinct, or they ridicule instinct when it becomes rapacious or distorted.

As commentators on the social relations between men and women, they see a reconciliation of the sexes as the harmonization of nature and reason. In their political thought they are concerned with the abuse and usurpation of power. Nature, in the political sense of the word, is “the state of nature,” which they agree with Hobbes is a state of open warfare. But they do not come to his conclusion that tyranny is necessarily preferable to it. Reason is only on the side of the monarch when he acts justly in the interests of the whole state.

They also agree that the lower classes in their ignorance and greed are easily fired with envy. Party politics from above arouses the natural impulse of pride below. The people then become intractable and rebellious. However, the body politic has nature and reason on its side when it overthrows a truly unjust and oppressive monarch or faction. Such was the character of the 1688 Revolution. But the earlier Puritan monarch or faction was the usurpation of a minority which had inflamed the people against a lawful monarch. The Puritan Revolution imposed tyranny whereas the 1688 Revolution restored traditional liberties.

Swift’s and Johnson’s social and political views reflect much of the enlightened conservatism of their age. What makes their thought so compelling is not its philosophical discovery, but rather its power to compel our recognition of the intricate nature of human psychology.

Footnotes to the Introduction

1Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford, 1897), I, 479.

2Milton Voight, Swift and the Twentieth Century (Detroit, 1964), p. 143.

3Donald Berwick, The Reputation of Jonathan Swift (Philadelphia, 1941)

4Unpublished dissertation (Yale University, 1963) by Philip Sun, Swift’s Eighteenth-Century Biographies. Permission to make quotations from this work has been granted by Dr. Sun.

5For a fuller discussion of nature and reason in Swift and Johnson, the following books are particularly useful: Walter Jackson Bate, From Classic to Romantic (New York, 1961), pp. 59–79; Robert Voitle, Samuel Johnson the Moralist (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 19–63. Miss Williams’ discussion in Chapter V, “The Individual and the State,” reinforces my own interpretation of the relationship between nature and reason as I apply it to Swift’s and Johnson’s political thinking.



Johnson’s Interpretation of Swift’s Life and Personality

Samuel Johnson’s reactions to and appraisals of the life and works of Jonathan Swift must always remain a puzzle to those who have appreciated the contributions to English literature of both writers. In his Life of Swift, Boswell thought that “Johnson had a certain degree of prejudice”1 against Swift and that this prejudice manifested itself in conversations as well. Contemporary critics agree with Boswell. James L. Clifford, for example, in a lecture on Samuel Johnson,2 stated that there are those who believe Johnson’s lives of Milton and Gray can be reconciled to modern judgment, but that the Life of Swift falls short of Johnson’s own standards of critical performance.

Boswell’s charge can, to a certain extent, be refuted by showing how much of Johnson’s verdicts on Swift derive from other eighteenth-century accounts of Swift’s life and by showing the consistency in Johnson’s interpretation of Swift. In this chapter I will show the nature of Johnson’s respect for Swift and, in the next one, the influence Swift may have had on Johnson’s satire. Hopefully, that will allow the reader to decide the balance between mere petulance and objective appraisal in Johnson’s portrait of Swift.

Unlike the other eighteenth-century biographers of Swift, Johnson relentlessly pursues a central theme in relating the “facts” of Swift’s life. It is not that he is trying to develop the eighteenth-century psychological commonplace of a “ruling Passion” for his subject. Swift’s compulsions with money and power are symptomatic of a personality structure which Johnson is attempting to reconstruct from the “facts” he had available from his predecessors. It is from such a reconstruction that Johnson could add that Swift was vain and self-pitying, character traits which were not listed in the other biographies.

Johnson organizes his material to enable readers to draw their own thematic conclusion. A fair reading of his Life of Swift should pay homage to the artistic subtleties of Johnsonian biography which can at times resemble the techniques used by the novelist.

One kind of organization in the Life of Swift employs the tragic cycle of rise and fall. There is the overall sweep of the cycle from the beginning to the end which might be summarized as “Swift expires a driv’ler and a show.”3 But there are many smaller cycles of rise and fall contained within the larger one. At the beginning of the Life of Swift, Johnson relates the well-known story of Swift’s attaining his degree by “special favor.” Swift turns this “disgrace” to his advantage by studying eight hours a day for seven years “with what improvement is sufficiently known.”4

For Johnson the medium for this change was “shame,” which “had its proper effect in producing reformation” (Lives, III, 2). In another reversal he turns Ireland, Swift’s “state of exile,” into a country where he has “power almost despotic . . . flattery almost idolatrous” (III, 43). But here again there is another reversal, for this power and flattery add to the decline of his mental powers. Where shame had let Swift to study, flattery leads him into intellectual stagnation.

Swift’s life illustrates for Johnson the most profound yet elementary laws of human conduct. “We are commonly taught our duty by fear of shame, and how can they act upon the man who hears nothing but his own praises” (III, 46).

Johnson’s talk of “shame” and “duty” is the beginning of his interpretation of Swift’s personality.

