Jonathan Swift: a biographical sketch

The greatest prose satirist ever to write in the English language was born in Dublin, Ireland, of English parents, in 1667. At the age of 6 he entered the Kilkenny School, the best in the country, available to Swift only by virtue of his family's membership in the English governing class. One of his younger classmates there was William Congreve, who later became the foremost among London's Restoration comic dramatists. Some 20 years later George Berkeley would attend the same institution. When 14, he matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took his BA 4 years later. When he was 21, the violence which erupted in Ireland in the wake of the English revolution [1] induced many of his class to look to their safety; Swift went to England, where he served as private secretary to the retired diplomat Sir William Temple, a man of great culture, and, incidentally, a persistent advocate of a firm mercantilist policy [2] for England vis-ą-vis the American colonies and the "Kingdom" of Ireland. The chief importance of the stay for the young Swift, however, was the access it afforded him to a library well stocked in classical and modern letters, travel literature and political polemics. It was there, too, that he was introduced to Esther Johnson, then 8 years old, informally treated by Swift as a tutee. She would become the "Stella" of his Journal to Stella, and the only person for whom he would ever develop a truly tender friendship. Swift worked for Temple off and on, in between trips back to Ireland, until the latter's death in 1699.

In 1704 he brought out anonymously in London a volume of three satirical works. The Tale of a Tub ridiculed Roman Catholicism and Dissenting Protestantism (Puritanism) as factions of religious extremism, and represented the English Established Church (Anglicanism) as the party of sanity, moderation and conformity to the character of original Christianity. The Battle of the Books was Swift's contribution to the controversy then raging over the relative merits of ancient and modern learning. The Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit is ostensibly by a "modern" ­ a materialist in the train of Hobbes. This spokesman proceeds to diagnose the phenomenon of religious "Enthusiasm" ­ the malady of those Puritans so intoxicated with their private "Illumination" by Divine Grace that they are willing to sacrifice the rest of the race to their scrambled "visions." When the writer reaches his conclusion, he has not only managed to entertain us with an adequate account of the carnal basis of religious perversion but to condemn, unawares, his own simple-minded principles: Swift has deftly played off one boob against another.

Having taken orders in the Established Church, he received several minor "livings" [3] in Ireland and traveled back and forth between the two countries on various missions in behalf of the Church of Ireland. The next phase of his career is of little importance for our purposes. For some time he did pamphleteering for the Whigs, and later for the Tories, who in 1713 made him Dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin ­ to his great disappointment, since he had hoped for preferment in England. With the demise of the Tory ministry after the death of Queen Anne in 1714 (see n. 2 to "Proposal," below), his hopes for further advancement faded forever. He was then 46, and except for two brief trips to England in the next decade, he was to spend the remainder of his 77 years in Ireland.

But shortly before his departure from England in mid-1713, he, Alexander Pope, Congreve, John Gay (who in 1728 would stage his "Beggar's Opera") and others formed the Scriblerus Club, originally dedicated to writing the imaginary adventures of an arch-fool, one Martinus Scriblerus--a project which, they thought, would give them ample scope for exposing the follies and corruptions of the day. Not much came of Martin's memoirs, but it was probably during these discussions that Swift conceived the germinal ideas that eventually developed into Gulliver's Travels, which was largely written between 1723 and 1725, and published the next year in London, where several of the old Scriblerus group put some finishing touches top the masterpiece, even devising for it an outer shell of bogus editorial paraphernalia, purporting to describe how the manuscript came into the publisher's hand, etc.

But we are ahead of ourselves, for Swift's masterpiece was a long way off when he reluctantly returned to Ireland and proceeded practically to hibernate for 6 years--he was both seeking public obscurity as a protection against the scurrilities and vilifications of the Whig laity (their long-awaited revenge for his own anonymous libels) and struggling to maintain the powers attached to his office against the intrigues of the Whiggish Archbishop of Dublin. He was also composing several memoirs which he hoped might someday vindicate the ministry of his Tory friends, one of who was in exile, the other in prison on a charge of treason for having conspired with the Pretender [4] just before the death of the Queen (Swift knew nothing of this intrigue while it occurred and could never be brought to believe the charges.)

By 1720, however, it was impossible to continue living in the past and shortly after the passage of the Declaratory Act (which clearly defined Ireland's dependent status and deprived its House of Lords of appellate jurisdiction), Swift brought out A PROPOSAL for the universal Use of IRISH MANUFACTURE...UTTERLY REJECTING AND RENOUNCING Every Thing wearable that comes from ENGLAND, which was promptly labeled "false, scandalous and seditious" by the English government in Ireland, which ordered the arrest of the printer, who eventually escaped heavy punishment when the jury returned nine successive verdicts of innocent to the Chief Justice, who repeatedly refused to accept the result of their deliberations until the jury threw him in confusion by throwing the decision in his own lap. Though his authorship of the tract soon became an open secret, Swift was spared similar harassment because of his technical anonymity. Henceforth his would be the most cutting and penetrating voice raised against English political tyranny and economic exploitation in Ireland.

