Lives of the Poets: Addison, Savage, etc.
Samuel Johnson

Part 4 out of 4

was six months in his house before he knew it. He was not only
careful to hide the good which he did, but willingly incurred the
suspicion of evil which he did not. He forgot what himself had
formerly asserted, that hypocrisy is less mischievous than open
impiety. Dr. Delany, with all his zeal for his honour, has justly
condemned this part of his character.

The person of Swift had not many recommendations. He 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. To his domestics he
was naturally rough: and a man of a rigorous temper, with that
vigilance of minute attention which his works discover, must have
been a master that few could bear. That he was disposed to do his
servants good, on important occasions, is no great mitigation;
benefaction can be but rare, and tyrannic peevishness is perpetual.
He did not spare the servants of others. Once, when he dined alone
with the Earl of Orrery, he said of one that waited in the room,
"That man has, since we sat to the table, committed fifteen faults."
What the faults were, Lord Orrery, from whom I heard the story, had
not been attentive enough to discover. My number may perhaps not be

In his economy he practised 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 liked 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 than 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.
His beneficence was not graced with tenderness or civility; he
relieved without pity, and assisted without kindness; so that those
who were fed by him could hardly love him. He made a rule to
himself to give but one piece at a time, and therefore always stored
his pocket with coins of different value. Whatever he did he seemed
willing to do in a manner peculiar to himself, without sufficiently
considering that singularity, as it implies a contempt of the
general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the
hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges peculiar habits,
is worse than others, if he be not better.

Of his humour, a story told by Pope may afford a specimen.

"Dr. Swift has an odd, blunt way, that is mistaken by strangers for
ill nature.--'Tis so odd, that there's no describing it but by
facts. I'll tell you one that first comes into my head. One
evening Gay and I went to see him: you know how intimately we were
all acquainted. On our coming in, 'Heyday, gentlemen' (says the
doctor), 'what's the meaning of this visit? How came you to leave
the great Lords that you are so fond of, to come hither to see a
poor Dean?'--'Because we would rather see you than any of them.'--
'Ay, anyone that did not know so well as I do might believe you.
But since you are come, I must get some supper for you, I suppose.'-
-'No, Doctor, we have supped already.'--'Supped already? that's
impossible! why, 'tis not eight o'clock yet: that's very strange;
but if you had not supped, I must have got something for you. Let
me see, what should I have had? A couple of lobsters; ay, that
would have done very well; two shillings--tarts, a shilling; but you
will drink a glass of wine with me, though you supped so much before
your usual time only to spare my pocket?'--'No, we had rather talk
with you than drink with you.'--'But if you had supped with me, as
in all reason you ought to have done, you must then have drunk with
me. A bottle of wine, two shillings--two and two is four, and one
is five; just two-and-sixpence a-piece. There, Pope, there's half a
crown for you, and there's another for you, sir; for I won't save
anything by you. I am determined.'--This was all said and done with
his usual seriousness on such occasions; and, in spite of everything
we could say to the contrary, he actually obliged us to take the

In the intercourse of familiar life, he indulged his disposition to
petulance and sarcasm, and thought himself injured if the
licentiousness of his raillery, the freedom of his censures, or the
petulance of his frolics was resented or repressed. He predominated
over his companions with very high ascendancy, and probably would
bear none over whom he could not predominate. To give him advice
was, in the style of his friend Delany, "to venture to speak to
him." This customary superiority soon grew too delicate for truth;
and Swift, with all his penetration, allowed himself to be delighted
with low flattery. On all common occasions, he habitually affects a
style of arrogance, and dictates rather than persuades. This
authoritative and magisterial language he expected to be received as
his peculiar mode of jocularity: but he apparently flattered his
own arrogance by an assumed imperiousness, in which he was ironical
only to the resentful, and to the submissive sufficiently serious.
He told stories with great felicity, and delighted in doing what he
knew himself to do well; he was therefore captivated by the
respectful silence of a steady listener, and told the same tales too
often. 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

It may be justly supposed that there was in his conversation, what
appears so frequently in his Letters, an affectation of familiarity
with the great, an ambition of momentary equality sought and enjoyed
by the neglect of those ceremonies which custom has established as
the barriers between one order of society and another. This
transgression of regularity was by himself and his admirers termed
greatness of soul. But a great mind disdains to hold anything by
courtesy, and therefore never usurps what a lawful claimant may take
away. He that encroaches on another's dignity puts himself in his
power; he is either repelled with helpless indignity, or endured by
clemency and condescension.

