Swift of wit and sharp of voice

24 November 2017

Jonathan Swift’s personal life was shrouded in mystery, as Michael Wheeler explains


Viewed askance: bust of Jonathan Swift in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Viewed askance: bust of Jonathan Swift in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

“A PREACHER cannot look round from the pulpit without observing that some are in a perpetual whisper, and, by their air and gesture, given occasion to suspect that they are in those very minutes defaming their neighbour.” The preacher is Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathe­dral, Dublin, who was born 350 years ago, on 30 November 1667.

The sermon, “Upon Sleeping in Church” (Acts 20.9), teases the congregation by pointing out that a pulpit is an excellent vantage point, and that modern churchgoers “are become so cautious as to chuse more safe and convenient stations and postures for taking their repose, without hazard of their persons”. Swift keeps his flock awake by amus­­ing them, and by offering fresh perspectives on a familiar biblical story and on what he calls the “business” of going to church.

A dutiful and orthodox Dean, who loathed most of his fellow clergy and whose unattractive preaching voice was “sharp and high-toned”, Swift was also the greatest satirist in the English language, whose invitation to observe the world through the wrong end of the telescope, or to expose an abuse by following an argument to its logical and ghastly conclusion, enthralled and unsettled his contemporaries.


SWIFT regarded his appointment to St Patrick’s, in 1713, as a sentence of exile from London and the political world of the court, in which he had played a significant part as the leading Tory propagandist.

But, although unwelcome, this exile was also a homecoming. He had been born in Dublin, the son of Jonathan Swift, Keeper of the King’s (legal) Inns, and his wife, Abigail, a vicar’s daughter. Jonathan senior died when Abigail was about two months pregnant with her son, a circum­stance which has led some  to wonder whether Abigail had a lover.

The fact that the boy’s nurse and his Dublin uncles looked after him for years, after his mother’s departure for England, only deepens the mystery that is an important theme of Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Swift. “He was loved by two women,” Glendinning writes, “both of whom lived in Ireland so as to be near him. Was he secretly married to Esther Johnson, the woman he called Stella? And if so, why did he not acknowledge her as his wife? What was the nature of his relation­ship with the other, younger woman, Hester Vanhomrigh, whom he called Vanessa?”


“Perhaps there never was a man whose true character was so little known,” Thomas Sheridan the younger suggested in 1785. In the last year of the writer’s life, Jonathan’s cousin — confusingly named Deane Swift — said that “a thousand stories have been invented of him within these two years and imposed upon the world.”

Solid evidence has been carefully sifted from the chaff of speculation by Clive Probyn, a leading expert on Swift, who, Probyn points out, had the best education available in Ireland at the time: first at Kilkenny College, and then at Trinity Col­­lege, Dublin. In 1689, fearing a Jacobite victory, Swift fled to Lon­­don and began a ten-year associa­­tion with Sir William Temple, his influential patron and employer.

During this period, he met “Stella” (the housekeeper’s daughter); was ordained and installed in his first living, at Kilroot; and wrote his first book, A Tale of a Tub (published in 1704), a satirical treatment of abuses in religion and in learning through a narrative featuring Peter the bully­ing papist, Jack the Calvinist puri­tan, and Martin, the Anglican of the via media. Later, in 1711, Swift’s ironical An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity defends the maintenance of religion for all the wrong reasons, but with a logic that is unnerving for the innocent reader.


HAVING failed to achieve prefer­ment in England and glumly ac­­cepted the deanery in Dublin (where he inherited large debts for rebuild­ing work), Swift found every excuse to spend time in London.

He formed the Scriblerus Club with his literary friends, thus laying the foundations for some of the most important works of the period, including Pope’s The Dunciad, Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and his own Gulliver’s Travels, which was eventually published in 1726 and soon gained worldwide fame. Swift’s contemporaries were fascinated by the book’s political resonances, such as the flying island of Laputa as a satirical take on English colonialism in Ireland.

Post-Freudian readers are also alert to Gulliver’s anger, his phys­ical repulsion — after his voyages — from his own species, and to his obsession with excre­ment. Although historical explana­tions present themselves (for ex­­ample, the fact that parts of the “Liberty of St Patrick” were virtually open cess­pits), these features of the narrative are disturbing.

Anger features in Swift’s ser­­mons, as in “On the Causes of the wretched Condition of  Ireland”  (Psalm 144.13-14), where he de­­­clares that “a great cause of this nation’s misery, is that Aegyptian bondage of cruel, oppressing, covetous landlords, expecting that all who live under them should make bricks without straw.”

Much more effective, however, is the concealed anger of his most notorious “ironical essay”, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country, published in 1729. If revenue from the Irish poor is the sole considera­­tion for rich English landlords, and if Irish Catholics cannot sustain their large families, the logical solution is for children to be killed and dressed for the table.

As in Gulliver, what appears to be documentary reportage carries conviction. Here is some culinary advice: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or a Ragoust.”


TYPICALLY, Swift predicted his own mental decline, and wrote a Latin inscription for his memorial before the near-silence of his last three years of life. He died, aged 77, on 19 October 1745, and was buried three days later, according to his wishes, on the south side of the middle aisle of St Patrick’s.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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