Swift, Jonathan (1667–1745)

views updated Jun 08 2018

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

Swift, Jonathan

views updated Jun 11 2018

Jonathan Swift

BORN: 1667, Dublin, Ireland

DIED: 1745, Dublin, Ireland


GENRE: Fiction, poetry

A Tale of a Tub (1704)
Gulliver's Travels (1726)
A Modest Proposal (1729)


Jonathan Swift is the foremost prose satirist in the English language. His greatest satire, Gulliver's Travels (1726), is alternately described as an attack on humanity and a clear-eyed assessment of human strengths and weaknesses. In addition to his work as a satirist, Swift was also an accomplished minor poet, a master of political journalism, a prominent political figure, and one of the most distinguished leaders of the Anglican church in Ireland. For these reasons he is considered one of the representative figures of his age.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Lonely Childhood Amid Political Turmoil Swift's childhood was characterized by separation. His father died shortly before Swift's birth, and his mother left him in the care of a nurse for three years at a very young age. However, Swift was financially provided for, and he was educated in the best schools in Ireland. He was enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin when, in 1689, a wave of civil unrest erupted in the wake of the abdication of the Catholic King James II. Many Anglo-Irish escaped to the safety of England, including Swift.

The Temple Years In England, Swift secured a position as secretary to Sir William Temple, a scholar and former member of Parliament engaged in writing his memoirs. Except for two trips to Ireland, Swift remained in Temple's employ and lived at his home, Moor Park, until Temple's death in 1699. During this period, Swift read widely, was introduced to many prominent individuals in Temple's circle, and began a career in the Anglican church, an ambition thwarted by Temple's inaction in obtaining Swift a promised preferment in the church. Around this time, he met Esther Johnson, stepdaughter of Temple's steward. “Stella,” as Swift nicknamed her, became an intimate, lifelong confidante to Swift. Despite rumors to the contrary, their relationship remained platonic; Swift's correspondence with her was later collected in The Journal to Stella (1963).

Toward the end of this period, Swift wrote his first great satires, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Both were completed by 1699 but were not published until 1704 under the title A Tale of a Tub, Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, to which is Added an Account of a Battel between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James's Library. Framed by a history of the Christian church, A Tale satirized contemporary literary and scholarly pedants as well as the dissenters and Roman Catholics who opposed the Anglican church, an institution to which Swift would be devoted during his entire career.

The Protestant control of England under Oliver Cromwell had resulted in an attempt by the government to impose the stringent, unpopular beliefs of Puritanism on the English populace. Swift detested such tyranny and sought to prevent it through his writings. The Battle of the Books was written in defense of Temple. A controversial debate was being waged over the respective merits of ancient versus modern learning, with Temple supporting the position that the literature of the Greek and Roman civilizations was far superior to any modern creations. Swift addressed Temple's detractors with an allegorical satire that depicted the victory of those who supported the ancient texts. Although inspired by topical controversies, both A Tale and The Battle are brilliant satires with many universal implications regarding the nature and follies of aesthetics, religious belief, scholasticism, and education.

Political Activism When Temple died in 1699, Swift was left without position or prospects. He returned to Ireland, where he occupied a series of church posts from 1699 to 1710. During this period he wrote an increasing number of satirical essays on behalf of the ruling Whig party, whose policies limiting the power of the crown and increasing that of Parliament, as well as restricting Roman Catholics from political office, Swift staunchly endorsed. In these pamphlets, Swift developed the device that marked much of his later satire: using a literary persona to express ironically absurd opinions. When the Whig administration fell in 1709, Swift shifted his support to the Tory government, which, while supporting a strong crown unlike the Whigs, adamantly supported the Anglican Church. For the next five years, Swift served as the chief Tory political writer, editing the journal The Examiner and composing political pamphlets, poetry, and prose. Swift's change of party has led some critics to characterize him as a cynical opportunist, but others contend that his conversion reflected more of a change in the parties' philosophies than in Swift's own views. Always one to place the interests of the church above party affiliation, he chose to serve the party that promoted those interests.

