He was born in Dublin in 1667, the son of a young lawyer who, with older brothers of his English family, mainly of the same profession, had gone to Ireland after the Restoration to seek their fortunes. His father had not had time to begin making his when he died, at the age of twenty-seven, before Swift was born. His mother was left with a bare 20 pounds a year Swift started life as a poor relation. He was educated at an uncle's expense at Kilkenny College and Trinity, where he was humiliated by his poverty and resentful of the curriculum, he just scraped his degree. At some period, probably when he was sent to Kilkenny, at six years old, his mother returned to her home near Leicester. So that we must imagine Swift, from six to twenty-two, existing without father or mother, on the rather grudging charity of relations-while submitting to 'the education of a dog', as he called it bitterly.
In 1689, during the Irish 'troubles', he was taken into Sir William Temple's house at Moor Park as secretary, where he made friends with the little girl Esther Johnson (Stella), a daughter of the waiting-woman of Temple's sister, Lady Giffard. Stella was a favourite of the house, and had been virtually adopted by Temple. After the battle of the Boyne, Swift returned to Ireland in the hope of picking up a job with Temple's recommendation, He failed and returned to Moor Park, where he stayed, reading hard and widely, writing poetry, and acting as secretary, till May 1694 (the time of crisis to which we have referred), when he picked a quarrel with Temple and left abruptly to seek a career in the Church of Ireland. Temple behaved generously, and gave him the testimonial necessary to his ordination. In January 1695, Swift entered on a modest living near Carrickfergus. There he fell in love with a Miss Jane Waring (Varina) and pressed her hard to marry him. She hesitated, and refused his ultimatum — a remarkable letter which has survived. Swift then shook the dust of Ireland off his feet and returned in April 1696, at Temple's pressing invitation, to Moor Park. Varina's rejection of him was perhaps decisive in Swift's renunciation of marriage.
He now stayed with Temple until his sudden death in who lived with her at Moor Park. He paid 'the ladies', as he called them, an allowance of 50 pounds a year. This, with Temple's substantial legacy to Stella of 1,500 pounds, enabled them to live modestly as gentlewomen. In the same year, 1701, he made his entry into English political writing by publishing a well-argued Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome. This was a sound exposition of the essentials of the British constitution and a cogent demonstration of the dangers of the process of impeachment, with which the Tories were threatening the Whig statesmen who had endorsed King William's foreign policy. It brought him to the familiar acquaintance of Somers and Halifax and, in their entourage, of the Whig wits, Addison and Steele. Congreve he had known at Trinity; Prior also was his friend.
By virtue of his pamphlet, and his political acquaintance, Swift now had the reputation of being a moderate Whig. Actually, he had not thought out his political position; and, I in fact, he was just as near to being a moderate Tory. He was definitely opposed to the sentimental Jacobitism of the high- flying Tories; he was also opposed to diminishing (or increasing) the political disabilities of the Dissenters. But in a general way he was ready to lend a helping hand to any of the moderate politicians who would be likely to reward him with an English preferment. Whether he actually wrote anything more for the Whigs is unknown — except a pamphlet against the high Tory attack on Occasional Conformity which he wrote in 1704. But it came too late, and he destroyed it.
Why he chose this moment to publish A Tale of a Tub is obscure; but it may be connected with the fact that publication was followed by his longest continuous stay in Ireland since he left Trinity — nearly three and a half years. That suggests that for the time being he had renounced his pursuit of a career in England. That he did this on political grounds is very improbable, for the Godolphin ministry was taking on an increasingly Whig complexion. More likely he retired to Ireland because Stella had come near to letting herself be married to a friend of his. Swift realized that if he wanted to keep her he must stay near her. If he had temporarily resigned his English hopes, it was a good moment for publishing the Tale, which, while it was bound vastly to increase his literary reputation, was also bound to be an obstacle to his preferment. It was a huge success; and Swift wittily improved it by incorporating many of the criticisms of the Revd W. Wotton as solemn explanatory notes.
