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The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 17/Narrative of the Frenzy of John Dennis

THE

NARRATIVE

OF

DR. ROBERT NORRIS,

CONCERNING

THE STRANGE AND DEPLORABLE FRENZY OF

MR. JOHN DENNIS,

AN OFFICER OF THE CUSTOM-HOUSE.


Being an exact Account of all that passed between the said Patient and the Doctor till this present Day; and a full Vindication of himself and his Proceedings from the extravagant Reports of the said Mr. John Dennis.


—— excludit sanos Helicone poetas
Democritus.


First published by J. Morphew, in 1713[1].





IT is an acknowledged truth, that nothing is so dear to an honest man as his good name, nor ought he to neglect the just vindication of his character, when it is injuriously attacked by any man. The person I have at present cause to complain of, is indeed in very melancholy circumstances, it having pleased God to deprive him of his senses, which may extenuate the crime in him. But I should be wanting in my duty, not only to myself, but also to my fellow-creatures, to whom my talents may prove of benefit, should I suffer my profession or honesty to be undeservedly aspersed. I have therefore resolved to give the publick an account of all, that has passed between the unhappy gentleman and myself.

On the 20th instant, while I was in my closet pondering the case of one of my patients, I heard a knocking at my door, upon opening of which entered an old woman, with tears in her eyes, and told me, that, without my assistance, her master would be utterly ruined. I was forced to interrupt her sorrow, by inquiring her master's name and place of abode. She told me, he was one Mr. Dennis, an officer of the custom-house, who was taken ill of a violent frenzy last April, and had continued in those melancholy circumstances, with few or no intervals. Upon this, I asked her some questions relating to his humour and extravagances, that I might the better know under what regimen to put him, when the cause of his distemper was found out. "Alas, sir," says she, "this day fortnight, in the morning, a poor simple child came to him from the printer's; the boy had no sooner entered the room, but he cried out, 'the devil was come.' He often stares ghastfully, raves aloud, and mutters between his teeth the word Cator, or Cato, or some such thing. Now, doctor, this Cator is certainly a witch, and my poor master is under an evil tongue; for I have heard him say Cator has bewitched the whole nation. It pitied my very heart to think, that a man of my master's understanding and great scholarship, who, as the child told me, had a book of his own in print, should talk so outrageously. Upon this, I went and laid out a groat for a horseshoe, which is at this time nailed on the threshold of his door; but I don't find my master is at all the better for it; he perpetually starts and runs to the window, when any one knocks, crying out, 'Sdeath! a messenger from the French king! I shall die in the Bastille.'"

Having said this, the old woman presented me with a vial of his urine; upon examination of which, I perceived the whole temperament of his body to be exceeding hot. I therefore instantly took my cane and my beaver, and repaired to the place where he dwelt.

When I came to his lodgings near Charing-cross, up three pair of stairs (which I should not have published in this manner, but that this lunatick conceals the place of his residence on purpose to prevent the good offices of those charitable friends and physicians, who might attempt his cure) when I came into the room, I found this unfortunate gentleman seated on his bed, with Mr. Bernard Lintot bookseller on the one side of him, and a grave elderly gentleman on the other, who, as I have since learned, calls himself a grammarian; the latitude of whose countenance was not a little eclipsed by the fullness of his peruke. As I am a black lean man, of a pale visage, and hang my clothes on somewhat slovenly, I no sooner went in, but he frowned upon me, and cried out with violence, "'Sdeath, a Frenchman! I am betrayed to the tyrant! who could have thought the queen would have delivered me up to France in this treaty, and least of all that you, my friends, would have been in a conspiracy against me?" ———— "Sir," said I, "here is neither plot nor conspiracy, but for your advantage. The recovery of your senses requires my attendance, and your friends sent for me on no other account." I then took a particular survey of his person, and the furniture and disposition of his apartment. His aspect was furious; his eyes were rather fiery than lively, which he rolled about in an uncommon manner. He often opened his mouth, as if he would have uttered some matter of importance, but the sound seemed lost inwardly. His beard was grown, which they told me he would not suffer to be shaved, believing the modern dramatick poets had corrupted all the barbers in the town to take the first opportunity of cutting his throat. His eyebrows were gray, long, and grown together, which he knit with indignation, when any thing was spoken; insomuch that he seemed not to have smoothed his forehead for many years. His flannel nightcap, which was exceedingly begrimed with sweat and dirt, hung upon his left ear; the flap of his breeches dangled between his legs, and the rolls of his stockings fell down to his ankles.

