Journal to Stella Critical Essays

Jonathan Swift

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The JOURNAL TO STELLA consists of the letters of Jonathan Swift to Esther Johnson. Begun in 1710 and ending in 1713, they mark the long period of separation when Swift was deeply involved in the literary and political affairs of London. Esther Johnson was the woman whom Swift first knew as a child, whom he educated, whom he befriended, and with whom he fell in love. The journal is not, however, in any sense of the word a collection of love letters. The relationship of Swift and Stella was an intellectual one, and the journal is about the ideas and experiences which linked them. It is a great document of life in Augustan London, and of the early life of its author.

The letters are first of all a very detailed picture of Swift’s fortunes in the capital. He wrote of his friendships with men such as Harley and St. John, who controlled, for a brief time, the government of the nation. Swift was an adviser and friend to these men, and the journal reveals to what extent he was in their company, how deeply he enjoyed their confidence, and how much they relied on his judgment. It indicates too the exact nature of the day-to-day issues about which they consulted. The central matter was the establishment of a Tory system of government, and of this Swift has a good deal to say. Some of the events mentioned in the letters, in fact, come up in disguised form in the later GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

Swift was one of the champions of the Tory party, and his considerable powers of satire were often called on for its support. The journal reveals that he was animated by belief in the meaning of Tory principles of government—and by the conviction that he had a good deal to gain personally from his association with that party. Swift devotes a good deal of time to explaining the extent to which he believed he deserved rewards, and he is particular in recording the degree to which his claims were honored. The journal explains to Stella the reasons for the many affairs of state he attended and the conviction, spoken and unspoken, that he ought to have a voice in matters of policy.

The tone of the letters is noticeably ironic. Swift writes of a great many persons and events, but he does not grant them the heavy seriousness and meaningfulness that other men might too easily have given. Consistently throughout these letters is a tone which sets the great and near great in their places. Over and over again Swift describes people and their varied affairs, but he rarely descends to find in either the people or the events anything of particular consequence. One of the refreshing things about the letters is the fact that people with very little other than their aristocratic positions to recommend them are seen through the prismatic insight of a very liberated intelligence. Swift notes that a servant seems to be drunk and that a lord seems to be stupid. In both cases Swift is habitually insulting, but in both he is also objective. As a memoir this work has distinct advantages over history, for it gives the domestic and mundane side of events that, after all, existed in more than the public dimension.

There is an extraordinary amount of what must be admitted is pure gossip in the journal. This material is present, evidently, for several reasons: it must have pleased the reader; it evidently pleased Swift; and it functions to give a thick social context to the judgments Swift frequently passes on mankind. Swift includes an enormous amount of detail on the private lives of the people among whom he lives and on the methods by which he came by his knowledge of them. Much of it was by word of mouth, although some of it came from the...

(The entire section is 1493 words.)