Swift (1727) Literary historians remain unsure of the nature of the relationship between Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson, the "Stella" of his poetry and the famous letters published in 1766 as The Journal to Stella. He became acquainted with Johnson when he served as secretary to his kinsman, Sir William Temple, living in his household from 1689 to 1699. Swift tutored Johnson, daughter of Temple's steward, and the two became lifelong friends. Some believed they secretly married, while others continue to debate their relationship. Whatever its form, they both found it crucial and satisfying.
Swift wrote "Stella's Birthday, 1721" to celebrate what she claimed as her 36th birthday, although Swift avowed it to be her 40th. He gently chides her in the poem, which openly and honestly celebrates her charms and intelligence as far more important than the mere physical beauty that accompanies youth. Swift works to undermine the idea that a woman's worth is based on youth and physical attributes. He develops as a younger character for contrast to the mature Stella the dull young "Cloe," a name popular in poetry that incorporated the romantic and pastoral traditions. He also references two new friends, Thomas Sheridan and his wife, Elizabeth; the latter Swift identifies in his poem as "a new Angel." The couple had proved kind to Swift, impressing him with their gracious hospitality. Sheridan's grandson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, distinguished himself as one of the Restoration's best playwrights.
Swift begins by adopting the figurative language of extended metaphor, representing Stella's house as a welcome escape from daily cares, the type of place all weary travelers and those seeking satisfying interaction would value. Such travelers will return often to a place where "they find the chambers neat, /And like the liquor and the meat." Not only will they return, they will recommend these accommodations, which Swift dubs "The Angel Inn," to others. He makes a subtle humorous reference to Stella's age when he adds of the inn, "And though the painting grows decayed / The house will never lose its trade." The next lines refer to the Sheridans, whose home with "a new Angel" proves a possible distraction from the travelers' original focus. However, even "the treacherous rascal Thomas" and his wife "think it both a shame and sin / To quit the true old Angel Inn."
At line 16 Swift begins a new section, describing Stella physically. With obvious fondness he notes that her "angel's face" remains "a little cracked," adding slyly, "(Could poets or could painters fix / How angels look at thirty-six)." Stella's "angel's mind" filled with every virtue stands as her most important feature. She entertains "With breeding, humor, wit, and sense," putting at ease her guests and costing them "so small expense." Retaining the metaphor of Stella's home as an inn designed to afford comfort to others, the speaker adds that she "So little gets for what she gives, / We really wonder how she lives."
Swift inserts a four-line transition, proclaiming, "Then, who can think we'll quit the place / When Doll hangs out a newer face," or when Cloe opens an inn "With scraps and leavings to be fed." Line 37 begins the final section, in which Swift contrasts Stella with the younger Cloe, who engages in the "trade of scandal picking," through "innuendoes" suggesting that "Stella loves to talk with fellows." The speaker suggests Cloe's desperation in turning to lies to undercut her competitor. He firmly warns Cloe "to believe / A truth for which thy soul should grieve." That truth is that even when Stella's hair turns gray and "age must print a furrowed trace / On every feature of her face," she will prove superior to Cloe, though the younger woman might pretend through artifice to remain forever age 15. The speaker tells the would-be usurper with relish, "No bloom of youth can ever blind / The cracks and wrinkles of your mind." Men will still walk past Cloe's establishment to attend Stella even when Stella reaches the age of "fourscore."
This 1721 birthday poem was the second of seven written for Stella and is the most anthologized. Its affectionate tone and soft, but sure, execution counter the common perception of Swift as a bitter misanthrope who had little use for women other than as objects of derision.
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