The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 12/From Henry St. John to Jonathan Swift - 11

JAN. 1, 1721-2.

I RECEIVED your letter of the twenty-ninth of September, above a fortnight ago; and should have set you an example, by answering it immediately, (which I do not remember you ever set me) if I had not been obliged to abandon the silence and quiet of this beloved retreat, and to thrust myself into the hurry and babble of an impertinent town. In less than ten days which I spent at Paris, I was more than ten times on the point of leaving my business there undone; and yet this business was to save four-fifths of four hundred thousand livres, which I have on the townhouse; restes misérables du naufrage de ma fortune. Luckily I had the fear of you before my eyes; and though I cannot hope to deserve your esteem by growing rich, I have endeavoured to avoid your contempt by growing poor. The expression is equivocal; a fault, which our language often betrays those, who scribble hastily, into; but your own conscience will serve for a comment, and fix the sense. Let me thank you for remembering me in your prayers, and for using your credit above, so generously in my behalf. To despise riches with Seneca's purse, is to have at once all the advantages of fortune and philosophy.

Quid voyeat dulci nutricula majus alumno?

You are not like H. Guy[1], who, among other excellent pieces of advice gave me this, when I first came to court; to be very moderate and modest in my applications for my friends, and very greedy and importunate when I asked for myself. You call Tully names, to revenge Cato's quarrel; and to revenge Tully's, I am ready to fall foul of Seneca. You churchmen have cried him up for a great saint; and as if you imagined, that to have it believed that he had a month's mind to be a christian, would reflect some honour on christianity, you employed one of those pious frauds, so frequently practised in the days of primitive simplicity, to impose on the world, a pretended correspondence between him and the great apostle of the gentiles[2]. Your partiality in his favour, shall bias me no more, than the pique which Dion Cassius and others show against him. Like an equitable judge, I shall only tax him with avarice in his prosperity, adulation in his adversity, and affectation in every state of life. Were I considerable enough to be banished from my country, methinks I would not purchase my restoration, at the expense of writing such a letter to the prince himself, as your christian stoick wrote to the emperor's slave, Polybius[3]. Thus I think of the man, and yet I read the author with pleasure; though I join in condemning those points, which he introduced into the Latin style; those eternal witticisms, strung like beads together, and that impudent manner of talking to the passions, before he has gone about to convince the judgment; which Erasmus, if I remember right, objects to him. He is seldom instructive, but he is perpetually entertaining; and when he gives you no new idea, he reflects your own back upon you with new lustre. I have lately writ an excellent treatise in praise of exile[4]. Many of the hints are taken from Consolatio ad Helviam, and other parts of his works. The whole is turned in his style and manner; and there is as much of the spirit of the portique, as I could infuse without running too far into the mirabilia, inopinata, et paradoxa; which Tully, and I think Seneca himself, ridicules the school of Zeno for. That you may laugh at me in your turn, I own ingenuously, that I began in jest, grew serious at the third or fourth page, and convinced myself, before I had done, of what perhaps I shall never convince any other, that a man of sense and virtue may be unfortunate, but can never be unhappy. Do not imagine, however, that I have a mind to quarrel with Aristippus: he is still my favourite among the philosophers; and if I find some faults in him, they are few and venial.

You do me much honour, in saying, that I put you in mind of lord Digby; but say it to no one else, for fear of passing for partial in your parallels, which has done Plutarch more hurt than it has done good to his Grecian heroes. I had forgot, or I never knew, the remarkable passage which you mention. Great virtue, unjustly persecuted, may hold such language, and will be heard with applause; with general applause I mean, not universal. There was at Athens a wretch, who spit in the face of Aristides, as he marched firm, calm, and almost gay, to execution. Perhaps there was not another man among the Athenians, capable of the same vile action. And for the honour of my country, I will believe, that there are few men in England, beside lord Oxford, capable of hearing that strain of eloquence, without admiration. There is a sort of kindred in souls, and they are divided into more families than we are apt to imagine. Digby's and Harley's are absolute strangers to one another. Touch a unison, and all the unisons will give the same sound; but you may thrum a lute till your fingers are sore, and you will draw no sound out of a jew's harp.

I thank you for correcting my inscriptions, and I thank you still more for promising to gather up mottoes for me, and to write often to me. I am as little given to beg correspondents, as you are to beg pictures; but since I cannot live with you, I would fain hear from you. To grow old with good sense, and a good friend, was the wish of Thales; I add, with good health: to enjoy but one and a half of these three, is hard. I have heard of Prior's death[5], and of his epitaph[6]; and have seen a strange book, writ by a grave and eloquent doctor[7], about the duke of Buckinghamshire. People, who talk much in that moment, can have, as I believe, but one of these two principles, fear, or vanity. It is therefore much better to hold one's tongue. I am sorry, that the first of these persons, our old acquaintance Matt. lived so poor as you represent him. I thought that a certain lord[8], whose marriage with a certain heiress was the ultimate end of a certain administration, had put him above want. Prior might justly enough have addressed himself to his young patron, as our friend Aristippus did to Dionysius; "you have money, which I want; I have wit and knowledge, which you want." I long to see your travels[9]; for, take it as you will, I do not retract what I said. I will undertake to find, in two pages of your bagatelles, more good sense, useful knowledge, and true religion, than you can show me in the works of nineteen in twenty of the profound divines and philosophers of the age.

I am obliged to return to Paris in a month or six weeks time, and from thence will send you my picture. Would to Heaven I could send you as like a picture of my mind: you would find yourself, in that draught, the object of the truest esteem, and the sincerest friendship.

  1. Henry Guy, who had been secretary to the treasury during three successive reigns, died February 23, 1710, and left to William Pulteney, esq., late earl of Bath, near forty thousand pounds, with an estate of about five hundred pounds a year; as the latter owns, in his Answer to one Part of a late infamous Libel, &c. published in 1731, p. 39.
  2. It consists of thirteen letters, which seemed to St. Jerom and St. Augustin to have been genuine. But du Pin (Nouvelle Bibliothéque des Auteurs Ecclésiastiques, tom. i, p. 24, edit. 1690, 4to.) acknowledges, that they contain nothing worthy of the apostle or philosopher, and have not the least resemblance to the style of either. This is likewise the judgment of the most learned among the modern criticks.
  3. Seneca de Consolatione ad Polybium.
  4. It is printed in his works, under the title of "Reflections upon Exile."
  5. He died Sept. 18, 1721.
  6. In the following triplet, written by himself.
    "To me 'tis given to die; to you 'tis given
    To live. Alas! one moment sets us even;
    Mark how impartial is the will of Heaven!"

    Bishop Atterbury, in a letter to Mr. Pope, dated Sept. 27, 1721, says, "I had not strength enough to attend Mr. Prior to his grave, else I would have done it, to have showed his friends, that I had forgot and forgiven what he wrote on me. He was buried as he desired, at the feet of Spenser. I will take care to make good, in every respect, what I said to him when living, particularly as to the triplet he wrote for his own epitaph; which, while we were on good terms, I promised him should never appear on his tomb while I was dean of Westminster." See Bp. Atterbury's Epistolary Correspondence, 1799, vol. II, p. 117.

  7. Richard Fiddes, D. D., published in 1721, in octavo, A Letter in Answer to one from a Freethinker; occasioned by the late Duke of Buckinghamshire's Epitaph; wherein certain Passages in it, that have been thought exceptionable, are vindicated; and the Doctrine of the Soul's Immortality asserted, &c. This was followed by A Second Letter, published the same year.
  8. Edward, lord Harley, who married in October 1713, the lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, only daughter and heir of John, duke of Newcastle.
  9. Gulliver's.