Present-day psychological jargon maintains a distinction between character and personality. Character is thought of as the outward face of the individual, his ability to comply with certain social roles, whereas personality suggests the basic structure of the ego operating outside its social context. Johnson makes something of the same distinction: “Swift appears to have preserved the kindness of the great when they wanted him no longer; and therefore it must be allowed that the childish freedom, to which he seems enough inclined, was overpowered by his better qualities” (III, 22). [Italics mine]

Childish is a key word for Johnson’s understanding of Swift. This concept of Swift’s personality may be implied in the next passage: “His beneficence was not graced with tenderness or civility; he relieved without pity, and assisted without kindness; so that those that were fed by him could hardly love him” (III, 57–58).5 [Italics mine] That is, he fulfilled his social role as an agent of charity, but he lacked benevolence or the Pauline concept of charity, which should be love. Although Johnson did not stress sentiment in the giving of charity, the phrase, “he relieved without pity” seems to me significant because Johnson believes that pity is not natural. Children and savages do not feel pity, which is cultivated by reason and is a sign of maturity.6 The absence of pity which Johnson sees in Swift’s charity is perhaps another way Johnson develops the theme of Swift’s childishness.

Psychoanalytic critics of Swift have seen in one of Johnson’s statements a foreshadowing of their own interpretation.7 For Johnson, “the greatest difficulty that occurs in analyzing his character is to discover by what depravity of intellect he took delight in revolving ideas from which almost every other mind shrinks with disgust” (Lives, III, 62). He doubts Delany’s explanation that Swift’s mind was tainted by a long visit to Pope. Delany, Johnson maintains, “degrades his hero by making him at fifty-nine the pupil of turpitude, and liable to the malignant influence of an ascendant mind. But the truth is, that Gulliver had described his Yahoos before the visit; and he that had formed those images had nothing filthy to learn.” (III, 63). 8

Johnson also sees Swift as a man who is unable to cope with the problem of aging. If Swift had made as a young man a resolution to study eight hours a day, now he made “some ridiculous resolution or mad vow . . .never to wear spectacles. “ Cut off from conversation and books, his ideas “wore gradually away and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness” (III, 47). In another passage Johnson sums up the inexorable process of Swift’s decline by saying, “his asperity continually increasing condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity” (III, 45).

For Johnson, Swift’s personality generates an unstable world of emotions, a child’s world of resentment and envy: “He is querulous and fastidious, arrogant and malignant; he scarcely speaks of himself but with indignant lamentations, or of others but with insolent superiority when he is gay, and with angry contempt when he is gloomy” (III, 61). When Bolingbroke offers Swift an English parish, he rejects it and retains “the pleasure of complaining.” (III, 62).

In our own age there have been a battery of terms used by psychoanalytic investigators to describe Swift’s malaise. But Johnson’s explanations of Swift’s behavior is an early part of the Swiftian psychological tradition. Whatever its merits or inaccuracies might be, Swift, in this tradition, is not merely a whipping boy, but an emblem of man’s own concern with the attempt to understand the flaws of human personality development.

This tradition owes a good deal of its material to a group of eighteenth-century writers on Swift. It is useful to turn to them to see how much Johnson made use of their impressions, while contributing something of his own. Johnson’s Life of Swift in the light of these other biographies does not appear as harsh as some readers think it is.

John Hawkesworth is cited by Johnson at the beginning of his Life of Swift. Hawkesworth’s method was to compile information about Swift from several sources. The first source he mentions is Mrs. Letitia Pilkington’s, Memoirs (1748). A portion of her memoirs was devoted to her acquaintance with Swift. Hawkesworth uses some of her material, but is generally suspicious of her authority. He next refers to the Fifth Earl of Orrery, John Boyle’s, Remarks on the Life and Writings of Swift (1751). These remarks were cast in the form of letters to his son and were answered by Patrick Delany in his, Observations upon Lord Orrery’s Remarks (1754), which was anonymously signed JR.

Delany claimed he was defending Swift against Orrery’s distortions. Both these books were attacked by Swift’s cousin, Deane Swift, in his Essay on Swift (1755), which was a much longer work than the other two and which contained a fragment of Swift’s own account of his life. Dean Swift felt Orrery and Delany had both done a disservice to his kinsman.

Johnson barely mentions this book, but he does refer to the autobiographical

fragment. From all these heated accounts, Hawkesworth seeks an objective picture of Swift’s life.

Philip Sun9 finds in Letitia Pilkington’s Memoirs Swift “somewhat caricatured in the manner of popular, fictional biography of the century.” He is presented by her as a “temperamental, rude, and foul-mouthed old man whose speeches are characterized by buffoonery and cynicism” (Sun, p.16). Johnson must have come across her memoirs, since excerpts appeared in the Gentlemen’s Magazine, but he, like Hawkesworth, probably distrusted her account because of her dubious reputation. Mr. Sun, however, demonstrates that Johnson probably got the remark that Swift “stubbornly resisted any tendency to laughter,” from Pilkington. George Birkbeck Hill, the annotator of Johnson’s Life of Swift, could not trace the remark to the other biographies. Pilkington also recorded Swift’s charity of allotting five hundred pounds for loans to the poor of Dublin. Orrery consciously omitted this detail. “I let the fame of it to Mrs. Pilkington’s pen” (Sun, p. 18), he wrote in one of his manuscripts.

Johnson depended mainly on Orrery’s and Delany’s accounts for his image of Swift. Boswell reports how Johnson Praised Delany’s Observations on Swift. “[He] … said that his book and Lord Orrery’s might both be true, though one viewed Swift more, and the other less favorably; and that between both, we might have a complete notion of Swift” (Boswell’s Life, III, 249).10 In his own Life of Swift, Johnson cites Delany, Orrery, Hawkesworth, and Dean Swift. Delany is not only cited but also quoted at length in two places.

