Jonathan Swift: Biography, Life & Career

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       Jonathan Swift was born into a poor family that included his mother (Abigail) and his sister (Jane). His father, a noted clergyman in England, had died seven months before Jonathan's birth. There is not much known of Swift's childhood, and what is reported is not always agreed upon by biographers. What is accepted, however, is that Jonathan's mother, after the death of her husband, left the children to be raised by relatives (probably uncles), while she returned to her family in England (Leicester). It is also reported that Swift, as a baby, was taken by a nurse to England where he remained for three years before being returned to his family.

Jonathan Swift was born into a poor family that included his mother (Abigail) and his sister (Jane). His father, a noted clergyman in England, had died seven months before Jonathan's birth.
Jonathan Swift

       This is open to conjecture, but the story contributes to the lack of information available regarding Swift's childhood. Beginning in 1673, Swift attended Kilkenny Grammar School, where he enjoyed reading and literature and excelled especially in language study. In 1682, Swift entered Trinity College where he received a B.A. by "special grace," a designation for students who did not perform very well while there. Upon leaving Trinity College, Swift went to England to work as a secretary (a patronage position) for Sir William Temple. In 1692, Swift received an M.A. From Oxford; In 1702, He Received A D.d. (Doctor Of Divinity) From Dublin University.

      In The History Of Literature Swift Occupies A Large Place As The most powerful of English satirists; that is, writers who search out the faults of society in order to hold them up to ridicule. To most readers, however, he is known as the author of Gulliver's Travels, a book which young people still read with pleasure, as they read Robinson Crusoe or any other story of adventure. In the fate of that book, which was scourge humanity but which has become a source of innocent entertainment, is a commentary on the colossal failure of Swift's ambition.


      Little need be recorded of Swift's life beyond the few facts which help us to understand his satires. He was born in Dublin of English parents, and was so "bantered by fortune" that he was compelled to spend the greater part of his life in Ireland, a country which he detested. He was very poor, very proud; and even in youth he railed at a mocking fate which compelled him to accept aid from others. For his education, he was dependent on a relative, who helped him grudgingly. After leaving Trinity College, Dublin, the only employment he could find was with another relative, Sir William Temple, a retired statesman, who hired Swift as a secretary and treated him as a servant. Galled by his position and by his feeling of superiority (for he was a man of physical and mental power, who longed to be a master of great affairs) he took orders in the Anglican Church; but the only appointment he could obtain was in a village buried, as he said, in a forsaken district of Ireland.

      There his bitterness overflowed in A Tale of a Tub and a few pamphlets of such satiric power that certain political leaders recognized Swift's value and summoned him to their assistance.

      To understand his success in London one must remember the times. Politics were rampant; the city was the battleground of Whigs and Tories, whose best weapon was the printed pamphlet that justified one party by heaping abuse or ridicule on the other. Swift was a master of satire, and he was soon the most feared author in England. He seems to have had no fixed principles, for he was ready to join the Tories when that party came into power and to turn his literary cannon on the Whigs, whom he had recently supported. In truth, he despised both parties; his chief object was to win for himself the masterful position in Church or state for which, he believed, his talents had fitted him. 

      For several years Swift was the literary champion of the victorious Tories; then, when his keen eye detected signs of tottering in the party, he asked for his reward. He obtained, not the great bishopric which he expected, but an appointment as Dean of St. P'atrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Small and bitter fruit this seemed to Swift, after his years of service, but even so, it was given grudgingly.

       When the Tories went out of power Swift's political occupation was gone. The last thirty years of his life were spent largely in Dublin. There in a living grave, as he regarded it, the scorn which he had hitherto felt for individuals or institutions widerned until it included humanity. Such is the meaning of his Gulliver's Travels. His only pleasure during these years was to expose the gullibility of men, and a hundred good stories are current of his practical jokes,- such as his getting rid of a crowd which had gathered to watch an eclipse by sending a solemn messenger to announce that, by the Dean's orders, the eclipse was postponed till the next day. A brain disease fastened upon him gradually, and his last years were passed in a state of alternate stupor or madness from which death was a blessed deliverance.

