Swift, Jonathan (1667–1745), writer and clergyman, was born 30 November 1667 in the parish of St Werburgh's in Dublin, second child of Jonathan Swift and Abigail Swift (née Erick), recent immigrants from England, whose daughter Jane was born in 1666. Swift's father, who worked as a steward in the Law Courts in Dublin, died before his son was born. For reasons that are still unclear, Swift's mother returned to England when her son was aged three, leaving him in the care of a paternal uncle, Godwin Swift. Most of the facts about Swift's ancestry, parentage, and early childhood depend on Swift's own version, an unfinished autobiographical fragment, ‘Family of Swift’, written in his old age. Biographers and historians have generally accepted his account as reliable and factual. A significant dissenting voice, however, is that of Denis Johnston (qv), whose In search of Swift (1959) argued that Swift's account deliberately conceals the fact of his illegitimate birth, and the identity of his real father, allegedly Sir John Temple (qv), master of the rolls and treasurer of King's Inns in Dublin.
Education and early career, 1673–1707
At the age of six, Swift was sent to Kilkenny School, one of the best in Ireland. In 1682, aged fourteen, he entered TCD, where his poor disciplinary record partly explained the award in 1686 of a BA degree ex speciali gratia (by special grace). In 1692 he received an MA from Oxford by incorporation, and in 1702 he took the degree of doctor of divinity at TCD. Swift had stayed on in Dublin after his BA, but decided to visit his mother in Leicester on the outbreak of war between King James II (qv) and William of Orange (qv). One of the most important and enduring influences of his entire career was formed when he became secretary to Sir William Temple (qv), one of England's most distinguished political diplomats, living in retirement at Moor Park, Surrey. Over the next five years Swift worked as Temple's amanuensis, helping his employer with correspondence, the contents of the extensive library, and a variety of secretarial duties. Swift's first literary compositions appear during these years: a series of six odes in imitation of Cowley and Dryden, including one in praise of King William, another a tribute to his employer and patron.
After these initial years with Temple, Swift seems to have decided on the necessity of a more independent career. He returned to Dublin and chose to enter the Church of Ireland. In January 1695 he was ordained in Christ Church cathedral as an Anglican priest. Aged twenty-seven, he was then appointed to the prebend of Kilroot, Co. Antrim, ten miles north of Belfast, just outside the important military and naval base of Carrickfergus. His tenure at Kilroot lasted only one year, but it seems to have had a disproportionately profound influence on his literary imagination, his theological and political convictions, and his relations with women. Since Kilroot was overwhelmingly Scots presbyterian, with very few inhabitants belonging to the Church of Ireland, Swift experienced directly the mixed and fragmented nature of Irish protestantism. This sense of religious and sectarian division seems to have fuelled his first major satire, Tale of a tub (1704), begun during his year at Kilroot. Swift's lifelong distrust of protestant dissenters was clearly formed by his experience in the north of Ireland, as was his undying loyalty to the institution, if not to the representatives, of the Church of Ireland.
During his short time at Kilroot, Swift enjoyed the company of a young woman called Jane Waring, whom he nicknamed ‘Varina’, and to whom he proposed marriage. She declined his offer, on the grounds that he was still financially insecure, a rejection that angered and humiliated Swift, who soon decided to leave Kilroot and return to Temple in England. Once he had settled back into life at Moor Park, Swift resumed his previous duties as secretary to Temple, but this time he was entrusted with the preparation of his master's writings, largely letters and memoirs, for publication. Over the next three years he edited and transcribed Temple's works, and in the process absorbed much of his patron's classical learning and taste, as well as becoming a critical and admiring student of Temple's epistolary art. Temple died in 1699, leaving Swift with executive responsibility for his literary estate. In 1700 Swift's edition of Temple's correspondence was published in London, the two volumes being dedicated to King William. During this second period of employment at Moor Park, Swift came to know a young teenage girl, Esther Johnson (qv), whose widowed mother worked in Temple's household. As a priest and tutor, Swift developed a close paternalistic friendship with Johnson, whom he would later celebrate in his poetry as his beloved ‘Stella’.
