The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 17/Testimonies Respecting the Character of Dr. Swift

AFTER this general Oxford testimony of the dean, in which that university affectionately asserts her right to him as no degenerate son, we shall subjoin that of another writer, whom, it is said, she refused to accept as an adopted one.

"The religious author of the Tale of a Tub will tell you, religion is but a reservoir of fools and madmen; and the virtuous Lemuel Gulliver will answer for the state, that it is a den of savages and cut-throats. What think you, reader? is not the system round and great? and now the fig-leaf is so clearly plucked off, what remains, but bravely to strike away the rotten staff, that yet keeps our old doting parents on their last legs?

"Seriously let it be as they say, that ridicule and satire are the supplement of publick laws; should not then, the ends of both be the same; the benefit of mankind? but where is the sense of a general satire, if the whole species be degenerated? And where is the justice of it if it be not? The punishment of lunaticks is as wise as the one; and a general execution as honest as the other. In short, a general satire, the work only of ill men or little geniuses, was proscribed of old both by the critick and the magistrate, as an offence equally against justice and common sense." — A Critical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Causes of Prodigies and Miracles, &c. Lond. 1727, p. 33, supposed to be written by the right reverend author of the Divine Legation of Moses: which is the more probable, because we find, in the dedication to the latter, p. 15, a similar censure on another part of this collection in these words:

"However, once on a time a great wit set upon this task [ridiculing a love of publick liberty]; he undertook to laugh at this very virtue, and that so successfully, that he set the whole nation a laughing with him. What mighty engine, you will ask, was employed to put in motion so large a body, and for so extraordinary a cause? In truth, a very simple one: a discourse, of which all the wit consists in the title; and that too skulking, as you will see, under one unlucky word. Mrs. Bull's vindtcation of the indispensable duty of cuckoldom, incumbent upon wives, in case of the tyranny, infidelity, or insufficiency of husbands[1]. Now had the merry reader been but so wise as to reflect, that reason was the test of ridicule, and not ridicule the test of truth, he would have seen to rectify the proposition, and to state it fairly thus; The indispensable duty of divorce, &c. And then the joke had been over, before the laugh could have begun."

Another author however, who is allowed by the bishop to be no ill judge of the province of ridicule, speaks of the former work in somewhat more moderate terms:

"There is not perhaps in any language a bolder or stronger ridicule, than the well known apologue of the Tale of a Tub. Its manifest design is to recommend the English church, and to disgrace the two extremes of popery and puritanism[2]. Now if we consider this exquisite piece of raillery as a test of truth, we shall find it impotent and vain. For the question still recurs, whether Martin be a just emblem of the English nation, Jack of the Scotch, or Peter of the Roman church. All the points in debate between the several parties are taken for granted in the representation: and we must have recourse to argument, and that alone, ere we can determine the merits of the question.

"If we next consider this masterpiece of wit as a mode of eloquence; we shall find it indeed of great efficacy in confirming every member of the church of England in his own communion, and in giving him a thorough distaste of those of Scotland and Rome. And so far as this may be regarded as a matter of pubiick utility, so far the ridicule may be laudable.

"But if we extend our views so as to comprehend a larger plan of moral use; we shall find this method is such as charity can hardly approve of: for by representing the one of these churches under the character of craft and knavery, the other under that of incurable madness, it must needs tend to inspire every member of the English church who believes the representation, with such hatred of the one, and contempt of the other, as to prevent all friendly debate, and rational remonstrance.

"Its effect on those who hold the doctrines of Calvin or of Rome], must be yet worse: unless it can be proved, that the way to attract the love and convince the reason of mankind, is to show that we hate or despise them. While they revere what we deride, it is plain, we cannot both view the subject in the same light: and though we deride what appears to us contemptible, we deride what to them appears sacred. They will therefore accuse us of misrepresenting their opinions, and abhor us as unjust and impious.

"Thus, although this noted apologue be indeed a vindication of our English Church, yet it is such as had been better spared: because its natural effect is to create prejudice, and inspire the contending parties with mutual distaste, contempt, and hatred[3]."

According to one of these writers, the Tale of a Tub is a ridicule of all religion; according to the other, it is a defence of our constitution in church and state, but with an unlawful weapon. And yet how few controversialists do not make use of this weapon when they can lay hold of it! which of them keep themselves within the strict rules of pleadings in the Areopagus?

But, whatever may be thought of the dean as a Divine, all agree in their elogium of him as a Writer.

