Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is an Anglo-Irish writer known for his satirical works and political essays. Swift used satire and parody to question social and political norms. While he was a vocal supporter of religion in all aspects of life, he also argued for a more democratic, representative form of government in England. His most famous works are the book Gulliver's Travels (1726) and the satirical pamphlet "A Modest Proposal" (1729).

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Table of contents

    Jonathan Swift's works had a massive impact on literature. His influence coined the adjective "Swiftian," which describes a work or attitude that is overtly pessimistic and sarcastic.

    Johnathan Swift, Painting, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Much of Swift's work deals with the importance of religion. Later in his career, he was appointed the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

    Jonathan Swift: Biography

    Jonathan Swift enjoyed high-ranking positions in political and religious institutions as a clergyman and writer. Here is a look at the most important events of his life.

    Early Life and Education

    Jonathan Swift was born on November 30th, 1667 in Dublin, Ireland. Swift's parents had fled England after siding with the losing Royalist side during the English Civil War (1642-1651). When Swift was seven months old, his father died, leaving the family dependent on his uncles, who paid his tuition to the prestigious Kilkenny School. Swift claims his wet nurse taught him to read using the bible.

    In 1682, Swift attended Trinity College, Dublin. While the outdated curriculum used medieval courses used to teach priests, Swift was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and learned about debate techniques, which would impact his writing career. In 1686, Swift received a B.A. by "special grace," which usually indicates a student who struggled to follow the institution's strict rules.

    A master of language, Swift is credited with inventing the name Vanessa. During an affair with a young Dutch woman named Esther Vanhomrigh, Swift combined elements of her first and second name to create the codename "Vanessa" for their secret love letters.

    In 1688, Swift moved to England, where he worked as a sectary to Sir William Temple. For the next three years, he would assist with essential matters of parliament and communicate with members of the British Royal court. Swift returned to Ireland briefly in 1690 to recuperate from recurring dizzy spells. His symptoms are now considered early signs of Ménière's disease, a debilitating condition affecting hearing and balance. Swift struggled with this affliction for the rest of his life.

    While working for Temple, Swift began making early efforts at prose. Between 1691-94 he anonymously published six odes. In 1692 he received an M.A. from the University of Oxford and was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland in January 1695. Assigned to a small rural parish in Ireland in 1695, Swift soon felt frustrated and yearned to return to be close to the seat of power in London.

    Swift returned to his post as Sir William's secretary and began working on a composition called A Tale of the Tub (1704). The satirical piece uses the tale of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, to represent the relationship between the three branches of Western Christianity (Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Dissenters). Swift uses the dialogue between the brothers to satirize religion's relationship with powerful institutions like the government and monarchy. Though some people interpreted it as work supporting Anglican rationality, others, including the Queen of England, viewed it as profane and dangerous.

    Religion and Pamphlets

    In the 17th and 18th centuries, religion dominated most aspects of life in England; art and literature were expected to contain some element of Christianity. Many of Swift's works are defenses of the Anglican Church and its prominent role in everyday life. He strongly opposed any Catholic monarchy as he viewed Catholicism as unjust and oppressive.

    After receiving a Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College Dublin in 1702, Swift continued to visit England throughout the decade, establishing himself as a wit in London's social circles. With the publication of A Tale of the Tub and a series of influential works known as the "Bickerstaff" pamphlets of 1708–09, Swift's fame continued to grow.

    A pamphlet is a single, unbound sheet of paper with print on both sides. Pamphlets contained essays or arguments about controversial political topics. Since they were openly critical of government policy, they were often published anonymously so the writer could avoid punishment.

    Jonathan Swift found himself in the middle of complex political age. During the 17th century, the monarchy completely controlled all political matters. During the English Civil War, anti-Royal forces fought for a more representative form of government and rejected the old idea that God divinely chose kings and queens.

    The role of religion further complicated the political situation. The Church of England (Anglican Church) was the official state religion. Members of faiths like Catholicism and other Protestant sects (known as Dissenters) were denied certain rights and forced to pay taxes to the Anglican church.

    The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a nonviolent takeover of the English throne, where the Protestant prince of the Netherlands, William of Orange, married the Protestant princess of England, Mary, to stop a Catholic monarchy from ruling the kingdom.

    After the Revolution, the monarchy's power was limited, and a more democratic form of government started to develop. In parliament, two parties battled for control. The Whig Party evolved from the anti-Royal side of the English Civil War. The Whigs wanted the government to have more power than the monarchy. They also supported Dissenters' rights (Protestant sects other than the Anglican Church).

