Jonathan Swift

(1667 - 1745)

Short Biography


Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin. His father died before he was born, and his nurse, who (according to Swift’s later account) had become very fond of her young charge, took him at the age of one year old to Whitehaven in Cumberland, where he remained with her until the age of 3.


On his return to Ireland his education was paid for by his uncle, Godwin, first at Kilkenny School (1673, 6) and then at Trinity College, Dublin (1682, 15).

First employment

After an undistinguished university career, he went to stay with his mother, Abigail Erick, in Leicester, and shortly afterwards, in 1689 (22), he became secretary to Sir William Temple, the diplomat and writer, at Moor Park in Surrey, during which time he had full access to Temple’s impressive library.

Meets 'Stella' (Esther Johnson)

While he worked at Moor Park he paid a yearly visit to his mother, a journey of some 80 miles which he made on foot, and it was at Moor Park that he first met and tutored Esther Johnson, the eight year old daughter of Temple’s widowed sister's companion, who later appeared in his poetry as Stella, and became his lifelong companion.

First major works

It was also here that he began his first major work, A Tale of a Tub, and completed The Battle of the Books, a satire concerning whether ancient or modern authors were to be preferred, which was the continuation of a debate begun by Temple in his Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning of 1692. Both works were published anonymously in 1704 (37).


He returned to Ireland in 1694 (27), and was ordained as a priest in 1695 (28).

Second period with Temple

In 1696 (29) he obtained a licence for non residence at his living in Kilroot, and rejoined Temple, beginning work on his patron’s memoirs and correspondence.

Second period in Ireland

When Temple died in 1699 (32) Swift returned to Ireland once more, where, having resigned his living, he had hopes of becoming chaplain and secretary to the Earl of Berkeley, Lord Justice of Ireland, but lost the opportunity because of an intrigue. He subsequently held various posts in the Irish Church, and in 1702 (35) Stella, who had been left property in Ireland in Temple’s will, joined him in Dublin. In 1707 (40) he was sent to London as an emissary of the Irish clergy, seeking remission of tax on Irish clerical incomes, but his suit was rejected by the Whig government.

Meets 'Vanessa' (Esther Vanhomrigh)

At this time he met Esther Vanhomrigh, who was to become the 'Vanessa' of his poetry.


He produced the pamphlet Predictions for the Year 1708 by Isaac Bickerstaffe Esq, in which he satirised the output of almanac makers in the person of a certain Mr Partridge, whose death he predicted. On the appointed date he produced An Elegy on Mr Partridge, the Almanac-maker, who died on the 29th of this Instant March, 1708, and a report ostensibly from a third party confirming the death. It became necessary for Partridge to dispute the report of his own death, an absurd situation in which Swift revelled. Further absurdities were canvassed in An Argument to Prove that Abolishing of Christianity in England, May as things now stand, be attended with some Inconveniences, and perhaps not produce those many good Effects proposed thereby of 1708 (41).

Back in London

On the fall of the Whig administration in 1710 (43), he returned to London to renew his application for the remission of taxes on behalf of the Irish clergy with the new Tory government, and became editor of The Examiner.

Letters to Stella

Between 1710 (43) and 1713 (46) he wrote detailed letters of his daily life to Esther Johnson which were later published as Letters to Stella.

Important connections with the Tory administration

He switched his allegiance from the Whigs to the Tories, and became deeply involved with the politics of the period, acting as a propagandist for the Tory administration of the Lords Bolingbrooke and Oxford. Particularly effective was his pamphlet The Conduct of the Allies, in which he accused Lord Marlborough of attempting to continue the war against France in order to line his own pockets.

Cadenus and Vanessa

He composed the poem Cadenus and Vanessa in 1712 (45) as 'a task performed on a frolic among some ladies', and it was at this point that Esther Vanhomrigh, the Vanessa of the poem, made her declaration of love, which he did not return, claiming that he had only aimed at cultivating her mind. She, however, appears to have taken up the challenge of tutoring him in love.

But what success Vanessa met

Is to the world a secret yet.

Whether the nymph to please her swain

Talks in a high romantic strain;

Or whether he at last descends

To act with less seraphic ends;

Or, to compound the business, whether

They temper love and books together,

Must never to mankind be told,

Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold

Deanery of St Patrick's

He received the reward for his services to the Tory government in 1713 (46) in the form of the Deanery of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, a position he held until the end of his life, though at this point he was disappointed, regarding it as an exile.

The Scriblerus Club

In 1714 (47) he became a founder member of the Scriblerus Club, whose other members included Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot and Congreve, but on the death of Queen Anne in the same year the Tory administration was pushed from office, and he left once again for Ireland.

Vanessa follows him to Ireland.

Esther Vanhomrighe, whose mother had died and who had property in Ireland, followed him, taking up her abode at Cellbridge, a few miles from Dublin. She began to importune him with her 'inexpressible passion' to which he responded by urging her not to make him or herself 'unhappy with imaginations'.

Series of poems to Stella

From 1719 (52) he wrote a series of poems to Stella, usually on the occasion of her birthday.

Vanessa dies

In 1723 (56), Esther Vanhomrighe died, having cancelled a will in favour of Swift just before, and leaving Cadenus and Vanessa for publication.

More pamphlets

His pamphlet A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture etc (1720, 53) won him great popularity in Dublin in response to the attempts of the authorities to protect their vested interests by suppressing it and imprisoning the printer. The Drapier’s Letters (1724, 57), which exposed a shoddy plan to float a debased currency in Ireland for the benefit of an ‘ironmonger’ called Wood and George I’s favourite, the Duchess of Kendal, who between them had secured a patent from the Crown, added to his popularity, though whether his writings ever did the Irish any good is doubtful.

Gullivers' Travels

He probably began writing Gullivers’ Travels in 1721 (54), finishing the work in 1725 (58). When published anonymously in 1726 (59) it was an immediate success.

Alexander Pope

In the same year he stayed with Alexander Pope in Twickenham, and between 1727 (60) and 1736 (69) five volumes of Swift-Pope Miscellanies were published.

Death of Stella

Much to his grief, Stella died in 1728 (61). Commenting on her illness and eventual death, he says 'there is not a greater folly, than to contract too great and intimate a friendship, which must always leave the survivor miserable'. He was too ill to attend the funeral but, on the night of her death, began the Character of Mrs Johnson in which he commented 'She had a gracefulness, somewhat more than human, in every motion, word, and action. Never was so happy a conjunction of civility, freedom, easiness, and sincerity.....Honour, truth, liberality, good nature, and modesty were the virtues she chiefly possessed.' Afterwards, a lock of her hair was found in his desk, wrapped in a paper bearing the words, 'Only a woman’s hair'.

More pamphlets

The Grand Question Debated and A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents or the country, and for making them beneficial to the public (by fattening and eating them) appeared in 1729 (62). His popularity in Ireland continued unabated, and in the same year he received the freedom of Dublin.

Frugality and charitable donation

He lived frugally, and reputedly spent a third of his income on charities, saving what he could to contribute to the founding of St. Patrick's Hospital, a charitable institution for the care of idiots and the insane (of which he felt Ireland was much in need), which opened in 1757 (d12).

Mental decay and death

His mental decay, which he had always feared, became pronounced from 1738 (70). Paralysis was followed by aphasia and a long period of apathy. He died in 1745 (78), and was buried in St Patrick’s, alongside Stella. He wrote his own epitaph : ‘The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Dean of this Cathedral Church, is buried here, where fierce indignation can no more lacerate his heart. Go, traveller, and imitate, if you can, one who strove with all his strength to champion liberty.’