Born: Sir Thomas Browne, antiquary and philosopher, 1605, Cheapside, London; James Butler, Duke of Ormond, commander and statesman, 1610, Clerkenwell London; James Gronovius, scholar and author (Thesaurus Antiquitatum Graecarum), 1645, Deventer; John Adams, distinguished American statesman, 1735, Braintree, Massachusetts; James Henry Leigh Hunt, poet and miscellaneous writer, 1784, Southgate, Middlesex.
Died: King John of England, 1216, Newark Castle; Jacobus Arminius (Jacob Harmensen), celebrated Dutch theologian, 1609; Sir Thomas Browne, antiquary and philosopher, 1682, Norwich; Dean Jonathan Swift, humorous and political writer, 1745, Dublin; Henry Kirke White, youthful poet, 1806, Cambridge; Francis Joseph Talma, great French tragedian, 1826, Paris.
Feast Day: Saints Ptolemy, Lucius, and a companion, 166. St. Ethbin or Egbin, abbot, end of 6th century. St. Prides wide, virgin, and patroness of Oxford, 8th century St. Peter of Alcantara, confessor, 1562.
SIR THOMAS BROWNE
To many generations of gentle and meditative readers, Sir Thomas Browne has been a choice classic. Southey said, that were his library confined to a dozen English authors, Browne should be one of them. De Quincey describes Donne Chillingworth, Jeremy Taylor, Milton, South, Barrow, and Sir Thomas Browne, as 'a pleiad or constellation of seven golden stars, such as in their class no literature can match,' and from whose works he would undertake to build up an entire body of philosophy.
Browne was the son of a London merchant, and was born within the sound of Bow Bells in 1605. His father died and left him, in childhood, with a fortune of £6000, out of a great part of which, says Dr. Johnson, 'he was defrauded by one of his guardians, according to the common fate of orphans.' He was educated at Winchester and Oxford, and after practising physic for a while in Oxfordshire, he set out on a long tour through Italy, France, and Holland. About 1634, he returned to London, and in the following year he is supposed to have written his Religio Medici. In 1636, he settled in Norwich, and commenced business as a physician; and in the enjoyment of an extensive and lucrative practice, he passed in that city the remainder of his long life. Of women he wrote very slightingly, saying, that 'the whole world was made for man, but only the twelfth part of man for woman;' and 'that man is the whole world, but woman only the rib or crooked part of man.' Nevertheless, in 1641, he married a Mrs. Milehann, of a good Norfolk family, 'a lady of such symmetrical proportion to her husband, both in the graces of her mind and her body, that they seemed to come together by a kind of natural magnetism,' writes Whitefoot, one of Browne's biographers. Together they lived happily for forty years; she bore him ten children, and lived to be his widow. Charles II, in a visit to Norwich in 1671, knighted Browne. Such, in a few words, is the story of Sir Thomas Browne's life. He died on his seventy seventh birthday, the 19th of October 1682.
The chief incident in his life was the publication of the Religio Medici the Religion of a Physician. It was written, he declares, 'with no intention for the press, but for his own exercise and entertainment' For some six years it appears to have been handed about in manuscript, and on the plea of its being surreptitiously and imperfectly printed, he gave 'a true and full copy,' under his own hand, to the world in 1643. It at once excited the attention of the public, even in that stormy age, as Johnson says, 'by the novelty of paradoxes, the dignity of sentiment, the quick succession of images, the multitude of abstruse allusions, the subtilty of disquisition, and the strength of language.' In the book he speaks much of himself, but in such terms as to pique rather than satisfy curiosity. Ho asserts, he understands six languages; that he is no stranger to astronomy; that he has seen many countries; and leaves us to puzzle our heads over the mysterious and solemn announcement, 'that his life has been a miracle of thirty years, which to relate were not history, but a piece of poetry, and would sound like a fable.' So far as concerns the autobiographical portions, the reader of the Religio Medici will do well to bear in mind that he is dealing with a humorist; and Browne's humour is so irresistible, that it oozes through some of his gravest passages. Coleridge describes the Religio Medici as 'a fine portrait of a handsome man in his best clothes; it is much of what he was at all times; a good deal of what he was only in his best moments. I have never read a book in which I have felt greater similarity to my own make of mind active in inquiry, and yet with an appetite to believe in short, an affectionate visionary! It is a most delicious book.'
