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The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 12/From Jonathan Swift to Henry St. John - 4

< The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift‎ | Volume 12

MAY, 1719.

I FORGET whether I formerly mentioned to you what I have observed in Cicero; that in some of his letters, while he was in exile, there is a sort of melancholy pleasure, which is wonderfully affecting. I believe the reason must be, that in those circumstances of life, there is more leisure for friendship to operate, without any mixture of envy, interest, or ambition. But, I am afraid, this was chiefly when Cicero writ to his brethren in exile, or they to him; because common distress is a great promoter both of friendship and speculation: for, I doubt, prosperity and adversity are too much at variance, ever to suffer a near alliance between their owners.

Friendship, we say, is created by a resemblance of humours. You allow that adversity both taught you to think and reason much otherwise than you did; whereas, I can assure you, that those who contrived to stay at home, and keep what they had, are not changed at all; and if they sometimes drink an absent friend's health, they have fully discharged their duty. I have been, for some time, nursing up an observation, which perhaps may be a just one: that no men are used so ill, upon a change of times, as those who acted upon a publick view, without regard to themselves. I do not mean from the circumstance of saving more or less money, but because I take it, that the same grain of caution, which disposes a man to fill his coffers, will teach him how to preserve them upon all events. And I dare hold a wager that the duke of Marlborough, in all his campaigns, was never known to lose his baggage. I am heartily glad to hear of that unconditional offer you mention; because I have been taught to believe there is little good nature to be had from that quarter; and if the offer were sincere, I know not why it has not succeeded, since every thing is granted that can be asked for, unless there be an exception only for generous and good natured actions. When I think of you with relation to sir Roger[1], I imagine a youth of sixteen marrying a woman of thirty for love; she decays every year, while he grows up to his prime; and when it is too late, he wonders how he could think of so unequal a match, or what is become of the beauty he was so fond of. — I am told, he outdoes himself in every quality for which we used to quarrel with him. I do not think, that leisure of life, and tranquillity of mind, which fortune and your own wisdom has given you, could be better employed than in drawing up very exact memoirs of those affairs, wherein, to my knowledge, you had the most difficult and weighty part: and I have often thought, in comparing periods of time, there never was a more important one in England, than that which made up the four last years of the late queen. Neither do I think any thing could be more entertaining, or useful, than the story of it fully and exactly told, with such observations, in such a spirit, style, and method, as you alone are capable of performing it. One reason why we have so few memoirs written by principal actors, is, because much familiarity with great affairs makes men value them too little; yet such persons will read Tacitus and Commines with wonderful delight. Therefore I must beg two things; first, that you will not omit any passage because you think it of little moment; and secondly, that you will write to an ignorant world, and not suppose your reader to be only of the present age, or to live within ten miles of London. There is nothing more vexes me in old historians, than when they leave me in the dark in some passages which they suppose every one to know. It is this laziness, pride, or incapacity of great men, that has given way to the impertinents of the nation where you are, to pester us with memoirs full of trifling and romance. Let a Frenchman talk twice with a minister of state, he desires no more to furnish out a volume; and I, who am no Frenchman, despairing ever to see any thing of what you tell me, have been some time providing materials for such a work, only upon the strength of having been always among you, and used with more kindness and confidence than it often happens to men of my trade and level. But I am heartily glad of so good a reason to think no farther that way, although I could say many things which you would never allow yourself to write. I have already drawn your character at length in one tract, and a sketch of it in another. But I am sensible that when Cæsar describes one of his own battles, we conceive a greater idea of him from thence, than from all the praises any other writer can give him.

I read your paraphrase with great pleasure; and the goodness of the poetry convinces me of the truth of your philosophy. I agree, that a great part of our wants is imaginary; yet there is a different proportion, even in real want, between one man and another. A king deprived of his kingdom, would be allowed to live in real want, although he had ten thousand a year; and the case is parallel in every decree of life. When I reason thus on the case of some absent friends, it frequently takes away all the quiet of my mind. I think it indecent to be merry, or take satisfaction in any thing, while those who presided in councils or armies, and by whom I had the honour to be beloved, are either in humble solitude, or attending, like Hannibal, in foreign courts, donec Bithyno libeat vigilare tyranno. My health (a thing of no moment) is somewhat mended; but, at best, I have an ill head and an aching heart. Pray God send you soon back to your country in peace and honour, that I may once more see him cum quo morantem sæpe diem fregi, &c.