A few of Lord Orrery’s remarks are immediately relevant to Johnson’s observations. Orrery believes that Swift’s misanthropy and madness stemmed from “his early and repeated disappointments.”11 Johnson acknowledges these early disappointments. He tells of Swift’s losing both the post of secretary to Lord Berkeley and the Deanery of Derry, again from Berkeley, through the agency of one Bushe. In a man “like Swift such circumvention and inconstancy must have excited violent indignation” (Lives, III, 8).

Johnson, by using the phrase “a man like Swift,” is putting the accent in a different place than Orrery does. It is not the disappointments which determine his character, as Orrery would have it, but his character which determines the effects of his disappointments. I have already shown Johnson’s way of describing Swift’s decline and the responsibility Swift himself had in that decline. Indeed Orrery, who speculates about insanity in the manner of the narrator of A Tale of a Tub or The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, sees Swift embrace his fate like an automaton.

Johnson describes Swift as having had “a kind of muddy complexion, which, though he washed himself with Oriental scrupulosity, did not look clear. He had a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety. He stubbornly resisted any tendency to laughter” (III, 55–56). Orrery on the same subject writes: “Dr. Swift had a natural severity of face, which even his smiles could scarce soften, or his utmost gaiety render placid and serene: but when that sternness of visage was increased with rage, it is scarce possible to imagine looks, or features, that carried in them more terror and austerity” (p.78).

He also observes that to his domestics he was “passionate and churlish” (p. 158). Johnson not only picks up this observation by saying “to his domestics he was naturally rough,” but goes on to narrate a story Orrery related to him directly. Swift, when dining alone with the Lord, observed that Orrery’s servant had committed “fifteen faults.” Johnson sees such acute observation as “tyrannic peevishness.” It is “perpetual” (Lives, III, 56) and it is not easily assuaged by Swift’s occasional acts of kindness to his servants.

On the subject of Swift’s writings there is general agreement among Orrery, Delany, and Johnson that Swift’s use of scatology is reprehensible. Orrery writes: “There are many places that I despise, others that I loath [sic], and others again that delight and improve me…they are of no further use than to show us, in general, the errors of human nature; and to convince us, that neither the height of wit nor genius can bring a man to such a degree of perfection, as vanity would often prompt him to believe” (p.52).

Delany agrees with Orrery on this observation and finds some of Swift’s works a pollution of the imagination and a corruption of style.12 He finds Swift’s maxim “Viva la Bagatelle!” detestable. He squeamishly begs off a discussion of Books II and IV of Gulliver’s Travels, and concludes his discussion of the whole book by declaring: “who would not wish rather to be the author of one Arcadia than fifty Laputas Lilliput’s [sic], and Houyhnhnms . . . .I am sick of this subject” (Delany, p.171).

Swift’s regularity in performing his duties, his exactness in regard to time, and his frugality is found in Orrery’s account: “His attendance upon the public service of the church was regular and uninterrupted; and indeed regularity was peculiar to him in all his actions, even in the greatest trifles” (p. 46). Johnson: “At Laracor he increased the parochial duty by reading prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays and performed all the offices of his profession with great decency and exactness” (Lives, III, 9). Orrery: “His hours of walking, and reading, never varied: His motions were guided by his watch” (p. 246). Johnson: “He did not, however, claim the right of talking alone: for it was his rule, when he had spoken a minute, to give room by a pause for any other speaker. Of time, on all occasions he was an exact computer, and knew the minutes required to every common operation” (III, 60).13

Johnson also notes that Swift’s Polite Conversation and Directions for Servants demonstrate his keen powers of observation. But in the context of his peculiar temperament this “vigilance of minute attention which his works discover” (III, 56) must have made him intolerable to his servants. While traits of regularity and exactness might be thought of as virtues, given the context of Johnson’s Life of Swift they are another instance of pitilessness, especially when they are applied to charitable projects. For Johnson, Swift’s trying to collect punctually his interest-free loans from the poor tradesmen of Dublin betrays either a lack of patience or of pity:

Swift was popular awhile by another mode of beneficence. He set aside some hundreds to be lent in small sums to the poor, from 5s., I think, to 5l. He took no interest, and only required that, at repayment, a small fee should be given to the accountant: but he required that the day of promised payment should be exactly kept. A severe and punctilious temper is ill qualified for transactions with the poor; the day was often broken, and the loan was not repaid. This might have been easily foreseen; but for this Swift had made no provision of patience or pity. He ordered his debtor to be sued. A severe creditor has no popular character; what then was likely to be said of him was loud, and the resentment of the populace outrageous; he was therefore forced to drop his scheme and own the folly of expecting punctuality from the poor (III, 44–45).

However, Johnson is sympathetic toward Swift’s frugality. Orrery had written that Swift “was a mixture of avarice and generosity” and that, while his avarice was frequently prevalent, his generosity “seldom appeared unless excited by compassion” (p. 3). This comment had aroused Delany as one of Orrery’s unflattering observations on Swift. Johnson settles the issue in favor of Swift:

In his economy he practiced a peculiar and offensive parsimony, without disguise or apology. The practice of saving being once necessary, became habitual, and grew first ridiculous, and at last detestable. But his avarice, though it might exclude pleasure, was never suffered to encroach upon his virtue. He was frugal by inclination, but liberal by principle; and if the purpose to which he destined his little accumulations be remembered, with his distribution of occasional charity, it will perhaps appear that he only like one mode of expense better than another, and saved merely that he might have something to give. He did not grow rich by injuring his successors, but left both Laracor and the Deanery more valuable that he found them. –With all this talk of his covetousness and generosity, it should be remembered that he was never rich. The revenue of his Deanery was not much more than seven hundred a year (Lives, III, 57).14

Both Boswell and Sheridan use this passage to illustrate Johnson’s bias against Swift. Though Johnson does raise the possibility that Swift’s passion for a shilling was “deep fixed in his heart” (III, 6), the above passage clearly puts Swift in a good light.