Curing his stay in Ireland Swift wrote practically nothing except the charming humorous poem, 'Baucis and Philemon' He seems to have given himself up to enjoying life in the company of Stella in Dublin and at Laracor, and to improving his standing in the Church of Ireland. When he eventually(returned to England, in November 1707! it was as the official emissary of that Church, charged with obtaining the support of the politicians for the extension of Queen Anne's Bounty to Ireland. The 'ladies' went to London at the same time; but the attractions of the centre of power were too much for him, and he abandoned his plan of returning with them. Moreover, the Whigs now dominated the ministry, and his hopes were raised accordingly. Nothing came of them. He allowed himself to be put forward by Somers for the post of chaplain to Wharton, the new Lord Lieutenant — a post which was regarded as the shortest way to an Irish bishopric — but he was passed over because of his opposition to the removal of the Test Act in Ireland.
To this return to England belongs some of his most brilliant comic writing; the glorious sustained joke of Isaac Bickerstaff Esq.'s Predictions for the Year 1708, foretelling the death of Partridge the almanac-maker, and the dazzling Argument against Abolishing Christianity. He also put out some more sober political pamphlets, in which he sought to define his own position, and argued for the formation of a Court party of the centre, which should unite the moderate Tories and the moderate Whigs. He also prepared a new edition of A Tale of a Tub, prefixing an Apology which shows him well aware of the harm it had done him with the Queen's ecclesiastical adviser, the Archbishop of York. Perhaps he tried to rehabilitate himself by his Project for the Advancement of Religion, which was an appeal to the Queen to insist on a decent moral character as a qualification for office. But at the same time he made a bad mistake, by defying the wishes of the Temple family in publishing the third part of Sir William Temple's Memoirs, in which the writer severely condemns the character of Lord Essex, who was involved in Shaftesbury's plot and committed suicide in the Tower. Lady Essex, his widow, was the favourite aunt of the Duchess of Somerset, who was outraged by Swift's indefensible behaviour, and wrote to Temple's sister:
It was not proper to be made public during my Aunt Essex's life, and I am sure Dr Swift has too much wit to think it is, which makes his having done it unpardonable and will confirm me in the opinion I had before of him that he is a man of no principle either of honour, or of religion.
Eighteen months later the Duchess of Marlborough was dismissed, and the Duchess of Somerset succeeded her as the Queen's most intimate servant. Her opinion of Swift was to prove fatal to his hopes of preferment in England.
Before Swift returned to Ireland in June 1709, Steele, with his full approval, had seized the opportunity of the popularity Swift had won in the name of Isaac Bickerstaff to launch The Tatler as the vehicle for his lucubrations. Though Swift himself did not contribute much to it, beyond two admirable humorous poems on London life, 'A Description of the Morning' and 'A City Shower', he supplied Steele with a fund of ideas — 'hints' as he called them — which were an important factor in the prodigious success of that epoch-making periodical.
He now spent over a year in Ireland, much of it in the company of Addison who was there as Wharton's secretary. Addison appreciated Stella; and that, perhaps as much as the genuine mutual admiration of the two men of genius, kept them friends when their political paths sharply diverged. But at this time Swift still regarded himself as a sort of Whig, and on the major political issue of the time — war or peace with France — he was one. He was, rather unthinkingly, for Marlborough and the war. So that when the news came of the imminent downfall of the Whig ministry, he was perplexed what to do. However, his hesitation was decided by a fresh commission by the Irish Church to make contact with the new Tory government, and press its claim to Queen Anne's Bounty. He left Dublin on 31 August 1710 and did not return till June 1713, when he returned as Dean of St Patrick's.
The detailed story of this fascinating period of his life is told in the Journal to Stella, to which there is nothing comparable in our literature. Within a few weeks of his arrival Swift was on intimate terms with Harley; he had taken over The Examiner and become the chief literary champion of the new ministry. Harley laid himself out, as none of the Whig grandees had ever done, to win Swift over. He instantly granted the request of the Irish Church, instructed him as to the necessity of peace, informed him of Marlborough's unwarrantable rejection of the French overtures, and promised him, in reward for his assistance in advocating peace, discrediting Marlborough, and discomfiting the Whigs, the best preferment he could obtain for him. It is probable that Harley himself was unaware of all the obstacles in the way, for there is no reason to suppose he knew of the offence Swift had given to the Duchess of Somerset. But, reading between the lines of the Journal, it is plain that after the Duchess of Somerset had taken the Duchess of Marlborough's place, there was no possibility of Swift's entering into favour with the Queen.
