Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) had the most coruscating mind and enigmatic character of any writer in English. Sturdily built, with bright blue eyes, bristling brows and double chin, he was an energetic walker and long-distance rider. He loved congenial dinners, French wine, lively conversation and sparkling wit. When a doctor claimed a dying patient did not lose ground, Swift bitterly replied, “He got ground, which was a grave.” Swift was also notably courageous. He defused a dangerous packaged bomb, stared down pistol threats on the road and defied the British government with the “Drapier’s Letters,” which successfully forced it to withdraw its debased coinage and made him a hero in Ireland.
A posthumous Irish child, abandoned by his mother to a nursemaid, he was also an exasperated, petulant and insubordinate genius, an Anglican clergyman with an incurable sense of humiliation and gloom. Though he was a high-flying government propagandist in the Tory ministry of 1710-14, his religious satire in “A Tale of a Tub” disqualified him for a long-desired bishopric. He lamented that the powerful Tory ministers, professing intimacy, “call me nothing but Jonathan, and I said I believed they would leave me Jonathan as they found me.” An official outcast, Swift abandoned hope after becoming the dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, the senior priest who performed the duties connected to the cathedral. He venerated the episcopacy but took a harsh view of most bishops, and he never expressed his elusive religious beliefs in theological works. In politics, he defended the interests of the Anglo-Irish Protestants but not the Catholic peasants.
From the Renaissance through the 18th century, writers who were narrowly but deeply educated in Latin and Greek classics produced the most brilliant works in English literature — never to be equaled by writers tutored today in queer or gender studies. Swift’s meaning was paradoxically deceptive, and he conveyed a tragic sense of life in chaste prose, leavened with ironic wit and black humor. In his most famous book, 1726’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Gulliver describes the cruelties of British history, and the giant King of Brobdingnag declares, in one of Swift’s most vitriolic sentences, that your natives are “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”
John Stubbs, an English schoolteacher in Slovenia who deserves a position in Oxbridge, has written the best of the many lives of Swift. He has mastered the complex historical background that defined Swift’s life, judiciously examined the conflicting evidence, and produced an intelligent and elegantly written book. Swift’s hatred of Ireland, Stubbs writes, “did not equate with liking England, since he resented England for abandoning him to Ireland.” Swift never traveled to the Continent, partly because he feared assassination by his political enemies.
The most fascinating aspect of Swift’s life is his mysterious relations with the most important women in his life, the two Esthers. Esther Johnson he called Stella and Esther Vanhomrigh, Vanessa. They were preceded by Jane Waring, a parishioner in his first depressing church near Belfast. Jane’s rejection of his only proposal put him off gallant courtship forever.
The 22-year-old Swift first met the 8-year-old Stella when he was secretary to William Temple at Moor Park in Surrey, and she was a member of the household. He was her teacher and surrogate father, she became his prize pupil and devoted disciple. She was also brave, and once shot and killed a burglar who tried to break into her house. In 1710 — like a captain with a girl safely stowed in every port — Swift shifted Stella from London to Dublin, moved himself from Dublin to London and enjoyed a pleasantly secret social life with Vanessa.
The Esthers had very different personalities and attitudes to Swift. Stella was guarded and obedient, Vanessa outspoken and impetuous. Stubbs notes that “Johnson seems to have accepted the form of association Swift desired; Vanhomrigh challenged his limitations outright.” Vanessa wanted to marry him, followed him achingly across the Irish Sea and openly poured out her emotions. She adopted the role of spurned lover, but she also relished her pursuit and the resistance of her quarry. “I was born with violent passions,” she exclaimed, “which terminate all in one — that inexpressible passion I have for you.” Far from being flattered, Swift retreated from her onslaught and insisted that his feelings for her were solely paternal and avuncular. He liked his women for their very different qualities, but — as tension built up and he struggled to keep them respectably apart when he returned to Dublin — adamantly refused to marry either one.
Swift’s obsession with cleanness precluded the intimacy of touch. In his time, baths were rare, washing cursory and, with the ever-present and malodorous chamber pot, smells oppressive. Poems like his ironic “Progress of Beauty” describe the horrors — the antithesis of cleanness — he would inevitably be subjected to if he were to debase his ideal women, descend to carnal relations and become like the Yahoos polluted by filth: “To see her from her Pillow rise / All reeking in a cloudy Steam, / Crackt Lips, foul Teeth, and gummy Eyes, / Poor Strephon, how would he blaspheme!” When the apish, excremental Yahoos embrace Gulliver in the most humiliating manner, he is forced to admit “that I was a real Yahoo, in every Limb and Feature, since the Females had a natural Propensity to see me as one of their own Species.” He valued friendship more than love and preferred to nourish a chaste polygamy. At the end of his long life, Swift lapsed into dementia — his memory entirely gone. He also was stricken by orbital cellulitis, which made his eye swell to the size of an egg and caused such agonizing pain that he could scarcely be restrained from tearing it out.
Stubbs convincingly concludes that Swift’s writing contained “irreconcilable fury at all subverters of the English constitution; a mixture of despair and disdain towards a rebel [Irish] homeland; and, most enduringly, the final aversion felt by Gulliver for a Britain rife with the Yahoos that, in Swift’s later mind,” the mid-17th-century rebellions against King Charles had created.
Meyers’ books include “Remembering Iris Murdoch,” “Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes,” “Robert Lowell in Love” and “The Mystery of the Real: Letters of the Canadian Artist Alex Colville and Biographer Jeffrey Meyers.”
W.W. Norton: 752 pp., $39.95