Irish satirist best
Given name: Jonathan
Family name: Swift
Birth date: 30 November 1667
Death date: 19 October 1745
father: Jonathan Swift
mother: Abigail Swift
sister: Jane Fenton
grandfather: Thomas Swift
Grammar school at Kilkenny
Trinity College, Dublin (B.A.): 24 April 1682 to February
Hart Hall, Oxford (B.A.) to June 1692
Hart Hall, Oxford (M.A.) to 5 July 1692
Dublin (D.D.) to February 1701
Literary period: Augustan
Historiographer to the Queen
Upper Letcombe, Berkshire
17 Hoey's Court, Dublin: 30 November 1667
Buried at: Cathedral of St. Patrick
First RPO edition: 1997
A Brief Biography (1)
Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667 in Dublin, Ireland,
the son of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents: his ancestors had been
Royalists, and all his life he would be a High-Churchman. His father,
also Jonathan, died a few months before he was born, upon which his
mother, Abigail, returned to England, leaving her son behind, in the
care of relatives. In 1673, at the age of six, Swift began his education
at Kilkenny Grammar School, which was, at the time, the best in
Ireland. Between 1682 and 1686 he attended, and graduated from,
Trinity College in Dublin, though he was not, apparently, an
In 1688 William of Orange invaded England, initiating the Glorious
Revolution: with Dublin in political turmoil, Trinity College was
closed, and an ambitious Swift took the opportunity to go to England,
where he hoped to gain preferment in the Anglican Church. In
England, in 1689, he became secretary to Sir William Temple, a
diplomat and man of letters, at Moor Park in Surrey. There Swift read
extensively in his patron's library, and met Esther Johnson, who
would become his "Stella," and it was there, too, that he began to
suffer from Meniere's Disease, a disturbance of the inner ear which
produces nausea and vertigo, and which was little remarked "Cousin
Swift, you will never be a poet."
A Brief Biography (2)
In 1690, at the advice of his doctors, Swift returned to Ireland, but the
following year he was back with Temple in England. He visited
Oxford in 1691: in 1692, with Temple's assistance, he received an M.
A. degree from that University, and published his first poem: on
reading it, John Dryden, a distant relation, is said to have remarked
"Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.“
In 1694, still anxious to advance himself within the Church of
England, he left Temple's household and returned to Ireland to take
holy orders. In 1695 he was ordained as a priest in the Church of
Ireland, the Irish branch of the Anglican Church, and the following
year he returned to Temple and Moor Park.
Between 1696 and 1699 Swift composed most of his first great work,
A Tale of a Tub, a prose satire on the religious extremes represented
by Roman Catholicism and Calvinism, and in 1697 he wrote The
Battle of the Books, a satire defending Temple's conservative but
beseiged position in the contemporary literary controversy as to
whether the works of the "Ancients" -- the great authors of classical
antiquity -- were to be preferred to those of the "Moderns." In 1699
Temple died, and Swift traveled to Ireland as chaplain and secretary
to the Earl of Berkeley.
A Brief Biography (3)
In 1700 he was instituted Vicar of Laracor -- provided, that is, with
what was known as a "Living" -- and given a prebend in St. Patrick's
Cathedral, Dublin. These appointments were a bitter disappointment
for a man who had longed to remain in England. In 1701 Swift was
awarded a D. D. from Dublin University, and published his first
political pamphlet, supporting the Whigs against the Tories.
In 1707 Swift was sent to London as emissary of Irish clergy seeking
remission of tax on Irish clerical incomes. His requests were rejected,
however, by the Whig government and by Queen Anne, who
suspected him of being irreligious. While in London he he met Esther
Vanhomrigh, who would become his "Vanessa." During the next few
years he went back and forth between Ireland and England, where he
was involved--largely as an observer rather than a participant--in the
highest English political circles.
In 1708 Swift met Addison and Steele, and published his Bickerstaff
Papers, satirical attacks upon an astrologer, John Partridge, and a
series of ironical pamphlets on church questions, including An
Argument Against Abolishing Christianity.
A Brief Biography (4)
In 1710, which saw the publication of "A Description of a City
Shower," Swift, disgusted with their alliance with the Dissenters, fell
out with Whigs, allied himself with the Tories, and became the editor
of the Tory newspaper The Examiner. Between 1710 and 1713 he
also wrote the famous series of letters to Esther Johnson which would
eventually be published as The Journal to Stella.
In 1713 Swift was installed as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in
Dublin -- a promotion which was, again, a disappointment.The
Scriblerus Club, whose members included Swift, Pope, Congreve,
Gay, and Arbuthnot, was founded in 1714. In the same year, much
more unhappily for Swift, Queen Anne died, and George I took the
throne. With his accession the Tories fell from power, and Swift's
hopes for preferment in England came to an end: he returned to
Ireland "to die," as he says, "like a poisoned rat in a hole." In 1716
Swift may or may not have married Esther Johnson. A period of
literary silence and personal depression ensued, but beginning in
1718, he broke the silence, and began to publish a series of powerful
tracts on Irish problems.