I observed his room was hung with old tapestry, which had several holes in it, caused, as the old woman informed me, by his having cut out of it the heads of divers tyrants, the fierceness of whose visages had much provoked him. On all sides of his room were pinned a great many sheets of a tragedy, called Cato, with notes on the margin with his own hand. The words absurd, monstrous, execrable, were every where written in such large characters, that I could read them without my spectacles. By the fireside lay three-farthingsworth of small coal in a Spectator, and behind the door, huge heaps of papers of the same title, which his nurse informed me she had conveyed thither out of his sight, believing they were books of the black art; for her master never read in them, but he was either quite moped, or in raving fits. There was nothing neat in the whole room, except some books on his shelves, very well bound and gilded, whose names I had never before heard of, nor I believe were any where else to be found; such as Gibraltar, a comedy; Remarks on Prince Arthur; The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry; An Essay on Publick Spirit. The only one I had any knowledge of, was, a Paradise Lost, interleaved. The whole floor was covered with manuscripts, as thick as a pastry-cook's shop on a Christmas eve. On his table were some ends of verse and of candles; a gallipot of ink with a yellow pen in it, and a pot of half dead ale covered with a Longinus.

As I was casting my eyes round on all this odd furniture with some earnestness and astonishment, and in a profound silence, I was on a sudden surprised to hear the man speak in the following manner:

"Beware, doctor, that it fare not with you as with your predecessor the famous Hippocrates, whom the mistaken citizens of Abdera sent for in this very manner, to cure the philosopher Democritus; he returned full of admiration at the wisdom of that person whom he supposed a lunatick. Behold, doctor, it was thus Aristotle himself, and all the great ancients, spent their days and nights, wrapt up in criticism, and beset all around with their own writings. As for me, whom you see in the same manner, be assured I have none other disease, than a swelling in my legs, whereof I say no more, since your art may farther certify you."

I thereupon seated myself upon his bedside, and placing my patient on my right hand, to judge the better in what he affirmed of his legs, felt his pulse.

For it is Hippocrates's maxim, that if the pulse have a dead motion, with some unequal bearings it is a symptom of a sciatica, or a swelling in the thigh or leg; in which assertion of his, this pulse confirmed me.

I began now to be in hopes, that his case had been misrepresented, and that he was not so far gone, but some timely medicines might recover him. I therefore proceeded to the proper queries, which, with the answers made to me, I shall set down in form of a dialogue, in the very words they were spoken, because I would not omit the least circumstance; in this narrative; and I call my conscience to witness, as if upon oath, that I shall tell the truth, without addition or diminution.

Dr. Pray, sir, how did you contract this swelling?

Denn. By a criticism.

Dr. A criticism! that's a distemper I never read of in Galen.

Denn. 'Sdeath, sir, a distemper! It is no distemper, but a noble art. I have sat fourteen hours a day at it: and are you a doctor, and don't know there's a communication between the legs and the brain?

Dr. What made you sit so many hours, sir?

Denn. Cato, sir.

Dr. Sir, I speak of your distemper; what gave you this tumour?

Denn. Cato, Cato, Cato[2].

Old Wom. For God's sake, doctor, name not this evil spirit; 'tis the whole cause of his madness: alas, poor master's just falling into his fits!

Mr. Lintot. Fits! Z—— what fits? A man may well have swellings in his legs, that sits writing fourteen hours in a day. He got this by the Remarks.

Dr. The Remarks! what are those?

Denn. 'Sdeath! have you never read my Remarks? I will be damned, if this dog Lintot ever published my advertisements.

Mr. Lintot. Z——! I published advertisement upon advertisement; and if the book be not read, it is none of my fault, but his that made it. By G—, as much has been done for the book, as could be done for any book in Christendom.

Dr. We do not talk of books, sir; I fear those are the fuel, that feed his delirium; mention them no more. You do very ill to promote this discourse.

I desire a word in private with this other gentleman, who seems a grave and sensible man: I suppose, sir, you are his apothecary.

Gent. Sir, I am his friend.

Dr. I doubt it not. What regimen have you observed, since he has been under your care? You remember, I suppose, the passage of Celsus, which says, if the patient on the third day have an interval, suspend the medicaments at night? Let fumigations be used to corroborate the brain. I hope you have upon no account promoted sternutation by hellebore.

Gent. Sir, no such matter: you utterly mistake.

