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Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

The Anglo-Irish poet, political writer, and clergyman Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) ranks as the foremost prose satirist in the English language and as one of the greatest satirists in world literature.

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Nov. 30, 1667. His father, Jonathan Swift (1640-1667), an Englishman who had settled in Ireland, died a few months before Swift's birth. He had married Abigaile Erick, the daughter of an old Leicestershire family, about 1664. Swift's uncle, Godwin Swift, a Tipperary official, supported the young Jonathan. With his help he entered Kilkenny School, where William Congreve was a fellow student, at the age of 6. In 1682 Swift matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, where his record was undistinguished. He received his bachelor of arts degree in 1686. Swift continued his education at Trinity, having almost obtained a master of arts degree when his uncle's death and political violence in Ireland combined in 1688 to make him leave Ireland and to seek his mother's counsel in Leicester.

Swift began his first employment toward the end of 1689 by becoming secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat and distant relative of his mother's, at Moor Park near London. Here Swift first met Esther Johnson (1680-1728), the "Stella" of his famous Journal to Stella, who was 8 years old at the time. She was the daughter of a servant at Moor Park, and Swift—who was 22 years old— taught her how to write and formed a lifelong friendship with her. Swift's position at Moor Park was frequently disagreeable to him because of his uncertain status and prospects. In 1692, after a short residence at Oxford, he obtained a master of arts degree from that institution. Returning to Temple's employ, he remained at Moor Park until 1694, when he left in anger at Temple's delay in obtaining him preferment. That year Swift was ordained in the Church of Ireland (Anglican). In January 1695 Swift obtained the small prebend of Kilroot near Belfast.

First Works

Temple proposed that Swift return to Moor Park in 1696 as a literary executor to help him prepare his papers for publication. Tired of Irish life, Swift gladly accepted, living at Moor Park until Temple's death in 1699. During this 3-year period Swift read and wrote extensively. His Pindaric Odes, written in the manner of Abraham Cowley, date from this period, as does his first essay in satiric prose, The Battle of the Books, written in 1697 in defense of Temple's Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning but not published until 1704.

After Temple's death Swift, after several delays, obtained the rectory of Agher in Meath with the united vicarages of Laracor and Rathbeggan, to which was added the prebend of Dunlavin in St. Patrick's, Dublin. He also became chaplain to the 2d Earl of Berkeley, a lord justice of Ireland. In 1701 Swift received a doctor of divinity degree from Trinity College, Dublin, but his hopes for higher Church office were disappointed. Unhappy with life in Ireland, he paid frequent visits to Leicester and London. With the advent of a new Tory government in England and the pending impeachment of Whig leaders responsible for William III's second Partition Treaty, Swift decided to put his pen to political use. In 1701 he published A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and Commons in Athens and Rome in an attempt to dissuade the impeachment of John Somers and Lords Orford, Halifax, and Portland.

Swift lived in England between 1701 and 1704, and he became friends with Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele. In 1704 he published in one volume his first great satires, A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, and The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit. Full of brilliant parody and extravagant wit, these satires exhibit Swift at his most dazzling.

Meantime, in 1701 Swift had invited Esther Johnson and her companion, Rebecca Dingley, a poor relative of Temple's, to Laracor. They soon permanently established themselves in Dublin. Swift's friendship with Johnson lasted through her lifetime, and contemporary rumor reported he married her in 1716. No marriage was ever acknowledged. Swift's letters to Johnson from London between 1710 and 1713 make up his Journal to Stella, first published in 1768.

In November 1707 Swift wrote his most distinguished narrative poem, Baucis and Philemon, and a few months later he produced one of the finest examples of his irony, the Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences (1708). In the early months of 1708 Swift also wrote an amusing piece decrying the quackery of astrologers, Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.

