Dean Jonathan Swift

Swift, Jonathan, Dean of St. Patrick’s, was born at 7 Hoey’s-court, Dublin, 30th November 1667. [His father, an Englishman, was steward of the King’s Inns, and died some months before Jonathan’s birth, leaving his wife and children dependent mainly on the bounty of his brother Godwin, who, with other members of the family, had settled in Ireland.]

Dean Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, D.D., Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, after the picture by Markham. This image taken from The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1, circa 1880, edited by Charles A. Read.


When Jonathan was some months old, his English nurse, having occasion to cross to Whitehaven, on the death of a relative there, “stole him on shipboard unknown to his mother and uncle,” as he says himself, and he was not brought back to Ireland for more than two years.

In that interval she taught him to spell, and by the time he was three years old he could read any chapter in the Bible.

He had a sickly childhood; at six he was placed at Kilkenny school; and in his fifteenth year, on 24th April, 1682, he entered Trinity College, Dublin.

He remained at college for nearly seven years (taking his bachelor’s degree in February 1685–’6), not leaving until the breaking out of the “troubles” in 1689.

He acquired more than the average amount of learning requisite for taking his degree.

He was never a profound or exact scholar, but he attained considerable intimacy with the great writers of antiquity, had a command of Latin, was accomplished in French, and possessed an extensive store of general information.

Sir William Temple

His uncle, Godwin Swift, at whose expense he had been educated, died shortly before he took his degree, and Jonathan would have been badly off but for his other uncle, William, who resided in Dublin.

His mother and sister were then living in Leicester, where, during the remaining twenty-two years of his mother’s life, he visited her seldom less frequently than once a year.

She was a connexion of the wife of Sir William Temple, and when the disturbed state of Ireland, in 1689, compelled Swift to seek employment in England, he was received as companion and secretary into the family of the retired statesman, near London, and later at Moor Park, close to Farnham.

His first sojourn with Temple lasted over five years, from 1689 to 1694.

Visit to Ireland

In May 1690 he visited Ireland for his health, and possibly in the hope of preferment from Sir Robert Southwell, but “growing worse,” in his own words, “he soon went back to Sir William Temple’s, with whom, growing into some confidence, he was often trusted with matters of great importance.”

After his return he took his master’s degree at Hertford College, Oxford.

Esther Johnson

When Swift went to Moor Park, he found a Mrs. Johnson living there as friend and companion to Lady Gifford, Sir William Temple’s sister. Her two daughters lived with her—Esther, a child of eight (born 13th March 1681), and a younger, Anne, of whose attractive appearance and modest manners mention is made in Swift’s writings.

He became first the playfellow, and subsequently the volunteer teacher of Esther, and in after years reminded her how he had guided her little hand in writing, and how his spirit had given to hers its first impress.

William III

In Sir William Temple’s house Swift more than once met William III., who occasionally sought that great man’s advice; and, upon at least one occasion, Swift was sent to Kensington, charged personally to enforce Sir William’s views upon the King.

Split with Temple

In 1694 a coolness arose between Swift and his patron, in consequence of Swift’s desire to seek a more independent position elsewhere.

Temple wished to retain him permanently in his service, and even offered him a sinecure, a clerkship of £120 a year on the Irish Rolls, if he would remain.

Swift’s mind was, however, made up. He paid his annual visit to his mother at Leicester, passed over to Ireland, received deacon’s orders on 28th October 1694, and priest’s orders three months later.

Kilroot and engagement

Recommended by family friends to Lord Capel, then Lord-Deputy, he was presented with the prebend of Kilroot, near Carrickfergus, worth £100 a year.

Swift held this living a little over eighteen months, at the end of which time he joyfully accepted Sir William Temple’s invitation to return to Moor Park.

During his occupation of Kilroot, he became engaged to be married to a Miss Waring (of whom he wrote as “Varina”), sister of a college friend resident at Belfast. From this engagement both parties apparently were not sorry to be ultimately released.

Swift left Kilroot in charge of a college friend, Winder, for whom, early in 1698, when it became apparent that his residence with Temple would be protracted, he obtained the succession.

Second sojourn at Moor Park

During his second residence at Moor Park, which was only terminated by the death of Temple, in 1698–’9, he was occupied in the revision of his friend’s writings, in the self-imposed task of superintending the education of Esther Johnson, now a beautiful girl of fifteen, and chiefly in study, to which he devoted nearly ten hours a day.

The Battle of the Books

Sir William Temple had engaged in a controversy regarding the comparative merits of ancient and modern authors, advocating the claims of the former; and Swift came to his assistance in his first important essay in composition—The Battle of the Books.

It was widely circulated in manuscript before Sir William’s death, but did not appear in print until four years later.

