Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet and cleric who became Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
Swift is remembered for works such as Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity and A Tale of a Tub. He is regarded by the Encyclopædia Britannica as the foremost prose satirist in the English language and is less well known for his poetry. He originally published all of his works under pseudonyms – such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, Drapier's Letters as MB Drapier – or anonymously. He is also known for being a master of two styles of satire, the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.
His deadpan, ironic writing style, particularly in A Modest Proposal, has led to such satire being subsequently termed "Swiftian".
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland. He was the second child and only son of Jonathan Swift (1640–1667) and his wife Abigail Erick (or Herrick), of Frisby on the Wreake. His father, a native of Goodrich, Herefordshire, accompanied his brothers to Ireland to seek their fortunes in law after their Royalist father's estate was brought to ruin during the English Civil War. Swift's father died in Dublin about seven months before he was born. His mother returned to England after his birth, leaving him in the care of his influential uncle, Godwin, a close friend and confidant of Sir John Temple, whose son later employed Swift as his secretary.
Swift's family had several interesting literary connections: his grandmother, Elizabeth (Dryden) Swift, was the niece of Sir Erasmus Dryden, grandfather of the poet John Dryden. The same grandmother's aunt, Katherine (Throckmorton) Dryden, was a first cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Sir Walter Raleigh. His great-great grandmother, Margaret (Godwin) Swift, was the sister of Francis Godwin, author of The Man in the Moone which influenced parts of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. His uncle, Thomas Swift, married a daughter of the poet and playwright Sir William Davenant, a godson of William Shakespeare.
Swift's uncle Godwin Swift (1628–1695), a benefactor, took primary responsibility for the young Jonathan, sending him with one of his cousins to Kilkenny College (also attended by the philosopher George Berkeley). In 1682, financed by Godwin's son Willoughby, he attended Dublin University (Trinity College, Dublin), from which he received his B.A. in 1686, and developed his friendship with William Congreve. Swift was studying for his master's degree when political troubles in Ireland surrounding the Glorious Revolution forced him in 1688 to leave for England, where his mother helped him get a position as secretary and personal assistant of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Farnham. Temple was an English diplomat who, having arranged the Triple Alliance of 1668, had retired from public service to his country estate to tend his gardens and write his memoirs. Gaining his employer's confidence, Swift "was often trusted with matters of great importance". Within three years of their acquaintance, Temple had introduced his secretary to William III and sent him to London to urge the King to consent to a bill for triennial Parliaments.
When Swift took up his residence at Moor Park, he met Esther Johnson, then eight years old, the daughter of an impoverished widow who acted as companion to Temple's sister, Lady Giffard. Swift acted as her tutor and mentor, giving her the nickname "Stella", and the two maintained a close but ambiguous relationship for the rest of Esther's life.
In 1690, Swift left Temple for Ireland because of his health but returned to Moor Park the following year. The illness, fits of vertigo or giddiness – now known to be Ménière's disease—would continue to plague Swift throughout his life. During this second stay with Temple, Swift received his M.A. from Hart Hall, Oxford in 1692. Then, apparently despairing of gaining a better position through Temple's patronage, Swift left Moor Park to become an ordained priest in the Established Church of Ireland, and in 1694 he was appointed to the prebend of Kilroot in the Diocese of Connor, with his parish located at Kilroot, near Carrickfergus in County Antrim.
Swift appears to have been miserable in his new position, being isolated in a small, remote community far from the centres of power and influence. While at Kilroot, however, Swift may well have become romantically involved with Jane Waring, whom he called "Varina", the sister of an old college friend. A letter from him survives, offering to remain if she would marry him and promising to leave and never return to Ireland if she refused. She presumably refused, because Swift left his post and returned to England and Temple's service at Moor Park in 1696, and he remained there until Temple's death. There he was employed in helping to prepare Temple's memoirs and correspondence for publication. During this time Swift wrote The Battle of the Books, a satire responding to critics of Temple's Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1690), though Battle was not published until 1704.
