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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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
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
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.
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."
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")
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.
Swift wrote his own epitaph, which William Butler Yeats translated
from the Latin:
depositum est corpus
JONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit
Et imitare, si poteris
Strenuum pro virili
Obiit 19 Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78
has sailed into his rest.
Savage indignation there
cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you can,
He served human liberty.
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
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.
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."
got just enough religion to hate each other, but not enough religion
to love each other."