      Works Of Swift: The poems of Swift, though they show undoubted power (every smallest thing he wrote bears that stamp), may be passed over with the comment of his relative Dryden, who wrote: "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet." The criticism was right, but thereafter Swift jeered at Dryden's poetry. We may pass over also the Battle of the Books, the Drapier's Letters and a score more of satires and lampoons. Of all these minor works the Bickers'taff Papers, which record Swift's practical joke on the astrologers, are most amusing Swift's fame now rests largely upon his Gulliver's Travels, which appeared in 1726 under the title, "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon and then a Captain of Several Ships." In the first voyage we are taken to Lilliput, a country inhabited by human beings about six inches tall, with minds in proportion. The capers of these midgets are a satire on human society as seen through Swift's scornful eyes. In the second voyage we to Brobdingnag, where the people are of gigantic stature, and by contrast we are reminded of the petty "human insects" whom Gulliver represents. The third voyage, to the Island of Laputa is a Burlesque of the scientists and philosophers of Swift's day. The fourth leads to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where intelligent horses are the ruling creatures, and humanity is represented by the Yahoos, a horribly degraded race, having the forms of men and the bestial habits of monkeys.

      Such is the ferocious satire on the elegant society of Queen Anne's day. Fortunately for our peace of mind we can read the book for its grim humor and adventurous action, as we read any other good story. Indeed, it surprises most readers of Gulliver to be told that the work was intended to wreck our faith in humanity. In all his satires Swift's power lies in his prose style - a convincing style, clear, graphic, straightforward - and in his marvelous ability to make every scene, however distant or grotesque, as natural as life itself. As Emerson said, he describes his characters as if for the police. His weakness is twofold: he has a fondness for coarse or malodorous references, and he is so beclouded in his own soul that he cannot see his fellows in a true light. In one of his early works he announced the purpose of all his writing:

      My hate, whose lash just Heaven has long decreed, Shall on a day make Sin and Folly bleed. That was written at twenty-six, before he took orders in the Church. As a theological student it was certainly impressed upon the young man that Heaven keeps its own prerogatives, and that sin and folly have never been effectually reformed by lashing. But Swift had a scorn of all judgment except his own. As the eyes of fishes are so arranged that they see only their prey and their enemies, so Swift had eyes only for the vices of men and for the lash that scourges them. When he wrote, therefore, he was not an observer, or even a judge; he was a criminal lawyer prosecuting humanity on the charge of being a sham. A tendency to insanity may possibly account both for his spleen against others and for the self-tortures which made him as Archbishop King said, "the most unhappy man on earth."

      There is one oasis in the bitter desert of Swift's writings, namely, his Journal to Stella. While in the employ of Temple he was the daily companion of a young girl, Esther Johnson, who was an inmate of the same household. Her love for Swift was pure and constant; wherever he went she followed and lived near him, bringing a ray of sunshine into his life, in a spirit which reminds us of the sublime expression of another woman: "For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." She was probably married to Swift, but his pride kept him from openly acknowledging the union. While he was at London he wrote a private journal for Esther (Stella) in which he recorded his impressions of the men and women he met, and of the political battles in which he took part. That journal, filled with strange abbreviations to which only he and Stella had the key, can hardly be called literature, but it is of profound interest. It gives us glimpses of a woman who chose to live in the shadow; it shows the better side of Swift's nature, in contrast with his arrogance towards men and his brutal treatment of women; and finally, it often takes us behind the scenes of a stage on which was played a mixed comedy of politics and society.


      From approximately 1689 to 1694, Swift was employed as a secretary to Sir William Temple in Moor Park, Surrey, England. In 1694, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican Church) and assigned as Vicar (parish priest) of Kilroot, a church near Belfast (in northern Ireland). In 1696, he returned to working with Sir William Temple, and in 1699, after the death of Sir William, he became chaplain to Lord Berkley. In 1700, Swift became the Vicar of Laracor, Ireland, and he was also appointed prebend (an honorary clergyman serving in a cathedral) at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. In 1707, Swift was appointed as an emissary to the Church of Ireland, and in 1713, he was appointed as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

      Throughout all this time, and, indeed, after his appointment as Dean of St. Patrick's, Swift continued writing satirically in various genres, including both prose and poetry using various forms to address different causes, including personal, behavioral, philosophical, political, religious, civics and others.


