Thursday, September 5, 2013

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. His father died before he was born and his mother returned to England when he was three. She left him in Dublin to be raised by her deceased husband's brother. Jonathan received an excellent education and graduated from Trinity College, after several years as a mediocre student, in 1686.

Political turmoil in Dublin encouraged Jonathan to move to England in 1688. His mother helped him get a job as secretary and personal assistant to a distant relative, retired diplomat, and oligarch named William Temple. Jonathan would remain in his employment, except for two brief periods, until William's death in January 1699.

When Jonathan first started working for William, he met an eight-year-old girl named Esther Johnson. She was the daughter of a companion of William's wife and, with her widowed mother, lived on William's estate. He took an immediate liking to her, nicknamed her Stella, and served her as an excellent teacher.

Jonathan started suffering from vertigo and ringing in his ears. He thought being in Ireland would help cure him so he left William's employment in 1690. It didn't so he returned to William in 1691. While working for William, Jonathan received his master's degree from Oxford in 1692.

In 1695 Jonathan took a position as priest with the (Anglican) Church of Ireland in a small coastal village in northern Ireland. He was so miserable there he returned to William for good in 1696. When he saw the 16-year-old Stella for the first time following his return, he thought that in his absence she had become the most beautiful and wonderful woman in England.

In 1690 William had published an Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning. It was his contribution to an energetic debate among some intellectuals about the virtue of studying ancient authors. William favored it. Jonathan supported William's view in Battle of the Books and expressed many of his own about the Christianity of his day in Tale of a Tub. He wrote both satires in the 1690s but did not publish them until 1704.

William died in January 1699. Jonathan lamented that virtue and friendliness had perished with him. Jonathan continued living in England to finish preparing William's memoirs for publication. He angered both relatives and friends of William by not censoring the memoirs heavily enough. As a result he did not receive any offer for meaningful employment in England and returned to Ireland.

He took work as pastor to some small churches affiliated with St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin and as chaplain to a nearby oligarch. The jobs gave him sufficient income and left him adequate leisure to stay frequently in Dublin and London.

In 1702 Jonathan received his doctoral degree in divinity from Trinity College. He also traveled to England and returned with Stella and their mutual friend Rebecca Dingley. The two lived in Jonathan's house along with Mrs. Brent his housekeeper. Stella easily made many friends and hosted periodic gatherings for intellectual discussion.

In England in 1704, Jonathan saw the publication of Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books. This led to enduring friendships with Alexander Pope and other English authors but to the everlasting hostility of Queen Anne. The former were emotionally gratifying and intellectually stimulating. The latter, however, doomed any chance he had of pastoring anywhere in the Church of England.

In 1707 Jonathan heavily involved himself in English politics. He lived mostly in London for the next seven years and sympathized first with the Whigs and then worked for the Tories beginning in 1710. Sixty-five of his letters to Stella during this period were published as A Journal to Stella after his death.

During these years in London, Jonathan developed a close relationship Esther Vanhomrigh whom he nicknamed Vanessa. When he returned to Dublin in 1714, she moved into her family's old home there.

To Jonathan, the return to Ireland felt like an involuntary exile. At least he had work as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. He proved to be a most unusual dean by becoming a champion of the Irish against their exploitation by the English. In their defense he published Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), Drapier's Letters (1724), and A Modest Proposal (1729).

In 1722, a bribed English government granted monopoly rights to an unscrupulous Englishman to produce debased copper coins for distribution in Ireland. Through Drapier's Letters, Jonathan made the exploitation represented by these copper coins so familiar and scandalous in Ireland that the English government withdrew them.

In 1723, Jonathan's close friend Vanessa died aged 35. Sadly, just before her death, their relationship ended following a difficult argument about Jonathan's relationship with Stella.

In 1726 Jonathan made a long-anticipated visit to London. He visited with friends Alexander Pope and others. He also took with him the completed manuscript of Gulliver's Travels and saw it published. It was immediately popular, quickly reprinted, and translated into French, Dutch, and German in 1727.

Jonathan titled that book, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. He divided it into four parts; in the first and most familiar, Gulliver appears gigantic in a world of tiny humans known as Lilliput. In that part Jonathan satirizes political power in his times and ours. In the second part, he exposes the often fatal indifference of conventionally Olympian people; in the third, he mocks the scientism of the Royal Society and contrasts it with reason lovingly applied; and, in the last part, he speaks of the unexpected discovery of a truly good human amidst general human depravity.

Stella died in 1728 aged 46. Jonathan's grief overwhelmed him. He had her buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral and wrote The Death of Mrs. Johnson in her honor.

Physical and mental illnesses plagued Jonathan's last years. In 1738, symptoms of mental illness began. He became so angry and violent that his friends had him declared insane in 1741. In 1742 he suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak. He died in 1745 just short of his 78th birthday. In keeping with his personal request, he was buried next to Stella. He wanted his large bank account to be used to start a hospital for helping people with mental illness.

He wrote his own enviable epitaph: “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift where savage indignation no longer rends his heart.”

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.