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Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World

Leo Damrosch
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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    Jonathan Swift
    Book Description:

    Jonathan Swift is best remembered today as the author ofGulliver's Travels,the satiric fantasy that quickly became a classic and has remained in print for nearly three centuries. Yet Swift also wrote many other influential works, was a major political and religious figure in his time, and became a national hero, beloved for his fierce protest against English exploitation of his native Ireland. What is really known today about the enigmatic man behind these accomplishments? Can the facts of his life be separated from the fictions?

    In this deeply researched biography, Leo Damrosch draws on discoveries made over the past thirty years to tell the story of Swift's life anew. Probing holes in the existing evidence, he takes seriously some daring speculations about Swift's parentage, love life, and various personal relationships and shows how Swift's public version of his life-the one accepted until recently-was deliberately misleading. Swift concealed aspects of himself and his relationships, and other people in his life helped to keep his secrets.


    Assembling suggestive clues, Damrosch re-narrates the events of Swift's life while making vivid the sights, sounds, and smells of his English and Irish surroundings.Through his own words and those of a wide circle of friends, a complex Swift emerges: a restless, combative, empathetic figure, a man of biting wit and powerful mind, and a major figure in the history of world letters.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16567-8
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the 1720s a brilliant and beautiful young woman was entangled in a troubled aff air with a man twenty years older. She had fallen passionately in love with him in London, and when he moved home to Dublin she followed him there. He was strongly attracted to her but reluctant to commit himself, and he insisted they keep their relationship secret. They were apart much of the time and communicated by letter, and she was sometimes near despair when he seemed to be rejecting her: “I am sure I could have bore the rack much better than those killing,...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Beginnings
    (pp. 9-32)

    The story that Jonathan Swift told is that he came into the world on November 30, 1667, in the house of his uncle Godwin Swift, in a little Dublin alley known as Hoey’s Court. He was born there because his father had recently died at the age of twenty-seven, and his mother, Abigail, had moved in with her Swift relatives. The baby was named Jonathan, after his father. Abigail also had an eighteen-month-old daughter, Jane, and hardly any money.

    These, at least, were the facts as Swift understood them. But strangely, nothing is certain about his early years, including the...

  7. CHAPTER 2 A Patron and Two Mysteries
    (pp. 33-61)

    For the first time since he was a child, Swift sailed to England, setting out from Ringsend near Dublin, where the river Liff ey enters the sea. He probably took a small packet boat, so called because it carried packets of mail as well as passengers, and he would have landed either at Holyhead in Wales or Chester in England. Holyhead was the port nearest to Dublin, at the western tip of the island of Anglesea; Chester, on the river Dee, was seventy miles further inland. In later years he made the crossing many times and used both destinations.


  8. CHAPTER 3 “Long Choosing, and Beginning Late”
    (pp. 62-78)

    The profession for which Swift was most qualified was the ministry. He was in no hurry, though, to climb into the pulpit. Sir William was well placed to get him launched instead in politics or government service, and that track appealed to him strongly. He detested being financially strapped, and he was well aware that the clergy were deplorably underpaid. At the end of the eighteenth century the clergyman Sydney Smith lamented that a minister “is thrown into life with his hands tied, and bid to swim; he does well if he keeps his head above water.” If Swift did...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Moor Park Once More
    (pp. 79-93)

    In 1695 Swift had been eager to escape from Moor Park; a year later he was ready to return. His chances for advancement could hardly be worse there than they were in Kilroot. His cousin Thomas had taken his place as Temple’s secretary, but Thomas now went off to his curacy, and Jonathan resumed his old position. He retained the Kilroot living for a couple of years, probably for the income, while someone else handled the minimal duties. Then he resigned it in favor of his friend John Winder.

    Temple had advised Swift to hold on to Kilroot indefinitely. “I...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Village and the Castle
    (pp. 94-112)

    In addition to his duties with Lord Berkeley, Swift expected an appointment or “preferment” in the Church, and one was duly found, though not nearly as distinguished as he had hoped. In September of 1700 he became vicar of Laracor, a tiny hamlet close to the town of Trim, twenty-three miles from Dublin and an easy day’s journey on horseback. Laracor lay in County Meath, in a landscape far less dramatic than the one at Kilroot. Northerners had a saying, “Ulster sits in the middle of five thousand hills, but the county of Meath lies level as a board.”¹


  11. CHAPTER 6 London
    (pp. 113-124)

    Swift adored London, with its endless variety and turbulent energy. In 1700 it was the largest city in Europe, with a population of six hundred thousand. That was three times as many people as in Shakespeare’s day, and one-tenth of all the inhabitants of England. Th e London Shakespeare had known, less than a century earlier, was gone. In the Great Fire of 1666, four-fifths of the city center had been demolished, including the medieval St. Paul’s Cathedral. Its stones, the diarist John Evelyn said, “flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the...

