Authors: Jonathan Swift

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Irish novelist and essayist

November 30, 1667

Dublin, Ireland

October 19, 1745

Dublin, Ireland


Jonathan Swift, with perhaps the keenest mind and sharpest wit in an age marked by intellectual brilliance, was a mass of contradictions. He was dedicated to the ideals of rationality and common sense, yet he approached the irrational in his contempt for humankind’s failure to live up to his ideal. Profoundly distrustful of all “enthusiasm” or fanaticism, he was himself something of an enthusiast in his glorification of “pure reason.” He was possessed of one of the clearest and most direct styles in the English language, but the subtleties of his irony were misunderstood in his own and later ages. {$I[AN]9810001483} {$I[A]Swift, Jonathan} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Swift, Jonathan} {$I[geo]IRELAND;Swift, Jonathan} {$I[tim]1667;Swift, Jonathan}

Jonathan Swift

(Library of Congress)

Although biographical details do not adequately explain either the genius or the contradictions of Swift, the combination of extreme pride and a position of dependence on the favors of the rich or powerful throws light on the persistent dissatisfaction with life that colors almost all his work. Born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, the son of an impecunious Englishman who had settled in Ireland, Swift was educated at Trinity College with the aid of a wealthy uncle. In 1688, he left Ireland and became secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Surrey. Temple was not a congenial master, and Swift chafed to be independent in the more exciting world of London. It was the cultured Sir William, however, who gave polish to the somewhat uncouth young man and introduced him to his own world of wit and polite learning, and it was on his behalf that Swift entered the controversy over the relative merits of the “ancients” and the “moderns” in The Battle of the Books. In this brilliant example of neoclassical mock-heroic prose, Swift pours out his contempt for the self-righteous complacency of modern criticism and poetry. In this battle between the “ancients” and “moderns,” books by classical and modern authors war with one another. Swift attacks the hubris of moderns such as John Dryden. It was also at Moor Park that Swift first met Esther Johnson, possibly Temple’s illegitimate daughter, the “Stella” of his later life.

During this same period, Swift wrote A Tale of a Tub, a burlesque history of the Church in which his genius first revealed itself in its full force. Just as important as his tale of the degradation of the Church through selfishness and fanaticism are the numerous digressions on moral, philosophical, and literary subjects.

In 1694, dissatisfied with Moor Park, Swift returned to Ireland, where he was ordained an Anglican priest, but after a dreary year in an Irish parish he returned to England. Between 1708 and 1714, he lived in London, and during that period he achieved his greatest triumphs—social, literary, and political. He quickly became familiar with the literary lights of the age, including Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, and John Gay. He wrote pieces for Steele’s Tatler and entered church controversies with such essays as the brilliantly ironic An Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of Christianity in England, May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.

In 1710, partly from hopes of personal advancement and partly through a passionate interest in defending the prerogatives of the Church, Swift switched his allegiance from the Whig to the Tory Party. This move won for him the enmity of Whigs such as Addison and Steele but gained him even more powerful friends in Robert Harley and Henry St. John, leaders of the new Tory ministry. Swift’s political writing, in the Tory Examiner (which he edited briefly, 1710–11) and in pamphlets attacking Robert Walpole and the duke of Marlborough, proved a powerful aid to the Tory administration in its attempts to discredit the Whig “war party.” For his untiring labors, Swift hoped, and expected, to be rewarded with ecclesiastical preferment, perhaps a bishopric, but the memories of those who have risen to high places are notoriously short. Finally, in 1713, Swift was made dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin—virtually exiled from England. When the Tory ministry collapsed in 1714, all hope ended, and Swift returned to Ireland for good, disillusioned and bitter. Probably the best picture of his mind during this period of political writing, as well as of the behind-the-scenes intrigue of London politics, appears in the charming and frank letters that make up the Journal to Stella, his correspondence with his protégé and friend, Esther Johnson. Also during this period, Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he had met in London, followed him to Ireland. The “Vanessa” of his poem Cadenus and Vanessa, she died in 1723.

Bitter as he was, Swift’s energy and wit could not long be stifled, and he turned his talents to defending Irish political and economic interests against the English. In such pamphlets as The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland, in which he protests the circulation of debased coinage in Ireland, or his ironic masterpiece, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public, in which he suggests that for the Irish to sell their infants as food is their only defense against economic starvation by England, Swift not only continued his war with the Whig administration but also won the love and respect of all Ireland. When England offered a substantial reward to anyone who would turn in the anonymous author, no one in Ireland did—even though many recognized Swift as the writer. Swift proudly recalls this fact in his poem, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift.” During this period (1721–25), he also worked intermittently on his greatest and best-known work, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships, better known today as Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s final word on humankind and human nature, is a witty and at times vitriolic comment on humanity’s abuse and perversion of God-given reason. Books 1 and 2, the account of voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, deal with the corruption of practical reason, as it operates in the social and political worlds. Books 3 and 4 concern theoretical reason, either in its misuse, as among the Laputans and in the Academy of Lagado, or in its excessive application among the Houyhnhnms. Swift’s brutal characterization of humans as despicable Yahoos (book 4) has led many readers to feel that the intensity of his misanthropy destroys the validity of his work as satire. However, bitter as Swift was at humankind’s failure to live up to ideals of rationality and common sense, the very fact that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels suggests his recognition of the existence of such a goal and perhaps his hope that humankind could be stimulated to reach it. Although Gulliver becomes misanthropic in book 4, Swift clearly undercuts his protagonist, as when Gulliver distrusts the altruistic Pedro de Mendez.