His most famous venture was a series of letters written from 1722 to 1725 under the pseudonym of L. P. Drapier against the introduction into the country of "Wood's halfpence," which not only insulted nearly everyone in Ireland by the arrogant fashion in which it was imposed upon the country, but threatened to flood the country with 10 (later 2) times as much copper currency as the situation required and, by virtue of the too low intrinsic value of each coin (30 instead of 23 pence per pound of copper), to accelerate the already alarming depletion of Ireland's gold and silver specie. Economists calculated that Ireland would lose £60, 480 under the initial terms of the proposed issue. [5]  Furthermore, this particular mintage would be extraordinarily vulnerable to counterfeiting; nor were there any safeguards to insure that the iron master would respect even the disastrous terms of his patent--which, moreover, he had purchased from the King's mistress (to whom it had originally been granted) for the sum of £10,000, a consideration that led the Irish to wonder what kind of profit he must have had in mind in order to gain a "suitable" return on his investment. Unlike his proposal for a boycott on English goods, these protests met with success. For over 3 years the country displayed the single instance of cooperation among its several factions (see the section on "Conditions in Early Eighteenth Century Ireland"); the government offered £300 reward for the author of the Drapier Letters; no Irishman would dare to accept the new coins. Finally Walpole, the English Prime Minister, was forced to buy back Wood's patent for £24,000. And throughout this entire controversy Swift was composing Gulliver's Travels.

A Modest Proposal (1720), Swift's most impressive Irish tract, was the last of real importance that he published. Stella's death in early 1628 greatly affected him, but he continued to write and to pursue his duties as Dean, as well as take part in the religious disputes which continued to engage the Dissenters, the Bishops, the House of Commons. At the age of 74 his mind failed and he was judged incapable of caring for himself; 3 years later he died and was buried beside Stella, in St. Patrick's Cathedral.


Notes

  1.  Not the Civil War that embraced the execution of Charles I and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, but the "Glorious Revolution" (as the Whig beneficiaries dubbed it) that in 1688 brought to the English monarchy the Dutch William of Orange, and sent into exile the last Stuart king, James II.   Return.

  2.  The American Heritage© Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (1992) defines "mercantilism" thus: "The theory and system of political economy prevailing in Europe after the decline of feudalism, based on national policies of accumulating bullion [gold], establishing colonies and a merchant marine, and developing industry and mining to attain a favorable balance of trade." The implication of this definition is that mercantilism amounts to a transition to capitalism - and therefore has been left behind by the world today. This, however, is misleading in several respects. Many aspects of mercantilism are still with us, and the predicament of Ireland in Swift's day (see below) is quite instructive for us to reflect upon in the light of recent controversies over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and GATT (the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).

To be sure, the ideal that wealth consists simply in amassing of gold is long gone, in favor of the idea that wealth consists in return-producing investment. But national governing elites still pursue favorable balances of trade. That is, transnational corporations use their clout with governments to enable themselves to transfer profits out of countries where they have investments to wherever else they think they can use them to make more profits. This means that people who are in a position to use their money to influence politicians in both rich and poor countries tend to so in ways that result in the further impoverishment of poor countries (and of many people in "rich" countries as well).

One point to notice in the present connection is that Swift's older friend and patron favored, as an Englishman, a policy that later in life Swift later discovered to be disastrous for the people of Ireland, where (in many ways against his wishes) he found himself situated. Swift can thus stand as an example of a person who ended up identifying himself with people whom he began, like the people he came to detest as unconscionable exploiters, looking down upon as his "natural inferiors."

Another point to consider is that the policy the England pursued toward Ireland - the one that Swift (as we shall see) so fiercely criticized in the "Drapier Letters" and the "Modest Proposal" - is the same policy that resulted, way across the Atlantic, in the American Revolution. Americans will want to ask themselves how it differs from the policy their government enforces, through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, upon 'third-world countries" around the globe. A couple of cases close to hand for examination are those of Mexico and Haiti.   Return.

  3.  A "living" in this sense is a salary paid to a clergyman for discharging certain prescribed duties. (A prominent abuse of the day ­ not practiced by Swift ­ was to lobby one's superiors for appointments to several livings and then to farm them out to substitutes ­ "vicars" ­ to do the actual work, at cut-rate wages, while one collected the official "benefice" for oneself. Thus a single individual with the right connections might simultaneously hold the livings [and collect the incomes] for several offices ­ this or that bishopric, the deaconate of some quite other cathedral, the pastorate of several parishes.)  Return.

  4.  The claimant to the British throne in the wake of the exile (in the "Glorious Revolution," 1688) of his father, James II. His given name was Charles Edward Stuart, but was known by his supporters as "the Young Pretender [claimant]" and, most affectionately, "Bonny Prince Charlie." His attempt to establish his claim to the monarchy ended in defeat with the Battle of Colloden Moor (Scotland) in 1746.  Return

  5.  This is what is meant by the term we use today of "capital flight." In this case, the removal of wealth from the country was engineered by the British Parliament. The question that thus arises is: which elements in control of Parliament stood to benefit from this rip-off?  Return.


  Go to a discussion of "Conditions in Early 18th-century Ireland", and Swift's interventions within these.

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   Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 28 March 1999.