Who Is Jonathan Swift?

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667 –only a handful of years after the end of Puritanical rule in England– to an English mother and an English father, who died of syphilis just before Jonathan was born, supposedly the disease was contracted while he was away from home sleeping in a pair of “dirty sheets.” Jonathan was an only child, raised by various friends and family members. His English lineage as well as Irish ethnicity together affected his sense of civic duty as he maintained a lifelong sympathy for the Irish struggle. His upbringing was of an upper-crust variety among Anglo-Irish ruling class. He attended Kilkenny School from 1674-1682 and then Trinity College in Dublin from 1682-1686.

In 1689, Swift moved to England to reside at Moor Park in Surrey where he served as secretary to its owner, Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat who had pretensions of becoming an important writer. During this period Swift sought after a career in the Anglican Church and he anonymously wrote A Tale of the Tub which was later published in 1704, though Swift never fully admitted to its authorship. Also during this period, Swift formed a close friendship with the housekeeper’s daughter named Esther Johnson, for whom he wrote poetry and a series of playful letters known as “Journal to Stella” –taken from Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (c. 1582). Rumor has it the two were secretly married (according to Samuel Johnson’s brief biography), but she later died in 1728. Swift also developed another romantic friendship with a woman named Esther Vanhomrigh whom he dubbed “Vanessa” by combining elements of her first and last names, and he presumably had romantic liaisons with several other young women including a woman named Anne Long.

Jonathan Swift in 1710

Following the death of Sir William Temple in 1699, and after failing to secure a political career for himself, Swift was commissioned into the next best thing –the Anglican Church. From 1699-1710 Swift became a clergyman in the Church of Ireland. It was a leisurely job affording him considerable time and space to write and cultivate a garden. During this period he wrote many of his famous religious treatises and satires. He also became friendly with Whig politicians and he supported the Glorious Revolution, believing he was owed a political position under William III, but when this failed to materialize Swift was again forced to return to the Church. After disagreeing with the Whigs regarding the War of the Spanish Succession against France, by 1710 Swift was drawn to the more moderate branch of the Tories. He became editor of The Examiner and his pamphlets openly supported peace with France (in future years the Tories conducted secret and illegal peace negotiations with France which were later deemed treasonous). Together with a small group of literary men including Alexander Pope and John Gay, Swift became a founding member of the Scriblerus Club, one of the more illustrious writerly coteries in England. In the early 18th century, the group met a handful of times at St. James Palace under the fictional auspices of ‘Martin Scriblerus.” Their meetings were few but by exchanging letters the group continually encouraged one another to complete their great works. This is known as the “Augustan Age of Letters” (a reference to the Roman age of Augustus, only this was under the rule of Queen Anne).

In 1713, Swift was made Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a promotion he found bitterly disappointing –he referred to it as “living like a rat in a hole.” He was hoping for a more elevated political role as a bishop in England. He felt that his irreligious reputation resulting from “A Tale Of A Tub” had cost him his career –Queen Anne reportedly despised Swift’s style of satire. At any rate, Swift’s long years in “exile” in Ireland produced some of his best writing, including numerous anonymous works such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726). He also became an Irish patriot with publications like Drapier’s Letters (1724-1725) and A Modest Proposal (1729). Some of his amusing pen names for these works included: Isaac Bickerstaff, M. B. Drapier, Lemuel Gulliver, and Simon Wagstaff, Esq.

In his later years Swift developed Ménière’s syndrome, an illness of the inner ear causing severe dizziness. He mistakenly believed himself to be going mad and gradually his writing abilities declined. Sadly, as he entered his 70s Swift became senile and he retired to a private life of care until he died on October 19, 1745. By his request he was buried beside Esther Johnson (Swift kept a lock of her hair with him in an envelope with an inscription reading “only a woman’s hair”). Having no children, Swift’s personal fortune of £12,000 was left to a hospital for the mentally ill. His epitaph at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (later transliterated from Latin by W.B. Yeats) reads as follows:

“Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveler; he
Served human liberty.”
(the original epitaph channeled Juvenal and was written in Latin)

This brief biography owes a debt of gratitude to Claude Rawson’s writings on Jonathan Swift. Claude Rawson is a Yale scholar focused on 18th century literature, particularly the works of Swift and Fielding. I was also fortunate to read the writings of Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Owell, and W.B. Yeats.

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