Jonathan Swift was born 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, and his mother returned to England. He was left 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.
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 Ménière'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.
In February 1702, Swift received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College, Dublin. That spring he travelled to England and then returned to Ireland in October, accompanied by Esther Johnson—now 20—and his friend Rebecca Dingley, another member of William Temple's household. There is a great mystery and controversy over Swift's relationship with Esther Johnson, nicknamed "Stella". Many, notably his close friend Thomas Sheridan, believed that they were secretly married in 1716; others, like Swift's housekeeper Mrs Brent and Rebecca Dingley (who lived with Stella all through her years in Ireland) dismissed the story as absurd. Swift certainly did not wish her to marry anyone else: in 1704, when their mutual friend William Tisdall informed Swift that he intended to propose to Stella, Swift wrote to him to dissuade him from the idea. Although the tone of the letter was courteous, Swift privately expressed his disgust for Tisdall as an "interloper", and they were estranged for many years.
During his visits to England in these years, Swift published A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books (1704) and began to gain a reputation as a writer. This led to close, lifelong friendships with Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, forming the core of the Martinus Scriblerus Club (founded in 1713).
Swift became increasingly active politically in these years. From 1707 to 1709 and again in 1710, Swift was in London unsuccessfully urging upon the Whig administration of Lord Godolphin the claims of the Irish clergy to the First-Fruits and Twentieths ("Queen Anne's Bounty"), which brought in about £2,500 a year, already granted to their brethren in England. He found the opposition Tory leadership more sympathetic to his cause, and, when they came to power in 1710, he was recruited to support their cause as editor of The Examiner. In 1711, Swift published the political pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies, attacking the Whig government for its inability to end the prolonged war with France. The incoming Tory government conducted secret (and illegal) negotiations with France, resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) ending the War of the Spanish Succession.
Swift was part of the inner circle of the Tory government, and often acted as mediator between Henry St John (Viscount Bolingbroke), the secretary of state for foreign affairs (1710–15), and Robert Harley (Earl of Oxford), lord treasurer and prime minister (1711–1714). Swift recorded his experiences and thoughts during this difficult time in a long series of letters to Esther Johnson, collected and published after his death as A Journal to Stella. The animosity between the two Tory leaders eventually led to the dismissal of Harley in 1714. With the death of Queen Anne and accession of George I that year, the Whigs returned to power, and the Tory leaders were tried for treason for conducting secret negotiations with France.
Also during these years in London, Swift became acquainted with the Vanhomrigh family (Dutch merchants who had settled in Ireland, then moved to London) and became involved with one of the daughters, Esther, yet another fatherless young woman and another ambiguous relationship to confuse Swift's biographers. Swift furnished Esther with the nickname "Vanessa", and she features as one of the main characters in his poem Cadenus and Vanessa. The poem and their correspondence suggest that Esther was infatuated with Swift, and that he may have reciprocated her affections, only to regret this and then try to break off the relationship. Esther followed Swift to Ireland in 1714, and settled at her old family home, Celbridge Abbey. Their uneasy relationship continued for some years; then there appears to have been a confrontation, possibly involving Esther Johnson. Esther Vanhomrigh died in 1723 at the age of 35, having destroyed the will she had made in Swift's favour. Another lady with whom he had a close but less intense relationship was Anne Long, a toast of the Kit-Cat Club.
Before the fall of the Tory government, Swift hoped that his services would be rewarded with a church appointment in England. However, Queen Anne appeared to have taken a dislike to Swift and thwarted these efforts. Her dislike has been attributed to The Tale of a Tub, which she thought blasphemous, compounded by The Windsor Prophecy, where Swift, with a surprising lack of tact, advised the Queen on which of her bedchamber ladies she should and which she should not trust. The best position his friends could secure for him was the Deanery of St Patrick's; this was not in the Queen's gift and Anne, who could be a bitter enemy, made it clear that Swift would not have received the preferment if she could have prevented it. With the return of the Whigs, Swift's best move was to leave England and he returned to Ireland in disappointment, a virtual exile, to live "like a rat in a hole".
