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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Swift, Jonathan (1667 - 1745)
"... the atheists, libertines, despisers of religion ... that is to say all those who usually pass under the name of Free-thinkers."

-- Jonathan Swift


Jonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irish priest, satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, and poet famous for works like Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, The Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub. Swift is probably the foremost prose satirist in the English language, although he is less well known for his poetry. Swift published all of his works under pseudonyms -- such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B. Drapier -- or anonymously.

Jonathan Swift was born at No. 7, Hoey's Court, Dublin, the second child and only son of Jonathan and Abigail Erick (or Herrick) Swift, English immigrants. Jonathan arrived seven months after his father's untimely death. Most of the facts of Swift's early life are obscure, confused and sometimes contradictory. It is widely believed that his mother returned to England when Jonathan was still very young, leaving him to be raised by his father's family. His uncle Godwin took primary responsibility for the young Jonathan, sending him to Kilkenny Grammar School with one of his cousins (also attended by the philosopher George Berkeley).

In 1682 he attended Dublin University (Trinity College, Dublin), receiving his B.A. in 1686. Swift was studying for his Masters when political troubles in Ireland surrounding the Glorious Revolution forced him to leave for England in 1688, where his mother helped him get a position as secretary and personal assistant of Sir William Temple at Moor Park.

Temple was an English diplomat who, having arranged the Triple Alliance (1688), retired from public service to his country estate to tend his gardens and write his memoirs. Growing into confidence with his employer, Swift "was often trusted with matters of great importance." Within three years of their acquaintance, Temple had introduced his secretary to William III, and sent him to London to urge the King to consent to a bill for triennial Parliaments.

When Swift took up his residence at Moor Park, he met Esther Johnson, then 8 years old, the fatherless daughter of one of the household servants. Swift acted as her tutor and mentor, giving her the nickname "Stella" and the two maintained a close, but ambiguous, relationship for the rest of Esther's life.

Swift left Temple in 1690 for Ireland because of his health, but returned to Moor Park the following year. The illness, fits of vertigo or giddiness, now known to be Ménière's disease, would continue to plague Swift throughout his life. During this second stay with Temple, Swift received his M.A. from Hertford College, Oxford University in 1692. Then, apparently despairing of gaining a better position through Temple's patronage, Swift left Moor Park to be ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland and was appointed to a prebend in Kilroot, near Carrickfergus in 1694.

Swift was miserable in his new position, being isolated in a small, remote community. While there, however, Swift may have became romantically involved with Jane Waring. A letter from him survives offering to remain if she would marry him and promising to leave and never return to Ireland if she refused. She must have refused, because Swift left his post and returned to England and Temple's service at Moor Park in 1696 where he remained until Temple's death.

There he was employed in helping prepare Temple's memoirs and correspondence for publication. During this time Swift wrote The Battle of the Books, a satire responding to critics of Temple's Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1690). Battle was however not published until 1704.

In the summer of 1699 Temple died. Swift stayed on briefly to finish editing Temple's memoirs, perhaps in the hope that recognition of his work might earn him a suitable position in England. However, Swift's work made enemies of some of Temple's family and friends who objected to indiscretions included in the memoirs. His next move was to approach King William directly, based on his imagined connection through Temple and a belief that he had been promised a position.

This failed so miserably that he accepted the lesser post of secretary and chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, one of the Lords Justices of Ireland. However, when he reached Ireland he found that the secretaryship had been given to another. He soon, however, obtained the living of Laracor, Agher, and Rathbeggan, and the prebend of Dunlavin in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

At Laracor, a mile or two from Trim, and twenty miles from Dublin, Swift ministered to a congregation of about fifteen persons, and had abundant leisure for cultivating his garden, making a canal (after the Dutch fashion of Moor Park), planting willows, and rebuilding the vicarage. As chaplain to Lord Berkeley, he spent much of his time in Dublin and travelled to London frequently over the next ten years. In 1701, Swift published, anonymously, a political pamphlet, A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.

In February 1702, Swift received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Dublin University, That spring he traveled to England and returned to Ireland in October, accompanied by Esther Johnson — now twenty years old — and her friend Rebecca Dingley, another member of Wm. Temple's household. There is a great deal of mystery and controversy over Swift's relationship with Stella. Many hold that they were secretly married in 1716. Although there has never been definite proof of this, there is no doubt that she was dearer to him than anyone else and that his feelings for her did not change throughout his life.

During his visits to England in these years Swift published A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books (1704) and began to gain a reputation as a writer. This led to close, lifelong friendships with Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, forming the core of the Martinus Scriberlus Club, founded in 1713).

Swift became increasingly active politically in these years. From 1707 to 1709 and again in 1710, Swift was in London, unsuccessfully urging upon the Whig administration of Lord Godolphin the claims of the Irish clergy to the First-Fruits and Twentieths ("Queen Anne's Bounty"), which brought in about £2500 a year, already granted to their brethren in England. He found the opposition Tory leadership more sympathetic to his cause.

Swift was recruited to support their cause as editor of the Examiner when they came to power in 1710. In 1711, Swift published the political pamphlet "The Conduct of the Allies," attacking the Whig government for its inability to end the prolonged war with France. The incoming Tory government conducted secret (and illegal) negotiations with France, resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) ending the War of the Spanish Succession.

