I turn 66 today and a numerical quirk gives me an excuse for posting the first of Jonathan Swift’s birthday poems to “Stella” (Esther Johnson), his closest friend who got a birthday poem from him almost every year until she died.
The numerical quirk involves my anniversary as well as my birthday. I got married to Julia on June 8, 1973, when she was 22 and I was four days shy (so let’s say I was 22 as well). Double that and you have the anniversary we just celebrated (our 44th). Now triple that and you have our current age.
Okay, so it doesn’t mean much. But it’s just the kind of playfulness that shows up in the first of the birthday poems. And don’t be fooled by Swift mentioning Stella’s advancing years and her weight gain: Swift banters with Johnson like this in all of the poems and he doesn’t let himself off the hook, with self-deprecating comments about his own deteriorating mental faculties. See it as bantering that covers a deep affection.
The truth of the matter is the worship that he mentions at the end of the poem, which would be sizable even if it too were halved.
Others agreed that Johnson had a large mind, and she was at the center of a Dublin intellectual circle. Swift wrote that she was “the truest, most virtuous and valuable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, was ever blessed with.”
Swift, who was 14 years older, had been Stella’s tutor at one point. Some speculate that they secretly married but this is dubious. In any event, Swift was inconsolable when Johnson died at 46 and is buried next to her.
Stella’s Birthday, March 13, 1718-19
By Jonathan Swift
Stella this day is thirty-four,
(We shan’t dispute a year or more:)
However, Stella, be not troubled,
Although thy size and years are doubled
Since first I saw thee at sixteen,
The brightest virgin on the green;
So little is thy form declined;
Made up so largely in thy mind.
O, would it please the gods to split
Thy beauty, size, and years, and wit!
No age could furnish out a pair
Of nymphs so graceful, wise, and fair;
With half the luster of your eyes,
With half your wit, your years, and size.
And then, before it grew too late,
How should I beg of gentle fate,
(That either nymph might have her swain,)
To split my worship too in twain.