Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 23. The Journal to Stella

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

§ 23. The Journal to Stella

Of Swift’s correspondence, by far the most interesting, of course, is that with Esther Johnson, afterwards to be known as the Journal to Stella. The latter part of these journal-letters were first printed in Hawkesworth’s 1766 edition of Swift; but Hawkesworth suppressed most of the “little language,” and made other changes in the text. The publishers, however, presented the manuscript, with the exception of one letter, to the British Museum, and we now can read the letters as they were written, subject to difficulties due to deciphering and to numerous abbreviations, and to the fact that Swift, in later years, ruled out many words and sentences. The remainder of the Journal, consisting of the first forty letters, was published by Deane Swift in 1768. Unfortunately, the originals, with one exception, have been lost; but it is clear that Deane Swift took even greater liberties than Hawkesworth.

The Journal to Stella affords the most intimate picture of Swift that we possess, while, at the same time, it is an historical document of the greatest value. It throws much light on the relations between the pair, and it brings vividly before us Swift’s fears and hopes during the two years and a half covered by the letters. His style, always simple and straight-forward, is never more so than in this most intimate correspondence. He mentions casually the detailed incidents of his life and alludes to the people he met; he never describes anyone at length, but constantly summarises in a sentence the main characteristics of the man, or, at least, his estimate of his character. Bolingbroke, the “thorough rake”; Oxford, the “pure trifler”; Marlborough, “as covetous as hell and as ambitious as a prince of it”; Congreve, now nearly blind; the lovable Arbuthnot; Steele, who hardly ever kept an appointment; queen Anne, who found very little to say to those around her; Mrs. Masham, and other ladies of the court—of all these we are allowed a glance which seems to furnish us with a real knowledge of them.

  • Mr. Addison and I are as different as black and white, and I believe our friendship will go off, by this damned business of party … but I love him still as well as ever, though we seldom meet.
  • Day by day, we are told of party intrigues and of promises held out to Swift: “The Tories drily tell me I may make my fortune if I please,” he noted in 1710, “but I do not understand them, or rather I do understand them.” A few weeks later, he wrote,
  • To say the truth, the present ministry have a difficult task, and want me. Perhaps they may be as grateful as others: but, according to the best judgment I have, they are pursuing the true interest of the public; and therefore “I am glad to contribute what is in my power.”
  • And, in February, 1711,
  • They call me nothing but Jonathan, and I said I believed they would leave me Jonathan, as they have found me; and that I never knew a ministry do anything for those whom they make companions of their pleasures; and I believe you will find it so; but I care not.
  • Swift’s financial troubles constantly come to light in these letters. “People have so left town,” he says, “that I am at a loss for a dinner … it cost me eighteenpence in coach-hire before I could find a place to dine in.” When he first came to London, he took rooms at eight shillings a week: “Plaguy dear, but I spend nothing for eating, never go to a tavern, and very seldom in a coach.” In another place, he says, “This rain ruins me in coach hire.” How much exaggeration there was in these protests against expense, it is not easy to say. The Journal abounds in arrogant references to great ladies and others; but the arrogance was partly affected and partly the result of a fear of being patronised. Once, when he was to have supped with Lady Ashburnham, he says: “The drab did not call for me in her coach as she promised but sent for us, and so I sent my excuses.” When the duchess of Shrewsbury expostulated with him for not dining with her, Swift said he expected more advances from ladies, especially duchesses. Swift’s genuine kindness to, and love of, those who were his friends is constantly appearing. When William Harrison, whom he had assisted to start a continuation of The Tatler, was ill, Swift was afraid to knock at the door; when he found that Harrison was dead, he comforted the mother. When Lady Ashburnham died, he wrote,
  • She was my greatest favourite and I am in excessive concern for her loss.… I hate life when I think it exposed to such accidents; and to see so many thousand wretches burdening the earth, while such as her die, makes me think God did never intend life for a blessing.
  • Swift took much interest in a small poet called Diaper, a young fellow who had written some Eclogues: “I hate to have any new wits rise, but when they do rise I will encourage them: but they tread on our heels and thrust us off the stage.” When his friend Mrs. Anne Long died, Swift said he was never more afflicted. Mrs. Long had “all sorts of amiable qualities and no ill ones, except but the indiscretion of too much neglecting her own affairs.” For his servant, Patrick, to whom there are constant references, he showed the greatest forbearance. Patrick had good points, but he drank, and sometimes stopped out at night; he was, however, a favourite both of Swift and Mrs. Vanhomrigh.

    The “little language” which Swift employed in writing to Stella had probably been used between them ever since they were at Moor park together. He constantly addressed Stella and Mrs. Dingley as “sirrahs,” “girls,” “dearest lives,” and so on; but we can generally distinguish references intended for Stella only. There are frequent references to Stella’s weak eyes. “What shall we do to cure them, poor dear life?” “It is the grief of my soul to think you are out of order.” “I will write plainer for Dingley to read from, henceforth, though my pen is apt to ramble when I think who I am writing to.” Nothing gave him any sort of dream of happiness, but a letter now and then from

  • his own dearest M. D.… Yes, faith, and when I write to M. D., I am happy too; it is just as if methinks you were here, and I prating to you, and telling you where I have been.
  • In another place, he says to Stella:
  • I can hardly imagine you absent when I am reading your letter or writing to you: No, faith, you are just here upon this little paper, and therefore I see and talk with you every evening constantly, and sometimes in the morning.
  • Besides the personal interest, the Journal throws valuable light on the social life of the day, both in Dublin and in London. There are constant allusions to Stella’s life in Ireland and to the friends with whom she mixed. There was a club, with ombre, claret and toasted oranges; there are descriptions of Stella’s rides and walks; of dinners at three or four o’clock; of London sights; of the Mohocks and other terrors; of the polite ways of society, and of snuff taken by ladies and of jokes which they indulged in. We hear, too, of the dangers of robbers at night across the fields of Chelsea and of the risk of French privateers in the Irish channel. The Journal is a mine of information for the historian and the student of manners, and of absorbing interest as a picture of character.

    Swift’s general correspondence is remarkable, like his other writings, for the ease with which he could always find apt words to express the exact meaning which he wished to convey. He also has the merit, essential in a good correspondent, that he can adapt himself readily to the character and point of view of the person to whom he is writing. In his letters, we have not only a graphic picture of Swift’s own feelings and character, but clear indications of the nature of the men with whom he was in communication. In the letters to Pope, there is something of the artificiality of the poet; in those to King, the dignity and stateliness befitting a dignitary of the church; and, in those to Arbuthnot, the sincere affection which was a marked charm in the doctor. Unfortunately, when Swift wrote to the companions who occupied too much of his time in the period of his decay, he condescended to jests unworthy of him. In writing to his friends, he “never leaned on his elbow to consider what he should write.” There is evidence that letters of importance were often carefully revised and considered before they were despatched; but, ordinarily, he wrote “nothing but nature and friendship,” as he said to Pope, without any eye to the public.