Political Activities

From February 1708 to April 1709 Swift was domiciled in London, attempting to obtain for the Irish clergy the financial benefits of Queen Anne's Bounty, in which he failed. By November 1710 he was again in London and produced a series of brilliant pamphlets, including A Letter concerning the Sacramental Test, the Sentiments of a Church of England Man, and a Project for the Advancement of Religion.

Finally convinced that the Whigs would not aid his Church cause, Swift turned to the ministers of the new Tory government in 1710 and became for the next 4 years the chief journalist and principal pamphleteer for Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Swift wrote for the Tory paper, the Examiner, from Nov. 2, 1710, to June 7, 1711, and in his weekly contributions he lampooned the reputation of Whig leaders and their popular hero, the Duke of Marlborough. His most influential work of this period of his greatest political power in England was The Conduct of the Allies (1711), which helped to prepare public opinion for the end of the war with France and the Peace of Utrecht.

In 1713 Queen Anne appointed Swift to the deanery of St. Patrick's, Dublin, and in June 1713 he left London to take possession of it, disappointed he had not received as a reward for his political writings an English deanery or bishopric. Dissensions between Oxford and Bolingbroke speedily forced his return to London. Unable to smooth over the differences between them and probably sensing Oxford's impending fall, Swift retired for several weeks to Upper Letcombe, Berkshire, where he wrote Some Free Thoughts on the Present State of Affairs, a pamphlet detailing Swift's conversion to Bolingbroke's policies. Queen Anne died on Aug. 1, 1714, and with the accession of George I, the Tories were a ruined party. Swift's career in England was over.

But his past 4 years of London life had been important ones for Swift. In addition to his political activities and writings, he had become treasurer and a leading member of the Brothers, a society of wits; he had contributed to the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Intelligence; he had promoted the subscription for Pope's Homer; and he had joined with Pope, John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and others to found the celebrated Scriblerus Club, contributing to Martin Scriblerus. To this busy era also belong several miscellanies, including A Meditation upon a Broomstick, and the poems "Sid Hamet's Rod, " "The City Shower, " "The Windsor Prophecy, " "The Prediction of Merlin, " and "The History of Vanbrugh's House." His Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712) also dates from these London years.

During his various stays in London, Swift had become friendly with the Vanhomrighs, the family of a Dublin merchant of Dutch origins. Their daughter Esther—Swift called her Vanessa—had fallen passionately in love with Swift, and she followed him to Ireland, hoping that Swift would marry her.

Return to Ireland meant for Swift a sudden fall from great political power to absolute insignificance. Coldly received by the Irish as the dean of St. Patrick's, he was also denied all share in the administration of Irish affairs. Johnson and Dingley continued to reside near him, and Esther Vanhomrigh (1690-1723) lived at Cellbridge, about 10 miles distant. Perhaps Swift wished to marry Johnson, but he could not do so without destroying Vanhomrigh. He seemed psychologically incapable of deserting either beauty, although his feeling for each was devoid of passion. He was capable of friendship and even tender regard but not of love. He probably preferred Johnson, but his attempts were directed toward soothing Vanhomrigh. He had earlier addressed one of the best examples of his serious poetry, "Cadenus and Vanessa, " to her in 1713. Finally, Vanhomrigh, exhausted by Swift's evasions, demanded to know the nature of his relations with Johnson in a letter, in 1723. After a final confrontation with Swift, Vanhomrigh died a few weeks later. Johnson died on Jan. 28, 1728.

In 1720 Swift published anonymously his Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures, in which he urged the Irish to discontinue using English goods. Political events once again made Swift a national hero in 1724-1725. His six famous letters, signed M. B. Drapier, written between April and December 1724, were a protest against English debasement of Irish coinage and the inflation that would ensue. The Drapier's Letters inflamed all Ireland, caused the cancellation of the coinage scheme, and made Swift into an Irish hero. The fourth of the six letters, A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland, which rose to a pitch of defiance, was labeled seditious, but no one charged Swift, who was known to be the author.

