The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 14/Letter: St John to Swift - 5

MARCH 29, 1736.

I HAVE delayed several posts answering your letter of January last, in hopes of being able to speak to you about a project which concerns us both, but me the most, since the success of it would bring us together. It has been a good while in my head, and at my heart, if it can be set agoing, you shall hear more of it. I was ill in the beginning of the winter for near a week, but in no danger either from the nature of my distemper, or from the attendance of three physicians. Since that bilious intermitting fever, I have had, as I had before, better health than the regard I have paid to health deserves. We are both in the decline of life, my dear dean, and have been some years going down the hill; let us make the passage as smooth as we can. Let us fence against physical evil by care, and the use of those means which experience must have pointed out to us: let us fence against moral evil by philosophy. I renounce the alternative you propose. But we may, nay (if we will follow nature, and do not work up imagination against her plainest dictates) we shall of course grow every year more indifferent to life, and to the affairs and interests of a system out of which we are soon to go. This is much better than stupidity. The decay of passion strengthens philosophy, for passion may decay, and stupidity not succeed. Passions, (says Pope, our divine, as you will see one time or other) are the gales of life: let us not complain that they do not blow a storm. What hurt does age do us, in subduing what we toil to subdue all our lives? It is now six in the morning; I recall the time (and am glad it is over) when about this hour I used to be going to bed, surfeited with pleasure, or jaded with business: my head often full of schemes, and my heart as often full of anxiety. Is it a misfortune, think you, that I rise at this hour, refreshed, serene, and calm? that the past, and even the present affairs of life stand like objects at a distance from me, where I can keep off the disagreeable so as not to be strongly affected by them, and from whence I can draw the others nearer to me? Passions in their force, would bring all these, nay even future contingencies, about my ears at once, and reason would but ill defend me in the scuffle.

I leave Pope to speak for himself, but I must tell you how much my wife is obliged to you. She says she would find strength enough to nurse you, if you were here, and yet God knows she is extremely weak; the slow fever works under, and mines the constitution; we keep it off sometimes, but still it returns, and makes new breaches before nature can repair the old ones. I am not ashamed to say to you, that I admire her more every hour of my life[1]; Death is not to her the king of terrours; she beholds him without the least. When she suffers much, she wishes for him as a deliverer from pain; when life is tolerable, she looks on him with dislike, because he is to separate her from those friends to whom she is more attached than life itself. You shall not stay for my next, as long as you have for this letter; and in every one. Pope shall write something much better than the scraps of old philosophers, which were the presents, munuscula, that stoical fop Seneca used to send in every epistle to his friend Lucilius.

P. S. My Lord has spoken justly of his lady: why not I of my mother? Yesterday was her birthday, now entering on the ninety-first year of her age; her memory much diminished, but her senses very little hurt, her sight and hearing good; she sleeps not ill, eats moderately, drinks water, says her prayers; this is all she does. I have reason to thank God for continuing so long to me a very good and tender parent, and for allowing me to exercise for some years, those cares which are now as necessary to her, as hers have been to me. An object of this sort daily before one's eyes very much softens the mind, but perhaps may hinder it from the willingness of contracting other ties of the like domestick nature, when one finds how painful it is even to enjoy the tender pleasures. I have formerly made so strong efforts to get and to deserve a friend: perhaps it were wiser never to attempt it, but live extempore, and look upon the world only as a place to pass through, just pay your hosts their due, disperse a little charity, and hurry on. Yet am I just now writing (or rather planning) a book[2], to make mankind look upon this life with comfort and pleasure, and put morality in good humour. And just now too, I am going to see one I love very tenderly; and to morrow to entertain several civil people, whom if we call friends, it is by the courtesy of England. Sic, sic juvat ire sub umbras[3]. While we do live, we must make the best of life.

Cantantes licet usque (minus via lædat) eamus[4],

as the shepherd said in Virgil, when the road was long and heavy. I am yours.

  1. She was niece to madame de Maintenon, educated at St. Cyr, and was a woman of a very beautiful person, and very agreeable manners. Her letters are written in very elegant French. She was a woman of much observation. Madame de Mainitenon mentions her in her letters. Dr. Trapp told me, that lord Bolingbroke boasting one day of his former gallantries, she said to him, smiling, "When I look at you, methinks I see the ruins of a fine old Roman aqueduct; but the water has ceased to flow." Dr. Warton.
  2. He means his "Essay on Man"; and alludes to the arguments he uses to make men satisfied even with their present state, without looking to another. Young wrote his "Night Thoughts" in direct opposition to this view of human life, but which, in truth Young has painted in colours too dark and uncomfortable.
  3. Thus, thus it pleases us to pass through life.
  4. Let us still go singing on, to beguile the tediousness of the way.