  12. CHAPTER 7 “A Very Positive Young Man”
    (pp. 125-130)

    In 1701 Swift was thirty-four years old, stalled in his career, and utterly unknown to the public. Th at was about to change.

    Working for the new lord lieutenant, the Earl of Rochester, Swift repeatedly accompanied his employer from Ireland to England and back again. He also spent time with the Berkeley family in London and with other friends. But we know next to nothing about his life at this time; no letters have survived from the middle of 1700 to the end of 1703. What we do know is that he became deeply interested in English politics. This was...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Scandalous Tub
    (pp. 131-146)

    In May of 1704 a peculiar book was offered for sale. It was calledA Tale of a Tub, a proverbial expression for a pointless cock-and-bull story, and it was a hodgepodge of religious allegory, learned parodies, and rambling digressions explicitly labeled “Digressions.” The whole thing was a wild medley of sources and allusions, piled on with irreverent glee. The title page carried no author’s name, and it wouldn’t have meant much if it had. The only thing of any note that Swift had yet published was theDiscourse of the Contests and Dissensions in Athens and Greece, and that...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Swift and God
    (pp. 147-153)

    Throughout Swift’s life he was hounded by accusations that he was too irreverent for a clergyman, and maybe not even a believer at all. When he was installed as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, some mocking verses were allegedly tacked to the door:

    Look down, St. Patrick, look we pray,

    On thine own church and steeple;

    Convert thy Dean on this great day,

    Or else God help the people.

    A hostile writer later commented that Swift’s “affection to the Church was never doubted, though his Christianity was ever questioned.”¹

    Swift’s inverted hypocrisy was partly to blame, since he avoided any...

  15. CHAPTER 10 First Fruits
    (pp. 154-163)

    In 1704 Swift’s story starts to gather momentum again, and in fact this was the turning point of his career. It hinged on a financial issue that was of marginal significance even at the time. This was an ancient law, a tax on the income of the clergy, established in the Middle Ages, with the arcane name of the First Fruits and Twentieth Parts. When a minister took up a new position, he had to pay the state the equivalent of a year’s income. That was the First Fruits, so called from a biblical text, “Honour the Lord with thy...

  16. CHAPTER 11 The War and the Whigs
    (pp. 164-176)

    The overwhelming concern of British public life for over a decade, from 1701 to 1713, was the War of the Spanish Succession. The Whigs were an enthusiastic war party, and their hero was the charismatic general-in-chief of the allied armies, the Duke of Marlborough.

    Marlborough wasn’t always a duke, or even a peer. He was born John Churchill in 1650, son of Sir Winston Churchill, ancestor of the twentieth-century Sir Winston. This Sir Winston had fought for Charles I in the civil wars, and was well placed for rewards when Charles II recovered his throne. John Churchill was handsome, charming,...

  17. CHAPTER 12 Swift the Londoner
    (pp. 177-190)

    As before, Swift found London alarmingly expensive, and he had to manage his finances with care. Whenever possible he walked rather than hiring a coach or sedan chair. Lodgings were relatively cheap, about £1 a month, and he moved often, though it’s not clear why. His quarters were taken by the week or month, and it was easy to change them. At various times he lived in Pall Mall, Bury Street, St. Albans Street, Suff olk Street, St. Albans Street, St. Martin’s Street in Leicester Fields, Little Panton Street, and Rider Street; he also lived in Chelsea and in an...

  18. CHAPTER 13 At the Summit
    (pp. 191-214)

    At the beginning of 1709 Swift was still calling himself a “moderate Whig,” though Archbishop King teased him about it: “Pray, by what artifice did you contrive to pass for a Whig?”¹ But momentous changes were just beyond the horizon, and soon he would be a Whig no longer.

    There was a personal loss just at this time. In April 1710, Abigail Swift died in Leicester, while Swift was still at Laracor. He wrote on a blank page in his account book, “I have now lost my barrier between me and death; God grant I may live to be as...

  19. CHAPTER 14 The Journal to Stella
    (pp. 215-230)

    It is easy to forget that the documents that happen to survive record only a tiny fraction of people’s lives. In 1708 Swift began saving his correspondence, including drafts of his letters to other people, and 97 percent of what we have comes after that. But by then he was forty-one years old and had lived more than half his life.¹

    For an extended period of nearly three years, from September 1710 to June 1713, we finally see Swift’s life up close. During that time he kept a daily record, sent in sixty-five installments from London to Dublin and dubbed...