With the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the accession of George I, the Tory party lost power to the Whigs, and Swift returned to Ireland in 1714 to become dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Except for brief visits to London, Swift spent the rest of his life in Ireland. For the first five years after his return, he refrained from political controversy. By 1720, however, he renewed his interest in the affairs of Ireland, producing a series of pamphlets attacking the economic dependence of Ireland upon England and criticizing the policies of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. His most well-known, A Modest Proposal (1729) is a bitter satire inspired by the plight of the masses of impoverished Irish. In it, Swift ironically suggests that a growing population and widespread starvation could both be alleviated if the poor began eating their children. Considered one of the greatest satirical essays in world literature, Swift's piece attacks complacency in the face of misery and the coldly rational schemes of social planners who fail to perceive the pain resulting from their action or inaction.

The “Travells” On August 14, 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote to his friend Charles Ford: “I have finished my Travells, and I am now transcribing them; they are admirable Things, and will wonderfully mend the World.” Gulliver's Travels challenged his readers' smug assumptions about the superiority of their political and social institutions as well as their assurance that as rational animals they occupied a privileged position in the world. Universally considered Swift's greatest work of this period, Gulliver's Travels (published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts; by Lemuel Gulliver), depicts one man's journeys to several strange and unusual lands. Written over a period of several years, some scholars believe that the novel had its origins during Swift's years as a political agitator, when he was part of a group of prominent Tory writers known as the Scriblerus Club. The group, which included Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, collaborated on several satires, including The Scriblerus Papers. They also planned a satire called The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, which was to include several imaginary voyages. Many believe that Gulliver's Travels was inspired by this work. Although the novel was published anonymously, Swift's authorship was widely suspected. The book was an immediate success.

Life After Gulliver Swift remained active throughout the 1720s and 1730s as a political commentator, satirist, and, more importantly, as a poet. During this period, he wrote much of his best poetry, including Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift. The last years of Swift's life, from approximately 1736 until his death, have been the subject of much legend and misinformation. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, critics and biographers mistakenly concluded that Swift was insane during the years before his death. However, throughout his life he had suffered from what is known as Meniere's Syndrome, or labyrinthine vertigo, a disease of the inner ear that causes attacks of nausea, dizziness, temporary deafness, and extreme pain. He also suffered a paralytic stroke in 1740 that caused aphasia and loss of memory. Eventually, in 1742, he was declared incapable of caring for himself and placed in the custody of guardians. Swift died in 1745 and was buried beside Esther Johnson in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Works in Literary Context

Satire or Cynicism? During the Enlightenment, eighteenth-century thinkers espoused an increasing faith in the rationality of human beings and in the capacity of reason to improve and even perfect the human condition. Swift categorically rejected these views; educated in the seventeenth century, he held to that period's emphasis on the imperfection of human beings resulting from the Fall of Man. Although Swift believed humans capable of reason, he also believed they rarely exercised this capacity. Thus, while he endorsed some measures of social reform, he argued for their implementation through means that acknowledged a need to control human corruptibility. Swift's departure from the prevailing thought of his time earned him censure in his lifetime, and for centuries afterwards, by critics who accused him of misanthropy and portrayed him as a bitter individual who hated humanity. However, his defenders, mostly twentieth-century critics, argued that his acerbic prose merely expressed his pain at the disparity between the world as it was and the world as it should have been. By portraying people in shocking extremes of baseness and monstrosity, they argue, he sought a better world. Swift defended his view of human-kind by writing: “I have ever hated all Nations, professions, and Communityes and all my love is toward individuals …I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.”

A Novel of Imaginary Voyages Of course Gul-liver's Travels is satirical, but is it also a novel? “Probably not,” Robert C. Elliot remarks, “although it is not easy to say (except by arbitrary stipulation) why it is not.” Part of the problem in classifying Gulliver's Travels as a novel arises from Swift's inclusion of large quantities of material which are neither purely narrative nor satirical, but are largely philosophical. Indeed, Gulliver's Travels has most often been described as an imaginary or “philosophic” voyage, a subgenre most clearly defined by William A. Eddy as “a didactic treatise in which the author's criticism of society is set forth in a parable form of an Imaginary Voyage made by one or more Europeans to a nonexistent or little known country … together with a description of the imaginary society visited.”

