Jonathan Swift

Mau­reen Kish­taini

Evergreen - - Contents - MAU­REEN KISH­TAINI

In Eng­land to­day, there are no fewer than three theme parks cel­e­brat­ing the sto­ries of Gul­liver’s Trav­els — Gul­liver’s Land in Mil­ton Keynes, Gul­liver’s World near War­ring­ton and Gul­liver’s King­dom Theme Park at Mat­lock Bath. Yet how many of the vis­i­tors to those parks know any­thing about the cre­ator of Gul­liver’s Trav­els, the An­glo- Ir­ish writer and wit, Jonathan Swift? This year, on 30th Novem­ber, the 350th an­niver­sary of his birth in 1667, we should rightly cel­e­brate the life and work of this tal­ented and com­plex man.

Swift’s start in life was nei­ther aus­pi­cious nor joy­ous. Born in Dublin to An­glo- Ir­ish par­ents, his fa­ther died shortly be­fore he was born and his mother, Abigail ( née Eriche), re­turned to Eng­land not long after his birth, leav­ing him and his sis­ter, Jane, un­der the guardian­ship of his Un­cle God­win.

Dur­ing the 1660s it was not un­com­mon for the English to move to Ire­land, hop­ing for bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties, and his Un­cle God­win was suc­cess­ful in both law and busi­ness. He was able there­fore to send his nephew to one of the best schools in Dublin, Kilkenny Gram­mar School, still a thriv­ing school to­day. But Swift’s un­con­ven­tional and par­ent­less start in life left him with some un­der­ly­ing bit­ter­ness, liken­ing him­self to a dog, “fed and wa­tered with some­where to sleep but of­ten

ig­nored, given or­ders and beaten when he dis­obeyed”.

In 1682, at the age of 14, he moved on to Trin­ity Col­lege, gain­ing a BA in 1686. He had hoped to study fur­ther for a Mas­ter’s De­gree, but with the ex­ile of King James in 1689 in favour of Wil­liam and Mary of Or­ange, it was a trou­bling time for Protes­tants and he was forced to leave Ire­land. Back in Eng­land at the age of 22, Swift was fi­nally re­united in Le­ices­ter­shire with the mother he hardly knew.

Abigail Eriche came from a fam­ily of both ar­ti­sans and clergy. Her fa­ther, James Eriche, was the vicar of Thorn­ton in Le­ices­ter­shire from 1627 to 1634 and Un­cle Thomas, the vicar of Frisby on the Wreake nearby. But how come the Ir­ish con­nec­tion?

Dig­ging deeper, it seems that Abigail’s fa­ther, after be­ing ac­cused of “not tak­ing good care of the par­ish”, em­i­grated to Ire­land with the fam­ily. Though Abigail was not a mother to Jonathan as we would ex­pect to­day, it seems he never re­proached or crit­i­cised her. But this early re­jec­tion and lack of ma­ter­nal love was pos­si­bly why Swift found it dif­fi­cult in later life to give full com­mit­ment to re­la­tion­ships.

Once back in Eng­land, Swift ob­tained a job as sec­re­tary to Sir Wil­liam Tem­ple, the diplo­mat. A clas­si­cist by train­ing, Sir Wil­liam ex­pounded many new ideas, par­tic­u­larly those for a health­ier life­style, some of which had a last­ing

ef­fect on Swift. Th­ese in­cluded the ben­e­fits of fresh air, ex­er­cise and a diet of vegeta­bles and fruit.

But it was dur­ing his years with Sir Wil­liam that Swift first ex­pe­ri­enced the symp­toms of the dis­ease that was to hang over him for the rest of his life — Ménière’s Dis­ease, which causes fre­quent spells of dizzi­ness, deaf­ness and nau­sea. It was par­tially be­cause of this dis­abil­ity that Swift be­gan a life­time of vig­or­ous ex­er­cise, walk­ing and run­ning when­ever he had the op­por­tu­nity. It was at this time too that he met one of his life- long lady friends, Es­ther John­son, known as “Stella”.

