The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 20. Swift’s Verse

Swift’s poetry has the merits of his prose, but not many other merits. He began by writing frigid “Pindaric” odes, after the fashion of Cowley, and, from his letters, we know that he set considerable value on them, and that they underwent much revision. But Dryden was right when, after perusing some of these verses, he said, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” This comment caused much annoyance to Swift, as we may conclude from the hostile references to Dryden in several of his writings. It was, however, taken to heart; for he produced no more stilted odes, but, in future, confined himself to lighter verse, modelled on Butler, and generally of a satirical nature. One of the earliest and most attractive of his playful pieces, the graceful Baucis and Philemon, was published, with the pretty verses On Mrs. Biddy Floyd, in the last volume of Tonson’s Miscellany (1709). In other pieces, A Description of a City Shower and A Description of the Morning, published in The Tatler, the subject is treated purely from a humorous and satirical point of view. Among his later works, The Grand Question debated (1729), with its studies of Lady Acheson and of her maid, Hannah, is altogether delightful.

In two pieces written in imitation of Horace (1713–14), Swift described, in felicitous words, his friendship with Harley, and gave some account of his own feelings before and after he was appointed to the deanery of St. Patrick’s. Harley saw Swift “cheapening old authors on a stall”

  • A clergyman of special note
  • For shunning those of his own coat;
  • Which made his brethren of the gown
  • Take care betimes to run him down:
  • No libertine, nor over nice,
  • Addicted to no sort of vice;
  • Went where he pleased, said what he thought;
  • Not rich, but owed no man a groat.
  • The famous Cadenus and Vanessa (1713) gives, in a mock classical setting, Swift’s account of his acquaintance with Hester Vanhomrigh, and of his surprise and distress at finding her in love with him. Vanessa scorned fops and fine ladies; at length, she met the dean,

  • Grown old in politics and wit,
  • Caress’d by ministers of state,
  • Of half mankind the dread and hate.
  • His fame led her to forget his age; but he did not understand what love was; his feelings were those of a father and a tutor. After a time, he found that her thoughts wandered, and, at length, she confessed that his lessons had
  • found the weakest part,
  • Aimed at the head, but reached the heart.
  • Cadenus was ashamed and surprised. He knew that the world would blame him, especially as she had “five thousand guineas in her purse.” But Vanessa argued well, and, to his grief and shame, Cadenus could scarce oppose her. After all, it was flattering to be preferred to a crowd of beaux. He told her it was too late for him to love, but he offered friendship, gratitude, esteem. Vanessa took him at his word, and said she would now be the tutor. What success she had was yet a secret; whether he descended to “less seraphic ends” or whether they decided “to temper love and books together” must not be told.

    As this poem was preserved by Hester Vanhomrigh, we may assume that she did not think Swift had done her injustice in the clever apology for his own conduct. As in the case of the correspondence, it is pleasant to turn from the verses about Vanessa to the pieces which Swift wrote year by year on Stella’s birthday. With laughing allusions to her advancing years (when she was thirty-eight, he wrote “Stella this day is thirty-four (We shan’t dispute a year or more)”), he dwells on her wit and the lustre of her eyes. Hers was “an angel’s face a little cracked,” with an angel’s mind. He “ne’er admitted Love a guest”; having Stella for his friend, he sought no more. She nursed him in his illness, coming to his relief “with cheerful face and inward grief.”

  • When out my brutish passions break,
  • With gall in every word I speak,
  • She with soft speech my anguish cheers,
  • Or melts my passions down with tears.
  • If her locks were turning grey, his eyes were becoming dim, and he would not believe in wrinkles which he could not see. On her last birthday, when she was sick and Swift grown old, he wrote that, though they could form no more long schemes of life, she could look with joy on what was past. Her life had been well spent, and virtue would guide her to a better state. Swift would gladly share her suffering,
  • Or give my scrap of life to you,
  • And think it far beneath your due;
  • You, to whose care so oft I owe
  • That I’m alive to tell you so.
  • Swift is at his best in these pieces of sincere affection for the woman whom he loved throughout her life.