Page images
[merged small][ocr errors]

he was told by the Bishop, that he was “ a young man;" and, still per sisting to doubt, that he was "a very positive young man." .

Three years afterward (1704) was published “ The Tale of a Tub :" of this book charity may be persuaded to think that it might be written by a man of a peculiar character, without ill intention; but it is certainly of dangerous example. That Swift was its author, though it be universally believed, was never owned by himself, nor very well proved by any evidence; but no other claimant can be produced, and he did not deny it when Archbishop Sharp and the Duchess of Somerset by-shewing it to the Queen, debarred him from a bishoprick.

When this wild work first raised the attention of the public, Sacheverell, meeting Smalridge, tried to flatter him, seeming to think him the author ; but Smal.ridge answered with indignation, “ Not all that you and I have « in the world, nor all that ever we shall have, should hire me to write o the Tale of a Tub."

The digressions relating to Wotton and Bentley must be confessed to discover want of kinowledge, or want of integrity; he did not understand the iwo controversies, or he willingly misrepresented them. But Wit can stand its ground against Truth only a little while. The honours due to Learning have been justly distributed by the decision of posterity.

« The Battle of the Books" is so like the « Combat des Livres” which the same question concerning the Ancients and Moderns had produced in France, that the improbability of such a coincidence of thoughts without communication is not, in my opinion, balanced by the anonymous protestation prefixed, in which all knowledge of the French book is peremptorily disowned*.

For some time after Swift was probably employed in solitary study, gaining the qualifications requisite for future eminence. How often he visited England, and with what diligence he attended his parishes, I know not. It was not till about four years afterwards that he became a professed author; and thep one year (1708) produced « The sentiments of a Church

of England Man; the ridicule of Astrology, under the name of “ Bic« kerstaff;" the “ Argument against abolishing Christianity;" and the defence of the “ Sacramental Test."

" The Sentiments of a Church-of-England Man" is written with great coolness, moderation, ease, and perspicuity. The “Argument against « abolishing Christianity” is a very happy and judicious irony. One passage in it deserves to be selected.

. « If Christianity were once abolished, 'how could the free-thinkers, the a strong reasoners and the men of profound learning, be able to find anoother subject so calculated, in all points, whereon to display their abilities?

See Sheridan's Life, P, 451, where are some remarks on this passage, E.


« What wonderful productions of wit should we be deprived of from ç those, whose genius, by continual practice, hath been wholly turned “ upon raillery and invectives against religion, and would therefore never o be able to shine, or distinguish themselves, upon any other subject? We " are daily complaining of the great decline of wit among us, and would « take away the greatest, perhaps the only, topick we have left. Who « would ever have suspected Asgill fora wit, or Toland for a philosopher, “ if the inexhaustible stock of Christianity had not been at hand to provide “ them with materials ? What other subject, through all art or nature, « could have produced Tindal for a profound author, or furnished hiin “ with readers? It is the wise choice of the subject that alone adorns and “ distinguishes the writer.' For had an hundred such pens as these been .“ employed on the side of religion, they would have immediately sunk « into silence and oblivion.”

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.

The attention paid to the papers published under the name of " Bicker« staff,” induced Steele, when he projected the « Tatler,” to assume an appellation which had already gained possession of the reader's notice. • In the year following he wrote a “ Project for the advancement of Reli"gion," addressed to Lady Berkeley ; by whose kindness it is not unlikely that he was advanced to his bevefices. To this project, which is formed with great purity of intention, and displayed with sprightliness and elegance, it can only be .objected, that, like any 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.

He wrote likewise this year a “Vindication of Bickerstaff;” and an explanation of an “ Ancient Prophecy,” part written after the facts, and the rest never completed, but well planned to excite amazement.

Soon after began the busy and important part of Swift's life. He was employed (1710) by the primate of Ireland to solicit the Queen for a remission of the First Fruits and Twentieth parts to the Irish Clergy. With phis purpose he had recourse to Mr. Harley to whom he was mentioned as a man neglected and oppressed by the last ministry, because he had refused to co-operate with some of their schemes. What he had refused has never been told; what he had suffered was, I suppose, the exclusion from a bishoprick by the remonstrances of Sharp, whom he describes as “ the “ harmless tool of others hate," and whom he represents as afterwards « suing for pardon.”

Harley's designs and situation were such as made him glad of an auxiliary so well qualified for his service; be therefore soon admitted him to familiarity, whether ever to confidence some have made a doubt; but it


3 P


would have been difficult to excite his zeal without persuading him that he was trusted, and not easy to delude him by false persuasions.

He was certainly admitted to those meetings in which the first hints and original plan of action are supposed to have been formed; and was one of sixieen Ministers, or agents of the Ministry, who met weekly at each other's houses, and were united by the name of “ Brother.”

Being not immediately considered as an obdurate Tory, he conversed indiscriminately with all the wits, and was yet the friend of Steele; who, in the “ Tatler," which began in April 1709, confesses the advantages of his conversation, and mentions something contributed by him to his paper. But he was now immerging into political controversy, for the year 1710 pro- . duced the “ Examiner,” of which Swift wrote thirty-three papers. , In argument he may be allowed to have the advantage; for where a wide system of conduct, and the whole of a public character, is laid open to enquiry, the accuser having the choice of facts must be very unskilful if he does not prevail ; 'but with regard to wit, I am afraid none of Swift's papers will be found equal to those by which Addison opposed him*.

