Jonathan Swift Biography and Works

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Who is Jonathan Swift? Detailed information on Jonathan Swift life story, biography, works and poems.

Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swift; (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish churchman, political writer, and poet, who was one of the greatest satirists in world literature.

Swift’s writing, while it is frequently tied to the political concerns of his day, transcends the limitations of time and place. Works like Gulliver’s Travels have been read in all nations, and there is reason to believe that Swift intentionally wrote for such an international audience, for his satire concerns itself with the largest issues of human nature and culture. Swift is constantly raising the question of whether the achievements of civilization—its advancing technology, its august institutions, its refinement of manners—cannot be seen as complex and decadent forms of barbarism.

Swift is always ready to tear away the cloak of social habit and the comforting masks of stereotype that men assume to hide their savagery and inhumanity, even from themselves. He is not, however, a primitivist, for he has no trust in mere spontaneity. For him, as for Alexander Pope and others of their age, die “natural” is something to be earned through vigilance and self-discipline. It is die proper realization of humanity rather than the easiest expression of appetite or passion. Therefore, Swift’s satires are often puzzling, mocking both unthinking adherence to social and religious forms on the one hand and self-indulgent individualism on the other. Because of the very puzzlement they create, Swift’s works have sometimes been attacked as pessimistic, misanthropic, or even nihilistic.

Critics since 1930, however, have done much to uncover the implicit standard of sanity that Swift teases us into recognizing. And so after bitter and often uncomprehending attacks upon him by a number of earlier critics, including Dr. Samuel Johnson and William Makepeace Thackeray, Swift has been read with increasing sympathy in the 20di century, and this sympathy has extended even to his puzzling but remarkable personality.

Swift is one of the great masters of English prose. The force and energy of his style come from a conciseness that achieves at once great clarity of surface and great depth through parody, understatement, and other devices of irony. He is consistently the critic as well as the reporter, die examiner as well as the narrator, the moral judge as well as die meticulous, observer. His contempt for folly and knavery is most vividly expressed through his biting parodies of dieir deceptive language. His satires often present themselves as the work of an impercipient, morally obtuse author, and die reader is challenged to supply the awareness the fictitious author signally lacks.

Swift’s achievement as a poet is also considerable, ranging from early travesties of the sublime, like Baucis and Philemon (1709) or die Description of a City Shower (1710), to the tender and self-mocking poems to Stella or Cadenus and Vanessa (1713). Among his finest poems were several late works, especially the Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift (1731), in which the poet anticipates what people will say about him after his death.

Swift also wrote histories and tracts on contemporary events. Although his contribution to political thought was negligible, these works are of great value to the historian of Swift’s age and to the student of rhetoric.

Early Years: Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Nov. 30, 1667, to Abigail Erick Swift, a few months after the death of his father, Jonathan. Through the help of his uncle, Godwin Swift, he was educated first at Kilkenny School and then, from 1682, at Trinity College, Dublin. There his record was undistinguished, except in classics, and his degree was awarded, “in a manner littie to his credit,” in 1686. Swift continued at Trinity, almost completing his master’s degree, when the outbreak of political violence in Ireland in 1688 forced him to join his mother in England. He spent most of the next 10 years in the household of his mother’s distant relative, Sir William Temple, who had retired from a diplomatic career to live at Moor Park, near London. Although Swift’s position there was often difficult because of his uncertain status and prospects, it grew in importance until, in his last 3-year stay before Temple’s death in 1699, he became a literary executor, preparing Temple’s papers for publication. In the intervals of his work for Temple, Swift took an M. A. in 1692 after brief residence at Oxford, and, following his ordination in 1694 in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), he held the prebend of Kilroot in Ulster, where he was in residence for about a year.

Meanwhile, Swift began to write extensively, beginning with a series of Pindaric’ odes much influenced by the work of the poet Abraham Cowley. They reveal many of Swift’s mature attitudes in a form more direct and impassioned than he was later to allow himself. John Dryden, upon seeing these odes, is said to have urged, “Cousin Swift, turn your thoughts another way, for nature has never formed you for a Pindaric poet.” Swift did turn from the sublime to more colloquial forms, and by 1700 he had attained the style tiiat was to characterize his work for the rest of his career. What gives these later poems their importance are Swift’s masterful conciseness and dryness, by which he achieves great intensity of feeling in a seemingly artless idiomatic style.

Swift’s principal literary work in the years with Temple was, however, the extensive reading for, and the early versions of, his first great satires, A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, and The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, published together in 1704. This volume shows Swift at his most dazzling. It is full of brilliant parody and extravagant wit, at times carried to the point of risking accusations of religious» skepticism. Indeed, such accusations were not long in coming, and Swift wittily annotated the 1710 edition of these works with quotations from his hostile commentators.

Churchman and Statesman: After Temple’s death Swift returned to Dublin as vicar of Laracor and as chaplain to the 2d Earl of Berkeley, a lord justice of Ireland. He took the degree of doctor of divinity at Trinity College in 1701, after becoming a prebendary at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. But his hopes for higher church office were not yet to be realized. With the advent of a new Tory government in England and the impeachment by the House of Commons of Whig leaders responsible for King William Ill’s second Partition Treaty—which attempted to settle the question of thé Spanish succession—Swift used historical examples to frame an attack upon the tyranny of the many and to defend a balance of power in A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and Commons in Athens and Rome (1701).