Johnson treats the stories of Swift’s friendships with women more courteously and sympathetically than do either Orrery or Delany.15 Although he does quote Orrery when he says that after Stella’s death “Swift never mentioned her without a sigh,” he does not agree with Orrery’s implication that Swift treated her cruelly. Orrery had written, “he never mentioned her without a sigh: for such is the perverseness of human nature, that we bewail those persons dead, whom we treated cruelly when living” (p. 19). Johnson believes rather Swift’s emotions to be much more genuine. He called Swift a lover and he sees in his papers how much he “wished her life.” Johnson strongly conveys the sense of Swift’s bereavement. As for the doubt raised about Swift’s marriage, Johnson answers affirmatively by citing the authority of Dr. Madden, Dr. Sheridan, and Delany.16

Patrick Delany (1685–1768), who follows Orrery, was from a lower class Irish family. A close friend of Swift, he knew him for twenty-five years. Delany was not harsh in his attack against Orrery’s book, even though it angered Swift’s friends and the Irish people, because he had also been friendly with Orrery. One of Delany’s chief aims in his Observations was to defend Swift from the charge that he had surrounded himself with low company. Another motive was his discontent over Orrery’s aristocratic pretentions in his treatment of Swift. He complains that Orrery has a “high view” of Swift, while he has the advantage of the “low view.”

Both Orrery’s and Delany’s books, however, are unsatisfactory as biographical portraits, chiefly because they lose sight of their subjects in aimless digressions.

Johnson quotes Delany extensively in several critical places in his Life of Swift. One quotation is in relation to the effects of the publication of Cadenus and Vanessa on the Swift-Stella households, and another quotation follows after Johnson explains, “I have here given the character of Swift as he exhibits himself to my perception; but now let another he heard who knew him better” (III, 63). By ending this way, Johnson is allowing for his own doubts about Swift and recognizing Swift’s high reputation. He uses Delany again in a discussion on Swift’s religious habits.

Dr. Hawkesworth has been described as a clever imitator of Johnson’s style. A significant portion of his Life of Swift commends Hawkesworth’s biography and states that it was collected “with great diligence and acuteness . . . according to a scheme which I laid before him . . . . I cannot therefore be expected to say much of a life concerning which I had long since communicated my thoughts to a man capable of dignifying his narrations with so much elegance of language and force of sentiment” (III, 1). Hawkesworth was of course a conscious imitator of Johnson’s style, so that it is not easy to prove the extent of Johnson’s help. But the passages I have selected from Hawkesworth seem to me better than imitations.

Hawkesworth and Johnson express compassion for Vanessa and Stella. Hawkesworth is tender in his treatment of Vanessa:

Such was the fate of Vanessa; and surely those whom pity could not restrain from being diligent to load her memory with reproach, to construe appearances in the worst sense, to aggravate folly into vice, and distress into infamy, have not much exalted their own character. . . . (pp. 36–37)

Johnson does not care to comment extensively on this relationship. He calls her “a woman made unhappy by her admiration of wit” and tells us “her history is too well-known to be minutely repeated.” Hawkesworth describes Stella’s feeling for Swift as growing from admiration into complacency and then into love. Johnson uses a similar process to describe Vanessa’s infatuation: “From being proud of his praise, she grew fond of his person” (Lives, III, 31).

Hawkesworth felt that Swift did not intend his relation with Vanessa to go beyond any proper bounds. But he concedes that Swift’s judgment of himself might have been erroneous. Swift was the ‘absolute master of those passions by which the greatest have been enslaved” (Hawkesworth, pp. 47–48). Johnson sneers at that assumption of Swift’s character: “If it be said that Swift should have checked a passion which he never meant to gratify, recourse must be had to that extenuation which he so much despised, ‘men are but men’” (III, 32). He ironically rescues Swift by showing the falsity of Swift’s faith in a principle of self-denial. In this mocking defense of Swift, Johnson reveals his main objection to Swift’s philosophy of human nature, a philosophy which held too rigidly to the ideal of restraint. He expected too much from himself and from Vanessa, just as he had expected too much from the poor in paying debts, or his servants, or mankind in general in his Project for the Advancement of Religion.

There are other passages in which Johnson seems to be refining a point from Hawkesworth, who had lavished rich praise upon Stella:

Beauty, which alone had been the object of universal admiration and desire, which alone has elevated the possessor from the lowest to the highest station, has given dominion to folly, and armed caprice with the power of life and death, was in Stella only the ornament of intellectual greatness (Hawkesworth, pp. 45–46).