Swift was part of the inner circle of the Tory government and often acted as mediator between Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke) the secretary of state for foreign affairs (1710-15) and Robert Harley (Earl of Oxford) lord treasurer and prime minister (1711-4). Swift recorded his experiences and thoughts during this difficult time in a long series of letters to Esther Johnson, later collected and published as The Journal to Stella. The animosity between the two Tory leaders eventually lead to the dismissal of Harley in 1714. With the death of Queen Anne and ascension of King George that year, the Whigs returned to power and the Tory leaders were tried for treason for conducting secret negotiations with France.

Also during these years in London, Swift became acquainted with the Vanhomrigh family and became involved with one of the daughters, Hester, yet another fatherless young woman and an ambiguous relationship to confuse Swift's biographers. Swift furnished Hester with the nickname "Vanessa" and she features as one of the main characters in his poem "Cadenus and Vanessa." The poem and their correspondence suggests that Hester was infatuated with Swift, that he may have reciprocated her affections, only to regret it and then try to break it off. Hester followed Swift to Ireland in 1714, where there appears to have been a confrontation, possibly involving Esther Johnson. Hester Vanhomrigh died in 1723 at the age of 35.

Before the fall of the Tory government, Swift hoped that his services would be rewarded with a church appointment in England. However, Queen Anne appears to have taken a dislike to Swift and thwarted these efforts. The best position his friends could secure for him was the Deanery of St. Patrick's, Dublin. With the return of the Whigs, Swift's best move was to leave England and he returned to Ireland in disappointment, a virtual exile, to live "like a rat in a hole".

Once in Ireland, however, Swift began to turn his pamphleteering skills in support of Irish causes, producing some of his most memorable works; "Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture" (1720), "The Drapier's Letters" (1724), and "A Modest Proposal" (1729); earning him the status of an Irish patriot.

Also during these years, he began writing his masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships, better known as Gulliver's Travels. Much of the material reflects his political experiences of the preceding decade. For instance, the episode when the giant Gulliver puts out the Lilliputian palace fire by urinating on it can be seen as a metaphor for the Tories' illegal peace treaty; having done a good thing in an unfortunate manner.

In 1726 he paid a long-deferred visit to London, taking with him the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels. During his visit he stayed with his old friends, Alexander Pope. John Arbuthnot, and John Gay, who helped him arrange for the anonymous publication of his book. First published in November 1726, it was an immediate hit, with a total of three printings that year and another in early 1727. French, German, and Dutch translations appeared in 1727 and pirated copies were printed in Ireland.

Swift returned to England one more time in 1727 and stayed with Alexander Pope once again. The visit was cut short when he received word that Esther Johnson was dying and Swift rushed back home to be with her. On January 28, 1728, Esther Johnson died. Though he prayed at her bedside, even composing prayers for her comfort, Swift could not bear to be present at the end, but on the night of her death he began to write his very interesting The Death of Mrs. Johnson. He was too ill to be present at the funeral at St. Patrick's. Many years later, a lock of hair, assumed to be Esther Johnson's, was found in his desk, wrapped in a paper bearing the words, "Only a woman's hair."

Death became a frequent feature in Swift's life from this point. In 1731 he wrote "Verses on the Death of Dr Swift," his own obituary published in 1739. In 1732, his good friend and collaborator John Gay died. In 1735, John Arbuthnot, another friend from his days in London, died. In 1738 Swift began to show signs of illness and in 1742 he appears to have suffered a stroke, losing the ability to speak and realizing his worst fears of becoming mentally disabled. ("I shall be like that tree," he once said, "I shall die at the top")

In order to protect him from unscrupulous hangers on, who had begun to prey on the great man, his closest companions had him declared of "unsound mind and memory." In 1744, Alexander Pope died. Then, on October 19, 1745, Jonathan Swift died. He was buried by Esther Johnson's side, in accordance with his wishes. The bulk of his fortune was left to found a hospital for the mentally ill.

Epitaph
Swift wrote his own epitaph, which
William Butler Yeats translated from the Latin:

Hic depositum est corpus
JONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Decani
Ubi saeva indignatio
Ulterius
Cor lacerare nequit
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem
Obiit 19 Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78
Yeats' translation:

Swift has sailed into his rest.
Savage indignation there
cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you can,
world-besotted traveller.
He served human liberty.

Works
Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer. The most recent collection of his prose works (Herbert Davis, ed. Basil Blackwell, 1965-) comprises fourteen volumes. A recent edition of his complete poetry (Pat Rodges, ed. Penguin, 1983) is 953 pages long. One edition of his correspondence (David Woolley, ed. P. Lang, 1999) fills three volumes.

The subjects and themes of Jonathan Swift's writings generally and understandably follow the events and concerns in his life. This is one of the reasons that his critics pay so much attention to his biography, the established facts and the many disputed items, as a means of elucidating the true meaning of his writings. While perhaps an oversimplication, it can be seen how his earliest works show an academic interest in the philosophical issues of his day, shifting to the concerns of the Church that he represented both as a priest and a lobbyist, turning then to political matters as he leant his pen to the Tory party, and finally taking up the cause of the Irish people in defense of his nation of exile. Throughout these larger trends are the personal writings which give tantalizing but inconclusive hints about Swift's inner life.

Quotations

"Religion supposed Heaven and Hell, the word of God, and sacraments, and twenty other circumstances which, taken seriously, are a wonderful check to wit and humour."

"... the atheists, libertines, despisers of religion ... that is to say all those who usually pass under the name of Free-thinkers."

"We've got just enough religion to hate each other, but not enough religion to love each other."

 
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