Works in Critical Context

Between 1945 and 1985, nearly five hundred books and articles devoted their attention to Swift's most popular work, Gulliver's Travels. Even today, Swift scholars still do not know how to classify a work which has been regarded as a children's tale, a fantastic voyage, a moral allegory, and a novel.


Swift's famous contemporaries include:

William Congreve (1670–1729): A poet and playwright, Congreve wrote some of the most popular English plays of the Restoration period, including The Way of the World (1700).

George I (1660–1727): When Queen Anne died childless in 1714, George, Prince-Elector of Hanover, was named King of Great Britain because of his Protestant faith—the other claimants were Catholics. The House of Hanover would rule Great Britain until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

Daniel Defoe (1661?–1731): Writer, journalist, and spy, Daniel Defoe is best remembered today for his novel Robinson Crusoe, one of the first, and still one of the most widely read, novels written in the English language.

Alexander Pope (1688–1744): The preeminent English poet of the eighteenth century, Pope is, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the third most quoted writer in the English language, after Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind derived its title from one of Pope's poems, for example.

George Frideric Handel (1685–1789): Perhaps the most well-known Baroque composer, Handel's most famous work is his Messiah, particularly the “Hallelujah” chorus. His work influenced later composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.

Gulliver's Travels Gulliver's characterization has also been much debated. Early critics viewed him as Swift's mouthpiece and accepted everything Gulliver said as authorial opinion. Modern critics, however, recognize him as a distinct character whom Swift uses to subtler purposes. The most significant contemporary debate centers on Swift's intentions regarding the creation of Gulliver—whether he is meant to be a consistently realized character, a reliable narrator, or a satiric object whose opinions are the object of Swift's ridicule. This debate over the nature of Gulliver is important because critics seek to determine whether Gulliver is intended to be a man with definite character traits who undergoes a transformation, or an allegorical representative of humanity. In general, Gulliver is considered a flexible persona manipulated by Swift to present diverse views and satirical situations and to indicate the complexity and unpredictability of human nature.

While Swift's earliest readers greeted Gulliver's Travels enthusiastically, later critics complained that the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms constituted a “real insult upon mankind.” Edward Young spoke for many when he accused Swift of having “blasphemed a nature little lower than that of the angels.” Victorian critics could only explain the corrosive satire of the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms by positing an author who was both misanthropic and mad. Sir Walter Scott, for example, traced Swift's “diatribe against human nature” to that “soured and disgusted state of Swift's mind, which doubtless was even then influenced by the first impressions of that incipient mental disease which in this case, was marked by universal misanthropy.” Novelist William Thackeray Asked, “What had this man done? What secret remorse was rankling at his heart?” Thackeray's queries typify the desire of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century biographers to explain Swift's satirical indignation by conjuring up a dark and largely imaginary past.

Responses to Literature

  1. Using the Internet or a library, research how actual voyages of the so-called Age of Discovery (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) compare to Gulliver's journeys. In a report to the class, describe two or three tales you find of fantastical, far-away places described by real-life explorers.
  2. Using the Internet or a library, research the conflict between the Irish and English during Swift's time. Write an essay describing how this conflict seems to motivate the Swift satire you have read. What is the historical significance of Swift's own Anglo-Irish heritage?
  3. With a group of your classmates, research the philosophical theories of the great minds of the Age of Enlightenment, such as René Descarte, Thomas Hobbes, Gottfried Leibniz, and John Locke. Then, write a report for your class on how Gulliver's opinions in Gulliver's Travels reflect some of those ideas.
  4. With a group of your classmates, discuss Swift's concept of absurdity among upper-class fashions and social mores. Use the most recent Swift text you have read as a group to support your opinions.


Other works of literature considered to be exemplars of scathing satire include:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain. Told through the eyes of an innocent abroad, Twain's greatest novel is an indictment of many entrenched ideas and prejudices, particularly racism.