While Johnson acknowledges the possibility of Stella’s beauty, he is skeptical about her intellectual achievements. He calls her virtuous, beautiful and elegant on the basis of the admiration of her lover, who, he says, “makes it very probable.” But he does not believe she had “much literature, for she could not spell her own language” (Lives, III, 42).17 Nor is he impressed with Swift’s collection of her witty sayings. Johnson has recast Hawkesworth’s analysis of Stella by stripping away the concept that beauty was merely an ornament to her life. But while he disagrees with Hawkesworth’s verdict of Stella’s accomplishments, he does support his moral sentiment that beauty by itself has dominion over folly and caprice. The thought in Johnson, however, is that beauty here was fatal to Stella rather than to Swift:

Beauty and the power of pleasing, the greatest external advantages that woman can desire of possess, were fatal to the unfortunate Stella (III, 41).

Johnson maintains that since Swift wanted to keep Stella in his power he hindered her chances of marriage, and then decided to make a secret marriage in order to insure that Stella would not leave him. The marriage was for Swift a way of obtaining all the pleasures of perfect friendship without the uneasiness of conjugal restraint. The marriage was “fatal” to Stella according to Johnson, because Swift was unwilling to own her as his wife when she would have enjoyed it. Though he did finally offer to acknowledge the marriage, ‘it was too late’, because of the “change of his manners and the depravation of his mind” (III, 41–42).

Hawkesworth and Johnson on Swift’s Political and Religious Views

There is complete agreement between Hawkesworth and Johnson in their treatment of Swift’s political and religious views. Both men go into considerable detail praising and describing Swift’s political accomplishments. Writing in the Johnsonian style, Hawkesworth concludes his Life of Swift with the picture of Swift as an overreacher:

While he was viewed at a distance with envy, he became a burden to himself; he was forsaken by his friends, and his memory has been loaded with unmerited reproach: his life, therefore, does not afford less instruction than his writings, since to the wise it may teach humility, and to the simple content (p. 76).

This statement also seems to sum up the effect of Swift’s life on others in Johnson’s biography: “he was not a man to be either loved or envied” (III, 61).18

Johnson twice cites Hawkesworth approvingly in his Life of Swift, first, as we have noted, at the beginning, then later when he discusses Swift’s pamphlets encouraging the Irish to use their own manufactures:

For a man to use the productions of his own labour is surely a natural right, and to like best what he makes himself is a natural passion. But to excite this passion, and enforce this right, appeared so criminal to those who had an interest in the English trade, that the printer was imprisoned; as Hawkesworth justly observes, the attention of the public being by this outrageous resentment turned upon the proposal, the author was by consequence made popular (III, 30–31). [Italics mine]

Whatever Johnson may have felt about Swift’s motives for power, he is generally quite sympathetic with his causes:

In the succeeding reign he delivered Ireland from plunder and oppression; and showed that wit, conferated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist (III, 50).19

Hawkesworth, like Johnson, also views Swift’s religious and political activity as his major achievement. He gives an accurate summary of Swift’s political views:

As to his political principles, if his own account of them is to be believed, he abhorred Whiggism only in those who made it consist in damning the church, reviling the clergy, abetting the dissenters, and speaking contemptibly of revealed religion. He always declared himself against a popish successor to the crown, whatever title he might have by proximity of blood; nor did he regard the right to live, upon any other account that as it was established by law, and had much weight in the opinions of the people; he was of the opinion, that when the grievances, suffered under a present government, became greater than those which might probably be expected from changing it by violence, a revolution was justifiable, and this he believed to have been the case in that which was brought about by the Prince of Orange. He had a mortal antipathy against standing armies in time of peace, and was of the opinion that our liberty could never be placed upon a firm foundation, till the ancient law should be revived, by which our parliaments were made annual: he abominated the political scheme of setting up a monied interest in oppositon to the landed, and was an enemy to temporary suspensions of the habeas corpus act. If some asperities, that cannot be justified, have escaped his pen, in papers which were hastily written in the first ardor of his zeal, and often after great provocation from those who wrote against him, surely they may, without the exertion of angelic benevolence be forgiven (Hawkesworth, p. 26).

Johnson also abhorred Whiggism as a “negation of principle.” He spoke of nature rising up when there was no relief from tyranny. Although he may have had some nostalgic sympathies with the Jacobite cause, he did not debate the succession. As an opponent of the Septennial Act, 20 he too favored annual parliaments. In short both Swift and Johnson viewed themselves as moderate Tories. In the last chapter of this dissertation, I will examine their political views in relation to their sermons.

In his summary of Swift’s political views, Hawkesworth cites two of his earlier works, The Sentiments of a Church of England Man and An Argument against Abolishing Christianity. Johnson warmly praises these works:

The Sentiments of a Church of England Man is written with great coolness, moderation, ease, and perspicuity. The Argument against Abolishing Christianity is very happy and judicious irony. One passage in it deserves to be selected (Lives, III, 12).

Johnson quotes the passage in which Swift ironically argues that the convenience of having religion as the butt of jokes or as an exercise in logic for the “freethinkers, the strong reasoners and the men of profound learning” (III, 12) would be undermined if Christianity were abolished. Johnson himself had little sympathy for the clever arguments which might undermine his religion. In another place I would like to go into detail on the similarities of Johnson’s and Swift’s views as expressed in The Sentiments of a Church of England. On the Sacramental Test and The Project for the Advancement of Religion, Johnson expresses mild doubt:

The reasonableness of a test is not hard to be proved; but perhaps it must be allowed that the proper test has not been chosen.

