At a Glance
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.
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...
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