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JONATHAN SWIFT

1667-1745
Irish

"A wise person should have money in their head
but not in their heart."

Jonathan Swift is best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, the highly imaginative fantasy tale concerning a sailor who visits many lands and encounters their strange inhabitants. In essence, it is a savage satire on the follies and foibles of mankind but, because of its comic potential, parts of it are also presented as a children’s story.

Born on 30 November, 1667, Jonathan Swift grew up fatherless. He was a sickly child; it was later discovered that he suffered from Meniere's Disease, a condition of the inner ear that leaves the afflicted nauseous and hard of hearing. In an effort to give her son the best upbringing possible, Swift's mother handed him over to Godwin Swift, her late husband's brother and a member of the respected professional attorney and judges group Gray's Inn. Godwin Swift enrolled his nephew in the Kilkenny Grammar School (1674–1682), which was perhaps the best school in Ireland at the time. Swift's transition from a life of poverty to a rigorous private school setting proved challenging but he developed both physically and intellectually. The school proved to be the first stepping stone to greater things. He went on to study at Trinity College at Dublin University where he received a bachelor’s degree. It was while at university that Swift developed an interesting in writing.

On leaving Trinity, Swift went to England to work as a secretary for Sir William Temple. In 1694, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland and assigned as Vicar of Kilroot, a church near Belfast. His religious career blossomed and in 1713 he was appointed as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Throughout all this time and, indeed, after his appointment as Dean of St. Patrick's, Swift was writing satirically in various genres, including both prose and poetry, using various forms to address different causes, including personal, behavioral, philosophical, political, religious, civic, and others.

Between the years 1696-99, Swift wrote two major works: Tale of a Tub, a forceful defence of the middle position of the Anglican and Lutheran churches, and Battle of the Books, in which he supported the beliefs of the Ancients, those who believed in the superiority of the classics and the humanities, against the Moderns, who upheld the superiority of modern science, modern scholarship, modern politics, and modern literature. 

Swift is also recognised as a defender of Ireland. In A Modest Proposal (1729), a satirical reaction to English commercial practices that negatively impacted Ireland, Swift wrote what is regarded by many as one of the greatest works of sustained irony in English or any other language. Instead of maintaining that English laws prevent the Irish from manufacturing anything to sell, he argued that the only items of commerce that the English did not restrict were Irish babies and suggested that the Irish would be better off selling them as cattle to be butchered than as a colony to be starved by the English: ‘I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food...’

Swift suffered a stroke in 1742, losing the ability to speak, realising his long-held fear of becoming mentally disabled. ‘I shall be like that tree,’ he once said, ‘I shall die at the top.’ He became increasingly quarrelsome, and ended long-standing friendships, without sufficient cause. To protect him from unscrupulous hangers on, who had begun to prey on the great man, his closest companions had him declared of ‘unsound mind and memory’. However, it was long believed by many that Swift was actually mad at this point. In his book Literature and Western Man, author J. B. Priestley even cites the final chapters of Gulliver's Travels as proof of the author’s approaching ‘insanity’.

Jonathan Swift died on 19 October 1745. He was nearly 80. After being laid out in public view for the people of Dublin to pay their last respects, he was buried in his own cathedral in accordance with his wishes. The bulk of his fortune was left to found a hospital for the mentally ill, originally known as St Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, which opened in 1757, and which still exists as a psychiatric hospital.

 David Stuart Davies

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