In the year following [1709] he wrote a Project for the Advancement of Religion, addressed to Lady Berkeley, by whose kindness it is not unlikely that he was advanced to his benefices. To this project, which is formed with great purity of intention, and displayed with sprightliness and elegance, it can only be objected that, like many projects, it is, if not generally impracticable, yet evidently hopeless, as it supposes more zeal, concord, and perseverance than a view of mankind gives reason for expecting (III, 13).

While Johnson does not praise the literary merits of The Conduct of the Allies, he

accepts Swifts position on the war:

That is now no longer doubted, of which the nation was then first informed, that the war was unnecessarily protracted to fill the pockets of Marlborough; and that it would have been continued without end if he could have continued his annual plunder. But Swift, I suppose, did not yet know what he has since written, that a commission was drawn which would have appointed him General for life, had it not become ineffectual by the resolution of Lord Cowper, who refused the seal (III, 18).21

Swift and Marlborough are ironically paired in the Vanity of Human Wishes to illustrate the bitter reversal of fortune in “life’s last scene.” Swift triumphs as a Tory pamphleteer but is defeated by life. While he is boasting of his political power, fate is preparing to rob him of Stella. Johnson’s treatment of Swift in the Vanity of Human Wishes again shows Swift’s life as a series of embittering reversals:

In life’s last scene what prodigies surprise,

Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise?

From Marlb’rough’s eyes the streams of dotage flow

And Swift expires a driv’ler and a show (11. 315-318).

Johnson is also showing in these lines the vanity of both valor and wit in the closing scenes of life, as well as their corruptions.

Some Reactions to Johnson’s Life of Swift

In his review of the Life of Swift, Boswell thinks Johnson shows prejudice, though he does discredit Sheridan’s explanation that Swift’s failure to help Johnson is responsible for this prejudice. Boswell, however, does not know how to account for this prejudice. I have, however, been attempting to show that Johnson’s Life of Swift does not necessarily reflect a prejudice and that it is even more favorable than its critics maintain.

Perhaps the most sensitive handling of the Irish degree incident can be found in Henry Craik’s Life of Swift. After quoting Lord Gower’s letter to Swift he observes:

The application came to nothing: and the fears that Lord Gower expresses of its hopelessness were probably well-founded. Even had such a grant been possible, it seems unlikely that Swift would either have been a suitor to the authorities of Dublin University, or that his recommendation would have been very favourably accepted by them. That the failure of a request, conveyed so indirectly as this, formed any part of the ground for Johnson’s prejudice against Swift, is absolutely without foundation. A far more likely, and, indeed, a far more worthy cause of that prejudice was the very similarity of temperament. Genius is not prone to make allowances. Its possessors are not drawn to one another because they are alike in their haughtiness, in their cynicism, in their intolerance. Johnson knew, and shrank from, the bitterness that was bred in Swift as it was in himself, of hardship, of early poverty, of disappointed hopes, and of the ceaseless burden of ill-health. He had struggled too long against the fatal influences, not to know and dread their strength; and just in proportion as the effort to school himself was painful, so his judgment on another suffering from the same enemy, was severe. Even if Swift neglected to afford aid which it was in his power to bestow, the neglect was one entirely impersonal to Johnson. Swift knew nothing of him: he could not have read his poem: he could have borne no grudge against its author. Had the benefit been conferred, it might have constrained Johnson to a more lenient judgment: that it was not, could scarcely have given to his judgment its severity.22

Craik makes a worthwhile distinction between the words prejudice and severity. Johnson though certainly unprejudiced toward Pope could be just as severe:

In the letters both of Swift and Pope there appears such narrowness of mind as makes them insensible of any excellence that has not some affinity with their own … (Lives, III, 212).

Craik anticipates W.B.C. Watkins’ essay on Johnson and Swift23 when he suggests that the prejudice may have been based upon their similarity of temperaments. But I think Watkins leans too heavily on the side of prejudiced judgment rather than severe judgment. If Johnson’s presumed prejudice is based on his similarity to Swift, then any sign of prejudice as opposed to severe judgment is further evidence of similarity. Severity indicates difference, prejudice indicates similarity is the formula Watkins seems to use (p. 28). For example, are Johnson’s judgments on Swift’s style expressions of prejudice or expression of Preference? Watkins sees Johnson as underrating Swift’s style, “a style far more brilliant than his own” (p. 28). If Johnson underrates Swift’s style, it is just as likely that he does so for literary rather than personal reasons. There are, apparently, some important aesthetic differences between the two writers. Watkins does not sufficiently take these and other differences into his appraisal. The problem for the critic today is to balance Johnson’s unfavorable criticism of Swift between Johnson’s literary values and the distasteful facts he collected on Swift’s life.

Still it might be argued that there were some who gave a brighter picture of Swift. Biographers like Thomas Sheridan did not grapple with his dark side. Boswell, along with others, boasted of his early acquaintance and admiration for Swift. But it may have been this very fashionable appreciation of Swift, which led Johnson to make some of his irritable assertions against him. Johnson, the iconoclast, did not hesitate to expose what he considered the deficiencies of the the literary gods. His scrutiny of Milton’s motives was also irritating to eighteenth-century literary men.24

