Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 24. Character of Swift’s life and work

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

§ 24. Character of Swift’s life and work

Various interpretations have been placed on Swift’s life and work. Much has been written in his defence since the unsympathetic studies of Macaulay, Jeffrey and Thackeray appeared; but he remains somewhat of a mystery. It is not easy to reconcile his contempt for mankind with his affection for his friends and their affection for him; or his attacks on woman with his love for one, and the love which two women felt for him. It is, again, difficult, in view of the decorum of his own life and his real, if formal, religion, to explain the offensiveness of some of his writings. Probably, this was due to a distorted imagination, the result of physical or mental defect; and it must be remembered that it is only here and there that coarseness appears. Sterne remarked, “Swift has said a thousand things I durst not say.” But there is no lewdness in Swift’s work, and no persistent strain of indecency, as in Sterne.

Some have suggested that Swift’s avoidance of the common ties of human life was due to fears of approaching madness; others have supposed that the explanation was physical infirmity; others, again, have found the key in his coldness of temperament or in his strong desire for independence. He appears to have hungered for human sympathy, but to have wanted nothing more. From the passion of love, he seems to have turned with disgust. The early years of poverty and dependence left an indelible mark on him, and he became a disappointed and embittered man. His mind, possessed by a spirit of scorn, turned in upon itself, and his egotism grew with advancing years. Cursed with inordinate pride and arrogance, he became like a suppressed volcano. His keenness of vision caused him to see with painful clearness all that was contemptible and degrading in his fellow men; but he had little appreciation for what was good and great in them. The pains and giddiness to which Swift was subject left their impression upon his work; “at best,” he said, “I have an ill head, and an aching heart.” His misanthropy was really a disease, and his life of loneliness and disappointment was a tragedy, calling for pity and awe, rather than for blame.