Jonathan Swift

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Swift, Jonathan,

1667–1745, English author, b. Dublin. He is widely recognized as one of the greatest satirists in the English language.

Early Life and Works

Since his father, an Englishman who had settled in Ireland, died before his birth and his mother deserted him for some time, Swift was dependent upon an uncle for his education. He was sent first to Kilkenny School and then to Trinity College, Dublin, where he managed, in spite of his rebellious behavior, to obtain a degree. In 1689 he became secretary to Sir William TempleTemple, William,
1881–1944, archbishop of York (1929–42) and archbishop of Canterbury (1942–44); son of Frederick Temple. At Balliol College, Oxford, he became (1904) president of the Oxford Union.
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 at Moor Park, Surrey, where he formed his lifelong attachment to Esther Johnson, the "Stella" of his famous journal. Disappointed of church preferment in England, Swift returned to Ireland, where he was ordained an Anglican priest and in 1695 was given the small prebend of Kilroot.

Unable to make a success in Ireland, Swift returned to Moor Park the following year, remaining until Temple's death in 1699. During this period he wrote The Battle of the Books, in which he defended Temple's contention that the ancients were superior to the moderns in literature and learning, and A Tale of a Tub, a satire on religious excesses. These works were not published, however, until 1704. Again disappointment with his advancement sent him back to Ireland, where he was given the living of Laracor.

In the course of numerous visits to London he became friendly with AddisonAddison, Joseph,
1672–1719, English essayist, poet, and statesman. He was educated at Charterhouse, where he was a classmate of Richard Steele, and at Oxford, where he became a distinguished classical scholar.
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 and SteeleSteele, Sir Richard,
1672–1729, English essayist and playwright, b. Dublin. After studying at Charterhouse and Oxford, he entered the army in 1694 and rose to the rank of captain by 1700. His first book, a moral tract entitled The Christian Hero, appeared in 1701.
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 and active in Whig politics. His Whig sympathies were severed, however, when that party demonstrated its unfriendliness to the Anglican Church. In 1708 he began a series of pamphlets on ecclesiastical issues with his ironic Argument against Abolishing Christianity. He joined the Tories in 1710, edited the Tory Examiner for a year, and wrote various political pamphlets, notably The Conduct of the Allies (1711), Remarks on the Barrier Treaty (1712), and The Public Spirit of the Whigs (1714), in reply to Steele's Crisis.

Later Life and Works

In 1713 Swift became dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, a position he held until his death. That same year he joined PopePope, Alexander,
1688–1744, English poet. Although his literary reputation declined somewhat during the 19th cent., he is now recognized as the greatest poet of the 18th cent. and the greatest verse satirist in English.
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, ArbuthnotArbuthnot, John
, 1667–1735, Scottish author and scientist, court physician (1705–14) to Queen Anne. He is best remembered for his five "John Bull" pamphlets (1712), political satires on the Whig war policy, which introduced the character John Bull, the typical
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, GayGay, John,
1685–1732, English playwright and poet, b. Barnstaple, Devon. Educated at the local grammar school, he was apprenticed to a silk mercer for a brief time before commencing his literary career in London.
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, and others in forming the celebrated Scriblerus ClubScriblerus Club,
English literary group formed about 1713 to satirize "all the false tastes in learning." Among its chief members were Arbuthnot, Gay, Thomas Parnell, Pope, and Swift. Meetings of the club were discontinued after 1714.
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. About this time Swift became involved with another woman, Esther Vanhomrigh, the "Vanessa" of his poem Cadenus and Vanessa. The intensity of his relationship with her, as with Stella, is questionable, but Vanessa died a few weeks after his final rupture with her in 1723. Swift became a national hero of the Irish with his Drapier Letters (1724) and his bitterly ironical pamphlet A Modest Proposal (1729), which propounds that the children of the poor be sold as food for the tables of the rich.

Swift's satirical masterpiece Gulliver's Travels appeared in 1726. Written in four parts, it describes the travels of Lemuel Gulliver to Lilliput, a land inhabited by tiny people whose diminutive size renders all their pompous activities absurd; to Brobdingnag, a land populated by giants who are amused when Gulliver tells them about the glories of England; to Laputa and its neighbor Lagado, peopled by quack philosophers and scientists; and to the land of the Houhynhnms, where horses behave with reason and men, called Yahoos, behave as beasts. Ironically, this ruthless satire of human follies subsequently was turned into an expurgated story for children. In his last years Swift was paralyzed and afflicted with a brain disorder, and by 1742 he was declared unsound of mind. He was buried in St. Patrick's, Dublin, beside Stella.


See his prose, ed. by H. Davis (14 vol., 1939; repr. 1964–68); his poetry, ed. by H. Davis (3 vol., 2d ed. 1958), and The Portable Swift, ed. by C. Van Doren (new ed. 1968); his correspondence, ed. by H. Williams (5 vol., 1963); biographies by J. M. Murray (1954), I. Ephrenpreis (3 vol., 1962–83), C. Van Doren (1930, repr. 1964), D. Nokes (1985), V. Glendinning (1999), L. Damrosch (2013), and J. Stubbs (2017); studies by R. Quintana (1936, repr. 1965; and 1955, repr. 1962), R. Hunting (1966), N. F. Dennis (1964, repr. 1967), D. Donoghue (1969), and Louise K. Barnett (1981).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Swift, Jonathan


Born Nov. 30, 1667, in Dublin; died there Oct. 19, 1745. English writer.

