Johnson: Life of Swift

June 29, 2018

Life of Swift
Samuel Johnson
(Bigelow, Smith & Co, 1929) [c.1780]
50 p.

For me the appeal of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is more Johnson than the poets. That said, Jonathan Swift was a man worthy of this great moralist’s attention. His Life begins with a chronological overview of the main events of Swift’s life and of his principle literary works, and then concludes with an appraisal of his personality and literary merits.

Swift was born in Ireland, and lived most of his life there, with occasional residence in England. He was a late bloomer; his first major literary work (“Dissensions in Athens and Rome”, now mostly forgotten) was not published until he was in his mid-30s. He earned his reputation as a critic and satirist, and became a sort of public figure without ever holding an official public office. Indeed, he entered into the life of a clergyman to earn his daily bread — something that I knew, but had forgotten, and was surprised to learn again. He eventually became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a church of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland, and “much against his will commenced Irishman for life”.

Although he had preferred to be in England than Ireland, he became a friend and champion of the Irish people against the English, putting his wit and his influence to work on their behalf. The famous essay “A Modest Proposal” (which Johnson does not mention) is an example of his method. For this advocacy he was widely admired by the Irish.

Swift’s was a difficult personality. Johnson describes him in this way:

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.

And, in another place:

His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity.

He was a man whom few dared to cross, possessed of “a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety”. He was not given to laughter, but of course not entirely without humour; his Saharan-grade dry wit served his satirical talents. He was a religious man but he hid his devotions from the view even of his friends. He had a “dread of hypocrisy. Instead of wishing to seem better, he delighted in seeming worse than he was.” He carried on for many years an ambiguous relationship with a woman much his junior, Esther Johnson, whom some believed he had secretly married — Johnson certainly believed it. Upon his death he was buried beside her in his cathedral.

When we think of Swift, we probably think first of either “A Modest Proposal” or Gulliver’s Travels, the two works on which his fame largely rests. About Gulliver Johnson writes that

it was read by the high and the low, the learned and illiterate. 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.

He does not specify how it was read by the illiterate, but the point is clear: it was a popular success that defied categorization. It is notable that in our time it is often classified as a children’s book, an indication that we still don’t really know what to make of it. In Swift’s poetry Johnson judges that “there is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers” — perhaps a surprising judgment given that we are here reading from the Lives of the Poets, but so be it. I myself read a volume of Swift’s poetry a few years ago and I agree with Johnson. (Woe betide him who does not!)

For Johnson, Swift is principally admirable for his use of satire in just causes — he “showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist” — and for the distinctiveness of his literary voice, for

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.

**

As I said above, much of the appeal of reading Johnson comes from reading Johnson, whose pen drips aphorisms and pithy judgments as readily as trees drop leaves in an autumn wind. Here is a sampling:

[On criticism of public figures]
Where a wide system of conduct, and the whole of a public character, is laid open to inquiry, the accuser, having the choice of facts, must be very unskilful if he does not prevail.

[On irresolution]
He that knows not whither to go, is in no haste to move.

[On flattery]
He that is much flattered soon learns to flatter himself.

[On peculiar habits]
…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.

[On fruit]
Almost everybody eats as much fruit as he can get, without any great inconvenience.

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