He wrote in the year 1711 a “ Letter to the October Club,” a number of Tory Gentlemen sent froņu the country to Parliament, who formed themselves into a club, to the number of about a hundred, and met to animate the zeal and raise the expectations of each other. They thought, with great reason, that the Ministers were losing' opportunities; that sufficient use was not made of the ardour of the nation"; they called loudly for more changes, and stronger efforts; and demanded the punishment of part, and the disinission of the rest, of those whom they considered as publick robbers.

Their cagerness was not gratified by the Queen, or by Harley. The Queen was probably slow because she was afraid: and Harley was slow because he was doubtful; he was a Tory only by necessity, or for convenience; and, when he had power in his hands, had no settled purpose for which he should employ it; forced to gratify to a certain degree the Tories who supported him, lat unwilling to make his reconcilement to the Whigs utterly desperate, he corresponded at once with the two expectants of the Crown, and kept, as has been observed, the succession undetermined. Not knowing what to do, he did nothing: and, with the fate of a double dealer, at last he lost his power, but kept his enemies.

Swift seems to have concurred in opinion with the “ October Club;" but it was not in his power to quicken the tardiness of Harley, whom he stimulated as much as he could, but with little effect. He that knows not whither to go, is in no haste to move. Harley, who was perhaps, not quick by nature, became yet more slow by irresolution: and was content

* Mr, Sheridan however says that Addison's last Whig Examiner was published Oct, 12, 1711; and Swift's first Examiner on the 10th of the following November, E,

to hear that dilatoriness, lamented as natural, which he applauded in himself as politick.

Without the Tories, however, nothing could be done; and as they were not to be gratified, they must be appeased; and the conduct of the Minis. ter, if it could not be vindicated, was to be plausibly excused.

Early in the next year he published a “ Proposal for correcting, im« proving, and ascertaining the English Tongue,", in a Letter to the Earl of Oxford ; written without much knowledge of the general nature of lan. guage, and without any accurate enquiry into the history of other tongues. The certainty and stability which, contrary to all experience, he thinks attainable, he proposes to secure by instituting an academy; the decrees of which every man would have been willing, and many would have been proud, to disobey, and which, being renewed by successive elections, would in a short time have differed from itself.

Swift now attained the zenith oi his political importance: he published (1712) che “Conduct of the Allies," ten days before the Parliament assembied. The purpose was to persuade the nation to a peace; and never had any writer more success. The people, who had been ainused with bonfires and triumphal processions, and looked with idolatry on the general and his friends, and who, as they thought, had made England the arbitress of nations, were confounded between shame and rage, when they found “that mines had been exhausted, and millions destroyed," to secure the Dutch or aggrandize the emperor, without any advantage to ourselves; that we had been bribing our neighbours to fight their own quarrel; and that amongst our enemies we might number our allies. .

That is now no longer doubted, of which the nation was then first informed, that the war was unnecessarily protracted to fill the pockers 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.

" Whatever is received," say the schools, " is received in proportion to the recipient.” The power of a political treatise depends much upon the disposition of the people; the nation was then combustible, and a spark set it on fire. It is boasted, that between November and January eleven thousand were sold; a great number at that time, when we were not yet a nation of readers., To its propagation certainly no agency of power or infuence was wanting. It furnished arguments for conversation, speeches for debate, and materials for parliamentary resolutions.

Yet surely, whoever surveys this wonder-working, pamphlet with cool perusal, will confess that its efficacy was supplied by the passions of its readers; that it operates by the mere weight of facts, with yery little assistance from the hand that produced them. 3 P 2

This This year (1712) he published his “ Reflections on the Barrier Treaty," which carries on this design of his “ Conduct of the Allies," and shews how little regard in that negociation had been shewn to the interest of England, and how much of the conquered country had been demanded by the Dutch.

This was followed by “ Remarks on the Bishop of Sarum's Introduc« tion to his third Volume of the History of the Reformation;" a pamphlet which Burnet published as an alarm, to warn the nation of the approach of Popery. Swift, who seems to have disliked the Bishop with something more than political avcrsion, treats him like one whom he is glad of an opportunity to insult.

Swift being now the declared favourite and supposed confidant of the Tory Ministry, was treated by all that depended on the Court with the respect which dependants know how to pay. He soon began to feel part of the misery of greatness; he that could say that he knew him, considered himself as having fortune in his power. Conimissions, solicitations, remonstrances, crowded about him; he was expected to do every man's business, to procure employment for one, and to retain it for another. In assisting those who addressed him, he represents himself as sufficiently diligent; and desires to have others believe, what he probably believed himself, that by his interposition many Whigs of merit, and among them Addison and Congreve, were continued in their places. But every man of known influence has so many petitions which he cannot grant, that he must necessarily offend more than he gratifies, because the preference given to one affords all the rest reason for complaint. “When I give, away a « place," said Lewis XIV. “ I make an hundred discontented, and one ." ungrateful."Low's

Much has been said of the equality and independence which he preserved in his conversation with the Ministers, of the frankness of his remonstrances, and the familiarity of his friendship. In accounts of this kind a few single incidents are set against the general tenour of behaviour. No man, however, can pay a more servile tribute to the Great, than by suffering his liberty in their presence to aggrandize him in his own esteem. Be. tween different ranks of the community there is necessarily some distance: he who is called by his superior to pass the interval, may properly accept the invitation; but petulance and obtrusion are rarely produced by magnanimity; nor have often any nobler cause than the pride of importance, and the malice of inferiority. He who knows himself necessary may set, while that necessity lasts, a high value upon himself; as, in a low condition, a servant eminently skilful niay be saucy; but he is saucy only because he is servile. 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.

« PreviousContinue »