January 16, 2018
Swift at the End
On this day in 1745 Jonathan Swift died at the age of seventy-eight. He spent his last years in poor physical and mental health, his senile dementia eventually so incapacitating that most friends stayed away in pity or fear. Five years earlier, in his last note to the last person he could still make sense of, his devoted housekeeper Mrs. Whiteway, he had expressed the hope that he might be spared such an end:
I have been very miserable all night, and today extremely deaf and full of pain. I am so stupid and confounded, that I cannot express the mortification I am under both in body and mind. All I can say is, that I am not in torture; but I daily and hourly expect it. Pray let me know how your health is, and your family. I hardly understand one word I write. I am sure my days will be very few; few and miserable they must be.
Swift had a lifelong fear of madness, and sympathy for victims of it. This was sometimes delivered as befitting the pulpit, at other times in Swiftian verse:
Yet many a wretch in Bedlam knows,
Those lines are from "Traulus, Part One," written in 1730; written the following year -- we are still fourteen years away from the event -- he wrote "Verses on the Death of Dr Swift." The in-your-eye humor of this is aimed mostly at the Age, or at Man, but Swift swings his boot at himself, or at the Swift seen through the eyes of his "special Friends":
How to distinguish friends from foes;
And though perhaps among the rout,
He wildly flings his filth about,
He still has gratitude and sap'ence,
To spare the folks that gave him ha'pence
Nor, in their eyes at random pisses,
But turns aside like mad Ulysses . . .
Yet, thus methinks, I bear 'em speak;
The poem also gave early notice concerning Swift's last will and testament. His money, he foretold, would not only go to public rather than private use -- "To publick Use! A perfect Whim! / What had the Publick done for him!" -- but to one group:
See, how the Dean begins to break:
Poor Gentleman, he droops apace,
You plainly find it in his Face:
That old Vertigo in his Head,
Will never leave him, till he's dead:
Besides, his Memory decays,
He recollects not what he says;
He cannot call his Friends to Mind;
Forgets the Place where last he din'd:
Plyes you with Stories o'er and o'er,
He told them fifty Times before....
For Poetry, he's past his Prime,
He takes an Hour to find a Rhime:
His Fire is out, his Wit decay'd,
His Fancy sunk, his Muse a Jade.
I'd have him throw away his Pen;
But there's no talking to some Men....
He gave the little Wealth he had,
Specifically, the bulk of Swift's estate went to founding an institution for "as many idiots and lunatics" as possible -- the still functioning Dublin psychiatric hospital, St. Patrick's. And while he still had his wits about him, Swift also wrote his own epitaph, a final gauntlet to those he had challenged by word and deed for decades: "Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, dean of this Cathedral Church, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate if you can one who with all his might championed liberty."
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew'd by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much....