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Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) - pseudonyms: Isaac Bickerstaff, A Dissenter, A Person of Qauality, A Person of Honour, M.B. Drapier, T.R.D.J.S.D.O.P.I.I. (The Reverend Doctor Jonathan Switft, Dean of Partick's in Ireland)


Irish author and journalist, dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral (Dublin) from 1713, the most famous prose satirist in English language. Jonathan Swift became insane in his last years, but until his death he was known as Dublin's foremost citizen. Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift's masterpiece, has never been out of print. He gave to Lemuel Gulliver's fantastic adventures an air of authenticity and realism. As a result, many of his contemporaies believed them to be true. The opening story, about Gulliver's shipwreck on the island of Lilliput, has been readers' all-time favorite part of the book.

"They look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death; for they alledge, that care and vigilante, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man's goods from thieves; but honesty hat no fence against superior cunning: and since it is necessary that there should be a perpetual intercourse of buying and selling, and dealing upon credit; where fraud is permitted or connived at, or hath no Law to punish it, the honest dealer is always undone and the knave gets the advantage." (from Part I: 'A Voyage to Lilliput' in Gulliver's Travels)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin. His father, Jonathan Swift Sr., was a lawyer and an English civil servant. He died seven month's before his son was born, but there is no official record of his death. It has been suggested that it may even be that the baby's real father was someone else. (Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch, 2013, p. 2) Swift himself sometimes declared that he was not born in Ireland at all. And he said that he had been unluckily "dropped" in Ireland.

Abigail Erick, Swift's mother, had also a daughter, Jane. Without income, she was unable to support her family. Swift was taken or "stolen" by his wet nurse to Whitehaven, a small town on the northwest coast of England. At the age of four he was sent back to Dublin, to Abigail's wealthy brother-in-law, Uncle Godwin, who disliked being responsible for his nephew: he had thirteen children of his own from four marriages. Abigail returned with Jane to England, where she settled in Leicester. Swift saw her again when he was twenty-one. 

Swift studied at Kilkenny Grammar School (1674-82), the best school in Ireland, and Trinity College in Dublin (1682-89), receiving his B.A. in 1686 and M.A. in 1692. At school Swift was not a very good good student and his teachers noted his headstrong behavior. Swift mocked in A Tale of a Tub (1704) the formal style of education at the College as "the art of being deep-learned and shallow-read." (The Works of Jonathan Swift. Containing Interesting and Valuable Papers, Not Hitherto Published. With Memoir of the Author, Volume 1, by Thomas Roscoe, 1841, p. 107)

When the anti-Catholic Revolution of 1688 aroused reaction in Ireland, Swift sought security in England. He worked at the household of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Surrey - Lady Temple was a relative of Swift's mother - but was not satisfied with his position as a secretary. On his spare time he wrote 'Ode to The Athenian Society' (1692). "Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet," said John Dryden supposedly. ('A Literary Chestnut: Dryden's "Cousin Swift"' by Maurice Johnson, PMLA, Vol. 67, No. 7, Dec., 1952)

In 1695 Swift was ordained in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Dublin. While in staying in Moor Park, Swift also served as the teacher of a young girl, Esther Johnson, whom he called "Stella" and who become an important person in his life. Stella moved to Ireland to live near him and followed him on his travels to London. Their relationship was a constant source of gossips. According to some speculations, they were married in 1716. Stella died in 1727. For the rest of his life, Swift kept a lock of her hair among his papers. In an act of self-examination, he began to write an autobiography, which he soon abandoned: "either indolence, sickness, old age or carelessness hindered the Dean from proceeding further in these Memoirs" he wrote in the margin of the manuscript. (Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography by David Nokes, 1985, p. 4)

"As the common forms of good manners were intended for regulating the conduct of those who have weak understandings; so they have been corrupted by the persons for whose use they were contrived. For these people have fallen into a needless and endless way of multiplying ceremonies, which have been extremely troublesome to those who practice them, and insupportable to everyone else: insomuch that wise men are often more uneasy at the over civility of these refiners, than they could possibly be in the conversations of peasants or mechanics." (from 'A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding', 1754)

During his post as the vicar of Kilroot (1696-96), Swith met Jane Waring, but to his disappointment, Varina (as he Latinized Jane) did not consider him a suitable marriage partner. After William Temple's death in 1699, Swift returned to Ireland.

