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Jonathan Swift


Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Irish cleric, political pamphleteer, satirist, and author wrote Gulliver's Travels (1726);

I grew weary of the sea, and intended to stay at home with my wife and family. I removed from the Old Jewry to Fetter Lane, and from thence to Wapping, hoping to get business among the sailors; but it would not turn to account. After three years expectation that things would mend, I accepted an advantageous offer from Captain William Prichard, master of the Antelope, who was making a voyage to the South Sea. We set sail from Bristol, May 4, 1699, and our voyage was at first very prosperous.

First published under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver Gulliver's Travels (1726) is considered Swift's masterpiece, a culmination of his active years in politics with the Whigs then Tories. Laden with symbolism and rife with socio-political commentary it was in instant best-seller. It is a timeless illustration of the pettiness of politics, people, and the games they play. It has inspired numerous sequels and been adapted to the stage and film, entering popular culture iconography.

Jonathan Swift was born on 30 November 1667 in Dublin, Ireland; the son of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents Abigail Erick [Herrick] (c1642-1710) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) an attorney at King's Inn, Dublin, who had died seven months before his son was born. Young Jonathan was a sickly child, and it is said he later developed Meniere's Disease, which affects the inner ear and causes dizziness, vertigo, nausea, and hearing loss. After his father died, Jonathan's mother was left without an income and she and his nurse did their best to provide care for him. But his mother was extremely poor so when his nurse travelled to England to see relatives she took Jonathan with her. His mother would eventually return to Leicester, England to live with relatives. Thus Jonathan spent some early years in England. He then went back to Ireland to live with his paternal uncle Godwin Swift Esq. (1627-1695), member of Gray's Inn and Attorney General at Tipperary. His uncle would support him and provide him with the best education possible, although it is said Jonathan was an unhappy young man and did not excel in his studies. Having never known his father and rarely seeing his mother probably contributed to the resentment he later expressed towards his relatives and authority figures.

Uncle Godwin sent Jonathan to the Kilkenny Grammar School from 1674 to 1682 where he met friend and future playwright and poet William Congreve (1670-1729). Then, at the age of fourteen, in 1682 Swift entered Trinity College in Dublin, earning a B.A. four years later. He wanted to continue to earn an M.A. but political unrest surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the loss of financial support from his Uncle caused him to travel to England to stay with his mother in Leicester. There Swift obtained a position as Secretary to retired diplomat Sir William Temple (1628-1699), staying with him at his home in Moor Park, Surrey. It was a dramatic turn of events for Swift, who soon became acquainted with many politically influential figures of the day, and was bestowed a great deal of responsibility by Temple.

It was also at Moor Park that the now twenty-two year old Swift met the young daughter of one of Moor Park's employees, six year old Esther "Stella" Johnson (c1680-1728). They formed a profound and lasting affectionate friendship, as evidenced in Swift's journals to "Stella". Swift became friend, tutor, and mentor to her. Temple, to whom Swift was distantly related, was a powerful and influential figure and assisted Swift in gaining entrance to Oxford University, where he earned his M.A. in 1692.

Swift had early set his sights on the Church, and in 1694 took his orders and was ordained Anglican priest, obtaining the small prebend of Kilroot in Northern Ireland where he remained for about a year. Upon returning to the employ of the Temple household he was reacquainted with his beloved raven-haired Stella, now in the bloom of youth. He had been tempted back to Moor Park by Temple to assist him in writing his memoirs, setting his affairs in order, and was appointed the task of publishing his papers after his death. Swift also began to write his own works in earnest, penning The Battle of the Books (1704) in defence of Temple's stance on the importance of ancient literature over modern;

By this expedient, the public peace of libraries might certainly have been preserved if a new species of controversial books had not arisen of late years, instinct with a more malignant spirit, from the war above mentioned between the learned about the higher summit of Parnassus.--Ch. 1

In 1700 Swift became Chaplain to Lord Berkeley and was instituted as Vicar to Laracor, Agher, and Rathbeggan just outside Dublin. In 1701 he was awarded Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin. In 1704 his satirical look at religion A Tale of the Tub was published. Busy with clerical duties, Swift was also immersed in Dublin society and politics. Becoming an outspoken critic, and with the intent of improving things in Ireland, he often travelled to London, England. In 1707, among many other matters, he sought the removal of taxation on the income of the Irish clergy, which was duly rejected by the Whigs. He thus severed his association with them. In 1710 he joined the Tories and his first of many political pamphlets appeared including "The Conduct of the Allies" (1711) and "The Public Spirit of the Whigs" (1714). Often tinged with bitter irony, Swift began to hone his abilities at innuendo and metaphor, and he sharpened his wit in his prodigious output of various articles, essays, and pamphlets including "Meditation on a Broomstick" (c1703) and "A Modest Proposal" (1729) wherein he suggests that the children of the Irish poor be put to good use providing sustenance to the rich English;

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

From the Preface of Swift's The Battle of the Books (1704);

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent. .... Wit without knowledge being a sort of cream, which gathers in a night to the top, and by a skilful hand may be soon whipped into froth; but once scummed away, what appears underneath will be fit for nothing but to be thrown to the hogs.

Swift wrote on many ecclesiastical matters including his "Three Sermons and Prayers" (1744); many more are contained in his Writings on Religion and the Church (1898) which includes "Against Abolishing Christianity" (first published in 1708). "The Bickerstaff-Partridge Papers" (1708) a satire of almanacs and astrology was "Written to prevent the people of England from being farther imposed on by vulgar almanack-makers. By Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq."

In 1713 Swift was appointed Dean of St Patrick's in Dublin. The same year he joined with, among others, Alexander Pope, to form the Scriblerus literary club. It was also around this time that he met Esther "Vanessa" Vanhomrigh (c1688-1723), who inspired his poem "Cadenus and Vanessa" (1713). Published under the pseudonym M.B. Drapier, Swift wrote his Drapier Letters (1724) in protest over bribery, corruption, deceit, and unfair treatment of the Irish on the part of the English government granting a patent to mint an inferior copper coin to William Wood. Swift's authorship of the seven Letters was never discovered during his lifetime but it caused much controversy, and that which he intended, much public awareness of the matter, for, as he writes in the fourth of his Letters, "A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland"; "by the Laws of God, of Nature, of Nations, and of your Country, you are, and ought to be, as free a people as your brethren in England,"

On 28 January 1728 Esther "Stella" Johnson died. Swift had rushed to her bedside and was overcome by grief. His health had started to decline, possibly from Alzheimer's or Meniere's disease and on 19 October 1745 Jonathan Swift died. He now rests beside his beloved Stella in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland. He had written his own epitaph, which Irish author William Butler Yeats loosely translated from the Latin as;

Swift has sailed into his rest.
Savage indignation there
cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
world-besotted traveller.
He served human liberty.

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Forum Discussions on Jonathan Swift

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