Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist and political pamphleteer, considered one of the greatest masters of English prose and one of the most impassioned satirists of human folly and pretension. His many pamphlets, prose, letters, and poetry were all marked by highly effective and economical language.
Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, and educated at Trinity College in that city. He obtained employment in England in 1689 as secretary to the diplomat and writer Sir William Temple. Swift’s relations with his employer were not amicable, and in 1694 the young man went back to Ireland, where he took religious orders. Effecting a reconciliation with Temple, he returned to Temple’s household in 1696. There he supervised the education of Esther Johnson, daughter of the widowed companion to Temple’s sister. Swift remained with Temple until Temple’s death in 1699. Swift’s stay, although frequently marred by quarrels with his employer, gave him the time for an immense amount of concentrated reading and for writing.
Among Swift’s earliest prose work was The Battle of the Books (1697), a burlesque of the controversy then raging in literary circles over the relative merits of ancient and modern writers. In this work Swift championed the ancients and, with mordant satire, attacked the pedantry and sham scholarship of his day. His A Tale of a Tub (1704) is the most amusing of his satirical works and the most strikingly original. In it Swift ridiculed with matchless irony various forms of pretentious pedantry, mainly in literature and religion. The book gave rise to grave doubts concerning Swift’s religious orthodoxy, however, and it is thought that because Queen Anne was offended, Swift lost his chance for ecclesiastical preferment in England.
Although nominally a Whig, Swift differed from his party on many important questions. In 1710 a Tory government came to power in England, and Swift was quickly won over to its ranks. He then turned his biting satire against the Whigs in a series of brilliant short pieces, assumed the editorship of the Examiner, the official Tory publication, and produced a number of pamphlets, in all of which he ably defended the policies of the Tory administration. Of these papers the most eloquent and influential was The Conduct of the Allies (November 1711), in which Swift charged that the Whigs had prolonged the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) out of self-interest. The pamphlet was instrumental in procuring the dismissal of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, the commander in chief of the British armies.
STELLA AND VANESSA
Swift began his Journal to Stella in 1710; Stella was his private name for Esther Johnson, who was then living in Dublin. This series of intimate letters, with its terms of endearment drawn from the language of the nursery, reveals a curious aspect of the great satirist’s enigmatic personality. Scholars are unsure of Swift’s exact relationship with Stella; they may have been secretly married. The only other woman in Swift’s life was Esther Vanhomrigh, daughter of a Dublin merchant of Dutch descent. Vanhomrigh (whom Swift also taught and whom he referred to as Vanessa) became passionately enamored of him, but he did not return her love.
In 1713, Swift was appointed dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The following year the Tory administration fell, and Swift’s political power was ended. In 1724 and 1725 he anonymously issued his Drapier’s Letters, a series of highly effective pamphlets that secured the end of the royal patent granted to an Englishman coining copper halfpence in Ireland. Swift was trying to protect the Irish people from a further debasement of their currency. For his championship of their cause in these essays and in “A Modest Proposal” (1729), Swift became a hero of the Irish people. “A Modest Proposal” embodies the mordantly ironic suggestion that the children of the Irish poor be sold as food to the wealthy, thus turning an economic burden to general profit.
Swift’s masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, more popularly titled Gulliver’s Travels, was published anonymously in 1726; it met with instant success. Swift’s satire was originally intended as an allegorical and acidic attack on the vanity and hypocrisy of contemporary courts, statesmen, and political parties, but in the writing of his book, which is presumed to have taken more than six years, he incorporated his ripest reflections on human society. Gulliver’s Travels is, therefore, a savagely bitter work, mocking all humankind. Nonetheless, it is so imaginatively, wittily, and simply written that it became and has remained a favorite children’s book.
Swift’s last years, after the deaths of Stella and Vanessa, were overshadowed by a growing loneliness and dread of insanity. He suffered frequent attacks of vertigo, and a period of mental decay ended with his death on October 19, 1745. He was buried in his own cathedral beside the coffin of Stella. His epitaph, written by him in Latin, reads “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, D.D., dean of this cathedral, where burning indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate if you can a man who was an undaunted champion of liberty.”