Jonathan Swift: Biography, Facts & Books

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

A priest and a satirist walk into a bar, but this time they're the same person! Keep reading to learn more about the life and works of Jonathan Swift in this lesson, where you'll also find some fascinating facts on this famous Irish author.

The Rowdy Reverend: A Brief Biography of Jonathan Swift

Reverend Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Irish priest and satirist
Portrait of Jonathan Swift

As if being born in 17th-century Ireland weren't hard enough, Swift never knew his father, an attorney who died two months before Jonathan's birth in Dublin on 30 November 1667. In their intense poverty, Swift's mother was unable to provide for them, so he was sent to live with his uncle Godwin Swift. Also an attorney and member of a prestigious legal organization, Godwin enrolled Jonathan in the Kilkenny Grammar School, one of the best schools in Ireland at the time.

After his primary schooling, Swift entered Trinity College, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1686. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, however, hindered his study for his master's degree, so he instead left for England. Here, he was employed as the secretary to the famous political essayist and statesman Sir William Temple. During the decade he worked for Temple, Jonathan engaged in researching and publishing his employer's memoirs and essays, some of which heralded what he saw as a necessary Anglo-Dutch alliance achieved during the Glorious Revolution. The highly charged political atmosphere surrounding Temple also led to Swift's own interest in the political arena, and he began to write his own short essays and began the manuscript for a later book.

Jonathan joined the Anglican priesthood during a visit to Ireland in 1695; however, that did not prevent him from maintaining a close relationship with Esther Johnson, whom he called 'Stella' and had met while working for Sir William. Following Temple's death in 1699, Swift returned home and took over a tiny congregation outside Dublin. Over the next decade, Jonathan spent his time preaching, gardening, and conducting home improvements. He also continued to write, and in 1701 Swift published his first political pamphlet: A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.

Three years later, Jonathan produced his first book, A Tale of a Tub, which was met with both popular acclaim and official condemnation. The reputation he built on this work secured Swift a job with the Tories back in England in 1710 as the editor of their official newspaper, the Examiner. Sensing that their regime would soon fall, however, Jonathan returned to Ireland for good in 1713, where he accepted the post of dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. During his tenure as dean, Swift continued to write and in 1726 finally finished the manuscript for Gulliver's Travels.

Unfortunately, Jonathan hardly had time to celebrate his success, since his beloved Stella died shortly thereafter in January 1728. Many more of his closest friends began to pass not long after Stella's death, and Swift became increasingly reclusive and mentally disturbed. As his health deteriorated, he continued to turn away friends, but he was forced to rely on them when he reportedly had a stroke in 1742, losing his ability to speak. He was soon declared mentally unsound and would never recover from his maladies before his death on 19 October 1745. Though plagued with illness and disenfranchisement, Jonathan Swift proved to be not only one of the greatest authors of Ireland, but also one of the most distinguished writers of the English language whose works (like those below) have been a staple of English literature for centuries.

Some Books by Jonathan Swift

1704: A Tale of a Tub

Although a big hit with the general public, Jonathan's first book was strongly condemned by the Church of England and even Queen Anne herself. They saw A Tale of a Tub as a parody of religion; however, Swift intended the work to satirize the overwhelming pride involved with the intricately intertwined worlds of Church and State at the time. With his parodic representations of the three main branches of Christianity, though, Jonathan realized that his work would adversely affect his advancement in the Anglican Church, even though it was originally published anonymously.

1726: Gulliver's Travels

Perhaps Swift's most popular and cherished work, Gulliver's Travels is thankfully known to us today by its shortened title. First published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts - By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain on Several Ships, Jonathan's timeless classic is a rollicking satire of many of the political situations that the author experienced in his own lifetime. For instance, the Lilliputian's plan to subjugate the island nation of Blefuscu clearly demonstrates the strained relationship between England (Lilliput) and Ireland (Blefuscu). Since its first printing in 1726 (which sold-out in one week), Gulliver's Travels has been immensely popular and not once ever out of print.

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