Catch-22 (1961), a novel by Joseph Heller. Considered one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century, this tale set during World War II turns nearly every moral and logical convention on its head: “the only way to survive such an insane system is to be insane oneself.”

Babbitt (1922), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis's first novel, it quickly earned a place as a classic satire of American culture, particularly middle-class conformity.



Lock, F. P. The Politics of Gulliver's Travels. Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Pollak, Ellen. The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Rawson, C. J. Gulliver and the Gentle Reader. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Rosenheim, Edward, Swift and the Satirist's Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Tuveson, Ernest, ed. Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Voight, Milton, Swift and the Twentieth Century. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1964.

Williams, Kathleen. Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1958.


Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 (Summer 1989).

Texas Studies in Language and Literature (Fall 1990).

Jonathan Swift

views updated Jun 08 2018

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). □

Swift, Jonathan

views updated May 18 2018


Anglo-Irish satirist, poet, patriot; b. Dublin, Nov. 30, 1667; d. there, Oct. 19, 1745.

He was born of English parents; his early education at Kilkenny Grammar School included a rigorous Anglican training, as did his undergraduate years at Trinity College, Dublin. There he did well in literature but badly in the barren, abstract philosophy of the period (with its heavy emphasis on logic) and in formal rhetoric, though his writing was to be shaped by his ironic use of these disciplines. His formation continued in the household of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Surrey (168994, 169699). While acting as secretary to Temple, he attended Oxford, earning a Master of Arts degree in 1692. Poems of this period reveal the characteristics of his later workdeliberate avoidance of the "poetic"; moral ide alism; opposition to dissent, deism, and the naturalism of contemporary science; and scorn for the aridities of formal logic. He was ordained in 1695 and held the prebend of Kilroot, Ireland. But parishes in physical ruin and a primarily Presbyterian flock were intolerable to the ambitious and Anglican Swift. He returned to Surrey (1696), edited Temple's correspondence, and worked on his own first major efforts, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books (1704).

After Temple's death, Swift held several unimportant benefices in Ireland. He received the degree of D.D. from Dublin University in 1701, the year in which Esther Johnson ("Stella"), with whom he had formed a tutorstudent attachment at Moor Park, came to Ireland. Whether he married her or not, their attachment was close, but no evidence exists that they were ever alone together. She died in 1728.

This period (170114) was interrupted by trips to England, some on church business, some occasioned by Swift's growing involvement in English politics. He was active in Whig circles until 1710, but such works as Sentiments of a Church of England Man (1708) and the ironic Abolishing of Christianity (1708, published in 1711) reflect his belief that Whig attempts to repeal the Test Act sacrificed the Establishment to dissenters and deists. In disgust, he joined the Tories. Meanwhile, he engaged in a humorous campaign against the astrological quack John Partridge with the "Bickerstaff" letters (170809).

Though he expected a bishopric, his reward from the Tories was the deanery of St. Patrick's, Dublin (1713). With Queen Anne's death and the collapse of the Tories (1714), he settled unhappily in Dublin, revisiting England occasionally to renew friendships and oversee the publication of Gulliver's Travels (1726). His championing of the Irish against English repressions culminated in the Drapier Letters (172425) and the bitterly ironic Modest Proposal (1729). Ménière's disease, not insanity, began to afflict him about 1736. He was declared legally insane in 1742.

The highly colored picture of the scabrous, mad misanthrope, faithless priest, and heartless lover has given

way to a more balanced view. Recent critics, alert to Swift's method of speaking behind the "mask" of an arrantly mistaken contemporary, see Swift's satires as essentially exposures. The Battle of the Books exposes "modern" man's arrogant assumption of superiority over the ancients. The Tale of a Tub explores the Reformation and its aftermath through the eyes of a modern hack, enemy of humanistic values, friend of scientific naturalism, and admirer of intellectual and spiritual decay. The result is the exposure of a Catholic Church intellectually and morally sick (as an Anglican, Swift also "exposes" the Church's dogmatic and disciplinary claims), the anarchic anti-intellectualism of dissent, the mechanization of Anglicanism itself, and the naturalismscientific and humanisticof the age. The Abolishing of Christianity exposes the friendly "defender" of an Anglicanism sapped of its religious content and reduced to mere structure. The Modest Proposal, written by an "economist," exposes the mindless amorality of a science that solves the problem of Ireland's poverty by eating its children.