Once he had completed final arrangements for the publication of Temple's writings, Swift found himself unemployed for a brief period. He now hoped for a clerical promotion, and was soon appointed as chaplain to Charles, 2nd earl of Berkeley, one of the lords justices of Ireland, whom he accompanied back to Dublin in August 1699. In March 1700, Swift obtained a new clerical position which became his first independent living, the vicarage of Laracor, just outside Trim, Co. Meath. Laracor was an important advance for Swift, not least because it included a prebend of St Patrick's cathedral in Dublin, providing the new vicar with direct links to the capital's episcopal hierarchy. Two years later, the young Esther Johnson and her companion, Rebecca Dingley, came over to Dublin at Swift's invitation, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Swift enjoyed his first major publishing success in 1704, when Tale of a tub appeared anonymously in London; for the rest of his literary career, Swift nearly always published anonymously or pseudonymously.
Tory propagandist, 1707–14
In 1707 the archbishop of Dublin, William King (qv), approached Swift on the question of taxes (known as the ‘first fruits’) levied on the church by the crown, asking him to go to London and petition the ruling whig party directly for the removal of these taxes. Although Swift failed to persuade the whigs, this entry into the world of parliament and court was to transform his life and work dramatically. In the three years that he spent on this mission, Swift discovered and enjoyed new literary as well as political friendships, notably those with Joseph Addison (qv) and Richard Steele, both of whom were closely identified with the whig party. At the end of 1709 he returned to Ireland, having failed to secure agreement over the first fruits. In the summer of 1710, however, with the return of the tories to power, he resumed his efforts, this time striking a deal with the new administration under the leadership of Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford. Swift was promptly appointed as the tories’ chief propagandist, and for the next three years used his considerable rhetorical and polemical powers to attack the whig opposition and to promote tory policies at home and abroad. His most successful journalistic and essayistic pieces from these years include his weekly contributions to the tory paper, the Examiner, and his lengthy pamphlet The conduct of the allies (1711), in which he defended tory foreign policy in the war of the Spanish succession. The vicar of Laracor had by now become the most influential political writer in Britain, enjoying the intimate company of leading politicians at court, as well as that of the most distinguished wits of the age, notably Alexander Pope, Dr John Arbuthnot, and John Gay, with whom he formed the Scriblerus Club, dedicated to the satirical arts.
The three years that Swift spent working for the tories are probably the best-documented of his entire life. This is largely due to his intensive correspondence with a wide range of friends, providing a detailed and vivid portrait of his life in London. One of the richest biographical sources is his ‘Journal to Stella’, a collection of sixty-five letters written by Swift to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, giving them a daily account of his life and progress in London. The ladies’ replies seem to have been either destroyed or lost. Swift's personal life during these momentous years also sees the emergence of another friendship, this time a passionate romance with a young woman, Esther Van Homrigh (qv), nicknamed ‘Vanessa’ by Swift. Vanessa was in her early 20s when she first met Swift. Daughter of a former lord mayor of Dublin Bartholomew Van Homrigh (qv), she had been brought to London by her widowed mother, and was strongly attracted to Swift. Swift was certainly enamoured with her, but was very alarmed at the prospect of any public indiscretion or the possibility of Stella discovering the intimate nature of the friendship. In 1713 Swift wrote ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’, the longest poem of his career, in which he dramatised his reasons for not being able to return her love, or to continue their affair. The poem was not published until 1726, three years after Vanessa's death, which took place in Ireland, to where she had followed Swift.
Just as Swift's rise to fame had been determined by the English party system, so too was his fall from grace and favour. He had refused all payment for service to his tory patrons, trusting instead that they would secure him a senior clerical appointment in England, such as a bishopric. Queen Anne was not inclined to reward Swift in this way, and in 1713 he was disappointed to hear that he had been appointed as dean of St Patrick's cathedral in Dublin. The tory ministry began to fall apart under pressure of charges of Jacobite sympathies. In August 1714 Queen Anne died. Seeing no alternative to an enforced return to Ireland, Swift travelled home to his new post. On the way, he composed an important and revealing poem, ‘The author upon himself’, an apologia pro vita sua in which he cursed the fickle nature of politicians and presented himself as an honourable man betrayed.
Dean of St Patrick's, 1714–26
After his reluctant installation as dean, Swift led a relatively quiet life for the next six years, as if he had retired from all public affairs and even from writing itself. Yet this apparent retreat concealed the fact that he began to devote a great deal of energy to his new home, improving the building and creating a new enclosed garden south of the cathedral, which he called ‘Naboth's vineyard’. He also began to explore Ireland, visiting the homes and estates of several new friends; these included the Rev. Thomas Sheridan (qv) of Quilca, Co. Cavan, the Rev. Patrick Delany (qv) of Glasnevin, Co. Dublin, Knightley Chetwode of Portarlington, Co. Laois, and the Rochforts of Gaulstown, Co. Westmeath.
