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Jonathan Swift
by [?]

We have seen how Swift’s father sickened and died. The world was too severe for him, its buffets too abrupt, its burden too heavy, and he gave up the fight before the battle had really begun. This lack of courage and extreme sensitiveness are seen in the son. But so peculiar, complex and wonderful is this web of life, that our very blunders, weaknesses and mistakes are woven in and make the fabric stronger. If Swift had possessed only his mother’s merits, without his father’s faults, he would never have shaken the world with laughter, and we should never have heard of him.

In her lowliness and simplicity the mother of Swift was content. She did her work in her own little way. She smiled at folly, and each day she thanked Heaven that her lot was no worse. Not so her son. He brooded in sullen silence; he cursed Fate for making him a dependent, and even in his youth he scorned those who benefited him. This was a very human proceeding.

Many hate, but few have a fine capacity for scorn. Their hate is so vehement that when hurled it falls short. Swift’s scorn was a beautifully winged arrow, with a poisoned tip. Some who were struck did not at the time know it.

His misanthropy defeated his purpose, thwarted his ambition, ruined his aims, and–made his name illustrious.

Swift wished for churchly preferment, but he had not the patience to wait. He imagined that others were standing in his way, and of course they were; for under the calm exterior of things ecclesiastic, there is often a strife, a jealousy and a competition more rabid than in commerce. To succeed in winning a bishopric requires a sagacity as keen as that required to become a Senator of Massachusetts or the Governor of New York. The man bides his time, makes himself popular, secures advocates, lubricates the way, pulls the wires, and slides noiselessly into place.

Swift lacked diplomacy. When matters did not seem to progress he grew wrathful, seized his pen and stabbed with it. But as he wrote, the ludicrousness of the whole situation came over him and, instead of cursing plain curses, he held his adversary up to ridicule! And this ridicule is so active, the scorn so mixed with wit, the shafts so finely feathered with truth, that it is the admiration of mankind. Vitriol mixed with ink is volatile. Then what? We just run Swift through a coarse sieve to take out the lumps of Seventeenth Century refuse, and then we give him to children to make them laugh. Surely no better use can be made of pessimists. Verily, the author of Gulliver wrote for one purpose, and we use his work for another. He wished for office, he got contempt; he tried to subdue his enemies, they subdued him; he worked for the present, and he won immortality.

Said Heinrich Heine, prone on his bed in Paris: “The wittiest sarcasms of mortals are only an attempt at jesting when compared with those of the great Author of the Universe–the Aristophanes of Heaven!”

Wise men over and over have wasted good ink and paper in bewailing Swift’s malice and coarseness. But without these very elements which the wise men bemoan, Swift would be for us a cipher. Yet love is life and hate is death, so how can spite benefit? The answer is that, in certain forms of germination, frost is as necessary as sunshine: so some men have qualities that lie dormant until the coldness of hate bursts the coarse husk of indifference.

But while hate may animate, only love inspires. Swift might have stood at the head of the Church of England; but even so, he would be only a unit in a long list of names, and as it is, there is only one Swift. Mr. Talmage averred that not ten men in America knew the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury until his son wrote a certain book entitled “Dodo.” In putting out this volume, young Benson not only gave us the strongest possible argument favoring the celibacy of the clergy, but at the same time, if Talmage’s statement is correct, he made known his father’s name.