Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Jonathan Swift (November 30, 1667 – October 19, 1745) was an Anglo-Irish priest, essayist, political writer, and poet, considered the foremost satirist in the English language. Swift’s fiercely ironic novels and essays, including world classics such as Gulliver’s Travels and The Tale of the Tub, were immensely popular in his own time for their ribald humor and imaginative insight into human nature. Swift’s object was to expose corruption and express political and social criticism through indirection.
In his own times, Swift aligned himself with the Tories and became the most prominent literary figure to lend his hand to Tory politics. As a result, Swift found himself in a bitter feud with the other great pamphleteer and essayist of his time, Joseph Addison. Moreover, Swift’s royalist political leanings have made him a semi-controversial figure in his native Ireland, and whether Swift should be categorized as an English or Irish writer remains a point of academic contention. Nevertheless, Swift was, and remains, one of the most popular and readable authors of the eighteenth century, an author of humor and humanity, who is as often enlightening as he is ironical.
Swift was born at No. 7, Hoey’s Court, Dublin, the second child and only son of Jonathan and Abigail Swift, English immigrants. Jonathan arrived seven months after his father’s untimely death. Most of the facts of Swift’s early life are obscure and sometimes contradictory. It is widely believed that his mother returned to England when Swift was still very young, leaving him to be raised by his father’s family. His uncle Godwin took primary responsibility for the young Swift, sending him to Kilkenny Grammar School with one of his cousins.
In 1682 he attended Trinity College, Dublin, receiving his B.A. in 1686. Swift was studying for his master’s degree when political troubles in Ireland surrounding the Glorious Revolution forced him to leave for England in 1688, where his mother helped him get a position as secretary and personal assistant to Sir William Temple, an English diplomat. Temple arranged the Triple Alliance of 1668, retiring from public service to his country estate to tend his gardens and write his memoirs. Growing into the confidence of his employer, Swift was often trusted with matters of great importance. Within three years of their acquaintance, Temple had introduced his secretary to King William III, and sent him to London to urge the king to consent to a bill for triennial Parliaments.
Swift left Temple in 1690 for Ireland because of his health, but returned the following year. The illness—fits of vertigo or giddiness now widely believed 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 Oxford University in 1692. Then, apparently despairing of gaining a better position through Temple’s patronage, Swift left Moor Park to be ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland, and was appointed to a small parish near Kilroot, Ireland, in 1694.
Swift was miserable in his new position, feeling isolated in a small, remote community. Swift left his post and returned to England and Temple’s service at Moor Park in 1696 where he remained until Temple’s death. There he was employed in helping 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) that argued in favor of the classicism of the ancients over the modern “new learning” of scientific inquiry. Swift would not publish The Battle of the Books, however, for another fourteen years.
In the summer of 1699 Temple died. Swift stayed on briefly to finish editing Temple’s memoirs, perhaps in the hope that recognition of his work might earn him a suitable position in England, but this proved ineffectual. His next move was to approach William III 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 Justices of Ireland. However, when he reached Ireland he found that the secretaryship had been given to another. He soon obtained a post as chaplain of Laracor, Agher, and Rathbeggan in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. In Laracor, Swift ministered to a congregation of about 15 persons, and he had ample time to pursue his hobbies: gardening, architecture, and above all, writing.
In 1701 Swift had invited his friend Esther Johnson to Dublin. According to rumor Swift married her in 1716, although no marriage was ever acknowledged. Swift’s friendship with Johnson, in any case, lasted through her lifetime, and his letters to Johnson from London between 1710 and 1713 make up his Journal to Stella, first published in 1768.
In February 1702, Swift received his doctor of divinity degree from Trinity College. During his visits to England in these years Swift published A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books (1704) and began to gain a reputation as a writer. This led to close, lifelong friendships with Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, forming the core of the Martinus Scriberlus Club, founded in 1713.
Swift became increasingly active politically in these years. From 1707 to 1709 and again in 1710, Swift was in London, petitioning the Whig Party which he had supported all his life. He found the opposition Tory leadership more sympathetic to his cause and Swift was recruited to support their cause as editor of the Examiner, the principal Tory periodical, when they came to power in 1710. In 1711 Swift published the political pamphlet “The Conduct of the Allies,” attacking the Whig government for its inability to end the prolonged war with France.
Swift was part of the inner circle of the Tory government, often acting as mediator between the prime minister and various other members of Parliament. Swift recorded his experiences and thoughts during this difficult time in a long series of letters, later collected and published as The Journal to Stella. With the death of Queen Anne and ascension of King George that year, the Whigs returned to power and the Tory leaders were tried for treason for conducting secret negotiations with France.
Before the fall of the Tory government, Swift hoped that his services would be rewarded with a church appointment in England. However, Queen Anne appears to have taken a dislike to Swift and thwarted these efforts. The best position his friends could secure for him was the deanery of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. With the return of the Whigs, Swift’s best move was to leave England, so he returned to Ireland in disappointment, a virtual exile, to live, he said, “like a rat in a hole.”
Once in Ireland, however, Swift began to turn his pamphleteering skills in support of Irish causes, producing some of his most memorable works: “Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture” (1720), “The Drapier’s Letters” (1724), and most famously, “A Modest Proposal” (1729), a biting parody of economic utilitarianism he associated with the Whigs. Swift’s pamphlets on Irish issues made him into something of a national hero in Ireland, despite his close association with the Tories and his ethnic English background.