Gulliver's Travels, his best-known work, exposes Gulliver, blind to his own venality, yet increasingly repelled by the world's malice, the frivolity of its intellectual concerns, and the ugliness of man's departures from the norms of his rational nature. In reaction, Gulliver yearns for the "angelistic," stoic calm of the Houyhnhnmsa solution that Swift, the Christian, despised. Swift's poetry has alienated readers because of its coarseness, but it has the same force and energy that characterize his prose and is based on much the same assumptions.

Bibliography: Prose Works, ed. h. davis, 15 v. (London 1939 ); Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. h. williams, 3 v. (New York 1964); Journal to Stella, ed. h. williams, 2 v. (New York 1948); Poems, ed. h. williams, 3 v. (2d ed. New York 1958). h. craik, The Life of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Dublin, 2 v. (2d ed. London 1894). k. williams, Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise (Lawrence, Kan. 1958). p. harth, Swift and Anglican Rationalism (Chicago 1961). m. price, Swift's Rhetorical Art (New Haven 1953).

[e. j. chiasson]

Swift, Jonathan

views updated May 23 2018

Swift, Jonathan

Political pamphleteer, Irish patriot, dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral (Church of Ireland) in Dublin, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) is now remembered for writing "A Modest Proposal" and Gulliver's Travels. His parents were Anglo-Irish colonists, and Swift devoted himself to the interests of that class. He earned his B.A. from Trinity College in 1686, an M.A. from Oxford in 1694, and launched his career as an Anglican priest in Ulster in 1695. During the next decade he nursed his prospects inchurch and state. Like most of the Anglo-Irish, he was a Whig, and his first great satires, Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, both published in 1704, established him as a propagandist for the Whig cause. But at his core he believed that Britain was best served by safeguarding Anglican privilege, so he switched allegiance, lending his wit, in the periodical Examiner, to leaders of the conservative Tory ministry, the earl of Oxford and Viscount Bolingbroke, when they rose to power in 1710. When the Tories fell in 1714, Swift was suspected of treason and was spied on. He returned to Ireland feeling himself an exile and hardly comforted by the deanship of Saint Patrick's—meager spoils of his brief political eminence.

He conducted a love affair with Esther Johnson (whom he called Stella), whom he first met when he was twenty-two and she was only eight years old. He kept the relationship secret and most likely platonic to satisfy his idiosyncratic notions of intimacy, but he may have married her clandestinely. Though they lived in separate houses, their peculiar friendship continued until her death in 1728. His letters to her comprise the famous Journal to Stella, which was published in 1766.

Eventually, Swift began to think of himself as an Irishman and to resist the dependency that England had imposed on Ireland. His wildly popular series of Drapier's Letters (1724) attacked England's deliberate corruption of Irish coinage and excited much of the Irish citizenry to national consciousness. "A Modest Proposal," written five years later, upbraided all classes of Irish for the moral and material poverty of the country. In what is probably the most famous example of irony in Irish literature, Swift's proposer suggests that the poor father their children like cattle to fill the plates of the rich. Swift's greatest work, Gulliver's Travels (1726), satirized not only his contemporaries but all humanity. Even as the episodes among the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians continue to delight readers today, Gulliver's last sojourn on the island of philosophical horses and bestial humans have earned Swift the reputation of a misanthrope. Later generations of Irish writers such as James Joyce considered Swift the fountainhead of an irreverent, satirical, vital stream in Irish literary history.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Literature: Anglo-Irish Literary Tradition, Beginnings of


Ehrenpreis, Irvin. Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age. 3 vols. 1962–1983.

Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift, a Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography. 1985.

Quintana, Ricardo. Swift: An Introduction. 1955. Reprint, 1979.

Joseph Kelly

Swift, Jonathan

views updated Jun 08 2018

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

Swift, Jonathan

views updated May 21 2018

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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