Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Mad Parson

"At Button's, said Phillips, over several successive days they observed "a strange clergyman" come in, obviously unacquainted with anyone there. He would put his hat down on a table, " and walk backward and forward at a good pace for half an hour or an hour without speaking to any mortal." Then he picked up his hat, paid for his coffee and left without saying a word to anyone.

Addison and his little knot of regulars amused themselves watching him, and nicknamed him "the mad parson."

One day they saw the mad parson staring at "a gentleman in boots who seemed to be just come out of the country, and at last advanced towards him as intending to address him." The group of insiders were so eager to hear whatt the "dumb mad parson" had to say that they "immediately quitted their seats to get near him." They overheard Swift saying abruptly to the country gentleman, "Pray, sir, do you remember any good weather in the world?" The country gentleman, a simple soul, was taken aback and replied that he could remember a great deal of good weather in his time. "That is more," said Swift, " than I can say; I never remember any weather that was not too hot, or too cold; too wet or too dry; but, however God Almighty contrives it, at the end of the year 'tis all very well." Then he picked up his hat and walked out without saying another word, "leaving all those who had been spectators of this odd scene staring after him, and still more confirmed in the opinion of his being mad."

This is a spiteful little story and it rings true. As a writer, Swift has lasted better than any of the smooth coffee-house wits. The "mad parson" was already Dr Swift, the vicar of Laracor, the friend of the Ladies, and a published writer. But he is seen in Ambrose Phillips' vignette as what he also was, the awkward provincial outsider, finally breaking his silence by barking out a question, couched in a characteristically oblique manner, to the only unthreatening person he had yet seen, and not making a success of it."
"Jonathan Swift," by Victoria Glendinning

I've been reading quite a bit of Swift lately, and he is fast becoming somewhat of a hero to me. I think that this is partly because I feel I can understand the man, although not the genius. Some of this empathy is directly related to this blog. I got into blogs about a year and a half ago and tend to wander from one to another in spare moments through the day. I've had one go at it before with "What would Juvenal Do," which seemed a good idea at the time, but the idea ran out of steam for me. Swift was inspired by Juvenal, and reading about Swift was a natural progression. It was in reading Glendinning's biography of him that I found the passage above. I too, feel like I am pacing the floor of this contempory of the 17th Century coffee-house, although I very much doubt I am picking up much attention, given the number of others doing the same all over the world. Having read so many good blogs, the best of which I have linked to, I feel a bit provincial, which chimes nicely to being the son of an Armagh farmer living in the Big Smoke. At this point, I'm still highly critical of my writing, too complex perhaps, pulling too many punches, needlessly repeating what has been said elsewhere and in better ways. But I'm building up to my question about the weather, and Swift is going to help me get some attention. Or so I hope. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that...


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