Also during these years, Swift began writing his masterpiece, 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 as Gulliver’s Travels. In 1726 he paid a long-deferred visit to London, taking with him the manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels. During his visit he stayed with his old friends, Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot, and John Gay, who helped him arrange for the anonymous publication of his book. First published in November 1726, it was an immediate hit, with a total of three printings that year and another in early 1727. French, German, and Dutch translations appeared in 1727 and pirated copies were printed in Ireland.
Swift returned to England one more time in 1727, staying with Alexander Pope once again. In 1738 Swift began to show signs of illness and in 1742 he appears to have suffered a stroke, losing the ability to speak and realizing his worst fears of becoming mentally disabled (“I shall be like that tree,” he once said, “I shall die at the top”). On October 19, 1745, Swift died. The bulk of his fortune was left to found a hospital for the mentally ill.
Swift was a prolific writer. The most recent collection of his prose works (Herbert Davis, ed., Basil Blackwell, 1965) comprises fourteen volumes. A recent edition of his complete poetry (Pat Rodges, ed., Penguin, 1983) is 953 pages long. One edition of his correspondence (David Woolley, ed., P. Lang, 1999) fills three volumes.
In 1708, when a cobbler named John Partridge published a popular almanac of astrological predictions, Swift attacked Partridge in Prediction For The Ensuing Year, a parody predicting that Partridge would die on March 29. Swift followed up with a pamphlet issued on March 30 claiming that Partridge had in fact died, which was widely believed despite Partridge’s statements to the contrary.
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 humorous while at the same time pointed and harshly critical of its targets. The Tale recounts the exploits of three sons, representing the main threads of Christianity in England: the Anglican, Catholic, and Nonconformist (“Dissenting”) Churches. Each of the sons receives a coat from their fathers as a bequest, with the added instructions to make no alternations to the coats 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 which will allow them to make the needed alterations. As each finds his own means of getting around their father’s admonition, Swift satirizes the various changes (and corruptions) that had consumed all three branches of Christianity in Swift’s time. Inserted into this story, in alternating chapters, Swift includes a series of whimsical “discourses” on various subjects.
In 1729, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” supposedly written by an intelligent and objective “political arithmetician” who had carefully studied Ireland before making his proposal. The author calmly suggests one solution for both the problem of overpopulation and the growing numbers of undernourished people: breed those children who would otherwise go hungry or be mistreated and sell them as food for the rich.
Gulliver’s Travels (published 1726, amended 1735), officially titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World is Swift’s masterpiece, both a satire on human nature and a parody of the “travellers’ tales” literary sub-genre. It is easily Swift’s most celebrated work and one of the indisputable classics of the English language.
The book became tremendously popular as soon as it was published (Alexander Pope quipped that “it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”) and it is likely that it has never been out of print since its original publication. George Orwell went so far as to declare it to be among the six most indispensable books in world literature.
On his first voyage, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck, awaking to find himself a prisoner of a race of tiny people who stand 15 centimeters high, inhabitants of the neighboring and rival countries of Lilliput and Blefuscu. After giving assurances of his good behavior he is given a residence in Lilliput, becoming a favorite of the court. He assists the Lilliputians in subduing their neighbors, the Blefuscudans, but refuses to reduce Blefuscu to a province of Lilliput, so he is charged with treason and sentenced to be blinded. Fortunately, Gulliver easily overpowers the Lilliputian army and escapes back home.
On his second voyage, while exploring a new country, Gulliver is abandoned by his companions, finding himself in Brobdingnag, a land of giants. He is then bought (as a curiosity) by the queen of Brobdingnag and kept as a favorite at court. On a trip to the seaside, his ship is seized by a giant eagle and dropped into the sea where he is picked up by sailors and returned to England.
On his third voyage, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates and he is abandoned on a desolate rocky island. Fortunately he is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the intellectual arts that is utterly incapable of doing anything practical. While there, he tours the country as the guest of a low-ranking courtier and sees the ruin brought about by blind pursuit of science without practical results. He also encounters the Struldbrugs, an unfortunate race who are cursed to have immortal life without immortal youth. The trip is otherwise reasonably free of incident and Gulliver returns home, determined to stay a homebody for the rest of his days.
Disregarding these intentions at the end of the third part, Gulliver returns to sea where his crew promptly mutinies. He is abandoned ashore, coming first upon a race of hideously deformed creatures to which he conceives a violent antipathy. Shortly thereafter he meets an eloquent, talking horse and comes to understand that the horses (in their language “Houyhnhnm”) are the rulers and the deformed creatures (“Yahoos”) are in fact human beings. Gulliver becomes a member of the horse’s household, treated almost as a favored pet, and comes to both admire and emulate the Houyhnhnms and their lifestyle, rejecting human beings as merely Yahoos endowed with some semblance of reason which they only use to exacerbate and add to the vices Nature gave them. However, an assembly of the Houyhnhnms rules that Gulliver, a Yahoo with some semblance of reason, is a danger to their civilization, so he is expelled. He is then rescued, against his will, by a Portuguese ship that returns him to his home in England. He is, however, unable to reconcile himself to living among Yahoos; he becomes a recluse, remaining in his house, largely avoiding his family, and spending several hours a day speaking with the horses in his stables.
Swift once stated that “satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” Utilizing grotesque logic—for example, that Irish poverty can be solved by the breeding of infants as food for the rich—Swift commented on attitudes and policies of his day with an originality and forcefulness that influenced later novelists such as Mark Twain, H. G. Wells, and George Orwell. “Swiftian” satire is a term coined for especially outlandish and sardonic parody.
Although his many pamphlets and attacks on religious corruption and intellectual laziness are dated for most modern readers, Gulliver’s Travels has remained a popular favorite both for its humorous rendering of human foibles and its adventurous fantasy.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 06.05.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.