In 1720 he began work upon Gulliver's Travels, intended, as he says
in a letter to Pope, "to vex the world, not to divert it." 1724-25 saw
the publication of The Drapier Letters,
A Brief Biography (5)
which gained Swift enormous popularity in Ireland, and the
completion of Gulliver's Travels. The progressive darkness of the
latter work is an indication of the extent to which his misanthropic
tendencies became more and more markedly manifest, had taken
greater and greater hold upon his mind. In 1726 he visited England
once again, and stayed with Pope at Twickenham: in the same year
Gulliver's Travels was published.
Swift's final trip to England took place in 1727. Between 1727 and
1736 publication of five volumes of Swift-Pope Miscellanies.
"Stella" died in 1728. In the following year A Modest Proposal was
published. 1731 saw the publication of Swift's ghastly "A Beautiful
Young Nymph Going to Bed." By 1735, when a collected edition
of his Works was published in Dublin, his Meniere's Disease became
more acute, resulting in periods of dizziness and nausea: at the same
time, prematurely, his memory was beginning to deteriorate. During
1738 he slipped gradually into senility, and finally suffered a
paralytic stroke: in 1742 guardians were officially appointed to care
for his affairs.
On October 19, 1745 Swift died .
Jonathan Swift and
Swift's career as an author and satirist reflects both his
religious and his political preoccupations, which have their
roots in his personal history and in the history of his times.
He had been born in Ireland, but his grandfather had been a
notable loyalist in the English Civil War: his father and
three uncles had settled in Ireland after the Restoration.
Swift's mother, too, was the daughter of an English
clergyman. A great deal of Swift's life was spent in bitter
disappointment either in England or in what was for him a
sort of exile in Ireland, for it was in England that he
desired, and attempted, to rise to power. He was himself,
however, a priest in the Church of Ireland, and since
English deaneries and bishoprics were not given to
individuals of Irish birth his desires were continually
thwarted--and, as he saw it, his services to his country
Jonathan Swift and
Those services included his persistent and unswerving
attacks on those irrational forces in politics and religion
which threatened the maintenance of stability in both
Ireland and England. In religious terms, he was an
advocate of a rational Anglicanism which had to be
defended from the attacks of Roman Catholicism on the
one hand and from the Puritan Dissenters on the other.
Jonathan Swift's Religious
Swift was a clergyman, a member of the Church of Ireland, the Irish
branch of the Anglican Church; and as such he was a militant
defender of his church (and his own career prospects) in the face of
the threats to its continued existence posed by Roman Catholicism at
home in Ireland (which was overwhelmingly Catholic) and in
England, where Swift and his peers saw the Catholics (and, at the
other religious and political extreme, the Dissenters) as threatening
not only the Anglican Church but the English Constitution. Swift was
ostensibly a conservative by nature: he instinctively sought stability
in religion as in politics, but stability which insured personal
freedoms. Indeed, so far as he was concerned, religion, morality, and
politics were inseparable:he consistently attacked theological
attempts (even within Anglicanism itself) to define and limit
orthodoxy-- attempts which, he felt, led ultimately to anarchic dissent.
The divisive tendencies of Mankind had, he believed, over the
centuries, promoted the general decay of Christianity itself, which
had lost its original clarity, simplicity, and coherence. The Truth had
been mishandled, corrupted, by men who had behaved like Yahoos.
Jonathan Swift's Religious
He adhered to the tenets of the Anglican Church because he had been
brought up to respect them, because the Church of Ireland was the
church of his social class, and because his own ambitions were
involved in its success, but also because he saw the Church as a force
for rationality and moderation; as occupying a perilous middle
ground between the opposing adherents of Rome and Geneva.
Underlying all of Swift's religious concerns, underlying his apparent
conservatism, which was really a form of radicalism, was his belief
that in Man God had created an animal which was not inherently
rational but only capable, on occasion, of behaving reasonably: only,
as he put it, rationis capax. It is our tendency to disappoint, in this
respect, that he rages against: his works embody his attempts to
maintain order and reason in a world which tended toward chaos and
disorder, and he concerned himself more with the concrete social,
political, and moral aspects of human nature than with the
abstractions of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics.