The success of the Religio Medici, which was translated into Latin, and thence into French, German, Dutch, and Italian, probably tempted Browne into the publication ofhis second work, in 1646, entitled Pseudoxia Epidemica, 'or inquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, which examined, prove but vulgar and common errors.' This curious book treats in a pedantic way of a large number of odd notions, such as, that Jews stink; that the forbidden fruit was an apple; that storks will only live in republics and free states; that the flesh of peacocks corrupteth not; that elephants have no joints; that a pot full of ashes will contain as much water as it would without them; that men weigh heavier dead than alive, and before meat than after; that crystal is nothing but ice strongly congealed, &c. Notwithstanding his zeal to discover old errors, he was a prey to not a few himself. 'Natural diseases,' he writes, 'are heightened to a great excess by the subtlety of the devil cooperating with the malice of those we term witches, at whose instance he cloth those villanics.' Sir Matthew Hale fortified himself by this opinion in condemning two poor women as witches. Further he advises, 'that to those who would attempt to teach animals the art of speech, the dogs and cats, that usually speak unto witches, may afford some encouragement.' The motion of the earth he never mentions but with contempt and ridicule, though the opinion was in his time growing popular.
The discovery of some urns in Norfolk, in 1658, induced him to write Hydriotaphia; a discourse on urn-burial, in which, with a strange mixture of ideality and pedantry, he describes the funeral rites of ancient nations. 'There is perhaps none of his works,' says Dr. Johnson, ' which. better exemplifies his reading or memory. It is scarcely to be imagined how many particulars he has amassed, in a treatise which seems to have been occasionally written.' To Hydriotaphia he added a disquisition on The Garden of Cyrus, or the Quincunxial Lozenge or Network Plantations of the Ancients artificially, naturally. Quincunx order is a plantation of trees disposed originally in a square, consisting of five trees, one at each corner, and a fifth in the middle, which. disposition, repeated again and again, forms a regular grove, wood, or wilderness. The quincunx, Browne pursues through art and nature with a pertinacity that almost leads his reader to conclude that on that figure the universe was planned.
These were all the writings Sir Thomas Browne published, but after his death a mass of papers was discovered in his study, carefully transcribed, and ready for the press. These miscellanies have been printed, and supply fresh evidence of the versatility and originality of his reading and meditation. Considering the drudgery of his practice as physician, it is surprising that he should have read and written so much; but it is recorded that he was a skilful economist of time, that he could never bear to be a minute idle, and that the hours he could steal from his patients were spent in his study. He was always cheerful, though rarely merry; and, though in his writing garrulous, in speech he was slow and weighty. In his dress he affected plainness, and was averse to all finery; and was a strong advocate for thick and warm garments, as essential to health in the English climate.
The stability the English language had acquired in the age of Elizabeth was lost under her successors, and Browne, along with Milton and others, poured a multitude of exotic words into his compositions, to the great injury of their effect. He uses commensality, for the state of many living at the same table; paralogical, for an unreasonable doubt; and arthritical analogies, for parts that serve some animals in the place of joints; besides a host of other pedantries to even less propose; so that his style in some parts is rather a tissue of many tongues than honest English.
The life of the celebrated dean of St. Patrick's presents a history at once singular and painful. Born and educated in adversity, we find him emerging, after a hard struggle, into prosperity and fame; then disappointed in his canvass for clerical honours, we see him retire from the contest, and devote himself to literature and study; but cursed by a splenetic and morbid disposition, little real enjoyment is seemingly ever derived by him from any source, whilst the cold calculating selfishness which prompted him to trifle with the affections of a loving and self sacrificing woman, entailed on him the pangs of a secret and agonising remorse. Disease, bodily and mental, comes to complete his miseries, and the last days of the great satirist and politician are characterised by the most melancholy and unqualified idiocy.
From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow,
And Swift expires a driveller and a show.
Though born and resident in Ireland during the greater part of his life, Swift was thoroughly English both by extraction and disposition. His grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Swift, was vicar of Goodrich, in Herefordshire, four of whose sons, of whom he had ten, besides four daughters, settled in Ireland. One of these, Jonathan, who had been bred to the law, was appointed steward of the King's Inns, Dublin, but died about two years afterwards, leaving his widow in great poverty, with an infant daughter, and also pregnant of a son, who was born on 30th November 1667, and received his father's name.