Swift’s health had never been good, and by 1740 mental decay had seriously weakened his mind. He also suffered from a painful inner ear infection. In 1742, guardians were appointed for him, as he was on the verge of mental illness. He died in Dublin on October 19, 1745.

Author Works Long Fiction: A Tale of a Tub, 1704 Gulliver’s Travels, 1726 (originally titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships) Poetry: Cadenus and Vanessa, 1726 On Poetry: A Rapsody, 1733 Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D., 1739 The Poems of Jonathan Swift, 1937, 1958 (3 volumes; Harold Williams, editor) Nonfiction: A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions Between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome, 1701 The Battle of the Books, 1704 The Accomplishment of the First of Mr. Bickerstaff ’s Predictions, 1708 An Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby, 1708 Predictions for the Year 1708, 1708 A Project for the Advancement of Religion, and the Reformation of Manners By a Person of Quality, 1709 A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., 1709 The Conduct of the Allies, 1711 A Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue, in a Letter to the Most Honourable Robert Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain, 1712 The Public Spirit of the Whigs, Set Forth in Their Generous Encouragement of the Author of the Crisis, 1714 A Letter to the Shop-Keepers, 1724 A Letter to Mr. Harding the Printer, 1724 A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland, 1724 A Letter to . . . Viscount Moleworth, 1724 Some Observations upon a Paper, 1724 A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public, 1729 Journal to Stella, 1766, 1768 Letters to a Very Young Lady on Her Marriage, 1797 The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland, 1935 The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 1963–65 (5 volumes; Harold Williams, editor) Miscellaneous: Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, 1711 Miscellanies, 1727–33 (4 volumes; with Alexander Pope and other members of the Scriblerus Club) A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, 1738 The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, 1939–68 (14 volumes; Herbert Davis, editor) Directions to Servants in General . . . , 1745 “A Tale of the Tub” to Which Is Added “The Battle of the Books” and the “Mechanical Operation of the Spirit,” 1958 (A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith, editors) Bibliography Barnett, Louise. Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. This volume takes a look at Swift’s relationships with the women in his life and his attitude toward the fictional women in his texts. Barnett explores his contradictory views and illustrates how he respected and admired individual women, yet loathed the female sex, in general. She offers a critical, nonjudgmental study of the misogynistic attitude Swift displays in his writing when he expresses his contempt and disgust for the female body. Ehrenpreis, Irvin. Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962–83. A monumental biography that rejects long-held myths, provides much new information about Swift and his works and relates him to the intellectual and political currents of his age. Fox, Christopher, and Brenda Tooley, eds. Walking Naboth’s Vineyard: New Studies of Swift. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. The introduction discusses Swift and Irish studies, and the subsequent essays all consider aspects of Swift as an Irish writer. Individual essays have notes, but there is no bibliography. Glendinning, Victoria. Jonathan Swift: A Portrait. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. Glendinning illuminates this proud and intractable man. She investigates the main events and relationships of Swift’s life, providing a portrait set in a tapestry of controversy and paradox. Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. Boston: Twayne, 1989. While primarily useful as a source for biographical information, this volume does contain much insightful, if general, analysis of Swift’s art. One chapter is devoted to Gulliver’s Travels. Includes chronology, notes and references, bibliography, and index. Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985. Draws heavily on Swift’s writings, offering a good introduction for the general reader seeking information about his life and works. Nokes views Swift as a conservative humanist. Oakleaf, David. A Political Biography of Jonathan Swift. Oxford, England: Pickering and Chatto, 2008. This work examines Swift’s wide-ranging political views and how they affected his personal life and his writing. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography. Palmieri, Frank, ed. Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. Divided into sections on Swift’s life and writings, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub and eighteenth-century literature, and his poetry and nonfiction prose. Includes index but no bibliography. Quintana, Ricardo. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. 1936. Reprint. London: Oxford University Press, 1953. One of the standards of Swift criticism, concentrating on the public Swift. Examines his political activities and writings, tracing the intellectual sources of his thought. Includes synopses of his major works and provides historical background. Reprint contains additional notes and an updated bibliography. Rawson, Claude. The Character of Swift’s Satire: A Revised Focus. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983. Presents eleven essays by Swift scholars, including John Traugatt’s excellent reading of A Tale of a Tub, Irvin Ehrenpreis on Swift as a letter writer, and F. P. Lock on Swift’s role in the political affairs of Queen Anne’s reign. Real, Hermann J., and Heinz J. Vienken, eds. Proceedings of the First Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1985. Includes twenty-four essays on all aspects of Swift’s work, each preceded by an abstract. Includes index. Swift, Jonathan. The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift. Edited by David Woolley. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A collection of letters by Swift that offer insight into his life and work. Includes bibliographical references.

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