Jonathan Swift

Poet, Editor, Clergyman, Political Activist

Founder of St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles



Cover of Original Book Gulliver's Travels
Public DomainCover of Original Book Gulliver's Travels

Jonathan Swift was born November 30, 1667 to Jonathan Swift the elder and Abigail Erick in Dublin, Ireland. His father, an Englishman, had settled in Ireland after the Stuart Restoration of 1660. He was the second child and only son. He arrived seven months after his father’s death. Swift was taken by his nurse to England and then brought back to Ireland at the age of 4. That established a pattern that lasted all his life, with alternate periods spent in England and Ireland. Abigail left the boy with his father’s family and returned to England. Uncle Godwin became his closest family. Swift was educated at Kilkenny School and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

During the Glorious Revolution of 1688 he fled to England, where he became secretary and personal assistant to Sir William Temple, an English diplomat. While in Temple's employ, Swift met Esther Johnson, the 8 year old daughter of one of the household servants. Swift acted as her tutor and mentor, giving her the nickname “Stella”. She became the subject of several poems and letters. Swift maintained a close but ambiguous relationship with her for the rest of her life, and this was a constant source of gossip. According to some, they were married in 1716. Stella died in 1728.

Gulliver's Travels
Public DomainGulliver's Travels

Swift returned to Ireland in 1690 for health reasons. Some biographers have suggested he contracted syphilis. Others have said he suffered from deafness in his early twenties. He also experienced fits of vertigo or giddiness, symptoms of Meniere’s disease. This plagued him all his life.

Jonathan Swift was ordained as a priest in the Established Church of Ireland in 1694. He was appointed to the prebend of Kilroot in the Diocese of Connor. He was miserable in the small, isolated community, until he became romantically involved with Jane Waring. A letter from him survives, offering to remain in Kilroot if she would marry him and promising to leave and never return to Ireland if she refused. Jane Waring refused and Swift left his post.

He returned to Temple’s service in 1696, remaining until Temple’s death in 1699. During that time he wrote The Battle of the Books, a satire responding to critics of Temple’s Essay Upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1690). Battle was not published until 1704.

Swift tried and failed to win other positions in England, and returned to the life of a prebend, ministering to a congregation of about 15 people.  In 1701 he published anonymously a political pamphlet, A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.

In February 1702, Swift received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College, Dublin. That spring, he traveled to England, returning with Esther “Stella” Johnson, now 20 years old. From 1704, he began to gain a reputation as a writer. He became increasingly active politically from 1707. He was made editor of the Tory newspaper Examiner in 1710, and became part of the Tory inner circle. Swift described his subsequent political experiences in a series of letters to Esther Johnson that have been collected in The Journal to Stella.

During his years in London, Swift met the Vanhomrigh family and became involved with one of the daughters, Esther, in another ambiguous, undefined relationship. Swift gave this Esther the nickname “Vanessa”. She appears in the poem Cadenus and Vanessa. Esther-Vanessa was infatuated with Swift. He may have reciprocated her affections but then tried to break off the relationship. Esther-Vanessa followed Swift to Ireland where there was a confrontation with Esther-Stella. Some historians say that Esther-Vanessa had sent a letter to Esther-Stella, asking if she was married to him. Esther never recovered from his rejection. Swift's letters to her were published after her death in 1723 at the age of 35.

Despite his literary and political success, Queen Anne took a dislike to Swift and thwarted his efforts to get a church appointment in England. The best he could find was the Deanery of St. Patrick’s Church, Dublin, Ireland. He returned to Ireland in disappointment to live (in his words) “like a rat in a hole”. There he used his pamphleteering skills to support Irish causes, and became known as an Irish patriot with his writings.

swift death mask
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSwift's death mask

He also started writing Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver, better known as Gulliver’s Travels, drawing on his political experiences in England. His old friends Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay helped him arrange for the anonymous publication of the book in 1726. French, German and Dutch translations were printed in 1727 with pirated copies appearing in Ireland.

Esther-Stella died January 28, 1728. On the night of her death, Swift began to write The Death of Mrs. Johnson

Swift had predicted his mental decay when he was about 50 and had remarked to the poet Edward Young when they were gazing at the withered crown of a tree: "I shall be like that tree, I shall die from the top." In 1731, he wrote Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, his own obituary. It was published in 1739. Swift began showing pronounced signs of illness leading many of his detractors to claim he was insane. In the autumn of 1739 a great celebration was held in his honor. He had, however, begun to fail physically and later suffered a paralytic stroke, losing the ability to speak. In 1742 he was declared incapable of caring for himself, and guardians were appointed. He died in 1745.

In accordance with his wishes he was buried beside Esther Johnson. While he was alive, Swift spent 1/3 of his earnings on charities and saved 1/3 each year for a hospital he planned. Swift left 12,000 pounds to found a hospital for the mentally ill known as St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, which opened in 1757. The hospital still exists.

 He wrote his own epitaph, which was engraved and gilded in large letters on his orders and stands above the place of his burial: Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift... where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart. Depart, wayfarer, and imitate if you can a man who to his utmost strenuously championed liberty.