Young Jonathan received his first education at a school in Kilkenny, and was afterwards sent to Trinity College, Dublin, being indebted for these advantages to his uncle, Godwin Swift, who formed the main support of his mother and her family, but seems to have bestowed his bounty in a niggardly and ungracious manner. While at college, Swift made himself specially distinguished in no way, except idling, and the perpetration of many reckless pranks. In 1688, he passed over to England, and joined there his mother, who had been residing for some time in Leicestershire. She was a relation of the wife of Sir William Temple. Introduced to this celebrated statesman, the young man was appointed private secretary, and took up his abode with Sir William, at the latter's seat of Moor Park, in Surrey. Here a reformation took place in his habits; and having both gained the approbation of his patron and his patron's master, King William, who used frequently to visit at Moor Park, he was enabled in 1692 to proceed to Oxford, where he obtained the degree of M.A. in the seine year. Returning to his former employment under Sir William, a disagreement arose, and Swift set off to Ireland, with the hope of pushing his way in the church. He had the mortification of being obliged to solicit his patron for a certificate before he could obtain preferment, but in 1695 was made prebend of Kilroot, in the diocese of Connor, with a revenue of a hundred a year. Life, however, in this remote locality was far too dull for hum, and he was, consequently, very happy to adjust his difference with Sir William Temple, and return to his secretaryship at Moor Park. On the death of Sir William, he proceeded to London, and superintended there the publication of his patron's posthumous works.
Having accompanied Lord Berkeley to Ireland in 1699, as his chaplain, Swift was presented by him to the rectory of Agher and the vicarages of Rathbeggan and Laracor, in the diocese of Meath. At the last-named of these livings he took up his residence, and continued there, during nearly the whole of the reign of Queen Anne, to pass the life of a country clergyman, varied by occasional visits to England, with which he kept up a constant correspondence; and employing himself, from time to time, in various literary lucubrations, including the celebrated Tale of a Tub, and the Battle of the Books, published anonymously in 1704, and the Predictions of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., in 1708. He also gave to the world several tracts, in one of which, the Letter on the Sacramental Test, he opposed strenuously the relaxation of the penal laws regarding dissenters. Swift was thoroughly a High Churchman; and though in politics attached, both by disposition and the connections of early life, to the principles of the Revolution, he became, latterly, the sworn friend and associate of Bolingbroke, Lord Oxford, and the rest of that class of statesmen who maintained a correspondence with the exiled family in France.
The utmost, however, which the Tory party bestowed on him, was the deanery of St. Patrick's Cathedral, in Dublin; and shortly afterwards, the death of Queen Anne, and the accession of the Hanoverian dynasty, shut him out effectually from all hopes of further preferment. He refrained for many years from visiting England, but earned an immense popularity in Ireland by his denunciation of the unworthy system of restriction imposed on that country by the English parliament. His famous Drapier's Letters, on the patent right granted to William Wood to coin farthings and halfpence for Ireland, exposed him to considerable danger from the authorities, but with the Irish raised him to the dignity of a patriot, a position which he ever afterwards maintained in their estimation. A reward of £300 having been offered for the discovery of the author of the Drapier's fourth letter, and a bill against the printer being about to lie presented to the grand jury, the following quotation from Scripture was largely circulated in Dublin: 'And the people said unto Saul, shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid as the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he bath wrought with God this day.
So the people rescued Jonathan, that lie died not' The grand jury's verdict was ignoramus, and the patent was ultimately withdrawn from Wood, who received in compensation a yearly grant of £3000 for twelve years.
In 1726, Swift once more visited England, and in the same year appeared the celebrated Gulliver's Travels, which, published anonymously like most of Swift's writings, achieved ere long a European popularity, and more than any other work has conferred on him an immortal reputation. But the moody, misanthropical author cared little for the applause of mankind, whose judgments he regarded with the most withering scorn and contempt. No better proof could he afforded of the general bent of his disposition than the work just alluded. to, and more especially time description of the country of the Houynhnhnms. For ironical and sarcastic humour, nothing can be more piquant than his Directions to Servants, which, with the utmost gravity, inculcates on domestics the performance of every act which they should not do, and the omission of every duty which they should. It was about the last literary work in which Swift engaged, and was not published till after his death.