Swift is often charged with having turned his coat politically. There is no substance in the charge. Harley's moderate Toryism was indistinguishable from Swift's moderate Whiggism; and Harley's attitude to the Church was far more congenial to Swift than that of the Whigs. On the matter of war and peace there is no evidence that he had really thought at all until he came under the influence of Harley and St John; and it was no disgrace to him that they converted him, for they were in the right.
Swift's work on The Examiner was convinced and brilliant. It lasted from November 1710 to June 1711, when he dropped it to write The Conduct of the Allies. That pamphlet, justly famous though it is, suffers by comparison with the best of the Examiners. One feels that Swift was too oppressed by his task to indulge his mordant wit. A more characteristic effort of his was A New Journey to Paris, which professed to be an account by Prior's French courier of his doings in Paris, whither he had been sent on a secret mission to negotiate the preliminaries of the Treaty of Utrecht. By a misunderstanding, Prior was arrested at Dover, and the secret mission became known: a contretemps which might have been highly embarrassing to the ministry. Swift promptly turned it to good account. The fictitious narrative was plausible enough to impose upon everybody, and it represented Prior as taking a very high hand indeed with Louis XIV. It is a remarkable example of the quick originality of Swift's mind, and of the talent for mystification in which he delighted.
During the political crisis which followed the virtual rejection of the Treaty by the Lords on 7 December 1711, Swift lost his nerve. He was convinced that the government must fall, and was afraid for himself . Because the Duke of Somerset, who formerly supported Harley, was now intriguing against him, Swift persuaded himself that the Duchess of Somerset was in the plot, and that the only salvation for the government lay in forcing the Queen to dismiss her. To this end he wrote a vicious lampoon against her, The Windsor Prophecy. It was quite unforgivable. Unless the Duchess were dismissed, he had absolutely ruined his chance of promotion in the English Church. The crisis was boldly overcome by Harley: Marlborough was dismissed, Somerset was dismissed but the Duchess remained.
Swift wanted an English deanery. He gave Harley to understand that when the first suitable preferment was given away from him he would return forthwith to Ireland. Harley seems to have done his best; but the Queen was adamant. The utmost that could be contrived for him was the Deanery of St Patrick's. That was finally settled on 23 April 1713, at the end of a period of suspense which had lasted over a year. During most of it Swift was desultorily occupied with a historical narrative of the making of the Treaty of Utrecht. But by that time the tension between Harley and St John had grown so great that Swift felt his narrative was bound to offend one or the other, and he suspended work. The cleavage between the great men increased his nervousness concerning the future. He sought relief from his anxiety in the society of Vanessa who, by the time he went to Dublin to be installed as Dean, had fallen passionately in love with him. she was then twenty-five: seven years younger than Stella. At this time he wrote, evidently for Vanessa's private enjoyment, the long poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa', which describes the process of their emotional entanglement, and concludes with a famous and characteristic ambiguity:
But what success Vanessa met
Is to the world a secret yet.
Whether the nymph to please her swain,
Talks in a high romantic strain;
Or whether he at last descends
To like with less seraphic ends;
Or to compound the business, whether
They temper love and books together,
Must never to mankind be told,
Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold.
After four months in Ireland, during which he was mostly depressed and ill, Swift returned to London. The quarrel between the ministers had now become a bitter feud, and St John was intriguing hard to take Harley's place. Swift was quite impotent to heal the breach between them, which was one of high policy as well as personal ambition. There is no evidence that Swift really understood either the issues at stake or St John's manoeuvers. He wrote some trenchant and witty pamphlets, but they were mainly in prosecution of a quarrel with Steele, who had become a violent Whig politician. Of his alarmist pamphlet, The Crisis, Swift made merciless fun. But the divided ministry had no line to give him. The death of the Queen, the accession of the Hanoverian, and the downfall of the Tories was now certain. Nothing could avert the animus of the new King against the architects of the Treaty of Utrecht.
On 31 May 1714 Swift went into retirement at Letcombe in Berkshire. He wrote a pamphlet, Some Free Thoughts on the Present State of Affairs, which the printer submitted to St John, and St John suppressed. When Harley was finally dismissed, on 27 July, Swift refused to support St John. He waited a fortnight after the death of the Queen to see what would happen; then slipped away to Dublin to take the oaths and resume his Deanery. He was now forty-seven. His connection with English politics was ended.
