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.
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.
In February 1702, Swift received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College, Dublin. That spring he travelled to England and then returned to Ireland in October, accompanied by Esther Johnson—now 20—and his friend Rebecca Dingley, another member of William Temple’s household. There is a great mystery and controversy over Swift’s relationship with Esther Johnson, nicknamed “Stella”.
Many, notably his close friend Thomas Sheridan, believed that they were secretly married in 1716; others, like Swift’s housekeeper Mrs Brent and Rebecca Dingley (who lived with Stella all through her years in Ireland) dismissed the story as absurd.
Swift certainly did not wish her to marry anyone else: in 1704, when their mutual friend William Tisdall informed Swift that he intended to propose to Stella, Swift wrote to him to dissuade him from the idea.
Although the tone of the letter was courteous, Swift privately expressed his disgust for Tisdall as an “interloper”, and they were estranged for many years.
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 Scriblerus Club (founded in 1713).
Swift became increasingly active politically in these years. From 1707 to 1709 and again in 1710, Swift was in London unsuccessfully urging upon the Whig administration of Lord Godolphin the claims of the Irish clergy to the First-Fruits and Twentieths (“Queen Anne’s Bounty”), which brought in about £2,500 a year, already granted to their brethren in England.
He found the opposition Tory leadership more sympathetic to his cause, and, when they came to power in 1710, he was recruited to support their cause as editor of The Examiner.
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. The incoming Tory government conducted secret (and illegal) negotiations with France, resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) ending the War of the Spanish Succession.
Swift was part of the inner circle of the Tory government, and often acted as mediator between Henry St John (Viscount Bolingbroke), the secretary of state for foreign affairs (1710–15), and Robert Harley (Earl of Oxford), lord treasurer and prime minister (1711–1714).
Swift recorded his experiences and thoughts during this difficult time in a long series of letters to Esther Johnson, collected and published after his death as A Journal to Stella. The animosity between the two Tory leaders eventually led to the dismissal of Harley in 1714. With the death of Queen Anne and accession of George I that year, the Whigs returned to power, and the Tory leaders were tried for treason for conducting secret negotiations with France.
Also during these years in London, Swift became acquainted with the Vanhomrigh family (Dutch merchants who had settled in Ireland, then moved to London) and became involved with one of the daughters, Esther. Swift furnished Esther with the nickname “Vanessa”, and she features as one of the main characters in his poem Cadenus and Vanessa.
The poem and their correspondence suggest that Esther was infatuated with Swift, and that he may have reciprocated her affections, only to regret this and then try to break off the relationship. Esther followed Swift to Ireland in 1714, and settled at her old family home, Celbridge Abbey. Their uneasy relationship continued for some years; then there appears to have been a confrontation, possibly involving Esther Johnson.
Esther Vanhomrigh died in 1723 at the age of 35, having destroyed the will she had made in Swift’s favour. Another lady with whom he had a close but less intense relationship was Anne Long, a toast of the Kit-Cat Club.
Swift was a prolific writer, notable for his satires. 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.