Gulliver's Travels

As early as 1720 Swift had started the composition of his great satirical masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels. It was published anonymously in 1726 as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in four parts, by Lemuel Gulliver. Immediate acclaim greeted it, many people choosing to read as childish fantasy its mordant satire on courts, parties, and statesmen. The work purported to be the travels of Captain Lemuel Gulliver, and Swift told his story in the first person, with simplicity and directness. The Travels constitute a subtle commentary on political and social conditions in 18th-century England. Gulliver first visits Lilliput, a land of pygmies. Their court factions and petty intrigues seem ridiculous on so miniature a scale. He next visits Brobdingnag, a land of giants. When he relates the glories of England, the inhabitants are as disdainfully and scornfully amused as he had been in the land of the Lilliputians. Gulliver's third voyage carries him to the flying island of Laputa, the Island of the Sorcerers, and the land of the Struldbrugs. Their inhabitants exhibit the extremities of literary and scientific pedantry, the deceptiveness of written history, and the curse of the desire for immortal life. Gulliver's final visit, to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a country governed by noble and rational horses who are served by bestial creatures in debased human form, shows the depths to which mankind may sink when it allows passions to overcome reason.

Swift next displayed his powers in his Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Their Country in 1729. This ironic pamphlet proposed to cure Ireland's imbalance of people and exports by fattening poor people's children and selling them as delicacies for gentlemen's tables. A satire on domestics, Directions to Servants (first published in 1745), followed, and it was succeeded by Polite Conversation, written in 1731 and published in 1738. Occasional verse— often indecent—rolled from Swift's pen, but the 1730s were also marked by three important poems: the delightful Hamilton's Bawn, the verses on his own death (1731), and the fierce satire The Legion Club (1736).

Swift's popularity remained at a high pitch, and he performed his ecclesiastical duties with strictness and regularity. But his melancholy and his attacks of giddiness increased with his sense of growing isolation and of failing powers. At first a cousin, Martha Whiteway, cared for him, and in March 1742 both his person and his estate were entrusted to guardians. In September his illness reached a crisis, and he emerged paralyzed. Swift died in Dublin on Oct. 19, 1745, and he was buried in St. Patrick's. He left his great fortune to build a hospital for the mentally challenged.

Further Reading

Standard editions of Swift's works are The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, edited by Herbert Davis (14 vols., 1939-1968); Poems, edited by Harold Williams (3 vols., 1937; 2d ed. 1958); and Correspondence, edited by Harold Williams (5 vols., 1963-1965). Irvin Ehrenpreis's Mr. Swift and His Contempories (vol. 1, 1962; 1983); Doctor Swift (vol. 2, 1967; 1983); and Swift The Man, His Works, and the Age (vol. 3, 1983) is a standard biographical study. John Middleton Murry, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Biography (1954), remains useful.

Other critical and biographical studies of value include Leslie Stephen, Swift (1882); Carl Van Doren, Swift (1930); Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (1936); John M. Bullitt, Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire: A Study of Satiric Techniques (1953); Martin Price, Swift's Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning (1953); William B. Ewald, The Masks of Jonathan Swift (1954); Louis A. Landa, Swift and the Church of Ireland (1954); Ricardo Quintana, Swift: An Introduction (1955); Irvin Ehrenpreis, The Personality of Jonathan Swift (1958); Kathleen Williams, Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise (1958); Bertrand A. Goldgar, The Curse of Party: Swift's Relations with Addison and Steele (1961); William A. Eddy, Gulliver's Travels: A Critical Study (1963); Edward W. Rosenheim, Swift and the Satirist's Art (1963); Herbert John Davis, Jonathan Swift: Essays on His Satire and Other Studies (1964); Nigel Dennis, Jonathan Swift (1964); Ernest Lee Tuveson, ed., Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays (1964); Milton Voigt, Swift and the Twentieth Century (1964); Richard I. Cook, Jonathan Swift as a Tory Pamphleteer (1967); Robert Hunting, Jonathan Swift (1967); and Denis Donoghue, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Introduction (1969). □