Jonathan Swift's Political
Beliefs(1)Swift early in his career
Politics seems to have been of interest to
chiefly to the extent that it affected the strength and stability of the
Anglican Church (in both England and Ireland) of which he was a
member. The restoration of the Catholic monarchy, which was a real
threat during his lifetime, would, he feared, result in "Papist"
absolutism; in the loss of the liberties, privileges, and freedoms which
the English Constitution granted to Protestants, if not to Catholics or
Dissenters. Between the Restoration and James II's final flight to
France, it had appeared not at all unlikely, to members of Swift's social
class in England as in Ireland, that the English monarchy might relapse
into a religious and political despotism. When James II succeeded his
brother Charles II in 1685, and began gradually to reintroduce
Catholics into key positions in the government and the army--and
when, in 1688, he produced a male heir, thereby raising the possibility
of an English Catholic Dynasty, the result was the bloodless Glorious
Revolution, which Swift supported: William of Orange, proclaiming
himself the defender of English freedoms, landed in England with
15,000 troops, while James, his popular support evaporating, fled to
France. The Revolution made English constitutionalism much more
secure: the powers of the monarchy were severely limited, while those
of parliament were strengthened. Supreme legislative power derived
from a complex alliance between the King, the House of Lords, and
the House of Commons: executive power resided with the king, but
Jonathan Swift's Political
had to be lawfully exercised, while governmental ministers were
liable to prosecution and impeachment if they behaved improperly.
Respect for the civil and religious liberties of the subject (the loyal
subject) was strongly emphasized. Early in his life Swift was a
member of the Whig party. The Whig government's flirtation with the
Dissenters, however, helped to drive him, at at time when it seemed,
in any case, to be a change which might advance his career, into the
Tory camp. When Queen Anne died, however, and the Tory
Government fell, he lost forever the chance of religious preferment in
England which he had coveted for so long. The political pamphlets,
however, which he would ultimately produce while he lived in what
was for him a strange kind of exile in his native Ireland--the tracts
and satires like "A Modest Proposal" in which he defended the
interests of his church and his class (and, by implication, his country)
against what he had come increasingly to recognize as English
colonialism--made him enormously popular, late in his life, in a
country which he despised. He was idolized by a people the vast
majority of whom, since they were Roman Catholics, he would have
denied religious and political freedom. After his death he became a
national hero and, more importantly, was perceived as having been a
nationalist leader--which, in a real though limited sense, he certainly
Swift's Attitudes toward Science
Swift was an upper-class conservative who undoubtedly
looked down upon, and frequently derided, mechanists
and scientists of the sort exemplified by the members of
the Royal Society--disciples of Francis Bacon. He lived
in a time when a great deal of what passed for science
was, at best, pseudo-science. He had little use for abstract
science or technology, but he was not opposed to science
or to scientific experiment if it could be genuinely useful
to mankind. He was not, that is, anti-intellectual, but he
was passionately opposed to the useless follies of the
charlatans, the quacks, the cheats, the speculators, and the
A Tale of a Tub ( 1704 ).
Battle of the Books ( 1704 ).
The Abolishing of Christianity ( 1708 ).
Meditation upon a Broomstick ( 1710 ).
Journal to Stella ( 1710-13 ).
Proposal for Correcting... the English Tongue ( 1712 ).
" Cadenus and Vanessa " ( 1713 ).
The Drapier's Letters ( 1724 ).
Gulliver's Travels ( 1726 ).
A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor
People from Being a Burthen ( 1729 )
" The Day Of Judgment " ( 1731 ).
" Verses on the Death of Dr Swift " ( 1731 ).
Correspondence. Five Volumes.
Gulliver's Travels is a misanthropic anatomy of human
nature; a sardonic looking-glass. It asks its readers to
refute it, to deny that it has not adequately characterized
human nature and society. Each of the four books has a
different theme, but all are attempts to deflate human
"A Modest Proposal"
Swift's motives for writing "A Modest Proposal," which
appeared in 1729, were complex. He felt, for his own part,
that he had been exiled to Ireland when he would have
much preferred to have been in England, and his personal
sense of the wrongs he had received at the hands of the
English only intensified the anger he felt at the way
England mistreated Ireland.
Tale of a Tub
A Journal to Stella
LEMUEL GULLIVER, WORLD
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS appeared in print for the first time on 28
October 1726. Its immediate and tremendous success was not a
matter of chance. Let us remember that it had been perfectly
calculated for the taste of the age -- an age which understood satiric
comedy and was prepared for commentary on the human scene
which was at once serious in its intent and witty and ingenious in its
presentation. Swift had emphasized his 'moral' purpose when he had
written to Pope that his chief end was 'to vex the world rather than
But neither he nor Pope ever imagined that what vexed could not
also be infinitely diverting. When the Travels had first been offered
to Benjamin Motte, the publisher, he had been assured that they
would sell very well, despite the fact that they were perhaps a little
satirical in one or two places. And Arbuthnot's remark, in a letter
written to Swift after the success of the book was an assured fact, can
be taken as expressing what a great many readers of 1726
undoubtedly felt: ' Gulliver is a happy man that at his age can write
such a merry work.' A merry work! Could anything convey to us a
clearer sense of the kind of audience Swift was writing for, or better
persuade us of the skill with which he had addressed himself to it?