For the next six years, Swift took no part in Irish politics either. He was suspected to be a Jacobite. So he devoted himself to the organisation of his Deanery, and the better ordering of the Cathedral; also to the delicate business of reconciling the claims upon himself of Stella and Vanessa, who had followed him to Ireland. On the whole the weight of the evidence on this obscure and debatable subject is that, in order to reassure Stella, he was secretly married to her in 1716. It was a purely nominal marriage, which in no way prevented him from acknowledging Vanessa's claim on his affection. But that unhappy woman's passion demanded more than he could give. she was tubercular and emotionally tormented. When, in 1723, she learned that Swift was married to Stella, her thin flame of life soon flickered out.
Meanwhile, having lived down the unwarrantable suspicion of Jacobitism, Swift had resumed his natural place as a champion of the Irish interest. Under Walpole and the Whigs the exploitation of Ireland had become more systematic. In 1720 Swift, outraged by an Act of the English Parliament entirely subordinating the Irish to the English legislature, tried to inspirit a boycott of English manufacturers by a pamphlet which ends with a scathing denunciation of the Irish landlords:
I have heard great divines affirm that 'nothing is so likely to call down an universal judgment from Heaven upon a nation as universal oppression'; and whether this be not already verified in part, their worships the landlords are now at full leisure to consider. Whoever travels this country, and observes the face of nature, or the faces, and habits, and dwellings of the natives, will hardly think himself in a land where either law, religion, or common humanity is professed Irish.
Almost in spite of himself, and probably without ever fully admitting it to consciousness, Swift was becoming the champion of Papists as well as Protestants.
His attitude demands a word of explanation. Swift remained quite unbending in his defence of the supremacy of the Church of Ireland; he was always implacably opposed to admitting even Irish Presbyterians to political rights. But he was a passionate champion of Irish economic independence. Further, he was in favour of giving the native Irish a chance to live by restraining the landlords from ruthlessly converting pasture to tillage. In this, it is true, the interests of the Church of Ireland, which depended on its tithe, coincided with those of the peasants. But there is no reason to doubt that Swift was, at least in part, disinterested in his indignation at the miserable condition of the native
On both counts the authorities took alarm at his pamphlet, and the printer was vindictively prosecuted. There was no practical outcome to Swift's appeal for a boycott of English manufacturers. He drew in his horns again, and applied himself to the writing of Gulliver's Travels.
Probably his absorption in that work accounts for the fact that he did not participate in the agitation against Wood's Halfpence until it had already reached a considerable height. Wood's iniquitous patent, which had been obtained by a bribe of 10,000 pounds to George I's German mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, and which would have enabled him to make a profit of £40,000 on supplying Ireland with a new copper coinage, had been granted on 12 July 1722. The Irish Commons acted with unusual resolution, and presented strong addresses to the King against it, and a widespread movement of resistance had begun before Swift intervened with the first of the 'Drapier's Letters' in February 1724: A Letter to the Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers and Common People of Ireland. It is a masterpiece of popular writing, in a sense unscrupulous in its exaggerations and demagoguery, but with a characteristic streak of wild humour, driving home his two main points: that the new coinage will mean ruin to the common man, if he accepts it, and that the King himself has not the power to compel him to do so. It ran like wildfire. A second 'Letter' followed in August, in which the Drapier called for a boycott of any tradesmen who attempted to pass the coins; a third, three weeks later, was a careful reply to the favourable report of the English Privy Council on the Patent, and was primarily addressed to the Irish Parliament to prevent its being intimidated by the Report. The fourth, A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland, published just in time to greet the arrival of the new Lord Lieutenant, Carteret, in October, was a direct challenge to English supremacy. It is a contemptuous repudiation of the King's prerogative, and a stirring appeal to the common man to be master of his own national destiny. Let him not bother his head with rumours that English authority will enforce or withdraw the Patent:
The remedy is wholly in your hands, and therefore I have digressed a little in order to refresh and continue the spirit so seasonably raised among you, and to let you see that by the laws of GOD, of NATURE, of Nations and of your own COUNTRY, you ARE and OUGHT to be as FREE people as your brethren in England.
