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THE ENGLISH HUMOURISTS
LECTURE THE FIRST.
In treating of the English humourists of the past age, it is of the men and of their lives, rather than of their books, that I ask permission to speak to you; and in doing so, you are aware that I cannot hope to entertain you with a merely humourous or facetious story. Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin * a man full of cares and perplexities like the rest of us, whose Self must always be serious to him, under whatever mask, or disguise, or uniform he presents it to the public. And as all of you here must needs be grave when you think of your own past and present, you will not look to find, in the histories of those whose lives and feelings I am going to try and describe to you, a story that is otherwise than serious, and often very sad. If Humour
* The anecdote is frequently told of our performer,
Rich. The English Humourists.
only meant laughter, you would scarcely feel more interest about humourous writers than about the private life of poor Harlequin just mentioned, who possesses in common with these the power of making you laugh. But the men regarding whose lives and stories your kind presence here shows that you have curiosity and sympathy, appeal to a great number of our other faculties, besides our mere sense of ridicule. The humourous writer professes to awaken and direct your love, your pity, your kindness your scorn for untruth, pretension, imposture — your tenderness for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the unhappy. To the best of his means and ability he comments on all the ordinary actions and passions of life almost. He takes upon himself to be the week-day preacher, so to speak. Accordingly, as he finds, and speaks, and feels the truth best, we regard him, esteem him sometimes love him. And, as his business is to mark other people's lives and peculiarities, we moralise upon his life when he is gone - and yesterday's preacher becomes the text for to-day's sermon.
Of English parents, and of a good English family of clergymen, Swift was born in Dublin in 1667,
* He was from a younger branch of the Swifts of Yorkshire. His grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Swift, Vicar of Goodrich, in Herefordshire, suffered for his loyalty in Charles I.'s time. That gentleman married Elizabeth Dryden, a member of the family of the poet. Sir Walter Scott gives, with his characteristic minuteness in such points, the exact relationship between these famous men. Swift was “the son of Dryden's second cousin." Swift, too, was the enemy of Dryden's reputation. Witness the Battle of the Books: “The difference was greatest among the horse," says he of the moderns, “where every private trooper pretended to
seven months after the death of his father, who had come to practise there as a lawyer. The boy went to school at Kilkenny, and afterwards to Trinity College, Dublin, where he got a degree with difficulty, and was wild, and witty, and poor. In 1688, by the recommendation of his mother, Swift was received into the family of Sir William Temple, who had known Mrs. Swift in Ireland. He left his patron in 1693,
and the next year took orders in Dublin. But he threw up the small Irish preferment which he got, and returned to Temple, in whose family he remained until Sir William's death in 1699. His hopes of advancement in England failing, Swift returned to Ireland, and took the living of Laracor. Hither he invited Hester Johnson, * Temple's natural daughter, with whom he had contracted a tender friendship, while they were both dependants of Temple's. And with an occasional visit to England, Swift now passed nine years at home.
In 1709 he came to England, and, with a brief visit to Ireland, during which he took possession of his the command, from Tasso and Milton to Dryden and Withers.” And in “Poetry, a Rhapsody," he advises the poetaster to
“Read all the Prefaces of Dryden,
For these our critics much confide in,
To raise the volume's price a shilling." "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet," was the phrase of Dryden to his kinsman, which remained alive in a memory tenacious of such matters.
* “Miss Hetty” she was called in the family where her face, and her dress, and Sir William's treatment of her, all made the real fact about her birth plain enough. Sir William left her a thousand pounds.
deanery of St. Patrick, he now passed five years in England, taking the most distinguished part in the political transactions which terminated with the death of Queen Anne. After her death, his party disgraced, and his hopes of ambition over, Swift returned to Dublin, where he remained twelve years. In this time he wrote the famous “Drapier's Letters” and “Gulliver's Travels." He married Hester Johnson, Stella, and buried Esther Vanhomrigh, Vanessa, who had followed him to Ireland from London, where she had contracted a violent passion for him. In 1726 and 1727 Swift was in England, which he quitted for the last time on hearing of his wife's illness. Stella died in January, 1728, and Swift not until 1745, having passed the last five of the seventy-eight years of his life, with an impaired intellect and keepers to watch
You know, of course, that Swift has had many biographers; his life has been told by the kindest and most good-natured of men, Scott, who admires but can't
* Sometimes, during his mental affliction, he continued walking about the house for many consecutive hours; sometimes he remained in a kind of torpor. At times, he would seem to struggle to bring into distinct consciousness and shape into expression, the intellect that lay smothering under gloomy obstruction in him. A pier-glass falling by accident, nearly fell on him. He said, he wished it had! He once repeated, slowly, several times, “I am what I am.” The last thing he wrote was an epigram on the building of a magazine for arms and stores, which was pointed out to him as he went abroad during his mental disease:
Behold a proof of Irish sense:
Here Irish wit is seen;
They build a magazine!