Jonathan Swift Biography


Early Years and Education

Jonathan Swift was born into a poor family that included his mother (Abigail) and his sister (Jane). His father, a noted clergyman in England, had died seven months before Jonathan's birth. There is not much known of Swift's childhood, and what is reported is not always agreed upon by biographers. What is accepted, however, is that Jonathan's mother, after the death of her husband, left the children to be raised by relatives (probably uncles), while she returned to her family in England (Leicester). It is also reported that Swift, as a baby, was taken by a nurse to England where he remained for three years before being returned to his family. This is open to conjecture, but the story contributes to the lack of information available regarding Swift's childhood.

Beginning in 1673, Swift attended Kilkenny Grammar School, where he enjoyed reading and literature and excelled especially in language study. In 1682, Swift entered Trinity College where he received a B.A. by "special grace," a designation for students who did not perform very well while there. Upon leaving Trinity College, Swift went to England to work as a secretary (a patronage position) for Sir William Temple. In 1692, Swift received an M.A. from Oxford; in 1702, he received a D.D. (Doctor of Divinity) from Dublin University.

Swift's Career

From approximately 1689 to 1694, Swift was employed as a secretary to Sir William Temple in Moor Park, Surrey, England. In 1694, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican Church) and assigned as Vicar (parish priest) of Kilroot, a church near Belfast (in northern Ireland). In 1696, he returned to working with Sir William Temple, and in 1699, after the death of Sir William, he became chaplain to Lord Berkley.

In 1700, Swift became the Vicar of Laracor, Ireland, and he was also appointed prebend (an honorary clergyman serving in a cathedral) at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. In 1707, Swift was appointed as an emissary to the Church of Ireland, 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 continued 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.

Swift's Major Literary Works

Between the years 1696-99, Swift wrote two major works: Tale of a Tub, defending the middle position of the Anglican and Lutheran churches, and Battle of the Books, taking the part of the Ancients (those who believed in the superiority of the classics and the humanities) against the Moderns (those who upheld the superiority of modern science, modern scholarship, modern politics, and modern literature). In The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit (1704), Swift continues his satiric attack on both questionable religious views and questionable knowledge acquisition, particularly scientific knowledge. In Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, Swift shares his reactions to the Test Act, a law enacted by Charles II, requiring office holders to declare their allegiance to the king over the church. The Journal to Stella (1710-1713), a series of letters written by Swift to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, includes the poem "The Windsor Prophecy," a satirical attack on the person and personality of the Duchess of Somerset, Queen Anne's red-haired attendant who did not care for Swift because of disparaging remarks Swift had written about her family.

Swift is also recognized as a defender of Ireland. In A Modest Proposal (1729), a reaction to English commercial practices that negatively impacted Ireland, Swift wrote 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 argues that the only items of commerce that the English don't restrict are Irish babies and reasons that the Irish would be better off as cattle to be butchered than as a colony to be starved by the English. The Drapier's Letters (1724) is Swift's response to the continued subjugation of all aspects of the lives of those living in Ireland by England. The Letters aroused so much opposition that the English offered a reward of £300 for the name of the author. Although the Irish knew that he had written the letters, they did not betray him. They made him a national hero instead.

In his most recognized novel, Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift presents a satire on all aspects of humanity by pointing out the weaknesses, vices, and follies inherent in all human beings; the satire reaches its apex in Swift's comparison of Houyhnhnms (horses) and Yahoos (human-like creatures) in Book IV.

In 1727, Swift visited England for the last time. He was declared mentally incompetent in 1742 and died in October 1745, leaving his estate to charity.