Swift was one of the central characters of the literary and political life of London, which he frequented throughout the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). Between the years 1707 and 1709, Swift was an emissary for the Irish clergy in London. He contributed to the 'Bickerstaff Papers' and to the Tattler in 1708-09. In addition, he cofounded the Scriblerus Club, which included member such as Pope, Gay, Congreve, and Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford.

In 1710 Swift tried to open a political career among Whigs but changed his party and took over the Tory journal The Examiner. With the accession of George I, the Tories lost political power and Swift his political future. Disappointed, Swift withdrew to Dublin. From 1713 to 1745 he acted as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Hester Vanhomrigh, whom Swift had met in 1708, and whom he had tutored, made her home there near him. We don't know if Stella was aware of this. Hester was 22 years his junior. Swift Latinized her name as Vanessa.

In the poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa' from 1713 Swift wrote about their relationship: "Each girl, when pleased with what is taught, / Will have the teacher in her thought." Hester Vanhomrigh died in 1723. "How strange that a celibate scholar, well on in his life, should keep the love of two such women," said William Butler Yeats. "He met Vanessa in London at the height of his political power. She followed him to Dublin. She loved him for nine years, perhaps died of love; but Stella loved him all her life." (The Words Upon the Window Pane: A Play in One Act, with Notes Upon the Play and its Subject, by William Butler Yeats, 1970, p. 39) Yeats was obsessed with Swift ("Swift haunts me; he is always just around the next corner"), reading him a lot in the 1920s.

Stella's long illness caused Swift to argue in his final birthday poem to her: "Were future happiness and pain, / A mere contrivance of the brain, / As atheists argue, to entice, / And fit their proselytes for vice; / (The only comfort they propose, / To have companions for their woes.)" ('A complete System of Atheism: Jonathan Swift,' in Godless Fictions in the Eighteenth Century: a Literary History of Atheism, 1720-1820 by James Reeves, 2020, p. 40) Although Swift every now and then struggled with religious doubts, and pondered about the possibility of atheism, he never went from a believer to a closet atheist. His religious writing is little read today. 

It is thought that Swift suffered from Ménière's disease or Alzheimer's disease or dementia. According to Swift's godson, about the year 1736 his memory started to fail him, he raged without control, and quarreled with friends. Swift's doctor was alleged to be stealing his money and selling off his books. His friends and servant had to dress and feed him and he had to be put to bed like a child. "I am so stupid and confounded that I cannot express the mortification I am under both in body and mind [ . . . ] I hardly understand one word I write." Eventually Swift stopped speaking. (Dementia Reimagined: Building a Life of Joy and Dignity from Beginning to End by Tia Powell, 2019, p. 20) From the beginning of his twentieth year Swift had suffered from deafness, it only worsened along the years. As a result of his condition, many considered him insane. Swift had predicted his mental decay when he was about 50 and had remarked to the poet Edward Young when they were gazing at the withered crown of a tree: "I shall be like that tree, I shall die from the top."

Gulliver's Travels (1726) Defoe's novel about Robinson Crusoe had appeared in 1719 and in the same vein Swift makes Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon and a sea captain, recount his adventures. In part one, Gulliver is wrecked on an island where human beings are six inches tall. The Lilliputians have wars, and conduct clearly laughable with their self-importance and vanities - these human follies only reduced into a miniature scale. Gulliver's second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag. "I cannot but conclude that the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." He meets giants who are practical but do not understand abstractions. In the third voyage contemporary scientist are held up for ridicule: science is shown to be futile unless it is applicable to human betterment. Gulliver then travels to the flying island of Laputa and the nearby continent and capital of Lagado. There he meets mad scientists obsessed with their own special field and utterly ignorant of the rest of the life. On the island of Glubbdubdrib Gulliver encounters a community of sorcerers who can summon the spirits of the dead, allowing him to converse with Alexander, Julius Caesar, Aristotle and others. He meets Struldbrughs, who are immortal and, as a result, utterly miserable and become senile in their 80s. In the fourth part Gulliver visits the land of Houyhnhnms, where horses are intelligent but human beings are not. The horses are served with degenerate creatures called Yahoos, demonstrating that human race would destroy itself without divine aid. The Houyhnhnms had just one child of each sex. Swift wrote the book with a serious purpose - "to mend the world". Gulliver's Travels was a topical social satire, a work of propaganda, in which Swift wanted to show the consequences of humanity's refusal to be reasonable. It is still widely read all over the world - especially the two first books in abridged form are children's favorites - and open to many interpretations. But when Defoe was an optimist, Swift's in his bitter pessimism makes Gulliver return home, preferring the company of horses to that of his family. Thackeray denounced the fourth book as "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene". (Thackeray's English Humourists and Four Georges by Edgar F. Harden, 1985, pp. 49-50)  Other traveller's tales: Homer's Odyssey, Marco Polo's Travels, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, adventures of Baron Münchhausen by Rudolf Eric Raspe (1737-1794), etc.