Once in Ireland, however, Swift began to turn his pamphleteering skills in support of Irish causes, producing some of his most memorable works: Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), Drapier's Letters (1724), and A Modest Proposal (1729), earning him the status of an Irish patriot. This new role was unwelcome to the Government, which made clumsy attempts to silence him. His printer, Edward Waters, was convicted of seditious libel in 1720, but four years later a grand jury refused to find that the Drapier's Letters (which, though written under a pseudonym, were universally known to be Swift's work) were seditious. Swift responded with an attack on the Irish judiciary almost unparalleled in its ferocity, his principal target being the "vile and profligate villain" William Whitshed, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.
Also during these years, he began writing his masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships, better known as Gulliver's Travels. Much of the material reflects his political experiences of the preceding decade. For instance, the episode in which the giant Gulliver puts out the Lilliputian palace fire by urinating on it can be seen as a metaphor for the Tories' illegal peace treaty; having done a good thing in an unfortunate manner. In 1726 he paid a long-deferred visit to London, taking with him the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels. During his visit he stayed with his old friends Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay, who helped him arrange for the anonymous publication of his book. First published in November 1726, it was an immediate hit, with a total of three printings that year and another in early 1727. French, German, and Dutch translations appeared in 1727, and pirated copies were printed in Ireland.
Swift returned to England one more time in 1727 and stayed with Alexander Pope once again. The visit was cut short when Swift received word that Esther Johnson was dying, and rushed back home to be with her. On 28 January 1728, Esther Johnson died; Swift had prayed at her bedside, even composing prayers for her comfort. Swift could not bear to be present at the end, but on the night of her death he began to write his The Death of Mrs Johnson. He was too ill to attend the funeral at St Patrick's. Many years later, a lock of hair, assumed to be Esther Johnson's, was found in his desk, wrapped in a paper bearing the words, "Only a woman's hair".
Death became a frequent feature of Swift's life from this point. In 1731 he wrote Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, his own obituary published in 1739. In 1732, his good friend and collaborator John Gay died. In 1735, John Arbuthnot, another friend from his days in London, died. In 1738 Swift began to show signs of illness, and in 1742 he may have suffered a stroke, losing the ability to speak and realising his worst fears of becoming mentally disabled. ("I shall be like that tree," he once said, "I shall die at the top.") He became increasingly quarrelsome, and long-standing friendships, like that with Thomas Sheridan, ended without sufficient cause. To protect him from unscrupulous hangers on, who had begun to prey on the great man, his closest companions had him declared of "unsound mind and memory". However, it was long believed by many that Swift was actually insane at this point. In his book Literature and Western Man, author J. B. Priestley even cites the final chapters of Gulliver's Travels as proof of Swift's approaching "insanity".
In part VIII of his series, The Story of Civilization, Will Durant describes the final years of Swift's life as such:
"Definite symptoms of madness appeared in 1738. In 1741 guardians were appointed to take care of his affairs and watch lest in his outbursts of violence he should do himself harm. In 1742 he suffered great pain from the inflammation of his left eye, which swelled to the size of an egg; five attendants had to restrain him from tearing out his eye. He went a whole year without uttering a word."
In 1744, Alexander Pope died. Then on 19 October 1745, Swift, at nearly 80, died. After being laid out in public view for the people of Dublin to pay their last respects, he was buried in his own cathedral by Esther Johnson's side, in accordance with his wishes. The bulk of his fortune (£12,000) was left to found a hospital for the mentally ill, originally known as St Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, which opened in 1757, and which still exists as a psychiatric hospital.
- Text extracted from the introduction to The Journal to Stella by George A. Aitken and from other sources)
Jonathan Swift wrote his own epitaph:
Hic depositum est Corpus IONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D. Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis Decani, Ubi sæva Indignatio Ulterius Cor lacerare nequit, Abi Viator Et imitare, si poteris, Strenuum pro virili Libertatis Vindicatorem. Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78º.
Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart. Go forth, Voyager, and copy, if you can, this vigorous (to the best of his ability) Champion of Liberty. He died on the 19th Day of the Month of October, A.D. 1745, in the 78th Year of his Age.
W. B. Yeats poetically translated it from the Latin as:
- Swift has sailed into his rest;
- Savage indignation there
- Cannot lacerate his breast.
- Imitate him if you dare,
- World-besotted traveller; he
- Served human liberty.