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Biography of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Jonathan Swift Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift was an author, journalist, and political activist best known for his satirical novel Gulliver's Travels and for his satirical essay on the Irish famine, "A Modest Proposal."

Born of English parents in Dublin, Ireland, Swift studied at Kilkenny Grammar School and at Trinity College in Dublin. The abdication of King James II drove him to England. During his time in England, Swift realized his great talent for satire and wrote A Tale of a Tub and "The Battle of the Books," published in 1704. Swift also decided upon a career in the clergy. When he returned to Ireland, Swift became a member of the Anglican clergy, ordained in the Church of Ireland.

During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), Swift visited London several times, making a name for himself as a talented essayist. He began his political career as a part of the Whig political party but in 1710 switched sides, becoming a Tory and taking over the Tory journal The Examiner. Swift was disgusted by the Whigs' aversion to the Anglican Church and could not stand for the party's desire to do away with the Test Act, which kept many non-Anglicans from holding offices in government. Swift focused his time as a Tory on supporting their cause by writing lengthy pamphlets and essays on religion and politics, continuing to satirize those with different views. In 1713 Swift was offered the deanship of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. When Queen Anne died in 1714, the Tories came under fire, so Swift lost favor in London and greater England. He begrudgingly resigned himself to living full-time in Ireland.

In 1724 Swift led the Irish people in their resistance against the English, who continued to oppress them. He wrote many public letters and political pieces with the purpose of rallying the people. One of his most famous essays, "A Modest Proposal," satirically suggests that the Irish solve their problems of starvation and overpopulation by eating their young. Swift also engaged in extensive commentary on religion, though these works are not much read today. Even though Swift's identity was widely known by the citizens of Dublin, no one came forward to report him when a 300-pound reward was offered for his arrest.

Swift is also known for Gulliver's Travels, a book of fantasy, satire, and political allegory, much like his other, shorter works. He wrote Gulliver's Travels in 1725, and it was published in 1726. The book was a great success throughout the British Empire, and it contributed to Swift's fame and legitimacy as a writer and social commentator.

For the majority of his life, Swift was a victim of Meniere's disease, which affects balance and hearing and causes nausea and dizziness. When Swift was about 72 years old, his disease began to keep him from his duties and social life. He became withdrawn and deeply depressed. Swift died in October 1745. He was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he had worked as dean.

Swift was a great friend of Alexander Pope, a fellow satirist best known for "Rape of the Lock." In a letter to Pope, Swift once called himself a misanthrope, but it seems more likely that he was simply frustrated by people who chose not to use the logic and reason they possessed.

Study Guides on Works by Jonathan Swift