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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.
insane in his last years, but until his death he was known as Dublin's
foremost citizen. Swift's masterpiece Gulliver's Travels (1726)
has never been out of print. Swift gave to Lemuel Gulliver's fantastic
adventures an air of authenticity and
realism and 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 Gulliver's Travels: 'A Voyage to Lilliput')
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. (Leo Damrosch has argued in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (2013) that it may even be that the baby's real father was someone else.) Abigail Erick, Swift's mother, was left without private income to support her family. Swift was taken or "stolen" by his wet nurse to Whitehaven, a small town on the northwest coast of England. Swift himself sometimes declared that he was not born in Ireland at all. At the age of four he was sent back to Dublin. Swift's mother returned to England, and she left her son to her wealthy brother-in-law, Uncle Godwin, who disliked being responsible for his nephew.
Swift studied at Kilkenny Grammar School (1674-82), the best school in Ireland, 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. When the anti-Catholic Revolution of the
year 1688 aroused
reaction in Ireland, Swift moved to England to the household of Sir
at Moor Park, Surrey -
Lady Temple was a
relative of Swift's mother. He worked there as a secretary (1689-95,
1696-99), but did not like his position as a servant in the household.
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 was the teacher of a young girl, Esther Johnson, whom he called "Stella". When she grew up she 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 and Swift kept a lock of her hair among his papers for the rest of his life.
"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)
After William Temple's death in 1699, Swift returned to Ireland. He made several trips to London and gained fame with his essays. Throughout the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), Swift was one of the central characters in the literary and political life of London. From 1695 to 1696 Swift was the vicar of Kilroot. There he met Jane Wairing, with whom he had an affair. For Swift's disappointment, she did not consider him a suitable marriage partner. Between the years 1707 and 1709 Swift was an emissary for the Irish clergy in London. Swift contributed to the 'Bickerstaff Papers' and to the Tattler in 1708-09. He was a cofounder of the Scriblerus Club, which included such member 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. Swift
withdrew to Ireland. Hester Vanhomrigh, whom Swift had met in 1708, and
whom he had tutored, followed him to Ireland after her mother had died.
She was 22 years younger than Swift, who nicknamed her Vanessa. In the
poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa' from 1713 Swift wrote about the affair:
"Each girl, when pleased with what is taught, / Will have the teacher
in her thought." In 1723 Swift broke off the relationship; she never
recovered form his rejection.
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. Hisreligious writing is little read today.
From 1713 to 1742 Swift was the dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. 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 of 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."
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.
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) - See also: Rabelais, Cyrano de Bergerac, Alexander Pope, John Gay