The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift

By Ricardo Quintana | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
THE LATTER YEARS OF EXILE

1

AT the beginning of 1727 Swift had already entered upon his sixtieth year. The forces which finally wrecked his body and mind had been long at work sapping his constitution, and from 1729 on, their presence can be detected clearly: the disease from which he had suffered for so many years -- its symptoms the oft-mentioned 'giddiness and deafness' -- was tightening its hold upon him, and in addition there was the natural, progressive decay accompanying old age. Yet so great was his resistance, so indomitable his physical and intellectual energy, that an astonishingly long period was to elapse before he finally yielded to these disintegrating forces -- by the close of his seventy-first year ( 1738) his energy, it is clear, had been broken down, but not until 1742 was he declared of unsound mind. Nothing is farther from the truth than the idea commonly entertained regarding Swift's latter years of activity. He was still the great artist, producing verse and prose of undiminished brilliance and intensity, and he remained an imperious public figure. Many anecdotes illustrating his outrageous lack of self- control were later to be told by the men and women who had known him during the decade or so preceding his collapse, but these stories are to be severely discounted as obvious adornments of the Swift legend. Domineering he had always been, and it is easy to understand how in later life, long accustomed to the reverence of an entire kingdom, he found it impossible to brook the slightest check. But if the aging dean was a formidable and sometimes an unbearable person, we have only to turn to his works of this period to convince ourselves that his genius remained unimpaired until disease finally overcame him.

The sombre tone of Swift's latter years was the result, not of incipient insanity, but of the circumstances of his life.

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