"Few characters could have afforded so great a variety of faults and beauties. Few men have been more known and admired, or more envied or censured, than Dr. Swift. From the gifts of nature, he had great powers; and, from the imperfections of humanity, he had many failings. I always considered him as an abstract and brief chronicle of the times; no man being better acquainted with human nature, both in the highest and in the lowest scenes of life. His friends and correspondents were the greatest and most eminent men of the age. The sages of antiquity were often the companions of his closet; and although he industriously avoided an ostentation of learning, and generally chose to draw his materials from his own store; yet his knowledge in the ancient authors evidently appears, from the strength of his sentiments, and the classick correctness of his style. If we consider his prose works, we shall find a certain masterly conciseness in their style, that has never been equalled by any other writer. His poetical performances ought to be considered as occasional poems, written either to please or to vex some particular persons. We must not suppose them designed for posterity; if he had cultivated his genius in that way, he must certainly have excelled, especially in satire."

"The character of his life will appear like that of his writings. They will both bear to be reconsidered and reexamined with the utmost attention; and will always discover new beauties and excellencies upon every examination. They will bear to be considered as the sun, in which the brightness will hide the blemishes; and whenever petulance, ignorance, pride, malice, malignity, or envy, interpose, to cloud or sully his fame, I will take upon me to pronounce, that the eclipse will not last long. No man ever deserved better of any country than Swift did of his; a steady, persevering, inflexible friend; a wise, a watchful, and a faithflil counsellor, under many severe trials, and bitter persecutions, to the manifest hazard both of his liberty and fortune! — He lived a blessing, he died a benefactor, and his name will ever live an honour, to Ireland."

"It happened very luckily, that, a little before I had resolved on this design, a gentleman had written predictions, and two or three pieces in my name, which had rendered it famous through all parts of Europe; and, by an inimitable spirit and humour, raised it to as high a pitch of reputation as it could possibly arrive at. By this good fortune the name of Isaac Bickerstaff gained an audience of all who had any taste of wit."

Steele, Dedication to the first volume of Tatlers.

"My sincere love for this valuable, indeed incomparable man, will accompany him through life: and pursue his memory, were I to live a hundred lives, as many as his works will live; which are absolutely original, unequalled, unexampled. His humanity, his charity, his condescension, are equal to his wit; and require as good and as true a taste to be equally valued."

Pope, Letter to the earl of Orrery, March 17, 1736.

"He too, from whom attentive Oxford draws
Rules for just thinking, and poetick laws,
To growing bards his learned aid shall lend,
The strictest critick, and the kindest friend."

"It is now about fifty years," says Dr. Lowth, Gramm. p. iv, "since Dr. Swift made a publick remonstrance, addressed to the earl of Oxford, then lord treasurer, of the imperfect state of our language; alleging in particular, that in many instances it offended against every part of Grammar[4]. — Swift must be allowed to have been a good judge of this matter; to which he was himself very attentive, both in his own writings, and his remarks upon those of his friends: he is one of the most correct, and perhaps the best of our prose writers."

Swift's style has this peculiarity, not to have one metaphor in his works. His images are surprisingly unexpected, and exhibited in their true, genuine, native form: this strikes the greatest; and, being fetched generally from common life, they captivate the lowest of the people."

"Poor Swift, with all his worth, could ne'er, He tells us, hope to rise a peer; So, to supply it, wrote for fame: And well the wit secur'd his aim."

"The writer, who gives us the best idea of what may be called the genteel in style and manner of writing, is, in my opinion, my lord Shaftesbury. Then Mr. Addison and Dr. Swift."

Shenstone's Essays on Men, Manners, and Things, p. 175.

"Swift in poetry deserves a place, somewhere between Butler and Horace. He has the wit of the former, and the graceful negligence which we find in the latter's epistles and satires. Ibid. p. 205.

"You have with you three or four of the best English authors, Dryden, Atterbury, and Swift; read them with the utmost care, and with a particular view to their language."

Chesterfield, Letter clxxi.

" Unless you boast the genius of a Swift,
Beware of humour, the dull rogue's last shift."

"Let such at Swift with stupid folly rail,
Who dull can read unmov'd his comick tale:
All that have taste will deep attention lend,
To that which Carteret and which Pope commend."


*** Much more might be added; but the reputation of the dean is too well established to need any farther encomium.

  1. History of John Bull, part i, chap. 13.
  2. "Some indeed have pretended otherwise. — The pious author of the Independent Whig affirms [with the above author of the Critical Enquiry ] that it was an open attack upon Christianity, &c. where, by the way, the contrast is remarkable enough, that he should pronounce the Tale of a Tub to be a libel on Christianity, while it is in fact, a Vindication of our Ecclesiastical Establishment; apd at the same time entitle his own book, a Vindication of our Ecclesiastical Establishment, while it is in fact a libel on Christianity."
  3. Dr. Browne's Essays on the Characteristics, Essay I, sect. xi, page 100.
  4. See Swift's Letter to Lord Oxford, vol. v, page 63.