    The Tory Party believed in a more conservative and traditional form of rule. Having fought for the Royal family during the Civil War, they drew support from the aristocracy and gentry. The Tory Party believed in the superior status of the Anglican Church.

    Early in his career, Swift supported the Whig Party due to their moves towards a more democratic form of government. Even though he was fiercely loyal to the Church of England, he argued for more progressive social systems. Christopher Fox described Swift as "a Whig in politics and a Tory in religion."1

    Jonathan Swift, London Westminster, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Swift supported the Whigs but switched his allegiance to the Tory Party and became deeply involved in the party's inner workings.

    During this tumultuous period, the political system in England was undergoing rapid changes. When the Tory government came to power in 1710, they asked Swift to become the editor of the party newspaper, The Examiner. Swift spent the next few years publishing pamphlets and tracts supporting Tory policies, particularly their attempt to end England's involvement in the disastrous War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). He became a trusted member of the Party's inner circle during this time.

    Seclusion and Satire

    When the Whig Party returned to power in 1714, Swift fled to Ireland and spent several years recovering from his demanding political and public life. Swift emerged from seclusion in 1720, writing pamphlets on Ireland's social and political problems. With "The Drapier's Letters" (1724-25), he argued against England's unfair policy regarding currency and coins in Ireland. The work is notable for its call for Irish independence. Because this was a controversial and dangerous opinion in British society, Swift published it under the pseudonym M. B. Drapier.

    Swift would draw on his political experiences to produce his most famous work Gulliver's Travels (1726). The satirical travelogue follows the adventures of a London gentleman as he visits a series of mysterious lands and encounters new civilizations. The book satirizes humans' various systems and ideologies to justify their actions.

    Gulliver's Travels was a smash hit for Swift, selling 10,000 copies in three weeks. The book has remained popular for centuries and has never gone out of print.

    After the success of Gulliver's Travels, Swift returned to the political situation in Ireland. His most famous pamphlet, "A Modest Proposal", a darkly satirical argument, suggested combating food shortages and poverty in Ireland by eating the children of the poor.

    Later Years and Death

    Swift suffered mental and physical decline throughout the 1730s as his condition worsened. Servants reported his short temper and dark moods as death became a prominent theme in many of his later works. With the poem "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" (1739) he was able to write his obituary. After a stroke in 1742, Swift lost his speech and mobility and was under permanent care until he died in 1745.

    Jonathan Swift's Books

    In Jonathan Swift's day, many of the rules and tropes of the modern novel had not yet been established. Swift's most enduring work, Gulliver's Travels helped to shape the construct of the modern novel

    Gulliver's Travels (1726)

    Swift's most famous work is a parody of popular travelogues and a satire on human nature. The book contains four sections documenting the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver. An unsuccessful surgeon, Gulliver abandons his practice in London to seek adventure on the seas. Throughout the books, he visits isolated, mysterious islands encountering fantastical civilizations.

    Gulliver meets a race of tiny people who he judges to be small in stature and mind but then encounters a race of giants who make him feel the same way. On his journey, he meets people at the extremes; one group is exceptionally logical and cold, while the other is savage but welcoming.

    Johnathan Swift, Gulliver Illustration, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Gulliver experiences ignorance and enlightenment on his journey.

    Swift uses Gulliver's Travels to explore essential questions of human nature and reason. While Gulliver begins the story as optimistic and bright, his experiences and difficulties turn him into a bitter misanthrope by the story's end. The satirical book's focus is on the failings and fallibility of individuals and systems.

    With Gulliver's Travels, Swift blended elements of children's fables with science to create a work that significantly influenced the development of the modern novel.

    Jonathan Swift Poems

    While best known for his books and essays, Swift also produced poetry throughout his career. His poetry often reflects a more personal and vulnerable look at his life rather than more prominent social and political themes. The poems are often sparse and have a quick tempo, unlike many other poets of the period.

    "Stella's Birthday" (1766) was written in 1721 and is a playful and witty verse about his long-term companion, Esther Johnson. Swift was Esther's tutor at an early age, and the two developed a lifelong friendship that may have become romantic in later life. The poem jokes that although Stella claims this to be her 36th birthday, the writer knows it is her 40th. Despite age, he still loves her deeply and portrays love as something much more profound than physical beauty.

    "Verses on the Death of Doctor Swift" (1739) uses poetry to satirize the weakness of himself and others. Written at around 64 years old, Swift knew the end was approaching and sought to judge his career as a satirist and human being. Written in a conversational tone, the poem seeks to challenge the reader and highlight the difference between the intention of our actions and the actual impact.

    Jonathan Swift Essays and Pamphlets

    Swift had a significant impact on the political discourse of his day. He ranged from writing in support of the government system and policy to being openly critical of British policy in Ireland later in his career.