Temple died on 27 January 1699. Swift, normally a harsh judge of human nature, said that all that was good and amiable in humankind had died with Temple. Swift stayed on briefly in England to complete the editing of Temple's memoirs, and perhaps in the hope that recognition of his work might earn him a suitable position in England. Unfortunately, Swift's work made enemies among some of Temple's family and friends, in particular Temple's formidable sister, Lady Giffard, who objected to indiscretions included in the memoirs. Swift's next move was to approach King William directly, based on his imagined connection through Temple and a belief that he had been promised a position. This failed so miserably that he accepted the lesser post of secretary and chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, one of the Lords Justice of Ireland. However, when he reached Ireland he found that the secretaryship had already been given to another. He soon obtained the living of Laracor, Agher, and Rathbeggan, and the prebend of Dunlavin in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
At Laracor, just over four and half miles (7.5 km) from Summerhill, County Meath, and twenty miles (32 km) from Dublin, Swift ministered to a congregation of about fifteen and had abundant leisure for cultivating his garden, making a canal (after the Dutch fashion of Moor Park), planting willows, and rebuilding the vicarage. As chaplain to Lord Berkeley, he spent much of his time in Dublin and travelled to London frequently over the next ten years. In 1701, Swift anonymously published a political pamphlet, A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.
Major prose works
Swift's first major prose work, A Tale of a Tub, demonstrates many of the themes and stylistic techniques he would employ in his later work. It is at once wildly playful and funny while being pointed and harshly critical of its targets. In its main thread, the Tale recounts the exploits of three sons, representing the main threads of Christianity, who receive a bequest from their father of a coat each, with the added instructions to make no alterations whatsoever. However, the sons soon find that their coats have fallen out of current fashion, and begin to look for loopholes in their father's will that will let them make the needed alterations. As each finds his own means of getting around their father's admonition, they struggle with each other for power and dominance. Inserted into this story, in alternating chapters, the narrator includes a series of whimsical "digressions" on various subjects.
In 1690, Sir William Temple, Swift's patron, published An Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning a defence of classical writing (see Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns), holding up the Epistles of Phalaris as an example. William Wotton responded to Temple with Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694), showing that the Epistles were a later forgery. A response by the supporters of the Ancients was then made by Charles Boyle (later the 4th Earl of Orrery and father of Swift's first biographer). A further retort on the Modern side came from Richard Bentley, one of the pre-eminent scholars of the day, in his essay Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris (1699). The final words on the topic belong to Swift in his Battle of the Books (1697, published 1704) in which he makes a humorous defence on behalf of Temple and the cause of the Ancients.
In 1708, a cobbler named John Partridge published a popular almanac of astrological predictions. Because Partridge falsely determined the deaths of several church officials, Swift attacked Partridge in Predictions for the Ensuing Year by Isaac Bickerstaff, a parody predicting that Partridge would die on 29 March. Swift followed up with a pamphlet issued on 30 March claiming that Partridge had in fact died, which was widely believed despite Partridge's statements to the contrary. According to other sources, Richard Steele uses the personae of Isaac Bickerstaff and was the one who wrote about the "death" of John Partridge and published it in The Spectator, not Jonathan Swift.
Drapier's Letters (1724) was a series of pamphlets against the monopoly granted by the English government to William Wood to provide the Irish with copper coinage. It was widely believed that Wood would need to flood Ireland with debased coinage in order to make a profit. In these "letters" Swift posed as a shop-keeper—a draper—to criticise the plan. Swift's writing was so effective in undermining opinion in the project that a reward was offered by the government to anyone disclosing the true identity of the author. Though hardly a secret (on returning to Dublin after one of his trips to England, Swift was greeted with a banner, "Welcome Home, Drapier") no one turned Swift in, although there was an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute the publisher Harding. The government eventually resorted to hiring none other than Sir Isaac Newton to certify the soundness of Wood's coinage to counter Swift's accusations. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" (1739) Swift recalled this as one of his best achievements.
Gulliver's Travels, a large portion of which Swift wrote at Woodbrook House in County Laois, was published in 1726. It is regarded as his masterpiece. As with his other writings, the Travels was published under a pseudonym, the fictional Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's surgeon and later a sea captain. Some of the correspondence between printer Benj. Motte and Gulliver's also-fictional cousin negotiating the book's publication has survived. Though it has often been mistakenly thought of and published in bowdlerised form as a children's book, it is a great and sophisticated satire of human nature based on Swift's experience of his times. Gulliver's Travels is an anatomy of human nature, a sardonic looking-glass, often criticised for its apparent misanthropy. It asks its readers to refute it, to deny that it has adequately characterised human nature and society. Each of the four books—recounting four voyages to mostly fictional exotic lands—has a different theme, but all are attempts to deflate human pride. Critics hail the work as a satiric reflection on the shortcomings of Enlightenment thought.