By the time A Tale of a Tub was published, Swift had come to know the circle of Whig writers that included Joseph Addison and Richard Steele—later editors of The Spectator—and Swift’s school friend William Congreve. Swift’s commitment to the Whig cause was, however, tempered by his primary loyalty to the church. His political views, although they were based upon acceptance of the Revolution of 1688, were influenced by the fear that the Whigs’ concessions to dissenting sects might undermine a firm church establishment.

As a churchman Swift went to England in 1707 to gain financial benefits from Queen Anne for the Irish clergy. He remained in England and in the next two years wrote a series of brilliant political pamphlets, whose titles show their concern, including A Letter Concerning the Sacramental Test, The Sentiments of a Church of England Man, and A Project for the Advancement of Religion. Perhaps the most witty of these tracts, the Argument Agaimt Abolishing Christianity, is an ironic defense of an expedien! “nominal” Christianity that exposes such a doctrine as mere accommodation of religion to “schemes of wealth and power.”

Persuaded of the Whigs’ reluctance to help his church cause, Swift turned in 1710 to the new Tory ministers and became for the next four years the foremost pamphleteer and journalist on the side of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. This was the period of Swift’s greatest political power in England. Harley, although he could never confide fully in anyone, showed great esteem for Swift and became part of the Scriblerus Club, for which Swift, Pope, John Arbuthnot, and John Gay undertook a series of satiric projects.

Swift wrote for The Examiner from Nov. 2, 1710, to June 7, 1711, and in these weekly papers he undermined the reputation of Whig leaders and their popular hero, the Duke of Marlborough. Swift’s most influential work of that period, The Conduct of the Allies (1711), was widely read and helped to prepare the nation for the settlement of its costly war with France.

Unable to end growing differences between Harley and Bolingbroke, Swift left London in 1714, only to learn afterward of the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tory government. With no prospects of a further career in England, he returned to Dublin, where, in 1713, he had been appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Irish Patriot and Satirist: During his years at Moor Park, Swift had taken as a pupil Esther (or Hester) Johnson, a young girl who lived in Sir William Temple’s household. Later, when Esther moved to Dublin to eke out her small income, she kept up a correspondence with her former teacher, and Swift’s remarkable letters to her from England form The Journal to Stella (published posthumously in 1768). His friendship with Stella (Swift’s name for Esther) lasted through her lifetime and inspired some of his finest poems. It was rumored during Swift’s lifetime that he and Stella were married in 1716, but the evidence is inconclusive and no marriage was ever acknowledged. What seems clear is that if marriage took place at all, it was never consummated. Stella died in 1728.

During his stays in London, Swift had come to know the Vanhomrigh family, whose daughter Esther—Vanessa, as Swift called her—fell in love with Swift. Esther followed Swift to Ireland, hoping that he would marry her, but she died there unhappily in 1723.

Political events once more made Swift a public figure in 1724-1725. King George I’s grant to William Wood in 1722, empowering him to coin copper halfpence in great quantities for Ireland, threatened to produce inflation by draining off gold and silver. This measure only emphasized the desperate plight of the country, which was without manufactures, limited in exports by British mercantilist policy, and kept poor by absentee landlords. Swift, writing as “M. B.,” a linen draper, published six pamphlets known as The Drapier’s Letters. They reached a pitch of defiance in the fourth, A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland. The letter was proclaimed seditious, but, although Swift was known to be the author, no one wished to charge him. When the coinage was withdrawn in 1725, he became an Irish hero.

In 1729, Swift wrote his best-known and most powerful tract on the plight of the Irish, A Modest Proposal. This brief ironic work proposed to cure Ireland’s overpopulation and lack of exports by the sale of babies as delicacies for gentlemen’s dinner tables. Cannibalism becomes Swift’s symbol for inhumanity, and the tract is a fine parody of the impersonal style of the social scientist.

As early as 1720, Swift had begun to compose his great satire, Gulliver’s Travels. Published six years later as Lemuel Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, the book was immediately acclaimed, and it has been widely read ever since as both a fantasy for children and a bitter satire for their elders. In it Swift compressed the central themes of his work, with one exception: he makes little direct reference to revealed religion. Instead, he concentrates on the moral nature of man, showing the grotesque misuse man has made of his rational capacities and the foolish complacency by which he mistakes mere ingenuity or complexity for rational achievement.

During this period Swift’s influence upon two major contemporaries was marked. It was from his suggestion that John Gay developed The Beggar’s Opera (1728), and it was to Swift that Alexander Pope dedicated his scathing satire The Dunciad (1728). These works, with Gulliver’s Travels, dominated London’s literary world for years.

Declining Years: Much of the remainder of Swift’s active life was dedicated to church concerns—the recovery and improvement of church incomes and the defense of the Irish interest against control by English bishops in the Church of Ireland. His fight was carried on despite pessimism about its outcome. Among his weapons were such striking poems as The Legion Club (1736), but equally important for his cause were his example of dutiful service and his great charities.

Swift’s melancholy deepened steadily with a growing sense of isolation and of failing powers. Alternately indolent and viojent, he was cared for by a cousin, Martha Whiteway, and finally his affairs were put into the hands of guardians. Swift died in Dublin on Oct. 19, 1745, and was buried in St. Patrick’s, where, in the words of his own great epitaph, “savage indignation can tear his heart no more.”

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