Between the years 1696-99, Swift wrote two major works. Tale of a Tub, defending the middle position of the Anglican and Lutheran churches, and Battle of the Books, taking the part of the Ancients (those who believed in the superiority of the classics and the humanities) against the Moderns (those who upheld the superiority of modern science, modern scholarship, modern politics, and modern literature). In The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit (1704), Swift continues his satiric attack on both questionable religious views and questionable knowledge acquisition, particularly scientific knowledge. In Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, Swift shares his reactions to the Test Act, a law enacted by Charles II, requiring office holders to declare their allegiance to the king over the church. The Journal to Stella (1710-1713), a series of letters written by Swift to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, includes the poem "The Windsor Prophecy" a satirical attack on the person and personality of the Duchess of Somerset, Queen Anne's red-haired attendant who did not care for Swift because of disparaging remarks Swift had written about her family.

      Swift is also recognized as a defender of Ireland. In A Modest Proposal (1729), a reaction to English commercial practices that negatively impacted Ireland, Swift wrote one of the greatest works of sustained irony in English or any other language. Instead of maintaining that English laws prevent the Irish from manufacturing anything to sell, he argues that the only items of commerce that the English don't restrict are Irish babies and reasons that the Irish would be better off as cattle to be butchered than as a colony to be starved by the English. The Drapier's Letters (1724) is Swift's response to the continued subjugation of all aspects of the lives of those living in Ireland by England. The Letters aroused so much opposition the English offered a reward of £300 for the name of the author. Although the Irish knew that he had written the letters, they did not betray him. They made him a national hero instead. In his most recognized novel, Gulliver's Travels (1726). Swift presents a satire on all aspects of humanity by pointing out the weaknesses, vices, and follies inherent in all human beings; the satire reaches its apex in Swift's comparison of Houyhnhnms (horses) and Yahoos (human-like creatures) in Book IV. In 1727, Swift visited England for the last time. He was declared mentally incompetent in 1742 and died in October 1745, leaving his estate to charity.

      Irish author and satirist Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland on November 30, 1667. His father, an attorney, also named Jonathan Swift, died just two months before he arrived. Without steady income, and in an effort to give her son the best upbringing possible, Swift's mother gave him over to Godwin Swift, her late husband's brother and a member of the respected professional attorney and judges group Gray's Inn. Godwin Swift enrolled his nephew in the Kilkenny Grammar School (1674-1682), which was perhaps the best school in Ireland at the time. Swift's transition from a life of poverty to a rigorous private school setting proved challenging. At age of 14, Swift began his undergraduate studies at Trinity College in Dublin. In 1686, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree ( a B.A), and went on to pursue a master's degree. Not long into his research, huge unrest broke out in Ireland.

      The king of Ireland, England and Scotland were soon to be overthrown. what became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 spurred Swift to move to England and start anew. His mother found a secretary position for him under the revered English statesman, Sir William Temple. For 10 years, Swift worked in London's Moor Park and acted as an assistant to Temple. Temple was so impressed by Swift's abilities that after a time he entrusted him with important tasks (confier des taches importantes à qq). His writings During his decade of work for Temple, Swift returned to Ireland twice. On a trip in 1695, he took all necessary requirements to become an ordained priest in the Anglican tradition. He found work ministering to a pea-sized congregation just 20 miles outside of Dublin, For the next 10 years, he gardened, preached and worked on the house provided to him by the church. Under Temple's influence, he also began to write, first short essays and then a manuscript for a later book. His first political pamphlet was entitled A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.

      In 1704, Swift anonymously released A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Tub, although widely popular with most people, was harshly disapproved of by the Church of England. Ostensibly, it criticized religion, but Swift meant as a parody of pride. Nonetheless, his writings earned him a reputation in London, and when the Tories came into power in 1710, they asked him to come to London and become editor of the Examiner, their official paper.

      His later Years When he saw that the Tories would soon fall from power, Swift returned to Ireland. In 1713, he took the post of dean at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. While leading his congregation at St. Patrick's, Swift began to write what would become his best-known work. In 1726, at last finished with the manuscript, he traveled to London and benefited from the help of several friends, who anonymously published it as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships-also known, more simply, as Gulliver's Travels. The book was an immediate success. Interestingly, much of the storyline points to historical events that Swift had lived through years prior, during intense political turmoil. In 1742, Swift suffered from a stroke (one attaque) and lost the ability to speak. On October 19, 1745, Jonathan Swift died.

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