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Swift, Jonathan (1667–1745)

SWIFT, JONATHAN (16671745)

SWIFT, JONATHAN (16671745), English satirist, poet, and clergyman. Swift was born in Dublin to English parents, Jonathan and Abigale Erick (or Herrick) Swift. His father had died before Swift's birth, and he was raised by his father's family from the age of three when his mother returned to Leicestershire in England. He attended Kilkenny Grammar School, where William Congreve, the future dramatist, was a fellow pupil, and went on to Trinity College, Dublin, where, because of his infractions of discipline, his degree was conferred on him only by "special grace" in 1686.

Swift went to England in 1689 and became a secretary to the retired statesman Sir William Temple at Moor Park in Surrey. It was here that he met Esther Johnson ("Stella"), who was nine at the time, and became her tutor. They were lifelong friends, and she was the "Stella" of his Journal to Stella, written 17101713. (Some believe that they were secretly married in 1716, but the evidence is inconclusive.) In 1689, Swift suffered an attack of Ménière's disease, which affects the inner ear and causes vertigo and nausea; the affliction was to plague him for the rest of his life. Swift had taken an M.A. at Oxford, which provided him with the necessary qualification for ordination, and after leaving Temple's service in 1694, he went to Ireland, where he was ordained in the Anglican division of the Irish church and received the small prebend of Kilroot, near Belfast. In 1696 he returned to Moor Park, where he edited Temple's letters and wrote his first important prose works, The Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, both of which were not published until 1704. The former is an allegorical satire attacking corruption in the church and scholarly pedantry, the latter a mock-heroic satire ridiculing the controversy about the ancients and the moderns that was raging at the time.

After Temple's death in 1699 left him homeless and without a patron, Swift went to Ireland where he received a prebend in St. Patrick's, Dublin, and the living of Laracor. On frequent visits to London he met Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope and associated with various Whig writers. During this time he wrote several defenses of Christianity (such as An Argument against Abolishing Christianity, 1708), vicious lampoons of public figures, and satirical essays under the pseudonym of "Isaac Bickerstaff" (17081709). In 1710 Swift traveled to London to petition against a tax crippling the Irish clergy and remained there for three years. Disenchanted with Whig policies, especially the party's association with Dissenters and what he regarded as its animosity toward the Anglican Church, he became an advocate for Tory politics and edited the party's newspaper, The Examiner, in 17101711. He also contributed to The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Intelligencer and wrote The Conduct of the Allies (1711), a treatise that outlined the Tory plan for ending the War of the Spanish Succession. Swift participated in the intellectual debates and lampoons of the Scriblerus Club, formed with Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and Robert Harley, earl of Oxford.

Swift had alienated the establishment in England, and it appears that the influence of his friends in high places was not sufficient to secure his advancement. Bitterly disappointed, he returned to Ireland. He had been awarded a Doctor of Divinity in 1701 and was appointed dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713; except for brief absences, he remained in Ireland for the rest of his life. Biographical detail between 1715 and 1720 is sketchy. In 1708 he had met Esther Vanhomrigh ("Vanessa"), who had fallen in love with him; she followed him to Ireland, where she was disappointed by Swift's lack of response to her feelings for him. His own feelings are reflected in Cadenus and Vanessa, a pastoral and comic self-reflection that he wrote around 1713, though it was not published until 1726, three years after Vanessa's death.

The Whigs had returned to power in 1714, and Swift began writing attacks on their unfair policies toward Ireland. His patriotism emerged with the enormously popular A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), a lampoon that attacked the England treatment of the Irish poor. Along with The Drapier Letters (1724), an exposéof a patent to introduce a new copper coin that would have devalued Ireland's currency, it established Swift as a national hero.