The 1720s saw Swift turning his attention to Irish politics through a series of polemical tracts about the nation's economy and constitutional status. The first of these was A proposal for the universal use of Irish manufacture (1720), in which he advocated a boycott of English imports and a greater reliance on Irish manufactures, especially woollen and linen goods. His most famous intervention came with The Drapier's letters (1724), a series of seven pamphlets written to denounce a project, supported by London, undertaken by an English businessman, William Wood, to mint a new copper coinage for Ireland. The ‘Wood's halfpence’ affair was interpreted by Swift and many others as unlawful interference in the Irish economy, and proof that Ireland was being treated as a colony and not, as the Drapier argued it should be, as an independent kingdom. This new colonial nationalism was articulated most eloquently and most radically in the fourth pamphlet, To the whole people of Ireland, in which the Drapier asserted the principles of freedom and equality under the crown. The lord lieutenant, John Carteret (qv), offered a reward of £300 for the disclosure of the author of a pamphlet judged to be seditious, but the reward remained unclaimed. In the face of strong opposition from the protestant interest in Ireland, Wood's scheme was finally abandoned. In 1725 one of Dublin's leading publishers, George Faulkner (qv), produced the first edition of the Drapier's pamphlets, Fraud detected: or, the Hibernian patriot, ensuring a lasting association between Swift and the cause of Irish freedom. For his services to the nation, Dublin corporation proclaimed the dean a freeman of the city; in 1737 Swift was also made a freeman of the city of Cork.
In March 1726 Swift sailed for England, carrying with him a manuscript copy of a work that would become his greatest literary triumph, Gulliver's travels. He had been working on the satire for almost five years, had shown extracts to friends such as Sheridan, Stella, and Vanessa, and had created a series of pseudonymous decoys in order to protect his identity as author. While in London he stayed at Twickenham with his old friend Pope, with whom he was also preparing a series of Miscellanies from their poetical works, to be published over the next three years. On 28 October 1726 the London printer Benjamin Motte published Travels into several remote nations of the world, by Lemuel Gulliver. The book was an instant success, going through three editions before the end of the year, and soon translated throughout Europe. It was also the talk of London's literary and political circles, with Pope and Gay congratulating Swift on his ingenious and outlandish satire on well-known contemporary political figures. Swift's public triumph, however, was soon overshadowed by news of Stella's terminal illness. She died in January 1728, aged forty-six, whereupon Swift wrote a devotional elegy on her character, describing her as ‘the truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend, that I, or perhaps any other person was blessed with’.
After Stella's death, Swift spent a great deal of time visiting old and new friends in the Irish countryside, and continued to write with great energy. With Thomas Sheridan he produced a small weekly paper, the Intelligencer (May–Dec. 1728), offering a miscellany of articles, pamphlets, and verse. In the same years he began a series of lengthy annual visits to Sir Arthur and Lady Acheson of Markethill, Co. Armagh. These visits, and the characters of his hosts, were celebrated in several poems. Swift had even decided to buy a new home near the Achesons, but later changed his mind. His extensive travels throughout Ireland, where he witnessed recurrent famine and extreme poverty, seem to have informed much of the outrage behind his most notorious Irish pamphlet, A modest proposal, written between visits to the Achesons, and first published in 1729 in Dublin. This was Swift's last significant pamphlet on Ireland's human economy, a savage indictment of administrative and moral failure to reform the country.
The last decade of Swift's writing career is most remarkable for its poetry: several of his most famous, most elaborate, poems were written in the 1730s. Chief among them is Verses on the death of Dr Swift, begun in 1731, and published in various editions during the following years. Taking its cue from a maxim of Rochefoucauld, which suggests that human nature is essentially self-regarding rather than compassionate, the poem imagines what people will say about Swift once they hear of his death. After a satirical survey of the gossip and relief that greet the dean's demise, the poem concludes with a powerful defence of Swift as a public-spirited and patriotic man who ‘gave the little wealth he had, /To build a house for fools and mad: /And showed by one satiric touch, /No nation wanted it so much’. These closing lines confirm that Swift was already settling his literary and personal affairs.