Dr. Mistake! am I not a physician? and shall an apothecary dispute my nostrums? —— You may perhaps have filled up a prescription or two of Ratcliff's, which chanced to succeed, and with that very prescription, injudiciously prescribed to different constitutions, have destroyed a multitude. Pharmacopola componat, medicus solus præscribat, says Celsus. Fumigate him, I say, this very evening, while he is relieved by an interval.

Denn. 'Sdeath, sir, my friend an apothecary! a base mechanick! He who, like myself, professes the noblest sciences in the universe, criticism and poetry! Can you think I would submit my writings to the judgment of an apothecary? By the immortals, he himself inserted three whole paragraphs in my Remarks, had a hand in my Publick Spirit, nay, assisted me in my description of the furies and infernal regions, in my Appius.

Mr. Lintot. He is an author; you mistake the gentleman, doctor; he has been an author these twenty years; to his bookseller's knowledge, and no man's else.

Denn. Is all the town in a combination? Shall poetry fall to the ground? Must our reputation be lost to all foreign countries? O destruction! perdition! Opera! Opera[3]! As poetry once raised cities, so, when poetry fails, cities are overturned, and the world is no more.

Dr. He raves, he raves; Mr. Lintot, I pray you pinion down his arms, that he may do no mischief.

Denn. O I am sick, sick to death!

Dr. That is a good symptom, a very good symptom. To be sick to death (say the modern physicians) is an excellent symptom. When a patient is sensible of his pain, 'tis half a cure. Pray, sir, of what are you sick?

Denn. Of every thing, of every thing; I am sick of the sentiments, of the diction, of the protasis, of the epitasis, and the catastrophe. — Alas, what is become of the drama, the drama?

Old Wom. The dram, sir? Mr. Lintot drank up all the gin just now; but I'll go fetch more presently.

Denn. O shameful want! scandalous omission! By all the immortals, here is no peripætia, no change of fortune in the tragedy! Z—— no change at all!

Old Wom. Pray, good sir, be not angry; I'll fetch change.

Dr. Hold your peace, woman; his fit increases; good Mr. Lintot, hold him.

Mr. Lintot. Plague on't! I am damnably afraid they are in the right of it, and he is mad in earnest. If he should be really mad, who the devil will buy the Remarks?

[Here Mr. Lintot scratched his head.]

Dr. Sir, I shall order you. the cold bath tomorrow. —— Mr. Lintot, you are a sensible man; pray send for Mr. Verdier's servant, and, as you are a friend to the patient, be so kind as to stay this evening, while he is cupped on the head. The symptoms of his madness seem to be desperate; for Avicen says, that if learning be mixed with the brain, that is not of a contexture fit to receive it, the brain ferments, till it be totally exhausted. We must eradicate these undigested ideas out of the pericranium, and reduce the patient to a competent knowledge of himself.

Denn. Caitiffs, stand off! unhand me, miscreants! Is the man, whose whole endeavours are to bring the town to reason, mad? Is the man who settles poetry on the basis of antiquity, mad? Dares any one assert, there is a peripætia in that vile piece, that's foisted upon the town for a dramatick poem? That man is mad, the town is mad, the world is mad. See Longinus in my right hand, and Aristotle in my left; I am the only man among the moderns, that support them. Am I to be assassinated; and shall a bookseller, who has lived upon my labours, take away that life to which he owes his support?

Gent. By your leave, gentlemen, I apprehend you not. I must not see my friend ill treated; he is no more affected with lunacy than myself: I am also of the same opinion, as to the peripætia. —— Sir, by the gravity of your countenance and habit, I should conceive you to be a graduate physician; but, by your indecent and boisterous treatment of this man of learning, I perceive you are a violent sort of person, I am loth to say quack, who, rather than his drugs should lie upon his own hands, would get rid of them by cramming them into the mouths of others: the gentleman is of good condition, sound intellectuals, and unerring judgment: I beg you will not oblige me to resent these proceedings.


THESE were all the words that passed among us at this time; nor was there need for more; it being necessary we should make use of force in tht cure of my patient.