“There is,” says Mr. Forster, “not a line in this extraordinary piece of concentrated humour, however seemingly filled with absurdity, that does not run over with sense and meaning. If a single word were to be employed in describing it, applicable alike to its wit and its extravagance, intensity should be chosen. Especially characteristic of these earliest satires is what generally will be found most aptly descriptive of all Swift’s writing: namely, that whether the subject be great or small, everything in it, from the first word to the last, is essentially part of it; not an episode or allusion being introduced merely for itself, but every minutest point not only harmonizing or consisting with the whole, but expressly supporting and strengthening it.”

Death of Sir William Temple

Sir William Temple died on 27th January 1698–’9, “and with him,” writes Swift, “died all that was good and amiable among men.”

Then closed the quietest and happiest period in Swift’s life.

Sir William left him a small legacy, and committed to him “the care, and trust, and advantage, of publishing his posthumous writings.”

The amount ultimately received for the five volumes was about £40 a piece.

Back in Ireland

Swift confided in King William III.’s promise of the first vacant prebend at Westminster or Canterbury, and dedicated to him his edition of Temple’s works; but neither promise nor dedication brought him any preferment.

In the summer of 1699, he accompanied Lord Berkeley to Ireland as chaplain and private secretary, on his appointment as one of the Lords-Justices.

He was soon, however, ousted from the secretaryship, and deprived by intrigue of the expected deanery of Derry, but remained chaplain at the Castle, continuing his service, for political as well as personal reasons, under two later Viceroys.

He lived upon terms of the most affectionate intimacy with the Berkeleys, for whose amusement some of his cleverest poetical pieces were thrown off.


In February 1699–1700 Swift was made vicar of Laracor, near Trim. With this appointment was united the adjacent rectory of Agher, and afterwards the living of Rathbeggan, all in the diocese of Meath.

Although nothing now stands but a ruined wall of his glebe-house at Laracor—although the church has been rebuilt, and few traces remain of the garden, the willows, and the stream in which he delighted, the place will long be regarded with interest from the fact of his having resided there.

Often, when in London, his heart reverted to the spot, and he wrote as longing to be away from court and politics, and amongst his fishponds and the sylvan beauties of the locality.

His income at this time was £230, or about £600 in present value.

Esther Johnson in Ireland

Esther Johnson had been left by Sir William Temple a legacy of lands in “Monistown, in the County of Wicklow.”

Her property altogether amounted to about £1,500.

After the break-up of the household at Moor Park, she resided at Farnham with her friend Mrs. Dingley.

In 1700, says Swift, “I prevailed with her and her dear friend and companion, the other lady, to draw what money they had into Ireland, a great part of their fortune being in annuities upon funds. Money was then ten per cent. in Ireland, besides the advantage of returning it, and all necessaries of life at half the price. They complied with my advice, and soon after came over; but I happening to continue some time longer in England, they were much discouraged to live in Dublin, where they were wholly strangers. She was at that time about nineteen years old, and her person was soon distinguished. But the adventure looked so like a frolic, the censure held for some time, as if there were a secret history in such a removal; which, however, soon blew off by her excellent conduct.”

He writes of her at this period:

“She was sickly from her childhood until about the age of fifteen; but then grew into perfect health, and was looked upon as one of the most beautiful, graceful, and agreeable young women in London, only a little too fat. Her hair was blacker than a raven, and every feature of her face in perfection.”

Excepting visits to her friends in England in 1705 and the winter of 1707–8, Esther Johnson spent the remainder of her life in Ireland.

When Swift was at home, she and Mrs. Dingley occupied lodgings near him in Dublin or in Trim. They kept up a comfortable establishment—two maids and a manservant, and at times a riding-horse for Esther.

When Swift was absent they occupied his house in Dublin, or the vicarage at Laracor.

On company days she and Mrs. Dingley presided at Swift’s entertainments.

“She grew to love Ireland,” says Swift, “much better than the generality of those who owe both their birth and riches to it. … She detested the tyranny and injustice of England in their treatment of this kingdom. She had indeed reason to love a country where she had the esteem and friendship of all who knew her, and the universal good report of all who ever heard of her.”

Relationship between Esther and Swift

It is not probable that any more reasonable explanation of the relations that subsisted between Esther and Swift will ever be given than what is advanced by Mr. Forster in his Life of Swift.

Referring to a letter dated April 1704, wherein Swift had discouraged the suit of a clergyman named Tisdall, he says:

“Written when Esther Johnson was in her twenty-second year and Swift in his thirty-sixth, the letter describes with exactness the relations that, in the opinion of the present writer—who can find no evidence of marriage that is at all reasonably sufficient—subsisted between them at the day of her death, when she was entering her forty-sixth year and he had passed his sixtieth. Even assuming it to be less certain than I think it, that she had never given the least favourable ear to Tisdall’s suit, there can be no doubt that the result of its abrupt termination was to connect her future inalienably with that of Swift. The limit as to their intercourse expressed by him, if not before known to her, she had now been made aware of; and it is not open to us to question that she accepted it with its plainly implied conditions, of affection, not desire. The words ‘in all other eyes but mine’ have a touching significance. In all other eyes but his, time would take from her lustre; her charms would fade; but to him, through womanhood as in girlhood, she would continue the same. For what she was surrendering, then, she knew the equivalent; and this, almost wholly overlooked in other biographies, will be found in the present to fill a large place. Her story has indeed been always told with too much indignation and pity. Not with what depresses or degrades, but rather with what consoles and exalts, we may associate such a life. This young friendless girl, of mean birth and small fortune, chose to play no common part in the world; and it was not a sorrowful destiny, either for her life or her memory, to be the star to such a man as Swift.”

