Jonathan Swift Biography

Jonathan Swift Biography

Jonathan Swift is the world’s most misunderstood children’s writer. Though his classic book Gulliver’s Travels is often referred to as youth reading, it is in fact an audacious satire on the society in which Swift lived. Swift complemented his satirical work with essays and pamphlets on government and society; his commentary often put him at odds with political parties as well as the monarchy. Swift’s battles were also artistic, as evidenced by “An Essay Upon Ancient and Modern Learning,” which ardently defended classical writing and set off a debate that spanned numerous volumes written by several authors. In A Modest Proposal, Swift mockingly proposed that the rich make meals out of poor people’s babies. It was this kind of dark whimsy, in which harsh criticism was wrapped in effervescent ridiculousness, that ultimately defined the work of Jonathan Swift.

Facts and Trivia

  • Due to the sharply political nature of his writing, many of Swift’s most famous works were published anonymously or under pseudonyms.
  • Throughout his life, Swift suffered periods of illness. Based on descriptions of his symptoms, it has been concluded that he suffered from what is now known as Meniere’s disease.
  • Swift was very close with a childless woman named Esther Johnson who became his ward at a very young age. While some believe the two were married later in life, no conclusive evidence has been found.
  • Swift was a member of the Martinus Scriblerus Club, a society of writers that included Swift’s friends Alexander Pope and John Gay.
  • With most of his close friends dead, Swift bequeathed much of his fortune to the founding of what was then known as St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles.


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2888 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Swift has been well described as Ireland’s “patriot- in-spite-of-himself.” Born into an Anglo-Irish family, he always believed his rightful place was in the English court. However, he was destined to live out his life in Ireland, his only preferment being the Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin. He fell out of favor with the ruling Tories by his own doing. His brilliant and most difficult satire, A Tale of a Tub (1704), was a parable of the development of Christianity. Although it was published anonymously, Swift was widely believed to be the author and Queen Anne became persuaded that he would never prove a reliable clergyman in the Church of England.

Serving as dean of St. Patrick’s involved Swift heavily in Irish politics. Political censorship in the early eighteenth century usually took the form of criminal charges against publishers and printers rather than the prosecution of authors. The aim was to deprive writers of the means to communicate their works to the public. By charging those who bought, held the copyright, transported, or published certain of Swift’s works with sedition, the government hoped to silence him.

The most egregious case of this form of censorship was directed against Swift’s Irish political pamphlets. In 1720 Swift wrote a short pamphlet entitled A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures. Anonymously published, the pamphlet urged the Irish to boycott English manufactured...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667, after the death of his father, a lower-middle class Anglo-Irishman. His grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Swift, had been a vicar in Herefordshire. His father, also named Jonathan, had settled in Ireland to work as a steward of the King’s Inns in Dublin. His mother was Abigail Erick, the daughter of a Leicestershire clergyman. Swift’s mother entrusted her young son to a nurse, who spirited the infant Swift away from Ireland for several years; he was eventually returned, and he was peculiarly linked with Ireland throughout his life. In any case, it was his fancy to picture himself a lonely outcast amid barbarians.

Swift attended Kilkenny School in his...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Jonathan Swift, as Louis Bredvold has observed, was the “greatest genius” among the Augustan wits, and even more clearly “one of the most absorbing and enigmatic personalities in literature.” He was a man of brute talent with the pen, a man with remarkable intensity and drive, yet one who was frequently alienated and rebuffed. Of English parentage, Swift was born in 1667 in Dublin, seven months after his father’s death. In straitened circumstances, Swift was reared in Ireland. His father had settled there at the time of the Restoration of Charles II (1660); his paternal grandfather had been an Anglican minister in England. Swift and his mother were dependent on a relatively well-to-do uncle, who did see to young...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jonathan Swift lived a long, active public life, though its beginning and end were cloaked in darkness. He was born on November 30, 1667, in Dublin, Ireland, to Jonathan and Abigail Erick Swift. His parents had recently moved from England to Dublin, where Swift was born a few months after his father had died. Mysteriously, he was soon separated from his mother, perhaps kidnapped and taken to England, as he later believed. Supported by an uncle, he studied at Kilkenny Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin.

Late in 1689, he established residence at Moor Park as secretary to Sir William Temple, the man of letters and elderstatesman. Temple had arranged the marriage of Princess Mary to William of Orange; their...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Readers insensitive to Jonathan Swift’s ironies have dismissed him as a crazy man who hated humanity. Others have concluded that he was a humane Christian who valued human life. Upheavals in politics, religion, and learning made Swift think that the modern world was going crazy. He longed for a stable, reasonable order in society based on institutions, such as the church, that seek to correct humanity’s vanity and pride. Yet his diabolical imagination told him authority was drowning in change. Swift embodied and recorded the profound contradictions of his era better, perhaps, than any other English writer.

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jonathan Swift, with perhaps the keenest mind and sharpest wit in an age marked by intellectual brilliance, was a mass of contradictions. He was dedicated to the ideals of rationality and common sense, yet he approached the irrational in his contempt for humankind’s failure to live up to his ideal. Profoundly distrustful of all “enthusiasm” or fanaticism, he was himself something of an enthusiast in his glorification of “pure reason.” He was possessed of one of the clearest and most direct styles in the English language, but the subtleties of his irony were misunderstood in his own and later ages.

Although biographical details do not adequately explain either the genius or the contradictions of Swift, the...

(The entire section is 1203 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Novels for Students)

Swift was born in 1667 in Ireland of English parents. Swift's father died shortly before he was born, leaving Jonathan, his sister, and their...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Jonathan Swift Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, November 30, 1667, of Anglo-Irish parents. He was educated in Ireland and graduated from Trinity...

(The entire section is 767 words.)