I privately whispered the old woman to go to Mr. Verdier's in Long-Acre, with orders to come immediately with cupping glasses: in the mean time, by the assistance of Mr. Lintot, we locked his friend into a closet, who, it is plain from his last speech, was likewise touched in his intellects; after which we bound our lunatick hand and foot down to the bedstead, where he continued in violent ravings, notwithstanding the most tender expressions we could use to persuade him to submit to the operation, till the servant of Verdier arrived. He had no sooner clapped half a dozen cupping-glasses on his head, and behind his ears, but the gentleman abovementioned bursting open the closet, ran furiously upon us, cut Mr. Dennis's bandages, and let drive at us with a vast folio, which sorely bruised the shin of Mr. Lintot; Mr. John Dennis also, starting up with the cupping-glasses on his head, seized another folio, and with the same dangerously wounded me in the scull, just above my right temple. The truth of this fact Mr. Verdier's servant is ready to attest upon oath, who, taking an exact survey of the volumes, found that, which wounded my head, to be Gruterus's Lampas Critica: and that, which broke Mr. Lintot's shin, was Scaliger's Poetices. After this, Mr. John Dennis, strengthened at once by rage and madness, snatched up a peruke-block that stood by the bedside, and wielded it round in so furious a manner, that he broke three of the cupping-glasses from the crown of his head, so that much blood trickled down his visage. —— He looked so ghastly, and his passion was grown to such a prodigious height, that myself, Mr. Lintot, and Verdier's servant, were obliged to leave the room in all the expedition imaginable.

I took Mr. Lintot home with me, in order to have our wounds dressed, and laid hold of that opportunity of entering into discourse with him about the madness of this person, of whom he gave me the following remarkable relation:

That on the 17th of May, 1712, between the hours of ten and eleven in the morning, Mr. John Dennis entered into his shop, and, opening one of the volumes of the Spectator, in the large paper, did suddenly, without the least provocation, tear out that of No. ——, where the author treats of poetical justice, and cast it into the street. That the said Mr. John Dennis, on the 27th of March, 1712, finding on the said Mr. Lincot's counter a book called An Essay on Criticism, just then published, he read a page or two with much frowning, till, coming to these two lines,

Some have at first for wits, then poets past,
Turn'd criticks next, and prov'd plain fools at last —

he flung down the book in a terrible fury, and cried out, "By G-d he means me."

That, being in his company on a certain time, when Shakspeare was mentioned as of a contrary opinion to Mr. Dennis, he swore the said Shakspeare was a rascal, with other defamatory expressions, which gave Mr. Lintot a very ill opinion of the said Shakspeare.

That, about two months since, he came again into the shop, and cast several suspicious looks on a gentleman that stood by him, after which he desired some information concerning that person. He was no sooner acquainted, that the gentleman was a new author, and that his first piece was to be published in a few days, but he drew his sword upon him, and, had not my servant luckily caught him by the sleeve, I might have lost one author upon the spot, and another the next sessions.

Upon recollecting all these circumstances, Mr. Lintot was entirely of opinion, that he had been mad for some time; and I doubt not, but this whole narrative must sufficiently convince the world of the excess of his frenzy. It now remains, that I give the reasons which obliged me, in my own vindication, to publish this whole unfortunate transaction.

In the first place, Mr. John Dennis had industriously caused to be reported, that I entered into his room vi et armis, either out of a design to deprive him of his life, or of a new play called Coriolanus, which he has had ready for the stage these four years.

Secondly, he has given out, about Fleet street and the Temple, that I was an accomplice with his bookseller, who visited him with intent to take away divers valuable manuscripts, without paying him copy-money.

Thirdly, he told others, that I am no graduate physician, and that he had seen me upon a mountebank stage in Moorfields, when he had lodging in the college there.

Fourthly, Knowing that I had much practice in the city, he reported at the royal exchange, customhouse, and other places adjacent, that I was a foreign spy, employed by the French king to convey him into France; that I bound him hand and foot; and that, if his friend had not burst from his confinement to his relief, he had been at this hour in the Bastille.

All which several assertions of his are so very extravagant, as well as inconsistent, that I appeal to all mankind, whether this person be not out of his senses. I shall not decline giving and producing farther proofs of this truth in open court, if he drives the matter so far. In the mean time I heartily forgive him, and pray that the Lord may restore him to the full enjoyment of his understanding: so wisheth, as becometh a Christian,

ROBERT NORRIS, M. D.

From my house on Snow-hill,
July the 30th, 1713.

God save the Queen.


  1. The history of Mr. Dennis is to be seen in Jacob's Lives of the Poets; or in Mr. Pope's Dunciad, among the notes upon which the curious reader may find some extracts from his writings. The occasion of this narrative sufficiently appears from the doctor's own words. A mistake of Mr. Granger's, in respect to Dr. Case's attending John Dennis in his frenzy, is pointed out in Dr. King's Works, vol. iii. p. 302.
  2. Remarks on Cato, published by Mr. D. in the year 1712.
  3. He wrote a treatise proving the decay of publick spirit to proceed from Italian operas.