The son of a steward, Swift studied at Trinity College of the University of Dublin from 1682 to 1688. From 1689 to 1699 he was secretary and librarian to W. Temple, a retired diplomat and prominent essayist. In 1695, Swift became a clergyman, and in 1701, a doctor of theology.

In the early 1680’s, Swift tested his gift for the poetic genres and developed a compressed, parodic prose style. His first work, the pamphlet The Battle of the Books (1697), was a savage mockery of the defenders of the intellectual and cultural innovations of the new bourgeois civilization. Swift’s search for a literary form began with The Battle of the Books and was successfully resolved in A Tale of a Tub (1704), in which the first-person narrator is a hack writer compiling an encyclopedia of future insanity. Through his “author,” Swift expressed the religious, humanistic, and Utopian pretensions of bourgeois progress and exposed their intrinsic hypocrisy. This tale about three brothers, each of whom represents a branch of Christianity (Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist), was a pretext for endless parodic digressions that used the resources of language to expose the latest intellectual distortions.

From 1701, when he obtained a position as a vicar in Laracor (Ireland), Swift came to London only for brief visits. He had already won fame as a political pamphleteer, and the Whigs considered him their supporter, but he emphasized his ideological and political independence with the pamphlets The Sentiments of a Church-of England Man (1708) and An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1709). During these years Swift created a stir with pamphlets in which, under the guise of Isaac Bicker-staff, a sage prophet and patriot, he used real-life examples to demonstrate the power of printed propaganda, which can arbitrarily invent and excise facts.

From 1710 to 1714, Swift formed close ties with the leaders of the Tory government, which was trying to extricate Great Britain from the War of the Spanish Succession and stabilize the domestic situation. He actively supported and guided government policies with his articles in the Examiner (1710–11), a journai, and with pamphlets, including The Conduct of the Allies (1711) and The Publick Spirit of the Whigs (1714).

The Journal to Stella, which was published posthumously, contains the daily letters and accounts sent by Swift from Laracor to Esther Johnson, his former ward and pupil, between 1710 and 1713.

In 1713, Swift was made dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Residing in Ireland almost uninterruptedly as a political exile, Swift joined the struggle for the violated rights of the Irish people, turning out pamphlets such as A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents (1729). In the series A Drapier’s Letters (1723–24), Swift, reproducing the logic and language of the common man, so skillfully linked broad political agitation with concrete events that the British government barely prevented a national uprising in Ireland.

Swift’s work reached its peak with Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Simultaneously parodying and epitomizing travel literature, Swift discovers fantastical countries and comments satirically on the prospects and ideals of the European social structure, the comical, parodie reflection of which is the world of the Lilliputians. Free, sound common sense condemns man’s latest achievements in “The Voyage to Brobdingnag.” The “Voyage to Laputa” mocks the insanity of “pure” scientific progress, and the bankruptcy of bourgeois Enlightenment humanism is demonstrated in the “Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms,” which offers an ironic choice between a utopia based on “horse sense” and an ape society similar to socially perverted human existence. Swift’s book was not a sermon of hopeless pessimism but a farsighted overview of the social and ideological tenets of bourgeois progress. It prompted the prominent artistic and literary theoretician A. V. Lunacharskii to call Swift the “lookout.” The most outstanding of Swift’s last works, which essentially repeat earlier themes and motifs, are the pamphlets Directions to Servants and A Serious and Useful Scheme to Make a Hospital for Incurables.

The chief technique in Swift’s satire was realistic parody. He presented absurdity and monstrosity as social norms, as actual and potential characterizations of the phenomena he described. His dramatic satire records the intellectual panorama of the early British Enlightenment.


The Prose Works, vols. 1–14. Oxford, 1939–68.
The Poems, vols. 1–3. Oxford, 1958.
In Russian translation:
Pamflety. Moscow, 1955.
Skazka o bochke. Moscow, 1930.
Puteshestvie v nekotorye otdalennye strany Lemiuelia Gullivera. Moscow, 1967.


Zabludovskii, M. D. “Satira i realizm Svifta.’ In the collection Realizm XVIII v. na Zapade. Moscow, 1956.
Levidov, N. Iu. Putesheslvie v nekolorye otdalennye strany: Mysli i chuvstva Dzhonatana Svifta. Moscow, 1964.
Murav’ev, V. Dzhonatan Svift. Moscow, 1968.
Craik, H. The Life of Jonathan Swift, vols. 1–2. London, 1894.
Quintana, R. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. London-New York, 1936.
Williams, K. Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise. Lawrence, Kan., 1958.
Ehrenpreis, I. Swift…. vols. 1–2. London, 1964–67.
Swift. Edited by C. J. Rawson. London (1971).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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