In 1726 Swift spent the summer with Alexander Pope at Twickenham and published his most popular work, Gulliver's Travels. An anti-Whig satire, a dazzling adventure story, and a narrative that perceives humanity from four different viewpoints through Gulliver's voyages to Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and Houyhnhnmland, the work has profound political implications. Swift's financial security was assured by this time, but ill health and mental problems manifested themselves in the late 1720s, especially after the death of Stella in 1728. In 1729, his bitter and ironic A Modest Proposal appeared; it is a parody and an indictment of the amoral economic utilitarianism of the Whigs. The 1730s also saw Swift writing elegiac poems to Stella, and scatological poems such as "Lady's Dressing Room." Between 1730 and 1735, he published Rhapsody of Poetry and Verses on His Own Death. He also continued to correspond with friends in London. Bookseller George Faulkner published a complete edition of Swift's works, including a corrected edition of Gulliver's Travels, in 1735. In the late 1730s, Swift wrote A History of the Peace of Utrecht and Directions to Servants, both of which were published posthumously.

Swift's great popularity with Dublin's population was secured through his preaching and his writings on the unfair treatment of Ireland, but especially through his generous contributions to charity; at his death he left £11,000 to found a hospital for the mentally ill. His health deteriorated seriously and that, plus memory loss, affected his writing. Beginning in 1742, he suffered from dementia; he died 19 October 1745. He was buried next to Stella at St. Patrick's and was universally mourned by Dublin.

See also Addison, Joseph ; Ancients and Moderns ; Dublin ; English Literature and Language ; Ireland ; Pope, Alexander ; Steele, Richard .


Primary Sources

Swift, Jonathan. The Complete Poems. Edited by Pat Rogers. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1983.

. Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings. Edited by Claude Rawson. New York, 2002.

. Major Works. Edited by Angus Ross and David Woolley. Oxford, 1984.

. A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works. London, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Boyle, Frank. Swift as Nemesis: Modernity and Its Satirist. Stanford, 2000. Reads Swift's satirical prose as a criticism of the beginnings of a narcissistic modernity.

Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. Rev. ed. Boston, 1989. A useful introduction and outline of Swift's important works.

Kelly, Ann Cline. Jonathan Swift and Popular Culture: Myth, Media, and the Man. New York, 2002. Argues for Swift's status as a popular writer manipulating his fictionalized literary persona to ensure his popularity.

Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift, a Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography. Oxford and New York, 1985. An excellent biography which examines Swift's public and private roles.

Max Fincher

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Swift, Jonathan

Jonathan Swift, 1667–1745, English author, b. Dublin. He is widely recognized as one of the greatest satirists in the English language.

Early Life and Works

Since his father, an Englishman who had settled in Ireland, died before his birth and his mother deserted him for some time, Swift was dependent upon an uncle for his education. He was sent first to Kilkenny School and then to Trinity College, Dublin, where he managed, in spite of his rebellious behavior, to obtain a degree. In 1689 he became secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Surrey, where he formed his lifelong attachment to Esther Johnson, the "Stella" of his famous journal. Disappointed of church preferment in England, Swift returned to Ireland, where he was ordained an Anglican priest and in 1695 was given the small prebend of Kilroot.

Unable to make a success in Ireland, Swift returned to Moor Park the following year, remaining until Temple's death in 1699. During this period he wrote The Battle of the Books, in which he defended Temple's contention that the ancients were superior to the moderns in literature and learning, and A Tale of a Tub, a satire on religious excesses. These works were not published, however, until 1704. Again disappointment with his advancement sent him back to Ireland, where he was given the living of Laracor.

In the course of numerous visits to London he became friendly with Addison and Steele and active in Whig politics. His Whig sympathies were severed, however, when that party demonstrated its unfriendliness to the Anglican Church. In 1708 he began a series of pamphlets on ecclesiastical issues with his ironic Argument against Abolishing Christianity. He joined the Tories in 1710, edited the Tory Examiner for a year, and wrote various political pamphlets, notably The Conduct of the Allies (1711), Remarks on the Barrier Treaty (1712), and The Public Spirit of the Whigs (1714), in reply to Steele's Crisis.