Last years, 1735–45
In 1735 he collaborated with George Faulkner in the publication of a four-volume edition of his Works, an edition that has remained most authoritative. In that same year, he made the first of several drafts of his will, the final one being drawn up in 1740, in which he declares himself to be ‘of sound mind, although weak in body’. In his will he bequeathed £12,000 for the establishment of St Patrick's hospital, the first asylum for the mentally ill in Ireland, which opened in 1746, a year after Swift's death. In the last three years of his life, Swift was declared to be of unsound mind but not insane, and his affairs were protected by a committee of guardians, drawn largely from fellow-clergy. In the final year of his life, he sank into aphasia, and died on 19 October 1745, aged seventy-seven. He was buried, according to his wishes, near Stella on the south side of the middle aisle of St Patrick's cathedral, across from which, on a marble plaque, hangs the famous epitaph in Latin which he composed.
Swift's pitiful state in his final years led quickly to rumours of the dean's madness, which themselves developed into one of the most enduring and misleading myths of Swiftian biography, some of whose more notorious practitioners argued that Swift's most celebrated works reveal a sick, demented personality. The myth of Swift's madness was put forward frequently in the nineteenth century, most aggressively by whig observers such as Macaulay and Thackeray. Aside from the political prejudices informing such hostile representations of Swift, there seems to have been a facile confusion between the physical and the mental sources of Swift's lifelong suffering from various illnesses, marked by recurrent vertigo and nausea. In 1849 Sir William Wilde (qv) (father of Oscar Wilde (qv)) wrote a detailed medical analysis of Swift's condition, arguing that Swift was never insane, but suffered from nervous disorders and, finally, from senility. It is now known that Swift suffered throughout his life from Ménière's syndrome, a form of labyrinthine vertigo first diagnosed in 1861 by Prosper Ménière. Swift's most authoritative modern biographer, Irvin Ehrenpreis, has argued that, while Swift certainly suffered from a nervous disorder that had crippling physical effects, he was always a writer in command of his faculties, one whose message of human madness ought not to be attributed to the messenger.
Reputation and assessment
Even though Swift remained a popular presence in the Irish political and literary imagination, he left behind few, if any, imitators. Only in the loosest sense is there a ‘Swiftian’ legacy in Irish writing. Swift himself seems to have imagined and anticipated this inimitability in his epitaph, challenging the observer to repeat a life dedicated to ‘Liberty’. Yeats's poetic version of the epitaph renders the challenge with even greater defiance. Yeats, in fact, is largely responsible for the resurrection of Swift's reputation as ‘Hibernian Patriot’, elevating him to his personal pantheon of Anglo-Irish heroes. More than any other modern Irish poet, perhaps, Derek Mahon has championed the unique energy, intelligence, and humour of Swift's verse, and has argued that the spirit, if not the style, of Swift is evident throughout a great deal of modern Irish writing. The most decisive critical reassessment of Swift has probably been that concerning his national and cultural priorities and influences: from being seen traditionally as an English writer with Irish interests, Swift has latterly been seen as an Irish writer with a complex and ambiguous relationship with both Ireland and England.
One of the characteristic ironies of Swift's reputation is that this most conservative of men should prove to be the most radical of artists. He is the most modern of ancients, and this is probably why his work is so enduring, and so familiar to the modern imagination. All the major schools of literary and cultural theory have found in Swift an uncanny foreshadowing of some of the major issues at the heart of modern debate, such as colonialism, gender and sexuality, reason and irrationality, language and signs, fictionality and textuality. Swift is probably quite unique in that his literary achievement and reputation often conceal the all-important and simple fact that he was never a professional writer, but a dedicated and energetic clergyman who wrote either for pleasure or out of a sense of public duty. Such a literary profile would be exceedingly difficult to imitate or replicate in the modern world of letters. He was virtually the last of his literary kind.
Swift's contemporary standing has been helped by the industry and dedication of several outstanding scholars, notably David Woolley, who completed a magnificent edition of Swift's letters shortly before he died, and Hermann Real, founder and director of the Ehrenpreis Center of Swift Studies in Münster, Germany, which has been the major European resource for scholarship, research and debate.
There are several interesting and important artistic representations of Swift. In 1709 he sat for Charles Jervas (qv), whose portrait of Swift now hangs in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. In Ireland Swift sat on several occasions for Francis Bindon (qv); a 1735 portrait is in a private collection in Howth Castle, Dublin; a 1739 portrait belongs to the deanery, St Patrick's cathedral; another portrait, c. 1739, may be seen in the NGI. Shortly after Swift's death, the student body at TCD collected money for a commemorative marble bust, commissioned from Louis François Roubiliac. The bust was presented (1749) to the Long Room in Trinity College Library, where it remains.