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The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 14/Letter: Swift to St John - 2

< The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift‎ | Volume 14


DUBLIN, APRIL 5, 1729.


I DO not think it could be possible for me to hear better news than that of your getting over your scurvy suit, which always hung as a dead weight on my heart; I hated it in all its circumstances, as it affected your fortune and quiet, and in a situation of life that must make it every way vexatious. And as I am infinitely obliged to you for the justice you do me in supposing your affairs do at least concern me as much as my own; so I would never have pardoned your omitting it. But before I go on, I cannot forbear mentioning what I read last summer in a newspaper, that you were writing the history of your own times. I suppose such a report might arise from what was not secret among your friends, of your intention to write another kind of history; which you often promised Mr. Pope and me to do: I know he desires it very much, and I am sure I desire nothing more for the honour and love I bear you, and the perfect knowledge I have of your publick virtue. My lord, I have no other notion of economy than that it is the parent of liberty and case, and I am not the only friend you have who has chid you in his heat for the neglect of it, though not with his mouth, as I have done. For there is a silly errour in the world, even among friends otherwise very good, not to intermeddle with men's affairs in such nice matters. And my lord, I have made a maxim, that should be writ in letters of diamonds, that a wise man ought to have money in his head, but not in his heart[1]. Pray my lord inquire whether your prototype, my lord Digby, after the restoration when he was at Bristol, did not take some care of his fortune, notwithstanding that quotation I once sent you out of his speech to the H. of commons? In my conscience, I believe Fortune, like other drabs, values a man gradually less for every year he lives. I have demonstration for it; because if I play at piquet for sixpence with a man or woman two years younger than myself, I always lose; and there is a young girl of twenty who never fails of winning my money at backgammon, though she is a bungler, and the game be ecclesiastick. As to the publick, I confess nothing could cure my itch of meddling with it but these frequent returns of deafness, which have hindred me from passing last winter in London; yet I cannot but consider the perfidiousness of some people, who, I thought, when I was last there, upon a change that happened, were the most impudent in forgetting their professions that I have ever known. Pray will you please to take your pen, and blot me out that political maxim from whatever book it is in, that Res nolunt diu male administrari[2]; the commonness makes me not know who is the author, but sure he must be some modern.

I am sorry for lady Bolingbroke's ill health; but I protest I never knew a very deserving person of that sex, who had not too much reason to complain of ill health. I never wake without finding life a more insignificant thing than it was the day before: which is one great advantage I get by living in this country, where there is nothing I shall be sorry to lose. But my greatest misery is recollecting the scene of twenty years past, and then all on a sudden dropping into the present. I remember, when I was a little boy, I felt a great fish at the end of my line which I drew up almost on the ground, but it dropped in, and the disappointment vexes me to this very day, and I believe it was the type of all my future disappointments. I should be ashamed to say this to you, if you had not a spirit fitter to bear your own misfortunes, than I have to think of them. Is there patience left to reflect, by what qualities wealth and greatness are got, and by what qualities they are lost? I have read my friend Congreve's verses to lord Cobham, which end with a vile and false moral, and I remember is not in Horace to Tibullus, which he imitates; "that all times are equally virtuous and vicious:" wherein he differs from all poets, philosophers, and christians that ever writ. It is more probable that there may be an equal quantity of virtues always in the world, but sometimes there may be a peck of it in Asia, and hardly a thimblefull in Europe. But if there be no virtue, there is abundance of sincerity; for I will venture all I am worth, that there is not one human creature in power, who will not be modest enough to confess that he proceeds wholly upon a principle of corruption: I say this because I have a scheme, in spite of your notions, to govern England upon the principles of virtue, and when the nation is ripe for it, I desire you will send for me. I have learned this by living like a hermit, by which I am got backward about nineteen hundred years in the era of the world, and begin to wonder at the wickedness of men. I dine alone upon half a dish of meat, mix water with my wine, walk ten miles a day, and read Baronius. Hic explicit epistola ad dom. Bolingbroke, & incipt ad amicum Pope[3].

Having finished my letter to Aristippus, I now begin to you. I was in great pain about Mrs. Pope, having heard from others that she was in a very dangerous way, which made me think it unseasonable to trouble you. I am ashamed to tell you, that when I was very young I had more desire to be famous than ever since; and fame, like all things else in this life, grows with me every day more a trifle. But you who are so much younger, although you want that health you deserve, yet your spirits are as vigorous as if your body were sounder. I hate a crowd where I have not an easy place to see and be seen. A great library always makes me melancholy[4], where the best author is as much squeezed, and as obscure, as a porter at a coronation. In my own little library, I value the compilements of Grævius and Gronovius, which make thirty-one volumes in folio (and were given me by my lord Bolingbroke) more than all my books besides; because whoever comes into my closet, casts his eyes immediately upon them, and will not vouchsafe to look upon Plato or Xenophon. I tell you it is almost incredible how opinions change by the decline or decay of spirits, and I will farther tell you, that all my endeavours, from a boy, to distinguish myself, were only for want of a great title and fortune, that I might be used like a lord by those who have an opinion of my parts; whether right or wrong, it is no great matter; and so the reputation of wit or great learning does the office of a blue riband, or of a coach and six horses. To be remembered for ever on the account of our friendship, is what would exceedingly please me; but yet I never loved to make a visit, or be seen walking with my betters, because they get all the eyes and civilities from me. I no sooner writ this than I corrected myself, and remembered sir Fulk Grevil's epitaph, "Here lies, &c. who was friend to sir Philip Sidney." And therefore I most heartily thank you for your desire that I would record our friendship in verse, which if I can succeed in, I will never desire to write one more line in poetry while I live. You must present my humble service to Mrs. Pope, and let her know I pray for her continuance in the world, for her own reason, that she may live to take care of you.


  1. "I am afraid that he had money as much in his heart as his head. As he advanced in years, he grew shamefully parsimonious." Dr. Warton.
  2. Publick affairs cannot remain long in a state of ill management.
  3. Here ends the epistle to lord Bolingbroke, and begins to my friend Pope.
  4. In Montesquieu's Persian Letters, there is an admirable one upon this subject.