Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet and cleric who became Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
Swift is remembered for works such as A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver's Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729). He is regarded by the Encyclop?dia Britannica as the foremost prose satirist in the English language, and is less well known for his poetry. He originally published all of his works under pseudonyms – such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, Drapier's Letters as MB Drapier – or anonymously. He is also known for being a master of two styles of satire, the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.
His deadpan, ironic writing style, particularly in A Modest Proposal, has led to such satire being subsequently termed "Swiftian".
Jonathan Swift was born on 30 November 1667 in Dublin, Ireland. He was the second child and only son of Jonathan Swift (1640–1667) and his wife Abigail Erick (or Herrick), of Frisby on the Wreake. His father, a native of Goodrich, Herefordshire, accompanied his brothers to Ireland to seek their fortunes in law after their Royalist father's estate was brought to ruin during the English Civil War. Swift's father died in Dublin about seven months before he was born. His mother returned to England after his birth, leaving him in the care of his influential uncle, Godwin, a close friend and confidant of Sir John Temple, whose son later employed Swift as his secretary.
House in which Swift was born, 1865 illustration
Swift's family had several interesting literary connections: his grandmother, Elizabeth (Dryden) Swift, was the niece of Sir Erasmus Dryden, grandfather of the poet John Dryden. The same grandmother's aunt, Katherine (Throckmorton) Dryden, was a first cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Sir Walter Raleigh. His great-great grandmother, Margaret (Godwin) Swift, was the sister of Francis Godwin, author of The Man in the Moone which influenced parts of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. His uncle, Thomas Swift, married a daughter of the poet and playwright Sir William Davenant, a godson of William Shakespeare.
Swift's uncle Godwin Swift (1628–1695), a benefactor, took primary responsibility for the young Jonathan, sending him with one of his cousins to Kilkenny College (also attended by the philosopher George Berkeley). In 1682, financed by Godwin's son Willoughby, he attended Dublin University (Trinity College, Dublin), from which he received his B.A. in 1686, and developed his friendship with William Congreve. Swift was studying for his master's degree when political troubles in Ireland surrounding the Glorious Revolution forced him in 1688 to leave for England, where his mother helped him get a position as secretary and personal assistant of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Farnham. Temple was an English diplomat who, having arranged the Triple Alliance of 1668, had retired from public service to his country estate to tend his gardens and write his memoirs. Gaining his employer's confidence, Swift "was often trusted with matters of great importance". Within three years of their acquaintance, Temple had introduced his secretary to William III and sent him to London to urge the King to consent to a bill for triennial Parliaments.
When Swift took up his residence at Moor Park, he met Esther Johnson, then eight years old, the daughter of an impoverished widow who acted as companion to Temple's sister, Lady Giffard. Swift acted as her tutor and mentor, giving her the nickname "Stella", and the two maintained a close but ambiguous relationship for the rest of Esther's life.
In 1690, Swift left Temple for Ireland because of his health but returned to Moor Park the following year. The illness, fits of vertigo or giddiness – now known to be Meniere's disease—would continue to plague Swift throughout his life. During this second stay with Temple, Swift received his M.A. from Hart Hall, Oxford in 1692. Then, apparently despairing of gaining a better position through Temple's patronage, Swift left Moor Park to become an ordained priest in the Established Church of Ireland, and in 1694 he was appointed to the prebend of Kilroot in the Diocese of Connor, with his parish located at Kilroot, near Carrickfergus in County Antrim.
Swift appears to have been miserable in his new position, being isolated in a small, remote community far from the centres of power and influence. While at Kilroot, however, Swift may well have become romantically involved with Jane Waring, whom he called "Varina", the sister of an old college friend. A letter from him survives, offering to remain if she would marry him and promising to leave and never return to Ireland if she refused. She presumably refused, because Swift left his post and returned to England and Temple's service at Moor Park in 1696, and he remained there until Temple's death. There he was employed in helping to prepare Temple's memoirs and correspondence for publication. During this time Swift wrote The Battle of the Books, a satire responding to critics of Temple's Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1690), though Battle was not published until 1704.
Temple died on 27 January 1699. Swift, normally a harsh judge of human nature, said that all that was good and amiable in humankind had died with Temple. Swift stayed on briefly in England to complete the editing of Temple's memoirs, and perhaps in the hope that recognition of his work might earn him a suitable position in England. Unfortunately, Swift's work made enemies among some of Temple's family and friends, in particular Temple's formidable sister, Lady Giffard, who objected to indiscretions included in the memoirs. Swift's next move was to approach King William directly, based on his imagined connection through Temple and a belief that he had been promised a position. This failed so miserably that he accepted the lesser post of secretary and chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, one of the Lords Justice of Ireland. However, when he reached Ireland he found that the secretaryship had already been given to another. He soon obtained the living of Laracor, Agher, and Rathbeggan, and the prebend of Dunlavin in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.
At Laracor, just over four and half miles (7.5 km) from Summerhill, County Meath, and twenty miles (32 km) from Dublin, Swift ministered to a congregation of about fifteen and had abundant leisure for cultivating his garden, making a canal (after the Dutch fashion of Moor Park), planting willows, and rebuilding the vicarage. As chaplain to Lord Berkeley, he spent much of his time in Dublin and travelled to London frequently over the next ten years. In 1701, Swift anonymously published a political pamphlet, A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.