    "The Drapier's Letters" (1724-1725)

    This political tract railed against British mismanagement of currency in Ireland. While England and Scotland had established mints that forged their coins of equal values, Ireland was not permitted its own. Currency production in Ireland was awarded to private contractors who often did not fulfill their duty. When it was produced, the coins were made with cheap materials and did not hold the same value as English currency, which put Ireland at a tremendous economic disadvantage.

    In the letters, Swift employs rhetoric and satire to point out England's unfair treatment and the political ramifications of such injustice. Each letter focused on a different audience, from business owners and individual politicians to the entire population of Ireland. They swiftly and eloquently outlined the impact of the laws and offered solutions. The letters were considered treasonous in English society, but Swift was embraced as an early hero of Irish nationalism.

    "A Modest Proposal" (1729)

    Under British rule, Ireland suffered from mismanagement and discrimination as the island's primarily Catholic population was limited. This system resulted in food shortages and poverty. In "A Modest Proposal," Swift uses satire to present a solution to this problem. Since the poor and malnourished population burdens public taxes, the best way for them to be profitable and valuable is as a food source.

    Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The work's title is satirical, which takes a problem to its illogical extreme.

    To this absurd proposal, Swift applies coldly logical measures. By employing these cannibalistic measures, he argues that population control would reduce poverty and crime and improve the overall health of the Kingdom. He even provides possible recipes and serving suggestions for his readers and a pricing system based on the weight and quality of the meat.

    In "A Modest Proposal," Swift uses absurdity to satirize the bigoted British policy of the day. Since official law viewed Irish Catholics as less than human, Swift took this discrimination to its extreme to highlight the dehumanizing attitudes prevalent in British society at the time.

    Jonathan Swift Quotes

    Known for his ability to highlight critical social issues using satire and parody, Swift's work argued for a better understanding of power and the flaws of humanity.

    If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!"

    "Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting" (1703)

    Swift liked to point out the inconsistencies of human beings. While many people build their identity around a set of core beliefs and never challenge them, Swift had his own personal political and religious epiphanies during his life. Growing up as a member of the Anglo-Irish class, Swift embraced the cause of oppressed Irish Catholics by the end of his life.

    For, in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery: but in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt."

    "The Drapier's Letters" (Letter IV)

    Swift often questioned the authority of government and monarchy through his writings. This extract from "The Drapier's Letters" argued for the side of the masses against the small controlling classes. The "one single man in his shirt" represents the poor and dispossessed being unjustly repressed by a tyrannical government.

    A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter."

    "A Modest Proposal"

    In Swift's most famous essay, he satirically argues that the cure for poverty is eating the poor! Using dark humor, Swift challenged the socially accepted views on oppressed groups and economic policy. As well as using logical economic theories to further his argument, Swift provided the reader with seasonal recipes and preparation methods.

    Johnathan Swift - Key takeaways

    • Jonathan Swift is an Anglo-Irish writer famous for his satirical essays and books.
    • His most famous works are the book Gulliver's Travels and the pamphlet "A Modest Proposal".
    • Swift often used satire and humor to highlight critical social issues and challenge power.
    • Most of his works argue against tyranny and support a more democratic form of government.
    • Swift was profoundly religious and held several important positions in the Anglican Church.


    1. Christopher Fox, The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, 2003.
    2. Fig. 4 - Cover page of A Modest Proposal ( , US-PD
    Frequently Asked Questions about Jonathan Swift

    Who is Jonathan Swift?

    Jonathan Swift is an Anglo-Irish writer and clergyman who wrote satirical pamphlets and books.  

    How does Jonathan Swift use satire?

    Jonathan Swift used satire to challenge the social attitudes of his age and highlight important issues. A good example of this is his satirical essay "A Modest Proposal" in which he suggests combatting poverty and food shortages by eating the children of the poor. 

    What disease did Jonathan Swift have?

    Jonathan Swift is believed to have suffered from 

    Ménière's disease. This inner ear disease affects balance and hearing, and it results in painful headaches.  

    What type of writing style is Jonathan Swift best known for?

    Jonathan Swift is best known for his works of humourous satire like "A Modest Proposal" and Gulliver's Travels. Swift often employed humor to common on important social issues of his era. 

    What is Jonathan Swift's most famous work?

    Jonathan Swift's most famous work is the satirical novel,  Gulliver's Travels.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Jonathan Swift is best known for poetry. 

    In "A Modest Proposal" Jonathan Swift makes a serious defense of cannibalism. 

    Which form of humor is Jonathan swift most associated with? 

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