Boswell uses Johnson’s treatment of Swift’s frugality as an evident example of Johnson’s “unfavorable bias.” But Johnson received this idea from other sources including Swift himself, and, as I have shown, he did not censure him on this issue. In this example of Johnson’s bias, Boswell has Johnson explode on the page and then grudgingly examine the circumstances. But in another example, he prefaces the annotation from Johnson with the following remark: “one observation which Johnson makes in Swift’s life should be often inculcated” (Boswell’s Life, IV, 62). He then quotes a passage in which Johnson is upbraiding Swift for his disregard of ceremony and subordination. Johnson thinks Swift’s breach of class discipline is not a sign of “greatness of soul.” Boswell here sees that Johnson is not playing fast and loose with the facts. He cites the passage as an effective reminder of social precept. Boswell’s reaction is snobbery, Johnson’s compassion. He sees that there can be no real freedom between members of different classes. The choice he offers a man in Swift’s position is either to be “repelled with helpless indignity, or endured by clemency and condenscension” (Lives, III, 134). But “with the great,” Swift was neither repelled nor endured; he was accepted for his “better qualities.” Johnson sees Swift’s brilliant wit severely handicapped by an immature personality. Instead of wasting time trying to impress the aristocrats, he should have been taking more pains to set his mind in order.

Boswell was not the only one to observe Johnson’s antipathy for Swift. Bishop Percy also was bewildered by “Johnson’s extraordinary prejudice and dislike of Swift, manifested on all occasions by Johnson, whose political opinions coincided exactly with his.”25 According to Percy, it is not Johnson’s disappointment over the Irish degree which leads him to his dislike, but Dr. Madden’s unflattering impressions of Swift. But the evidence for this explanation is confused (see footnote4 Johnsonian Miscellanies, II, 211–212). James Clifford thinks that “more likely the dislike had been fostered by Birch, who delighted to pass on nasty stories about the far-off Dean during his last years. Johnson’s mind may well have been poisoned by such insidious lies, not disproved in his lifetime.”26

Johnson was not the only one to be accused of writing unfairly about Swift. Sheridan accuses Mrs. Pilkington, Orrery, and Delany. He makes a slight exception for Deane Swift and praises Hawkesworth’s attempt. He is particularly hard on Orrery:

The cruel manner in which he has treated the memory of his friend Swift, as his lordship in the course of the work often affects to call him, had something so surprising in it, that people were at a loss how to account for it, except by supposing it to proceed from some uncommon degree of malevolence in his lordship’s nature (Sheridan, II, 9).

As in the case of Johnson, Sheridan has to invent a motive for Orrery’s malignity. Sheridan tells the story that Orrery’s father had “in his will, bequeathed his library from him; and this circumstance made the world conclude that he looked upon his son as a blockhead.” In order to save face “he applied himself diligently to a translation of Pliny’s Letters; but he was so long about this task, and put it into so many hands to correct it, that Melmoth’s excellent translation of the same work slipped into the world before his, and forstalled this avenue to fame” (II, 9). Orrery saw then, according to Sheridan, that his friendship with Swift could gain him fame as his biographer; but in order to insure the success of this work, he decided to play the role of critic since “he knew that satire was more likely to procure a rapid sale to the book, than panegyrick” (II, 11).

Sheridan then praises Delany for his attempt to dispel the “malicious lies” furthered by Orrery. He briefly mentions Deane Swift and then casts him into oblivion. He praises Hawkesworth for his “having quickly discerned the truth from the falsehood; wiped away many of the asperations that had been thrown on Swift’s character; and placed it, so far as he went, in its proper light.” But Hawkesworth had no new materials of his own. Johnson then gets his turn. Sheridan criticizes him harshly for not having followed Hawkesworth in “the paths of just and candid criticism.” Instead he chose to follow Orrery’s example, but the dangers of his Life of Swift are greater, because Johnson “is more likely to be generally read than any of the others; on account of the great reputation of the author” (Sheridan, II, 16).

At the end of his own Life of Swift Sheridan goes into a detailed criticism of Johnson’s Life of Swift. He first derides Johnson for being flippant about the place of Swift’s birth. He reports that Johnson’s common expression in talking about Swift was that he “was a very shallow fellow” (II, 73). He also uses Boswell’s example from Johnson’s Life of Swift to show his prejudice, that is, the passage which deals with Swift’s frugality. Both Boswell and Sheridan find Johnson’s conclustion to the question of Swift’s frugality an admission of confusion based on prejudice.

Sheridan also defends Swift against the imputations of eccentricity suggested by a story Johnson relates from Pope. He also lists several other examples of Johnson’s prejudice. But his evidence is not conclusive. One obviously unfair criticism is his complaint that a minor writer is treated more extensively than Swift. “What will posterity say, when they see the Life of Savage extended to double the number of pages, occupied by than that of Swift?” John Nichols, Sheridan’s publisher, answere this compliant in a footnote: “Much must be allowed for the period of life in which Dr. Johnson wrote the Memoirs of Savage, and the intimacy of friendship in which they had lived” (Sheridan, II, 88). There are several other places in which Nichols has to take exception to Sheridan’s blustering attack against Johnson. In a footnote he says: “Much as we may applaud the honest warmth with which Mr. Sheridan here vindicates the insulted Dean; few men will join him in this severe condemnation of the grave Philologist, whose study morality would bear the strictest investigation” (II, 88). Sheridan at least agrees with Johnson in closing his biography with Delany’s panegyric.

One wonders what Sheridan would have done with Thackeray’s denunciation of Swift or Swift’s twentieth-century psychoanalytic critics, or some of the other present-day severe criticism of Swift that hs come from George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and F.R. Leavis. Their performances also include, like Johnson’s, high praise for Swift’s integrity and certain aspects of his artistry. While Swift’s reputation as an artist and a man has been well-secured by such men as Ricardo Quintana and Herbert Davis, there will probably always be those who will quarrel with Swift. The controversial quality of his life and work is one of the things which makes him so perennially interesting. Johnson plays an important part in this tradition of controversy because as and antagonist his judgments are at times insightful and curiously often kind.

