The Death of Dean Swift

October 19: On this day in 1745 Jonathan Swift died at the age of seventy-eight. Swift 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. …I am sure my days will be very few; few and miserable they must be.

Swift's lifelong fear of mental illness, and his sympathy for its victims, is reflected in his sermons and his poetry. The following lines are from his 1730 poem, "Traulus, Part One":

Yet many a wretch in Bedlam knows,

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….

The following year—we are still fourteen years away from the event—he wrote "Verses on the Death of Dr Swift," in which he imagines his mental deterioration as seen through the eyes of others:

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....

The poem also gave early notice concerning Swift's famous 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 deserving group:

He gave the little Wealth he had,

To build a House for Fools and Mad:

And shew'd by one satyric Touch,

No Nation wanted it so much....


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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