In thus sketching the life of Swift, we have as yet said nothing of a circumstance which has found a prominent place in every biography. Need. we say that we allude to his attachments to Stella and Vanessa? The former of these, whose proper name was Esther Johnson, and who is said to have been a natural daughter of Sir William Temple, was a pretty girl of fourteen when she first made Swift's acquaintance at Moor Park, where she was an inmate. The young secretary acted the part of tutor towards her, and a life-long attachment, on the part of Esther at least, was the result. After Swift was settled as vicar of Laracor, Stella and a female friend, named Mrs. Dingley, followed him to Ireland. They generally resided in the town of Trim, but took up their abode in the vicarage at Laracor whenever its master was absent. Up to 1716, the intercourse between them seems to have been entirely of a Platonic character, but in that year Swift having by this time become dean of St. Patrick's they were married in the deanery garden by the bishop of Clogher. This circumstance, however, was carefully concealed, and the cold blooded indifference with which Swift could thus expose the character of a generous and loving woman to the world's aspersion exhibits him in a very repulsive light.
Neither did he remain constant in his attachment to her. During his visits to London about 1712, he made the acquaintance of a young lady of good position, Miss Esther Vanhomrigh, who, like Stella, has been handed down to posterity by a poetic appellation Vanessa. Unlike her rival, however, she appears to have been of a forward, enterprising disposition, and actually made known to Swift the state of her affections; a declaration which he treated at first jestingly, and after-wards replied to by a proffer of everlasting friendship. There can be no doubt that the conduct of the dean in his friendship with Vanessa was wholly unjustifiable, and he reaped the just punishment of his double dealing in the misery to which. he was subjected by the opposing claims of the two rivals on his affections. This embarrassment was considerably increased by the circumstance of Vanessa coming over to Ireland, and fixing her residence in Dublin, from which she afterwards removed to Marley Abbey, near Celbridge. Here Swift used frequently to visit her; and our opinion of his character is by no means heightened, when we know that at the very time when the was indulging in the language of love and affection towards Miss Vanhomrigh, he was himself bound to another by the irrevocable tie of marriage. After the death (about 1720) of a younger sister who lived with her, the attachment of Vanessa to Swift became more violent than ever; and, determined to elicit the nature of his mysterious connection with Stella, she despatched a letter of inquiry to that effect to Mrs. Johnson.
The tragical consequence is well known. Stella's jealousy being roused by the receipt of this communication, she at once sent the letter to Swift, whom it stirred to a paroxysm of fury. He mounted his horse, rode to Marley Abbey, and entering the apartment where Miss Vanhomrigh was sitting, glared at her with such a terrible expression of countenance, that the unfortunate woman could scarcely muster courage to speak. He threw on the table a packet containing the letter to Stella, quitted the house without a word, and returned to Dublin. Disappointment, indignation, and terror combined, brought Vanessa to her grave in the space of a few weeks after this interview, but not till she had revoked a will by which she had bequeathed the whole of her large fortune to Swift.
Mrs. Johnson survived Vanessa by a few years, and died of a decline on the 8th of January 1728. It may be stated, that in addition to these world renowned names of Stella and Vanessa, there was another lady with whom Swift had contracted an attachment previous to his acquaintance with Stella. She was a Miss Jane Waryng, the sister of a fellow student at Trinity College, Dublin, and was courted by him under the designation of Varine. This, his first love, Swift regarded for a time with all the ardour of boyish affection, but in a few years his passion cooled, and an estrangement took place. Alluding to these passages in his history, it is beautifully remarked by Mr. Thackeray in Tie' English Humorists, that the book of Swift's life may be said to open at places kept by these blighted flowers!
One of the best traits in Swift's character, was his large hearted and unostentatious benevolence. About a third of his income was devoted to charitable objects, and by his will the bulk of his fortune was devised for the foundation of an hospital for idiots, a bequest very suggestive of the melancholy fate of the testator. The anecdotes related of him as a humorist have been so often repeated as to have become, for the most part, utterly threadbare. It may be remarked on this subject, that however fond Swift might be of a joke where the weight of sarcasm rested on the shoulders of another, he had little relish for it when any of the shafts of ridicule rebounded against himself. On such occasions, he would fairly lose temper, and betray a contemptible littleness of mind. Thus he was so incensed at a Catholic priest whom he met in a friend's house, and who smartly replied to his sarcastic interrogation, Why the Catholic Church used pictures and images when the Church of England did not? with the retort: 'Because we are old housekeepers, and you are new beginners,' that he quitted the room, and refused to remain to dinner. Another time, he complained to the mistress of an inn of the sauciness of her cookmaid, who, when the dean asked her how many maggots she had got out of a piece of mutton she was scraping, answered: 'Not so many as are in your head!'