Two recent appraisals of Johnson’s Life of Swift do not find it quite so damaging or unfair. Donald Berwick, 27 while offering an insightful reading of the work subscribes to the traditional view of Johnson’s prejudice. I agree with Berwick when he sees Johnson’s portrait as “one of the more laudably realistic” (p. 18) of the early syntheses, and when he sees Johnson’s Swift as a three-dimensional figure. I also agree with his recognition of Johnson’s interpretation of a childish quality in Swift’s personality. But I disagree when he sees Johnson’s Swift as an “extremely unsubtle figure.” Berwick admits that this impression is the view a “cursory reading of the essay” (p. 19) offers. But Johnson’ Swift seems to me to be a complicated character because he suffers tragic reversals and accomplishes much good in his lifetime. However, Berwick recognizes that despite “all his coldness, Johnson judges Swift’s treatment of Stella and Vanessa less harshly than do many of the Dean’s most valiant defenders” (p. 20). He is also more capable than others in showing how Johnson struggles with a prejudice. After listing the contemptuous strokes in Johnson’s portrait, Berwick explains:

In all this Johnson’s position is not entirely untenable though it wilfully evades mention of the brighter side of Swift’s character, it does not accuse him of vices of which he was utterly devoid. When, however, in treating of the insolent letter to Queen Caroline requiring herpatronage for Mrs. Barber, it is insisted that the letter was Swift’s and that Swift himself never denied it but shuffled “between cowardice and veracity,” [Boswell’s Tour, 14 September, 1773] we are faced with a different matter. In accusing Swift of cowardice Johnson was guilty of either ignorance or misrepresentation. But false as it is, cowardice rightly belongs with the other failings which compose the man Swift as Johnson saw him. It belongs no less than the arrogance and puerile susceptibility to cheap flattery, no less than the licentiousness and the petulant frolicsomeness, to the picture of arrested development Johnson has drawn (p. 19).

This comes too close to Sheridan’s appraisal of Johnson’s work. It is one thing when Sir John Hawkins declares in his Life of Samuel Johnson that Swift was overrated, and another when Johnson makes such a conversational aside to Boswell. Although it may be true that he does not list “the brighter side of Swift’s character, “there is a considerable amount of praise for Swift’s role in church and politics, and a fair amount of judicious criticism of his literary work. There is also a considerable temporizing of harsh judgments made by others, such as Swift’s presumed avarice and irreligion. Nor does Berwick make clear why Johnson’s suspicions on the letter to Queen Caroline might reflect “misrepresentation.”

Philip Sun provides a good corrective to the general view which has Johnson lashing Swift in his Life of Swift. Sun establishes that there is more praise than criticism in Johnson’s work. This evidence alsone does not prove Johnson’s respect for Swift, but taken alond with the fact that Johnson makes frequent us of Swift in the Dictionary,28 that he relies heavily on Swift for his portraits of Addison, Gay, and Pope, that he habitually refers to Swift in conversation, letters, and essays in approbation as well as censure, it does lead to the conclusion that Johnson’s criticism of Swift is a delicate matter of praise and blame.

Johnson’s Judgment of Swift’s Writings

Though it is true Johnson thought Swift has a higher reputation as a writer than he deserved, it it not easy to answer why he felt this way. Perhaps he thought Swift’s admirers misunderstood the nature of his writings. Throughout Johnson’s age it is usual to hear Swift compared to Horace:

Horace is the more elegant and delicate: while he condemns, he pleases. Swift takes pleasure in giving pain…. Each poet was the delight of the principal persons of his age…. They both were temperate: both were frugal; both were of the same Epicurean taste. Horace had his Lydia, Swift had his Vanessa. Horace had his Maecenas and his Agrippa. Swift had his Oxford and his Bolingbroke. Horace had his Virgil, Swift had his Pope (Orrery, p. 45).

Monck-Berkeley makes a similar comparison: “in the first place, the ‘Tale of a Tub’ was the work of a very young man; and although the rule of Horace, Nonum prematur in annum was observed, it still made its appearance at an early period of the author’s life” (Sheridan, II, 138).29

It is also usual to hear that an appreciation for Swift is early nurtured, as in the case of Boswell. Monck-Berkeley writes “that I have from my cradle been taught to consider Swift as a man in whom were united splendor of imagination, strength of judgment, sensibility of heart, love of his country, inviolable integrity, and a belief in revelation, that was his rule of conduct here, and his source of hope hereafter” (II, 151). Orrery also writes to his son Hamilton in his Remarks upon Swift in order to have him cultivate an early appreciation for Swift’s work.

Johnson was able to recognize and approve of the Tory and Anglican part of Swift, but I doubt if he saw him as a true representative of neo-classical standards. He uses “original” as a key word at the end of his Life of Swift to describe Swift’s contribution. He describes Gulliver’s Travels as a “production so new and strange that it filled the reader with a mingled emotion of merriment and amazement…. Criticism was for a while lost in wonder; no rules of judgment were applied to a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity” (III, 38). He recommends Swift’s poetry for its easiness and gaiety. Swift wrote “not often to his judgment but to his humour” (III, 6

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