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Jonathan Swift

best known as the author of Gulliver's Travels

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667, the son of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents Abigail Erick and Jonathan Swift. His father, an attorney at King's Inn, Dublin, died before his son was born, and upon Jonathan's birth his mother returned to England, leaving Jonathan in the care of his uncle, Godwin Swift, a member of Gray's Inn and Attorney General at Tipperary.

In 1673, Swift entered Kilkenny Grammar School, then one of the most prestigious in Ireland. He entered Trinity College in Dublin in 1682, and earned his B.A. from that institution in 1686. In 1869, with his master's studies interrupted by the turmoil following William of Orange's invasion of England in 1688, Swift joined his mother in London, England. There, he became secretary to politician/statesman Sir William Temple, with whom he remained for the next ten years (with interruptions).

Soon after his move to England, Swift began suffering from Meniere's Disease, a disturbance of the inner ear which produces nausea and vertigo, and which was then little understood. 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, and, in 1692, received an M. A. degree from that University. In 1694, anxious to advance himself within the Church of England, he left Temple's household and returned to Ireland to take holy orders. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1695, and returned to Temple's household the following year.

Upon his return to Temple's household, Swift was placed in charge of the education of Esther Johnson, who was many years his junior. The two became close friends, and Swift wrote many letters to her over their lifetimes (she died in 1728). The exact nature of their relationship has never been conclusively determined, although some have speculated that the two may have at some point gotten married. Swift's letters were published as Journal to Stella (his nickname for her) after his death.

After Temple died in 1699, Swift traveled to Ireland as chaplain and secretary to the Earl of Berkeley. In 1700, he was appointed Vicar of a parish at Laracor, Ireland, a position which gave him a small measure of importance within the Church of England. In 1701, he was awarded a D. D. degree from Dublin University. It was about this time that Swift began getting involved in politics, primarily as a writer. Becoming an outspoken critic, and with the intent of improving things in Ireland, he often travelled to London. In 1707, 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 and became a supporter of the Tories. Through his many political pamphlets, he soon became one of England's most effective public relations men, and in 1713, in recognition of his political work, Queen Anne made him head clergyman of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. His involvement in politics came to an abrupt end with the death of Queen Anne in 1714, however, and he spent the rest of his life at St. Patrick's.

By 1735 Swift's condition had become very acute and his memory was beginning to deteriorate. He began slipping into senility in 1738, suffered a paralytic stroke in 1742, and died on October 19, 1745; he is buried alongside "Stella" in St. Patrick's. He left his estate to the founding of a hospital for the mentally ill.

His Principal Writings

In The Battle of the Books (written in 1697 but not published until 1704), Swift imagines old and new books in a library waging war on each other. The work reflects the then very real conflict between scholars who were proud of being "modern" and those who believed that the wisdom of the ancient thinkers could be not improved upon (the side favored by Swift).

illustration from The Battle of the Books
The Battle of the Books

A Tale of the Tub (1704) is, at first reading, a story of three brothers arguing over their father's will. A scholarly reading of the work reveals, however, that it is actually an attack on certain religious beliefs, and on man's false pride in his knowledge.

One of Swift's best literary pranks was Bickerstaff Papers (1708), in which he ridicules a popular astrologer and almanac writer by publishing his own wildly improbable predictions.

Drapier's Letters (1724) is one of the most notable of Swift's many political pamphlets. In it, a dry-goods merchant urges the Irish to boycott the use of copper money, which England tried to force on them.

Gulliver's Travels (1726) describes four voyages that Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's doctor, makes to strange lands. The first is Lilliput, where everything is only 1/12th the size of "normal." The Lilliputians treat Gulliver well at first, but eventually turn against him. Gulliver's second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, where everything is 12 times larger than normal and the inhabitants are greatly amused by his "puny size." His third voyage takes him to several strange kingdoms, each of which satirizes the things Swift saw in the real world. For example, in the academy of Lagado, scholars spend all of their time on useless projects such as getting sunbeams from cucumbers. In his last voyage, Gulliver discovers a land ruled by wise and gentle horses called Houyhnhums. Savage, stupid beings called Yahoos, who look like human beings, also live there. Gulliver wishes to stay with the Houyhnhums, but since he looks like a Yahoo they force him to leave instead. Most scholars believe that virtually everything in the imaginary worlds of Gulliver's Travels represented aspects of the real world in which Swift lived, but there is considerable disagreement over which specific real persons, institutions, and events are represented.

Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput
Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput

The essay A Modest Proposal (1729) is probably Swift's second best-known work. In it, Swift pretends to urge that Irish babies be killed and eaten because they would be no worse off than the Irish who grow up in poverty under British rule. Swift hoped that such an outrageous suggestion would shock the Irish people into taking steps to improve their condition.

Swift also wrote a great deal of poetry and light verse, most of which was as full of humor and satire as his other works. Most of his writings were published under pseudonyms.

Print Source

World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1979

Internet Sources

The Biography Channel
The Literature Network
The Victorian Web

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The Robinson Library >> English Literature >> 1640-1770

This page was last updated on 10/19/2018.