  20. CHAPTER 15 Enter Vanessa
    (pp. 231-240)

    In 1707, during a previous stay in England, Swift spent the night at an inn in Dunstable in Bedfordshire, halfway between Leicester and London. It happened that a family just arrived from Dublin was there too, a widow named Mrs. Vanhomrigh, her sons Bartholomew and Ginkel, and her daughters Esther and Mary. Esther, the eldest, was nineteen and extremely good-looking. Swift found the whole group appealing, and when he returned to London in 1710 he began to see them regularly. We know Esther now by the name he gave her in a poem later on, Vanessa, combining the first syllable...

  21. CHAPTER 16 Tory Triumph
    (pp. 241-252)

    Swift relished being called a brother by the members of the political Club, but even more enjoyable was the company of leading writers. At this time Addison and Steele were launching a sequel to theTatler, called theSpectator, which came out every weekday from March 1711 to December 1712. There were 555 papers in all, on popular topics such as snuff taking, current fashions, courtship, the coff eehouses, and so on. There were also easy-to-understand discussions of intellectual topics, such as the excellence ofParadise Lostand the pleasures of imagination.

    “Mr. Spectator” is presented as a coffeehouse regular,...

  22. CHAPTER 17 Tory Collapse
    (pp. 253-266)

    With the Peace of Utrecht concluded, the Tories were riding high, having ended what Bolingbroke called “such a war as I heartily wish our children’s children may never see.”¹ But trouble lay ahead. He and Oxford were increasingly at odds, and not just because of personality differences. Oxford, the former Whig, was always seeking compromise, while Bolingbroke wanted to break the Whigs’ power forever.

    Support for Bolingbroke within their own party came from a group called the October Club that sought to punish the Whigs for the war taxation, which had fallen heavily on landowners. Swift described the October Club...

  23. CHAPTER 18 Reluctant Dubliner
    (pp. 267-285)

    For the first thirty years of his life Swift had been an outlier. He never felt at home among the Swifts in Dublin, and at Moor Park he was treated as a mere employee. Then came the intoxicating years in London, with Laracor nothing more than a pleasant retreat whenever he was in Ireland. Still, the Church of Ireland was Swift’s institutional home, and it was in that context that he saw himself as an Irishman at all. His long campaign to secure the First Fruits, as Trevelyan perceptively observes, was “a small act of justice to the island he...

  24. CHAPTER 19 Political Peril
    (pp. 286-296)

    Swift was now far from the world of London politics, but not from its influence, for the victorious Whigs were on the warpath. Back in 1712, when he prepared an index for his collectedExaminerpapers, he identified the Whigs complacently as “not properly a national party, but a little, inconsiderable, undone faction.” Just two years after that they regained power, as he later said, “with wrath and vengeance in their hearts.”¹ The Tory party, meanwhile, was in the process of committing political suicide. Swift’s closest associates would be driven into exile or confined to prison, and for years to...

  25. CHAPTER 20 The Irish Countryside
    (pp. 297-306)

    Swift enjoyed riding, chose his horses with care, and generally traveled on horseback, whereas his friends preferred carriages. He loved to be in motion, and in Ireland he could pass in a short time from one kind of world to another. “I have often reflected,” he remarked, “in how few hours, with a swift horse or a strong gale, a man may come among a people as unknown to him as the Antipodes.”¹

    When in Dublin, Swift took long rides on the broad sandy beaches, as he was doing when he had his confrontation with Lord Blayney. When he was...

  26. CHAPTER 21 Stella
    (pp. 307-319)

    Given that Stella was Swift’s closest friend during her entire adult life, and also that mutual friends saw them both almost daily, it is extraordinarily difficult to get her into focus. What was she really like? Were they in love? Did she want to marry Swift, and did he refuse? Or did he indeed marry her but insist on keeping it secret?

    We don’t even know what Stella looked like, since no authentic portrait exists. The one certainty is that, as Swift said, “her hair was blacker than a raven.” He confirms that she was beautiful but doesn’t say in...

  27. CHAPTER 22 Vanessa in Ireland
    (pp. 320-337)

    In January of 1714 Mrs. Vanhomrigh (named Hester, like her daughter) died, and her three surviving children were orphans. They stood to inherit ample wealth if complicated legal obstacles could be surmounted, and Swift gave Vanessa a good deal of advice about that. Meanwhile, they had to decide where to live. Bartholomew was on his own by then, and Ginkel had died, which left Vanessa and Molly by themselves.

    Like Stella, Vanessa had inherited property in Ireland. Now that it was apparent that Swift would be returning there for good, Vanessa resolved to follow him, taking Molly with her. In...

