Jonathan Swift, 1667–1745

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Biographical note

Satirist, was born at Dublin of English parents. Dryden was his cousin, and he also claimed kin with Herrick. He was a posthumous child, and was brought up in circumstances of extreme poverty. He was sent to school at Kilkenny, and afterwards went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he gave no evidence of ability, but displayed a turbulent and unruly temper, and only obtained a degree by “special grace.” After the Revolution he joined his mother, then resident at Leicester, by whose influence he was admitted to the household of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Lady T. being her distant kinswoman. Here he acted as secretary, and having access to a well-stocked library, made good use of his opportunities, and became a close student. At Moor Park he met many distinguished men, including William III., who offered him a troop of horse; he also met Esther Johnson (Stella), a natural daughter of Sir William, who was afterwards to enter so largely into his life.

Dissatisfied, apparently, that Temple did not do more for his advancement, he left his service in 1694 and returned to Ireland, where he took orders, and obtained the small living of Kilroot, near Belfast. While there he wrote his Tale of a Tub, one of the most consummate pieces of satire in any language, and The Battle of the Books, with reference to the “Phalaris” controversy, which were published together in 1704. In 1698 he threw up his living at the request of Temple, who felt the want of his society and assistance, and returned to Moor Park. On the death of his patron in 1699 he undertook by request the publication of his works, and thereafter returned to Ireland as chaplain to the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Berkeley, from whom he obtained some small preferments, including the vicarage of Laracor, and a prebend in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At this time he made frequent visits to London and became the friend of Addison, Steele, Congreve, and other Whig writers, and wrote various pamphlets, chiefly on ecclesiastical subjects. In 1710, disgusted with the neglect of the Whigs, alike of himself and of the claims of his Church, he abandoned them and attached himself to Harley and Bolingbroke. The next few years were filled with political controversy. He attacked the Whigs in papers in the Examiner in 1710, and in his celebrated pamphlets, The Conduct of the Allies [1712], The Barrier Treaty [1713], and The Public Spirit of the Whigs [1714]. In 1713 he was made Dean of St. Patrick’s, the last piece of patronage which he received. The steady dislike of Queen Anne had proved an insurmountable obstacle to his further advancement, and her death proved the ruin of the Tories. On the destruction of his hopes Swift retired to Ireland, where he remained for the rest of his life a thoroughly embittered man.

In 1713 he had begun his Journal to Stella, which sheds so strange a light upon his character, and on his return to Ireland his marriage to her is now generally believed to have taken place, though they never lived together. Now also took place his final rupture with Miss Van Homrigh (Vanessa), who had been in love with him, with whom he had maintained a lengthened correspondence, and to whom he addressed his poem, Cadenus and Vanessa [1726]. Though he disliked the Irish and considered residence in Ireland as banishment, he interested himself in Irish affairs, and attained extraordinary popularity by his Drapier’s Letters, directed against the introduction of “Wood’s halfpence.” In 1726 he visited England and joined with Pope and Arbuthnot in publishing Miscellanies [1727]. In the same year, 1726, he published Gulliver’s Travels, his most widely and permanently popular work. His last visit to England was paid in 1727 and in the following year “Stella,” the only being, probably, whom he really loved, died. Though he had a circle of friends in Dublin, and was, owing to his championing the people in their grievances, a popular idol, the shadows were darkening around him. The fears of insanity by which he had been all his life haunted, and which may account for and perhaps partly excuse some of the least justifiable portions of his conduct, pressed more and more upon him. He became increasingly morose and savage in his misanthropy, and though he had a rally in which he produced some of his most brilliant, work — the Rhapsody on Poetry, Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, and; the Modest Proposal (a horrible but masterly piece of irony) — he gradually sank into almost total loss of his facilities, and died on October 19, 1745.

The character of Swift is one of the gloomiest and least attractive among English writers. Intensely proud, he suffered bitterly in youth and early manhood from the humiliations of poverty and dependence, which preyed upon a mind in which the seeds of insanity were latent until it became dominated by a ferocious misanthropy. As a writer he is our greatest master of grave irony, and while he presents the most humorous ideas, the severity of his own countenance never relaxes. The Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels are the greatest satires in the English language, although the concluding part of the latter is a savage and almost insane attack upon the whole human race. His history is a tragedy darkening into catastrophe, and as Thackeray has said, “So great a man he seems that thinking of him is like thinking of an Empire falling.”

Swift was tall and powerfully made. His eyes, blue and flashing under excitement, were the most remarkable part of his appearance.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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