That was a direct repudiation of the English Act of 1720. A proclamation was immediately issued against the printer. Swift then wrote a brilliant Letter to the Lord Chancellor, which however he suppressed. Had it appeared it would have had the effect of making him appear in person as the leader of the agitation, though not as the author of the 'Drapier's Letters'. He would have, so to speak, taken over the lead from the Drapier. But he, wisely, decided not to do so, and applied himself to inspiriting the jury to reject the charge against the printer. It did that, and more; it indicted 'all such persons as have attempted, or shall endeavour, to impose the said Halfpence upon us'.
Carteret, by now, was pressing the home government to withdraw the Patent. While it was demurring the Drapier wrote two more 'Letters', of which the last was an appeal to the Irish Commons to 'assume the moral leadership of the whole people of Ireland', and to the people to obey its votes, whether they received the Royal Assent or not. In short, Ireland was to act as an independent nation. Before The Humble Address could appear, the Patent was withdrawn on 19 August 1725, and Swift suppressed his pamphlet. He realized that his aim to enlarge and uplift the agitation against the Halfpence into a nation-wide movement of non-cooperation with England was chimerical. Probably, from the beginning he had been under no illusion; but he could not resist the opportunity of trying his power.
Stella was now in a decline. Chiefly to avoid the torment of watching her die, Swift paid long visits to England in 1726 and 1727 and became loosely attached to the 'opposition' court of the Prince and Princess of Wales. He entertained a faint hope of an English preferment when, as he believed, Walpole would be dislodged, at the death of George I. Probably, his desire was to leave Ireland which, with Stella gone, would be a land of ghosts for him. But, though the King died, Walpole became stronger than before. Swift returned reluctantly to Dublin to face the ordeal of Stella's final illness. She died on 28 January 1728.
There is a circumstantial story that she requested to be acknowledged as his wife, and that he refused. If the story is true, he did right to refuse. Such acknowledgement would have given a totally false impression of their relation.
His sense of isolation now became extreme; but he kept a grip upon himself. He wrote more Irish political pamphlets, culminating in the most famous of all, A Modest Proposal that one hundred thousand native Irish children should be fattened for market at a year old: a masterpiece of macabre humour, written from a fund of despair. By violent exercise he fought stubbornly against his own increasing deafness and giddiness, caused by a disease of the labyrinth of the ear. His personal economy became obsessive: he was saving to endow a lunatic asylum. A national hero, already almost a national legend, he stalked about the liberty of St Patrick's, doing endless small charities with a grim face. Complete control of himself became a greater effort, both in personal behaviour and in writing. Not only did he explode into scatalogical verse, in which his abhorrence of the human animal is pathologically vehement, but such excellent poetry as 'The Death of Dr Swift' and 'The Life and Character of Dr Swift' is partly spoiled by the outbursts of irrelevant passion. Once, however, in 'The Legion Club', a scathing onslaught on the Irish Commons, passion itself was inspiration. This scalding invective has good claim to be considered Swift's finest poem. It was written in 1735, the occasion being an attack by the Irish Commons on the revenues of the Church of Ireland.
He amused himself with incredibly complicated exercises in a sort of dog-Latin; and, more seriously, with slowly elaborating Simon Wagstaff's Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation — an unsparing record of conversational inanity which freezes the smile on the reader's face — and the never finished Directions to Servants, which have plenty of the old wild humour to keep them fresh. He also supervised, while ostensibly disowning, the beautiful collected edition of his works published by Faulkner in Dublin.
It did not include A Tale of a Tub, for reasons which must be conjectured.
Swift became more and more of a recluse, and more and more capricious and irritable in his behaviour to his friends. He was subject to lapses of memory, and entertained fantasies about his own past. Long periods of profound lethargy, probably due to sheer physical exhaustion, seized him. From 1738 he was hardly responsible for his own actions, for his periods of entire lucidity were intermittent. In one of them he made his will, on 4 May 1740, with some characteristic jokes. But he was practically unapproachable. In August 1742 his friends requested a commission of lunacy upon him. His mind seems finally to have failed in the previous May. In October he endured great physical agony; but afterwards he sank into a condition of imbecility, which lasted three years! He died on 19 October 1745. Above his grave in St Patrick's was set the Latin epitaph he had commanded in his will. The English runs:
The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral, is buried here, where fierce indignation can tear at his heart no more. Go, traveller, and imitate if you can one who strove his utmost to champion human liberty.
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