The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 12/From Henry St. John to Jonathan Swift - 22

AIX-LA-CHAPELLE, AUG. 30, 1729, N. S.

I TOOK a letter of yours from Pope, and brought it to this place, that I might answer at least a part of it. I begin to day: when I shall finish I know not; perhaps when I get back to my farm. The waters I have been persuaded to drink, and those which my friends drink, keep me fuddled or employed all the morning. The afternoons are spent in airings or visits, and we go to bed with the chicken.


I have brought your French acquaintance[1] thus far on her way into her own country, and considerably better in health than she was when she went to Aix. I begin to entertain hopes that she will recover such a degree of health as may render old age supportable. Both of us have closed the tenth lustre, and it is high time to determine how we shall play the last act of the farce. Might not my life be entitled much more properly a what-d'ye-call-it than a farce[2]? Some comedy, a great deal of tragedy, and the whole interspersed with scenes of Harlequin, Scaramouch, and Dr. Baloardo, the prototype of your hero Oxford. I used to think sometimes formerly of old age and of death; enough to prepare my mind; not enough to anticipate sorrow, to dash the joys of youth, and to be all my life a dying. I find the benefit of this practice now, and shall find it more as I proceed on my journey; little regret when I look backward, little apprehension when I look forward. You complain grievously of your situation in Ireland. I could complain of mine too in England: but I will not, nay, I ought not; for I find, by long experience, that I can be unfortunate, without being unhappy. I do not approve your joining together the figure of living, and the pleasure of giving, though your old prating friend Montaigne[3], does something like it in one of his rhapsodies: to tell you my reasons would be to write an essay, and I shall hardly have time to write a letter; but, if you will come over and live with Pope and me, I will show you in an instant why those two things should not aller de pair, and that forced retrenchments on both may be made, without making us uneasy. You know that I am too expensive, and all mankind knows that I have been cruelly plundered; and yet I feel in my mind the power of descending, without anxiety, two or three stages more. In short, Mr. dean, if you will come to a certain farm in Middlesex[4], you shall find that I can live frugally without growling at the world, or being peevish with those whom fortune has appointed to eat my bread, instead of appointing me to eat theirs; and yet I have naturally as little disposition to frugality as any man alive. You say you are no philosopher, and I think you are in the right to dislike a word which is so often abused; but I am sure you like to follow reason, not custom (which is sometimes the reason, and oftener the caprice of others, of the mob of the world). Now, to be sure of doing this, you must wear your philosophical spectacles as constantly as the Spaniards used to wear theirs. You must make them part of your dress, and sooner part with your broad brimmed beaver, your gown, scarf, or even that emblematical vestment your surplice. Through this medium you will see few things to be vexed at, few persons to be angry at.


And yet there will frequently be things which we ought to wish altered, and persons whom we ought to wish hanged. Since I am likely to wait here for a wind, I shall have leisure to talk with you more than you will like perhaps. If that should be so, you will never tell it me grossly; and my vanity will secure me against taking a hint.

In your letter to Pope, you agree that a regard for fame becomes a man more toward his exit, than at his entrance into life; and yet you confess that the longer you live, the more you grow indifferent about it. Your sentiment is true and natural; your reasoning, I am afraid, is not so upon this occasion. Prudence will make us desire fame, because it gives us many real and great advantages in all the affairs of life. Fame is the wise man's means; his ends are his own good, and the good of society. You poets and orators have inverted this order; you propose fame as the end; and good, or at least great actions as the means. You go farther: you teach our self love to anticipate the applause which we suppose will be paid by posterity to our names; and with idle notions of immortality you turn other heads beside your own: I am afraid this may have done some harm in the world.


I go on from this place, whither I am come in hopes of getting to sea, which I could not do from the port of Ostend.

Fame is an object which men pursue successfully by various and even contrary courses. Your doctrine leads them to look on this end as essential, and on the means as indifferent; so that Fabricius and Crassus, Cato and Cæsar, pressed forward to the same goal. After all, perhaps, it may appear, from a consideration of the depravity of mankind, that you could do no better, nor keep up virtue in the world without calling this passion, or this direction of self love, into your aid. Tacitus has crowded this excuse for you, according to his manner, into a maxim, Contemptu famæ contemni virtutes[5]. But now, whether we consider fame as a useful instrument in all the occurrences of private and publick life, or whether we consider it as the cause of that pleasure which our self love is so fond of, methinks our entrance into life, or, to speak more properly, our youth, not our old age, is the season when we ought to desire it most, and therefore when it is most becoming to desire it with ardour. If it is useful it is to be desired most when we have, or may hope to have, a long scene of action open before us, toward our exit, this scene of action is, or should be, closed; and then methinks it is unbecoming to grow fonder of a thing, which we have no longer occasion for. If it is pleasant, the sooner we are in possession of fame, the longer we shall enjoy this pleasure; when it is acquired early in life, it may tickle us on till old age; but when it is acquired late, the sensation of pleasure will be more faint, and mingled with the regret of our not having tasted it sooner.


I am here; I have seen Pope, and one of my first inquiries was after you. He tells me a thing I am sorry to hear: you are building, it seems, on a piece of land you have acquired for that purpose, in some county of Ireland[6]. Though I have built in a part of the world[7] which I prefer very little to that where you have been thrown and confined by our ill fortune and yours, yet I am sorry you do the same thing. I have repented a thousand times of my resolution; and I hope you will repent of yours before it is executed. Pope tells me he has a letter of yours, which I have not seen yet. I shall have that satisfaction shortly, and shall be tempted to scribble to you again, which is another good reason for making this epistle no longer than it is already. Adieu, therefore, my old and worthy friend. May the physical evils of life fall as easily upon you as ever they did on any man who lived to be old! and may the moral evils which surround us make as little impression on you, as they ought to make on one who has such superiour sense to estimate things by, and so much virtue to wrap himself up in!

My wife desires not to be forgotten by you; she is faithfully your servant, and zealously your admirer. She will be concerned, and disappointed, not to find you in this island at her return; which hope both she and I had been made to entertain before I went abroad.

  1. Lady Bolingbroke.
  2. Bolingbroke is reported in a letter to Pouilly to have said, "You, and I, and Pope, are the only three men fit to reign." Voltaire, in the XIIth volume of his letters, denies this anecdote; and adds, "J'aime mieux ce que disait à ses compagnons la plus fameuse catin de Londres: mes sœurs, Bolingbroke est déclaré aujourdhui secrétaire d'état; sept mille guinées de rente, mes sœurs; et tout pour nous!" It appears by Voltaire's Letters, vol. I, p. 13, that in the year 1722, he was at la Source near Orleans, with lord Bolingbroke; to whom he communicated the first sketches of the Henriade, and received from him the highest commendations.
  3. Yet there are few writers that give us such an insight into human nature as this old prater.
  4. Dawley, near Hounslow heath.
  5. From slighting the opinion of the world, we proceed to a disregard of virtue.
  6. In the county of Armagh, the celebrated spot called Drapier's Hill.
  7. Dawley, in the county of Middlesex.