Article abstract: Perhaps the greatest prose satirist in the history of English literature, Swift was also a champion of Irish and Anglo-Irish rights against the colonial impositions of Great Britain.
Ireland in the seventeenth century was seen by ambitious Englishmen as the place to go to make a place for oneself, particularly for members of the Anglican Church, since Roman Catholics (practically the entire native Celtic population of Ireland) and, to a lesser extent, non-Anglican Protestants were excluded from most of the more powerful and lucrative positions in Irish political, educational, and business life. Jonathan Swift’s father, trained as a lawyer, came from England with his brothers to take advantage of the situation, and he married an Englishwoman, who had settled in Dublin, in 1664. In April of 1667, still in the early stages of his career, Swift’s father, also called Jonathan, died; Swift was born several months later. There was little money, and Swift was dependent upon an uncle for financial support for his maintenance and education, first at Kilkenny School and then at Trinity College, Dublin, from which he was graduated, after an undistinguished career, in 1689.
Ambitious but uncertain as to a career, Swift was taken on as the personal secretary to Sir William Temple, a family friend, who lived just south of London. Temple, a former diplomat of some considerable reputation, with connections to the Royal Court, was living in retirement, but Swift hoped that Temple’s influence with the political powers in London would lead to something for him, possibly in the civil service. Temple did nothing to help Swift’s career, however, and in the mid-1690’s, Swift returned to Ireland and was ordained as a priest in the Irish wing of the Anglican Church. He was given a church in Northern Ireland, in an area where there were few Anglicans but many Roman Catholics and Presbyterian Anglo-Irish. Swift remained for a year and then returned to Temple. No doubt Temple had promised to look out for something substantial for his protégé.
During this period, Swift began to write poetry—mostly, as suggested by Temple, complimentary odes dedicated to prominent public figures. The poems did not reveal Swift’s true gift for literature. In the later years of the decade, however, he began working on his first great book, A Tale of a Tub (1704), an enormously ambitious and complicated satire which was not to be published for several years.
In early 1699, Temple died without having done anything for Swift, who managed to get back to Dublin as chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. His association with Berkeley, which Swift had hoped would lead to better things, yielded no great opportunities, and Swift was obliged to take a modest ecclesiastical living near Dublin.
Swift’s literary reputation began with a pamphlet which he produced in 1701 supporting certain Whig politicians, but it was the publishing, anonymously, of A Tale of a Tub in 1704 that made him widely known in not only literary but also political and religious circles, since it attacked, satirically, excesses in the Christian religion, in scholarship, in journalism, and, to a slightly lesser extent, in politics. Satire is not simply criticism of aberrant behavior as the writer sees it, nor is it a particular mode, since any literary form may be used satirically. Rather, satire is an artistic shaping of criticism in ways which make it, however strongly disapproving, enjoyable to read, regardless of whether one agrees with the comment. A Tale of a Tub exemplifies this definition, since much of what Swift said, particularly about the Christian Church, was considered highly improper, but the work itself was not only widely read but also recognized as a work of genius, albeit one with a penchant for wildly egregious impropriety. Swift coyly denied that he had written it, and several other writers of reputation were suggested, some indignantly refusing the honor, but eventually Swift, despite his constant denials, was recognized as the author of this mad, magnificent attack upon the fragilities and vanities of humanity.
In 1708, while working informally with Whig politicians to achieve certain advantages for the Anglican Church in Ireland (at a time when church and state were closely intertwined), Swift delighted everyone with a second satire, one which was easily enjoyed by all since it was an attack upon the excesses of astrology. Predictions for the Ensuing Year, by Isaac Bickerstaff (1708), purportedly written by Bickerstaff, the most extravagantly fearless seer of them all, was an attack on a popular hack astrologer, John Partridge. In the correspondence, the counterclaims, the sheer lunacies of several pamphlets, the public became joyfully involved, and Partridge’s career was ruined. It was the first but not the last time that Swift’s gift for using art as a social weapon was to achieve results in the real world. The Partridge incident also showed clearly that the whimsical aspect of Swift’s literary gift, its inclination toward playfulness and practical jokery, which was sometimes absent in A Tale of a Tub, could be quite delightful in its own right.
At the same time as he was developing his fame as the wiliest writer around, Swift was working to get Whig support for his church. He was often thwarted, however, by the politicians’ natural inclination to promise much but deliver little, and by the fact that the Whigs in general had sympathies for other Protestant sects (called, for convenience, Dissenters) who wished to have their political, religious, and social rights extended. Anglicans of conservative bent, such as Swift, saw such ambitions as a threat to the supremacy of the Anglican establishment. By 1710, Swift had abandoned the Whigs and become the literary voice of the Tory Party, for whom he wrote The Examiner (1710), a popular propaganda sheet still readable today.
While living with Temple in the 1690’s, Swift had formed a very close connection with Esther Johnson, a young woman who, with a companion, had followed Swift back to Ireland at the turn of the century. They were to form a peculiar threesome, and there is much romantic speculation about whether Swift married Johnson, although there is no real evidence that he ever did. There is much evidence, however, of his genuine affection for her, and although they never lived together, they rarely lived far apart whenever Swift, between his frequent trips to England, was resident in Dublin. During his stay in England on a somewhat permanent basis beginning in 1710, when he became the confidant of the leaders of the Tory Party and was privy to their efforts to rule the country, he sent a long series of letters back to Johnson and her companion which are intimate glimpses not only into his relationship with the women (and particularly to Johnson) but also into the political world of the...
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