Besides ridiculing human nature and the politics of Ireland and Britain, Gulliver's Travels included several important social and scientific observations. Seventy years before Robert Malthus, Swift proposed population control, he favored the Lilliputhian idea of having children reared by the State, and he also stated that Mars had two moons; both satellites were not discovered until 1877. But his political views were sternly conservative, and they changed very little throughout his life. Jonathan Swift died in Dublin on October 19, 1745. He left behind a great mass of poetry and prose, chiefly in the form of pamphlets. William Makepeace Thackeray once said of the author: "So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling." Esther Johnson's grave is beside Swift's on the south side of the nave of at St. Patrick's Cathedral. In 1835, the skulls of Swift and Stella were removed from their coffins. "On looking at Swift's skull," reported the examiner, Mr. Hamilton, "the first thing that struck me was the extreme lowness of the forehead, those parts which the phrenologists have marked out as the organs of wit, causality, and comparison, being scarcely developed at all; but the head rose gradually, and was high from benevolence backwards. . . . Although the skull, phrenologically considered, might be thought deficient, yet its capacity was, in reality, very great, capable of containing such a brain as we might expect in so remarkable a genius." (The Closing Years Of Dean Swift's Life: With Remarks On Stella And On Some Of His Writings Hitherto Unnoticed by William R. Wilde, 1849, pp. 55-56)

Among Swift's most famous works is The Battle of the Books (1697), exploring the merits of the ancients and the moderns in literature. The author himself pretends to be an objective chronicler of events, but his sympathies are more on the side of the ancients. A Tale of a Tub (1704) was a religious satire. Swift once stated that "satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." At its core the tale a simple narrative of a father who has triplets, Martin, Peter and Jack; they refer to different churches. The father is of course God. Upon his death, he leaves them each a coat which will grow with them. Swift finished the tale in 1697, but hesitated to publish it. Although the work eventually appeared anonymously, it established Swift's reputation.

In An Argument against Abolishing Christianity (1708) the narrator thinks that Christianity is practically dead but speaks for the preservation of the Christian religion as a social necessity. When an ignorant cobbler named John Partridge published an almanac of astrological predictions, Swift parodied it in Predictions For The Ensuing Year by Isaac Bickerstaff. He foretold the death of John Partridge on March, 1708, and affirmed on that day his prediction. Partridge protested that he was alive but Swift proved in his 'Vindication' that he was dead. Drapier's Letters (1724) was against the monopoly granted by the English government to William Wood to provide the Irish with copper coinage.

The narrator recommends in A Modest Proposal (1729) with grotesque logic, that Irish poverty can be solved by the breeding up their infants as food for the rich. When the actor Peter O'Toole read it - for some reason - in the reopening of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1984, several members from the audience departed. Swift has been labelled as a hater of mankind. "Principally I hate and detest that animal called man; although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth," Swift wrote in a letter to Alexander Pope. However, Swift defended ordinary Irish people against England's economic oppression and he was known as a prankster. He also had a philanthropical side. As a churchman Swift had spent a third of his earnings on charities and he saved another third each year to found St. Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles in 1757. 

For further reading: The Life of Jonathan Swift by Henry Craik (1882); The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift by Ricardo Quintano (1936); Swift: An Introduction by Ricardo Quintano (1955); Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives by Phyllis Greenacre (1955); Swift and Ireland by Oliver W. Ferguson (1962); Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age by Irvin Ehrenpreis (1962-83, 3 vols.); Swift: "Gulliver's Travels", ed. by Richard Gravil (1974); Swift's Landscape by Carole Fabricant (1982); The Character of Swift's Satire, ed. by Claude J. Rawson (1983); Jonathan Swift: Political Writer by J.A. Downie (1984); Jonathan Swift by David Nokes (1985); Gulliver's Travels by S. Brean Hammond (1988); Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch (2013); 'A complete System of Atheism: Jonathan Swift,' in Godless Fictions in the Eighteenth Century: a Literary History of Atheism, 1720-1820 by James Reeves (2020); Reading Swift's Poetry by Daniel Cook (2020); The Cambridge Companion to Gulliver's Travels, edited by Daniel Cook and Nicholas Seager (2023); The Life of Jonathan Swift: A Critical Biography by Thomas Lockwood (2023) - See also: Rabelais, Cyrano de Bergerac, Alexander Pope, John Gay