Of Swift's general habits of thinking, if his Letters can be
supposed to afford any evidence, he was not a man to be either loved
or envied. He seems to have wasted life in discontent, by the rage
of neglected pride, and the languishment of unsatisfied desire. 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. From the letters that passed between him and
Pope it might be inferred that they, with Arbuthnot and Gay, had
engrossed all the understanding and virtue of mankind; that their
merits filled the world; or that there was no hope of more. They
show the age involved in darkness, and shade the picture with sullen

When the Queen's death drove him into Ireland, he might be allowed
to regret for a time the interception of his views, the extinction
of his hopes, and his ejection from gay scenes, important
employment, and splendid friendships; but when time had enabled
reason to prevail over vexation, the complaints, which at first were
natural, became ridiculous because they were useless. But
querulousness was now grown habitual, and he cried out when he
probably had ceased to feel. His reiterated wailings persuaded
Bolingbroke that he was really willing to quit his deanery for an
English parish; and Bolingbroke procured an exchange, which was
rejected; and Swift still retained the pleasure of complaining.

The greatest difficulty that occurs, in analysing 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. The ideas of pleasure, even when criminal, may solicit the
imagination; but what has disease, deformity, and filth, upon which
the thoughts can be allured to dwell? Delany is willing to think
that Swift's mind was not much tainted with this gross corruption
before his long visit to Pope. He does not consider how he 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.

I have here given the character of Swift as he exhibits himself to
my perception; but now let another be heard who knew him better.
Dr. Delany, after long acquaintance, describes him to Lord Orrery in
these terms:--

"My Lord, when you consider Swift's singular, peculiar, and most
variegated vein of wit, always rightly intended, although not always
so rightly directed; delightful in many instances, and salutary even
where it is most offensive; when you consider his strict truth, his
fortitude in resisting oppression and arbitrary power; his fidelity
in friendship; his sincere love and zeal for religion; his
uprightness in making right resolutions, and his steadiness in
adhering to them; his care of his church, its choir, its economy,
and its income; his attention to all those who preached in his
cathedral, in order to their amendment in pronunciation and style;
as also his remarkable attention to the interest of his successors
preferably to his own present emoluments; his invincible patriotism,
even to a country which he did not love; his very various, well-
devised, well-judged, and extensive charities, throughout his life;
and his whole fortune (to say nothing of his wife's) conveyed to the
same Christian purposes at his death; charities, from which he could
enjoy no honour, advantage, or satisfaction of any kind in this
world: when you consider his ironical and humorous, as well as his
serious schemes, for the promotion of true religion and virtue; his
success in soliciting for the First Fruits and Twentieths, to the
unspeakable benefit of the Established Church of Ireland; and his
felicity (to rate it no higher) in giving occasion to the building
of fifty new churches in London:

"All this considered, the character of his life will appear like
that of his writings; they will both bear to be reconsidered, and
re-examined with the utmost attention, and always discover new
beauties and excellences upon every examination.

"They will bear to be considered as the sun, in which the brightness
will hide the blemishes; and whenever petulant ignorance, pride,
malignity, or envy interposes to cloud or sully his fame, I take
upon me to pronounce, that the eclipse will not last long.

"To conclude--No man ever deserved better of his country, than Swift
did of his; a steady, persevering, inflexible friend; a wise, a
watchful, and a faithful counsellor, under many severe trials and
bitter persecutions, to the manifest hazard both of his liberty and

"He lived a blessing, he died a benefactor, and his name will ever
live an honour to Ireland."

In the poetical works of Dr. Swift there is not much upon which the
critic can exercise his powers. They are often humorous, almost
always light, and have the qualities which recommend such
compositions, easiness and gaiety. They are, for the most part,
what their author intended. The diction is correct, the numbers are
smooth, and the rhymes exact. There seldom occurs a hard-laboured
expression, or a redundant epithet; all his verses exemplify his own
definition of a good style; they consist of "proper words in proper

To divide this collection into classes, and show how some pieces are
gross, and some are trifling, would be to tell the reader what he
knows already, and to find faults of which the author could not be
ignorant, who certainly wrote not often to his judgment, but his

It was said, in a Preface to one of the Irish editions, that Swift
had never been known to take a single thought from any writer,
ancient or modern. This is not literally true; but perhaps no
writer can easily be found that has borrowed so little, or that, in
all his excellences and all his defects, has so well maintained his
claim to be considered as original.


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