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.
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.
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.
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 on Jonathan Swift
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).