Pos­si­bly be­cause Swift could see no fu­ture at Moor Park, he re­turned to Ire­land where he was or­dained as a priest in 1695 in the Angli­can Church, ob­tain­ing a po­si­tion as the vicar of Kil­root in North­ern Ire­land. How­ever, feel­ing both dis­il­lu­sioned and un­happy there, he re­turned to Moor Park, where he was ap­pointed as a cler­gy­man in 1696. Though his du­ties were not ar­du­ous — grace at meal­times, spir­i­tual and lit­er­ary guid­ance to the chil­dren and sec­re­tar­ial- type du­ties for Sir Wil­liam, it was a lowly po­si­tion and the fa­ther/ son re­la­tion­ship be­came strained.

Tem­ple died in 1699, leav­ing Swift £ 100 as well as nom­i­nat­ing him as his lit­er­ary ex­ec­u­tive.

For the next 10 years, Swift di­vided his time be­tween Eng­land and Ire­land still un­sure about a ca­reer in the Church. Dis­ap­pointed that he had not ob­tain a “dean­ery”, in 1700 he ac­cepted a po­si­tion in the par­ish of Lara­cor where there was a small Protes­tant pop­u­la­tion.

His health con­tin­ued to make life dif­fi­cult but his lit­er­ary out­put con­tin­ued un­abated with a piece of satir­i­cal prose, A Tale of a Tub

( 1704), an es­say on re­li­gious ex­cess. Later, writ­ing a weekly ar­ti­cle in the pe­ri­od­i­cal, The Ex­am­iner, he sided with the Tories, crit­i­cis­ing the al­lies in the War of the Span­ish Suc­ces­sion. His pam­phlet The Con­duct of the Al­lies ( 1711), an an­ti­war, anti- Whig rhetoric was a great suc­cess and sold 11,000 copies.

When the Scriblerus Club ( an in­for­mal meet­ing of writ­ers) was founded in Lon­don in 1714, Swift be­came an ac­tive mem­ber of the group, which in­cluded Alexan­der Pope and John Gay. At one of their ses­sions, with his usual gift for satire, Swift had the idea for a New­gate Prison pas­toral set among thieves and whores. Gay took up the theme and it be­came The Beg­gar’s Opera. Meanwhile Swift him­self con­tin­ued his satir­i­cal prose with A Mod­est Pro­posal ( 1729), which was even more in­flam­ma­tory, sug­gest­ing that a way to al­le­vi­ate ex­treme poverty in Ire­land was for poor par­ents to sell their chil­dren as food for the rich!

Swift’s close re­la­tion­ships with two women gave rise to much con­jec­ture. He first be­came at­tached to Es­ther John­son ( Stella) at the Tem­ple house­hold, where he was her tu­tor. When later she fol­lowed him to Ire­land, there was spec­u­la­tion as to a mar­riage. How­ever, there was never ev­i­dence to prove that she was any­thing but a good friend.

The other woman in Swift’s life was Es­ther Van­hom­righ, nick­named “Vanessa”. Of Ir­ish and Dutch de­scent, she had met Swift in Lon­don and fol­lowed him to Ire­land

after the death of her mother. Their re­la­tion­ship lasted for 17 years but fin­ished after Swift re­fused to break off his friend­ship with Stella. She did find last­ing fame, how­ever, as the “Vanessa” in Swift’s poem “Cade­nus and Vanessa”.

In April 1713 Swift was ap­pointed Dean of St. Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral in Dublin, with a salary of £ 400 a year. From that time on­wards, his life cen­tred on Ire­land. Leas­ing a small field near his house, he cre­ated a beau­ti­ful gar­den, Naboth’s Vine­yard, plant­ing fruit trees, flow­ers and lay­ing down gravel walk­ways. It was to be­come his place of phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual re­newal.