  28. CHAPTER 23 National Hero
    (pp. 338-356)

    Swift and Vanessa both arrived in Dublin in 1714, and at that time he wrote to Charles Ford, “I hope I shall keep my resolution of never meddling with Irish politics.” For six years he did keep clear of politics, motivated mainly by the surveillance he was under from the authorities. In 1719 he wrote bleakly to Bolingbroke,

    If you will recollect that I am towards six years older than when I saw you last, and twenty years duller, you will not wonder to find me abound in empty speculations; I can now express in a hundred words what would...

  29. CHAPTER 24 The Astonishing Travels
    (pp. 357-378)

    At the time he was writing theDrapier’s Letters, Swift was nearing completion ofGulliver’s Travels, his first full-length work sinceA Tale of a Tub. He intended it to be a major achievement, and he took his time, beginning in 1721, five years before eventual publication. “I am now writing a history of my Travels,” he told Ford, “which will be a large volume, and gives account of countries hitherto unknown; but they go on slowly for want of health and humor.”¹ The first two of the four books were finished by the end of 1723, and the fourth...

  30. CHAPTER 25 Gulliver in England
    (pp. 379-392)

    In March of 1726, Swift set out for England, after an absence of twelve years. He had a triple motive for the trip. One was to arrange for the publication ofGulliver’s Travels, which he wanted to come out in the center of the book trade, not in provincial Dublin. This would have to be accomplished in extreme secrecy in case of political reprisals. Another motive was the long-awaited reunion with English friends. And a third was an attempt, fruitless as it turned out, to angle yet again for a Church appointment in England. There would be, in fact, two...

  31. CHAPTER 26 Disillusionment and Loss
    (pp. 393-410)

    During his 1726 visit to England, Swift made an appointment to see Sir Robert Walpole, intending to make the Irish case for relief in a time of economic crisis. Before he left Dublin he and Archbishop King had worked up a full set of facts and figures. What they didn’t know was that Hugh Boulter, the recently appointed archbishop of Armagh and head of the Church of Ireland, had already warned the prime minister to be on guard. Boulter wrote to Walpole: “The general report is that Dean Swift designs for England in a little time, and we do not...

  32. CHAPTER 27 Frustrated Patriot
    (pp. 411-423)

    In the years following his English trips and Stella’s death, Swift’s life settled into a general sameness, with few notable events. In his capacity as dean, he was deferred to throughout Dublin. “His reputation for wisdom and integrity was so great,” Sheridan said, “that he was consulted by the several corporations [that is, incorporated guilds] in all matters relative to trade, and chosen umpire of any differences among them, nor was there ever any appeal from his sentence…. He assumed the office of Censor General, which he rendered as formidable as that of ancient Rome.” Lord Carteret, who stayed on...

  33. CHAPTER 28 Swift among the Women
    (pp. 424-442)

    When the 1730s arrived, Swift still had fifteen years to live, and his mood would darken throughout those years. He predicted to Bolingbroke that he would die in Ireland “in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.” Any writing he did now was only to while away the time, and he destroyed most of it. “I lovela bagatellebetter than ever; for finding it troublesome to read at night, and the company here growing tasteless, I am always writing bad prose or worse verses, either of rage or raillery, whereof some few escape to give offence or...

  34. CHAPTER 29 The Disgusting Poems
    (pp. 443-453)

    Since Swift had warm friendships with women and respected their intelligence so highly, why should he have been regarded as a misogynist? The main reason is a group of half a dozen poems that he published in the early 1730s. They shocked many readers when they first appeared, and have gone on shocking ever since. Johnson’s verdict is typical: “The greatest difficulty that occurs, in analyzing his character, is to discover by what depravity of intellect he took delight in revolving ideas from which almost every other mind shrinks in disgust. The ideas of pleasure, even when criminal, may solicit...

  35. CHAPTER 30 Waiting for the End
    (pp. 454-472)

    The occasional writings that Swift produced in his final decade were mostly indignant, and sometimes furious. A couple of years after leaving Market Hill, he returned to a poem he had left unfinished there,An Epistle to a Lady, Who Desired the Author to Make Verses on Her, in the Heroic Style,and turned it into a fierce defense of satire. Although he invokes Democritus, the “laughing philosopher” of Greece, the laughter is bitter:

    Like the ever-laughing sage,

    In a jest I spend my rage

    (Though it must be understood

    I would hang them if I could)….

    Poultney deep, accomplished...

  36. Chronology
    (pp. 473-476)
  37. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 477-480)
  38. Notes
    (pp. 481-534)
  39. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 535-540)
  40. Index
    (pp. 541-573)