Selected works:

  • A Tale of a Tub: Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, 1704
    - Tynnyritarina (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, 2004)
  • The Battle of Books, 1704
    - Kirjojen taistelu (suom. Jyrki Vainonen; in Tynnyritarina, 2004)
  • Prediction For The Ensuing Year, 1708 (as Isaac Bickerstaff)
  • An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, 1711
  • A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, 1720
  • Drapier's Letters, 1724-25
  • Cadenus and Vanessa, 1726
  • Gulliver's Travels, or, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, 1726
    - Gulliverin matkustukset tuntemattomissa maissa (suom. P. Wäyrynen, 1876) / Gulliverin matkat kaukaisilla mailla (suom. Samuli S., 1904) / Gulliverin retket (suom. J.A. Hollo, 1926) / Gulliverin matkat (suom. Alpo Kupiainen, 1986)
    - Films: animated movie: The New Gulliver (1933), dir. by Alexandr Ptoushko, USSR; animated version in Gulliver's Travels (1939), dir. by David Fleischer; The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1959), dir. by Jack Sher; animated movie Gulliver's Travels Beyond Moon (1966), dir. by Joshio Kuroda; animated movie Gulliver's Travels (1976), dir. by Peter Hunt; Gulliver in Lilliput (1981), dir. by Barry Letts; animated movie Gulliver's Travels Part 2 (1983), dir. by Cruz Delgado; Gulliver's Travels (1995), dir. by Charles Sturridge
  • A Modest Proposal, 1729
    - Vaatimaton ehdotus (suom. Timo Siivonen, 1997)
  • Directions to Servants, 1731
    - Ohjeita palvelusväelle (suom. Keijo Rinne, 1999)
  • A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation, 1738
  • Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, 1739
  • The Journal to Stella, 1766 (written 1710-13)
  • Letters, Written by Jonathan Swift, 1767 (3 vols., 5th ed., with notes explanatory and historical, by John Hawkesworth)
  • The Works, 1784 (17 vols., rev. 1812, 24 vols.)
  • The Poetical Works of Dr. Jonath. Swift, 1787 (4 vols.)
  • The Works of Jonathan Swift, 1814 (19 vols., ed. by Sir Walter Scott)
  • The Works of Jonathan Swift. Containing Interesting and Valuable Papers, Not Hitherto Published. With Memoir of the Author, by Thomas Roscoe, 1841-43 (2 vols.)
  • Selections from the Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, 1901 (edited with notes and an introduction by F.C. Prescott)
  • Select Letters of Jonathan Swift, 1926 (edited with introduction and notes by W. D. Taylor)
  • The Letters of Jonathan Swift to Charles Ford, 1935 (edited by David Nichol Smith)
  • The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, 1939-68 (14 vols., edited by Herbert Davis)
  • The Writings of Jonathan Swift, 1973 (edited by Robert Greenberg and William Piper)
  • Swift's Irish Pamphlets: An Introductory Selection, 1991 (edited by Joseph McMinn)
    - Irlantilaisia pamfletteja (suom. Jyrki Vainonen, 1998)
  • The Intelligencer by Jonathan Swift and Thomas Sheridan, 1992 (edited by James Woolley)
  • A Modest Proposal and Other Satires, 1995 (with an introduction by George R. Levine)
  • English Political Writings 1711-1714: The Conduct of the Allies and Other Works, 2008 (edited by Bertrand A. Goldgar and Ian Gadd)
  • Jonathan Swift: Major Works, 2008 (edited with an introduction and notes by Angus Ross and David Woolley)
  • Jonathan Swift: The Essential Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism, 2010 (edited by Claude Rawson and Ian Higgins)
  • Irish Political Writings After 1725: A Modest Proposal and Other Works, 2018 (edited by D. W. Hayton and Adam Rounce)

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