Later Life and Works

In 1713 Swift joined Pope, Arbuthnot, Gay, and others in forming the celebrated Scriblerus Club. About this time Swift became involved with another woman, Esther Vanhomrigh, the "Vanessa" of his poem Cadenus and Vanessa. The intensity of his relationship with her, as with Stella, is questionable, but Vanessa died a few weeks after his final rupture with her in 1723. Swift became a national hero of the Irish with his Drapier Letters (1724) and his bitterly ironical pamphlet A Modest Proposal (1729), which propounds that the children of the poor be sold as food for the tables of the rich.

Swift's satirical masterpiece Gulliver's Travels appeared in 1726. Written in four parts, it describes the travels of Lemuel Gulliver to Lilliput, a land inhabited by tiny people whose diminutive size renders all their pompous activities absurd; to Brobdingnag, a land populated by giants who are amused when Gulliver tells them about the glories of England; to Laputa and its neighbor Lagado, peopled by quack philosophers and scientists; and to the land of the Houhynhnms, where horses behave with reason and men, called Yahoos, behave as beasts. Ironically, this ruthless satire of human follies subsequently was turned into an expurgated story for children. In his last years Swift was paralyzed and afflicted with a brain disorder, and by 1742 he was declared unsound of mind. He was buried in St. Patrick's, Dublin, beside Stella.


See his prose (ed. by H. Davis, 14 vol., 1939; repr. 1964–68); his poetry (ed. by H. Davis, 3 vol., 2d ed. 1958), The Portable Swift, ed. by C. Van Doren (new ed. 1968); his correspondence (ed. by H. Williams, 5 vol., 1963); biographies by J. M. Murray (1954), I. Ephrenpreis (3 vol., 1962–83), C. Van Doren (1930, repr. 1964), D. Nokes (1985), V. Glendinning (1999), and L. Damrosch (2013); studies by R. Quintana (1936, repr. 1965; and 1955, repr. 1962), R. Hunting (1966), N. F. Dennis (1964, repr. 1967), D. Donoghue (1969), and Louise K. Barnett (1981).

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Swift, Jonathan

Swift, Jonathan (1667–1745). Irish writer and clergyman, Swift's disturbing satiric vision and eccentricities have given rise to countless myths and legends about his life. Educated at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, taking holy orders in 1695. The witty and notorious A Tale of a Tub (1704), an exposé of abuses in religion and learning, established Swift's reputation, and in 1710 he was recruited as a ministerial propagandist, writing the Examiner (1710–11) and The Conduct of the Allies (1711), an influential pamphlet defending the Tory government's peace overtures to France. Rewarded for his services by the deanship of St Patrick's, Dublin, Swift became embroiled in Irish politics after 1714. His later writings in prose and verse, most notoriously the scathing Modest Proposal (1729) for eating beggars' babies to solve the country's economic problems, largely consist of outspoken denunciations of English and Irish politicians. Despite the enduring relevance of Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift's reputation has suffered from the savagery and scatology of his satire, as well as his attacks on women. Myths have accumulated in particular around his relationships with Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh (the ‘Stella’ and ‘Vanessa’ of his poems), and his mental stability, principally on account of the debilitating bouts of vertigo and deafness, the result of Menière's syndrome, from which he suffered throughout his adult life.

J. A. Downie

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Swift, Jonathan

Swift, Jonathan (1667–1745) Irish satirist and poet. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1694, in 1713 he became Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. Swift's early works include The Battle of the Books (1704) and A Tale of a Tub (1704). His best-known work, Gulliver's Travels (1726), is a satire on human follies. He wrote numerous works criticizing England's treatment of Ireland, including A Modest Proposal (1729). His poetry includes Verses on the Death of Dr Swift (1739).

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