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Jonathan Swift

  Stella's Birthday (March 13th 1727) >

Esther Johnson (1681-1728): the Stella of Swift's poetry

Miscellanies III (1728, 61)
composed 1727 (60)

This day, whate'er the Fates decree,
Shall still be kept with joy by me:
This day then let us not be told
That you are sick and I grown old;
Nor think on our approaching ills,
And talk of spectacles and pills;
Tomorrow will be time enough
To hear such mortifying stuff.
Yet, since from reason may be brought
A better and more pleasing thought,
Which can, in spite of all decays,
Support a few remaining days;
From not the gravest of divines
Accept for once some serious lines.
Although we now can form no more
Long schemes of life, as heretofore;
Yet you, while time is running fast,
Can look with joy on what is past.
Were future happiness and pain
A mere contrivance of the brain,
As atheists argue, to entice
And fit their proselytes for vice,
(The only comfort they propose,
To have companions in their woes)
Grant this the case; yet sure 'tis hard
That virtue, styled its own reward,
And by all sages understood
To be the chief of human good,
Should acting die, nor leave behind
Some lasting pleasure in the mind,
Which, by remembrance will assuage
Grief, sickness, poverty, and age,
And strongly shoot a radiant dart
To shine through life's declining part.
Say, Stella, feel you no content,
Reflecting on a life well spent?
Your skilful hand employed to save
Despairing wretches from the grave;
And then supporting with your store
Those whom you dragged from death before:
So Providence on mortals waits,
Preserving what it first creates.
Your generous boldness to defend
An innocent and absent friend;
That courage which can make you just
To merit humbled in the dust;
The detestation you express
For vice in all its glittering dress;
That patience under torturing pain,
Where stubborn stoics would complain;
Must these like empty shadows pass,
Or forms reflected from a glass?
Or mere chimaeras in the mind,
That fly, and leave no marks behind?
Does not the body thrive and grow
By food of twenty years ago?
And, had it not been still supplied,
It must a thousand times have died.
Then who with reason can maintain
That no effects of food remain?
And is not virtue in mankind
The nutriment that feeds the mind;
Upheld by each good action past,
And still continued by the last?
Then who with reason can pretend
That all effects of virtue end?
Believe me, Stella, when you show
That true contempt for things below,
Nor prize your life for other ends
Than merely to oblige your friends;
Your former actions claim their part,
And join to fortify your heart.
For Virtue, in her daily race,
Like Janus, bears a double face, - 
Looks back with joy where she has gone,
And therefore goes with courage on.
She at your sickly couch will wait,
And guide you to a better state.
O then, whatever Heaven intends,
Take pity on your pitying friends!
Nor let your ills affect your mind,
To fancy they can be unkind.
Me, surely me, you ought to spare,
Who gladly would your sufferings share,
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.

 Stella : Esther (or Hesther) Johnson, Swift’s lifelong companion died the following year.  Divines : Swift was dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin.  Janus : a god of the Romans, who faced both ways, like January, a month to look forward and back.

Commentary

Swift (1667-1745), a contemporary and friend of Pope's, is here writing to the long-time object of his affections, Esther Johnson (Stella in his poetry), a girl he first encountered when she was six years old and he twenty, who is now ill (in fact she died in January 1728). His analysis of past actions approaches very close to the Buddhist idea of karma, and his intent is much more serious and heart-felt than Pope's, whose only aims appear to be to please and to show how clever and well-read he is. But is it true? Is it true that past actions condition our present state, and that virtuous actions contribute to contentment and peace of mind? Whatever the answer to this question, there is in Swift's poem also a background of belief that such virtuous actions will get Stella into heaven. But this rather leads us to a further question: if virtuous actions are done for the base, selfish motive of getting into heaven, are they still virtuous, or does the motive corrupt? At all events, it is clear that Swift is not inclined to exclude self-interest from his own behaviour when he lauds Stella for not prizing her life for anything better than obliging her friends. Her friends, of course, include Swift himself. What? Can he really be saying that she should console herself with the idea that she has acted well in dedicating her life to Swift himself? In fact he had arguably both dominated and ruined her life with his attentions over the years, almost certainly making it difficult if not impossible for her to take a proper lover (Swift was probably impeded in the consummation of the relationship either by consanguinity or by some personal incapacity), or to marry. Swift's lines might be read more as providing a gloss of words over his own baseness in depriving her of her possibilities in life in this way, and he offers her this consolation at a time when it was evidently impossible for her to do anything about it. Craven advice indeed. But if our present state is conditioned by our past actions, it becomes clear that Swift paid the price for his actions.

'Definite symptoms of madness appeared in 1738. In 1741 guardians were appointed to take care of his affairs and watch lest in his outbursts of violence he should do himself harm. In 1742 he suffered great pain from the inflammation of his left eye, which swelled up to the size of an egg. Five attendants had to restrain him from tearing out his eye. He went a whole year without uttering a word.'

Will Durant, The Story of Civilisation

But Swift possibly had the last and most enduring word, leaving in his will enough money to found a hospital for the mentally ill in Ireland. Originally known as St Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles, it still exists today as a psychiatric hospital.

St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin

 

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