illustrated portrait of Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

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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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 2888 words.)

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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 time. The latter is true especially because Swift’s relation to Robert Harley and Henry Saint John, Viscount Bolingbroke, the two most important Tory rulers, was very close. Swift’s skills as a writer, his eye for detail, his unbuttoned intimacies, his connections with everyone who was anyone in not only the political but also the social and literary worlds make Journal to Stella (1766) one of the epistolary masterpieces of literature.

Swift wrote splendidly lethal propoganda for the Tory Party, not only in The Examiner but also in other forms. By 1713, however, the Tory Party was falling apart as Harley and Bolingbroke, despite Swift’s advice, battled each other for power. Swift had never taken any direct financial reward for his services, although he expected, as is the way of the political world, to be given something substantial in the way of a Church preferment for what he had done. What he wanted was a bishopric in England, or at worst a deanship. Yet Swift had enemies in the English Church, and Queen Anne knew that he was the author of that antireligious text, A Tale of a Tub. As the Tory Party self-destructed before his eyes, Swift was offered somewhat ironic recompense: a deanship indeed, not in England, however, but back in Ireland, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Once again, the promises of politicians had landed Swift back where he had started.

Swift rarely went to England after 1714, and after a visit in 1727, he resided permanently in Ireland until his death. Attempts were made by his friends to get him a substantial church position in England, but he was remembered as a writer of questionable excess, and his connection with the discredited Tory Party did not help. Swift did not take his exile (as he saw it) lightly, but it did not deter him from a busy life as dean of his cathedral, as a commentator on British and Irish politics, and, most important, as a major literary figure.

Swift became a hero to all Irishmen, native or immigrant, when he anonymously wrote a series of essays, The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland (1724-1735), urging resistance to the British plan to allow an English contractor to replace some of the Irish currency with new coinage. As with the Bickerstaff essays, one paper led to another, focusing Irish discontent and continuing to do so despite the fact that a reward was offered for information as to the author of such seditious material. Everyone, including the British authorities, knew that Swift was responsible, but no one dared to touch him, and he roused such public opinion that the project was abandoned. In 1729, Swift attacked with A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents (1729), which suggested that since Britain had consumed all the wealth of Ireland, only one source of profit was left: the children, doomed to starvation, whom the writer, a supposedly concerned and informed citizen, suggested might well be turned into a new and delicate food for those who had profited from Ireland’s political tragedy. It was an example of Swift’s occasional tendency to go too far, to explore ideas which were both aesthetically and intellectually titillating while repulsive to tender sensibilities.

It was during the 1720’s that Swift wrote his best-known work, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which has been severely edited, bowdlerized, and transformed into a harmless fairy tale and a sweetly sentimental, full-length Hollywood cartoon, but which is in its original form an unrepentant attack upon the stupidities of mankind and the fragility of human reason. Gulliver’s Travels was Swift’s most popular work, even among some of his former enemies, and it transcended many of the prejudices that had been imposed on him as a writer. The book did, however, contain materials which offended the faint-hearted.

Swift continued to write through the 1730’s and to take an active part in Irish life, although he became increasingly infirm in the late 1730’s. Some observers suggest that the imaginative excesses of his satires, with their wild sexual and scatological themes, indicate that Swift was mentally warped. Writers of that period, however, were less puritanically fastidious than one would expect, and human sewage (which Swift often uses as a reminder of human limitations) was a common sight in the open ditches of the cities and towns, as well as a common metaphor in the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope.

In his old age, Swift’s mental facilities began to deteriorate, and in the last three years of his life, he was unable to care for himself. It may seem appropriate that he should wind up mad, having often turned the insane conduct of the human race into high art. Swift knew how slim the human hold of reason was, and he left his estate for the founding of a mental hospital in Dublin, which still exists today.

