Jonathan Swift Biography

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667. The son of an English lawyer, he grew up there in the care of his uncle before attending Trinity College at the age of fourteen, where he stayed for seven years, graduating in 1688. In that year, he became the secretary for Sir William Temple, an English politician and member of the Whig party. In 1694, he took religious orders in the Church of Ireland and then spent a year as a country parson. He then spent further time in the service of Temple before returning to Ireland to become the chaplain of the Earl of Berkeley. Meanwhile, he had begun to write satires on the political and religious corruption surrounding him, working on A Tale of a Tub, which supports the position of the Anglican Church against its critics on the left and the right, and The Battle of the Books, which argues for the supremacy of the classics against modern thought and literature. He also wrote a number of political pamphlets in favor of the Whig party. In 1709 he went to London to campaign for the Irish church but was unsuccessful. After some conflicts with the Whig party, mostly because of Swift’s strong allegiance to the church, he became a member of the more conservative Tory party in 1710.

Unfortunately for Swift, the Tory government fell out of power in 1714 and Swift, despite his fame for his writings, fell out of favor. Swift, who had been hoping to be assigned a position in the Church of England, instead returned to Dublin. During his brief time in England, Swift had become friends with writers such as Alexander Pope, and during a meeting of their literary club, the Martinus Scriblerus Club, they decided to write satires of modern learning. The “third voyage” described in his best-known work, Gulliver’s Travels, is assembled from the work Swift did during this time. However, the final work was not completed until 1726, and the narrative of the third voyage was actually the last one completed. After his return to Ireland, Swift became a staunch supporter of the Irish against English attempts to weaken their economy and political power, writing pamphlets such as the satirical A Modest Proposal, in which he suggests that the Irish problems of famine and overpopulation could be easily solved by having the babies of poor Irish subjects sold as delicacies to feed the rich.

Swift's Ireland was a country that had been effectively controlled by England for nearly 500 years. The Stuarts had established a Protestant governing aristocracy amidst the country's relatively poor Catholic population. Denied union with England in 1707 (when Scotland was granted it), Ireland continued to suffer under English trade restrictions and found the authority of its own Parliament in Dublin severely limited. Swift, though born a member of Ireland's colonial ruling class, came to be known as one of the greatest of Irish patriots. He, however, considered himself more English than Irish, and his loyalty to Ireland was often ambivalent in spite of his staunch support for certain Irish causes. The complicated nature of his own relationship with England may have left him particularly sympathetic to the injustices and exploitation Ireland suffered at the hands of its more powerful neighbor.

Although Swift's disgust with the state of the nation continued to increase, A Modest Proposal was the last of his essays about Ireland. Swift wrote mostly poetry in the later years of his life, and he died in 1745.

Jonathan Swift Study Guides

Jonathan Swift Quotes

When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

May you live all the days of your life.

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.

We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.

He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.

A wise man should have money in his head, but not in his heart.

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.

No wise man ever wished to be younger.

The best doctors in the world are Doctor Diet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merryman.

The proper words in the proper places are the true definition of style.

Jonathan Swift Novels

A Tale of a Tub

Published 1704

Gulliver’s Travels

Published 1726

A Modest Proposal

Published 1729

Jonathan Swift Essay Collections

“An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”

Published 1712