Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift by Charles Jervas © National Portrait Gallery

Biography

Famed for his satire and as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin and educated at Kilkenny College and Dublin University (now Trinity College Dublin).

Early work and writings

After a period working as personal assistant to the English diplomat William Temple, he privately tutored Temple’s young family friend Esther Johnson, the ‘Stella’ to whom many of Swift’s poems are addressed. From about 1690 to 1702 Swift served as a parish priest in rural Ireland. He was also writing at this time, producing works such as The Battle of the Books (not published until 1704), a satirical account, set in a library, of a clash between ‘Ancient’ and ‘Modern’ books and the ideas contained in them.

The Battle was published anonymously alongside A Tale of a Tub, Swift’s multi-layered prose satire of the habits of literary critics and religious interpreters, whose cover claimed that it had been ‘Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind’. Many of the critics at whom his satire was aimed actually attempted, and in some cases published, explanations of the text’s deliberate obscurities.

Political life and satire

In about 1714, Swift helped to found the Scriblerus Club, along with Alexander Pope and other authors such as John Arbuthnot, John Gay and Thomas Parnell. They invented the satirical persona of Martinus Scriblerus, and began co-authoring his ‘memoirs’, which were intended to poke fun at contemporary literature, culture and scholarship.

In this period, though still officially resident in Ireland, Swift was heavily involved in British political life, first lobbying the Whig government on behalf of the Irish clergy, then working closely with members of the Tory government from 1711 until it fell in 1714.

After this, Swift returned to Ireland, turning his political attentions to attempting to improve the plight of the people, many of whom were impoverished, and arguing for independence from British rule. Most famously, under the pseudonym M B Drapier, Swift published The Drapier’s Letters (1724), a protest against the introduction of a new copper coin that would depreciate the Irish economy. A Modest Proposal followed in 1729, which made the apparently straight-faced suggestion that the starving Irish people should consider eating their own children.

Gulliver’s Travels

As well as becoming a byword for this particularly deadpan form of satire (still often called ‘Swiftian’), and having ultimately held the office of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Swift is now probably best known for his Gulliver’s Travels, a mock-travelogue chronicling the round-the-world travels of the fictitious explorer Lemuel Gulliver. Although, in the years since its publication, Gulliver’s Travels has become a children’s classic, it is also trenchant in its attacks on various social, intellectual and religious hypocrisies of Swift’s age. As its author himself said, and as the popularity of this rather brutal book perhaps illustrates, ‘Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own’.

Further information about the life of Jonathan Swift can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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