Gulliver, a decent man, lands up on the shore of reality in the final book of Gulliver’s Travels desperately unhappy. Wretchedly unhinged, he stuffs herbs up his nose because he cannot stand the smell of his family and hangs about his barn trying to teach his horses to talk. Too much sight-seeing, too much constant adjustment to the too-tiny, the too-large, the too-unreasonable, the too-unhuman have worn him out mentally. Swift, in his clear-eyed understanding of the follies and fragilities of men (which he so often commented on in his art and in his normal life as a man of action and involvement) lived cruelly long enough to become a Struldbrugg; life imitated art. Johnson had died, long before, in 1728. Swift was buried near her in St. Patrick’s.


Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth century critic, who was not immune to critical stupidities, tried to dismiss Gulliver’s Travels with the comment that once one had thought of the big and little men, the rest was easy. The way he used his ideas, however, is what distinguishes Jonathan Swift’s writing. Not only did Swift possess wide tonal range (he is a more amusing writer than is usually presumed), but also the multiplicity of satiric insights, even in the shortest works, so often specifically written to comment upon an occurrence of the moment, makes his canon quite as readable today as when it was written.

Swift usually wrote satire from the “inside”; he rarely attacked in his own voice, but rather invented mouthpieces, personas who represented some aspect of the subject. Sometimes they were part of the problem (as in A Tale of a Tub or in the Bickerstaff writings), sometimes victims (as in The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland), and sometimes, as in Gulliver’s case, innocent bystanders who occasionally acted foolishly themselves. In A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents, the speaker is informed and sympathetic but ultimately stupid and unfeeling, since Swift wanted to criticize not only the British and the feckless Irish but also humans with their beastly bureaucratic, professional tendency to insensitive tunnel vision. He never approached a subject simply, or without art in mind.

Once he had thrown over Temple’s advice about writing poetry of praise and started to use it as an adjunct to his satirical prose, Swift became a fine poet, although he was modest about it and deemed himself less gifted than his friend Pope. His political writing (once it is understood that the writer of party affiliation does not necessarily speak true) is lithe, lively, bristlingly intelligent, and often charmingly mischievous. His personal correspondence shows that his gift for turning language into art could be applied to something as simple as asking someone to dinner or as slyly complicated as telling a bishop to jump in the lake without actually saying so.

Saddeningly underestimated or shunned because of misreadings of Gulliver’s Travels in particular, Swift’s work, in its substantial volume and constantly high literary quality, and his life, in all its multiplicity of complication and incident, are together an example of how the artist can use his finest talent to meet the day-to-day problems of his time without losing the chance for immortality.


Ehrenpreis, Irvin. Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age. 3 vols. London: Methuen, 1962-1983. This definitive biography is entertaining, accurate, and determined to place Swift’s works clearly in the context of his life.

Foot, Michael. The Pen and the Sword. London: McGibbon and Kee, 1957. Written not by a scholar but by a political journalist and former leader of the British Labour Party, this work takes Swift through his career as the political spokesman of the Tory Party in their 1710-1714 government of Great Britain. Very good on the ways of the political world by a man who knows it.

Landa, Louis. Swift and the Church of Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954. To understand the satire is to understand Swift as a cleric practicing theology and politics hand-in-hand.

Price, Martin. Swift’s Rhetorical Art: A Study in Structure and Meaning. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953. One of the best critics on the period in general and a constant commentator on Swift, Price carefully explores the technical complexities of Swift’s work in this book.

Quintana, Ricardo. Swift: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962. A good short introduction to the ambiguous art and personality of Swift. Always sensible, Quintana brings his formidable knowledge to bear without pedantry. An excellent starting point.

Rosenheim, E. W. Swift and the Satirist’s Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Explores the range of Swift’s satire from its most corrosively aggressive to its most mildly comic. Invaluable for understanding the subtle nature of his work and its layered mixing of tone and meaning.

Starkman, Miriam Kosh. Swift’s Satire on Learning in “A Tale of a Tub.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950. Swift believed, as did others, that A Tale of a Tub was his masterpiece. It is, like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a book that obliges the reader to train for it; Starkman provides helpful orientation.

Williams, Kathleen. Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1958. The best book for placing Swift in the context of the ideas of his age and for explaining his maddening habit of refusing to tell the reader where the moral norm was and how to respond to it.


Critical Essays