As Dean, he in­volved him­self in all as­pects of cathe­dral life, not for­get­ting the con­duct of the clergy un­der his ad­min­is­tra­tion. But he also looked be­yond the Dean­ery and was highly crit­i­cal of the English land­lords liv­ing in Ire­land, main­tain­ing that they showed lit­tle con­cern for the lives of the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion. He was both ashamed and dis­gusted by the filthy and prim­i­tive hov­els in which Ir­ish peas­ants were forced to in­habit.

In the early 1720s Swift wrote his most fa­mous work, Gul­liver’s Trav­els, a satir­i­cal tale in which he uses the trav­els of Gul­liver, a mod­ern- day “ev­ery­man”, to crit­i­cise the anom­alies, stu­pidi­ties and cru­el­ties of his own 18th- cen­tury world. Al­though su­per­fi­cially hu­mor­ous and imag­i­na­tive with the strange make- be­lieve crea­tures and coun­tries, his bit­ing and cruel de­pic­tions of both an­i­mals and man were Swift’s way of at­tack­ing the so­ci­ety and pol­i­tics of the day. It is writ­ten in four parts, with Gul­liver trav­el­ling to the re­mote na­tions of Lil­liput, Brob­d­ing­nag, La­puta and Glubb­dub­drib.

Swift vis­ited Eng­land for the last time in 1726 and stayed five months. Dur­ing that time he met up with old friends and writ­ers — Gay, Pope and Con­greve. To the Prime Min­is­ter, Sir

Robert Walpole, he com­plained about the dis­as­trous state of Ire­land caused by the mis­man­age­ment of the English land­lords.

Back in Dublin, he con­tin­ued to write po­etry and sub­jected him­self to a rig­or­ous regime of ex­er­cise, daily run­ning up and down the stairs in his house. But as he aged, he was forced to slow down and in do­ing so, thought long and hard about his fu­ture demise. And how best to ex­press him­self? In po­etry of course. The time is not re­mote when I Must in the course of na­ture die; When I fore­see my spe­cial friends Will try to find their pri­vate ends; Which way my death will do them

good: Yet, thus me­thinks, I hear them

speak: “See how the Dean be­gins to break; Poor gen­tle­man, he droops apace You see it plainly in his face That old ver­tigo in his head, Will never leave him, til he’s dead. Be­sides, his mem­ory de­cays, He rec­ol­lects not what he says; He can­not call his friends to mind, For­gets the place where he last dined; Plies you with sto­ries o’er and o’er; He told them fifty times be­fore”. Swift’s last few years at the Dean­ery were a fa­mil­iar story of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, of his tem­per, rea­son and mem­ory as well as that of his body. Helped for sev­eral years by his faith­ful ser­vant and other friends, he was de­clared of un­sound mind in 1742.

He fi­nally died on 19th Oc­to­ber, 1745 at the Dean­ery. With no close rel­a­tives, he willed all his money to­wards the foun­da­tion of St. Pa­trick’s Hospi­tal for Idiots and Lu­natics in Dublin. To­day the hospi­tal is Ire­land’s lead­ing “not for profit” men­tal health or­gan­i­sa­tion and there are even wards named after Stella and Vanessa. The spirit of Swift lives on.

The first edi­tion of Swift’s fa­mous satire and an il­lus­tra­tion show­ing Gul­liver in con­ver­sa­tion with the Houy­hnhnms.

St. Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral in Dublin where Swift was ap­pointed Dean in 1713 and ( right) “Vanessa”, an imag­i­na­tive por­trait of Es­ther Van­hom­righ by Mil­lais.


Sit­u­ated on the north bank of the River Lif­fey, Dublin’s neo­clas­si­cal Cus­tom House.

A paint­ing by Richard Red­grave ( 1804- 1888) en­ti­tled “Gul­liver ex­hib­ited to the Brob­d­ing­nag Farmer”.

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