They are but few and meanspirited that live in peace with all men.
–Tale of a Tub
Birrell, the great English essayist, remarks that, “Of writing books about Dean Swift there is no end.” The reason is plain: of no other prominent writer who has lived during the past two hundred years do we know so much. His life lies open to us in many books. Boswell did not write his biography, but Johnson did. Then followed whole schools of little fishes, some of whom wrote like whales. But among the works of genuine worth and merit, with Swift for a subject, we have Sir Walter Scott’s nineteen volumes, and lives by Craik, Mitford, Forster, Collins and Leslie Stephen.
The positive elements in Swift’s character make him a most interesting subject to men and women who are yet on earth, for he was essentially of the earth, earthy. And until we are shown that the earth is wholly bad, we shall find much to amuse, much to instruct, much to admire–aye, much to pity–in the life of Jonathan Swift.
His father married at twenty. His income matched his years–it was just twenty pounds per annum. His wife was a young girl, bright, animated, intelligent.
In a few short months this girl carried in her arms a baby. This baby was wrapped in a tattered shawl and cried piteously from hunger, for the mother had not enough to eat. She was cold, and sick, and in disgrace. Her husband, too, was ill, and sorely in debt. It was Midwinter.
When Spring came, and the flowers blossomed, and the birds mated, and warm breezes came whispering softly from the South, and all the earth was glad, the husband of this child-wife was in his grave, and she was alone. Alone? No; she carried in her tired arms the hungry babe, and beneath her heart she felt the faint flutter of another life.
But to be in trouble and in Ireland is not so bad after all, for the Irish people have great and tender hearts; and even if they have not much to bestow in a material way, they can give sympathy, and they do.
So the girl was cared for by kind kindred, and on November Thirtieth, Sixteen Hundred Sixty-seven, at Number Seven, Hoey’s Court, Dublin, the second baby was born.
Only a little way from Hoey’s Court is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. On that November day, as the tones from the clanging chimes fell on the weary senses of the young mother, there in her darkened room, little did she think that the puny bantling she held to her breast would yet be the Dean of the great church whose bells she heard; and how could she anticipate a whisper coming to her from the far-off future: “Of writing books about your babe there is no end!”
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The man-child was given to an old woman to care for, and he had the ability, even then, it seems, to win affection. The foster-mother loved him and she stole him away, carrying him off to England.
Charity ministered to his needs; charity gave him his education. When Swift was twenty-one years old he went to see his mother. Her means were scanty to the point of hardship, but so buoyant was her mind that she used to declare that she was both rich and happy–and being happy she was certainly rich. She was a rare woman. Her spirit was independent, her mind cultivated, her manner gentle and refined, and she was endowed with a keen sense of humor.
From her, the son derived those qualities which have made him famous. No man is greater than his mother; but the sons of brave women do not always make brave men. In one quality Swift was lamentably inferior to his mother–he did not have her capacity for happiness. He had wit; she had humor.