The endearing epithet “Stella” does not appear to have been applied to Esther Johnson until about 1712.

Tale of a Tub

Swift visited his friends in England at least once a year; and upon each occasion took a higher place among the literary men of the time, and with the Whig statesmen, to whose service he so freely lent his pen.

The publication of the Tale of a Tub, in April 1705, proved one of the most important events in his life.

Mr. Forster says: “His title to take higher intellectual rank than any man then living, and his perpetual exclusion from the rank in the Church, which in those days rewarded the most commonplace ability and questionable character, were settled by” the publication of this work, which he characterizes as the “earliest of the two greatest prose satires in the English language, remaining, with Gulliver, after the test of nearly two centuries, among the unique books of the world.”

It was published anonymously, as were most of his other works. He gave it to the public as sailors throw a tub to a whale, to divert it from more dangerous pursuits.

It recounts the adventures of three brothers—Peter (the Church of Rome), Martin (the Established Church), and John (the Presbyterian).

The work abounds in coarse passages and occasionally treats religious questions with levity.

These were the points which, reported with exaggeration to Queen Anne by his enemies, effectually shut against him the doors of Church preferment.

Swift’s letters from London

Swift went to London in September 1710, not expecting to be absent many weeks. The visit extended until June 1713.

No portion of his life is more fully illustrated; for, commencing with the day of his arrival at Chester, and ending with that of his reaching the same place on his return, he kept a journal letter which he transmitted every few days to Esther Johnson.

In these communications, evidently meant for her and Mrs. Dingley alone, he pours out his inmost confidences, from the minutest particulars regarding his interviews with courtiers and wits, to the commonest interests of his and their everyday life.

Every page of these letters breathes the tenderest regard for Esther Johnson; and they abound with playful child’s language, manifestly such as he had learned to use to her in their early intercourse.

Swift writes of himself throughout as “Pdfr,” “Podefar,” “F R,” or other fragments of what may be presumed to be “Poor dear foolish rogue.”

Besides “Ppt,” presumably “Poppet,” or “Poor pretty thing,”

Esther Johnson is for the most part designated by “MD,” “My dear,” though this occasionally refers to Mrs. Dingley as well. For the latter lady, “D” or “D D,” “Dingley” or “Dear Dingley,” stands always; “M E,” or “Madam Elderly,” being only now and then applied to her.

These wonderful letters were preserved by Esther Johnson; were borrowed by Swift to assist him in his political writings, and remained among his papers.

The literary world is largely indebted to Mr. Forster for his care in collating portions, at least, of current editions with the originals, and pointing out liberties taken with them by previous biographers.

Swift joins the Tories

Swift, who had for some years been growing less zealous in support of his Whig friends, soon after his arrival in London openly went over to the Tories.

Mr. Lecky says:

“The reasons he assigned for this change were very simple. He had originally been a Whig because he justified the Revolution, which could only be defended on Whig principles. On the other hand, as a clergyman and a High Churchman, he considered the exclusion of Dissenters from state offices essential to the security of the Church. … It was almost inevitable that a young man brought up in the house of Sir W. Temple should begin his career as a Whig. It was almost equally certain that a High Church clergyman would ultimately gravitate to the Tories. Swift, though he disliked William, never appears to have questioned the necessity of the Revolution, and in this respect he continued a Whig. Nor was he ever implicated, like his Tory friends, in negotiations with the Pretender. … No doubt his junction with the Tories in 1710 was eminently to his advantage, but it should not be forgotten that in his later years he defended tests and disqualifications quite as jealously in Ireland, at the very time when he was endeavouring to unite all Irishmen in their national cause. Such a bigotry is far from admirable, but it may at least claim the merit of sincerity.”

Swift’s business in London

Swift’s immediate business in London, to secure for the Irish clergy a remission of the rights of the Crown to the first fruits and twentieth parts, was accomplished in less than a year; but he was detained from month to month by the Ministry, who found his services invaluable as a writer for the press and otherwise.

“The nation, dazzled by the genius of Marlborough, and fired by the enthusiasm of a protracted war, was fiercely opposed to a party whose policy was peace; but Swift’s Examiners gradually modified this opposition, and his Conduct of the Allies for a time completely quelled it. The success of this pamphlet has scarcely a parallel in history. It seems to have for a time almost reversed the current of public opinion, and to have enabled the Ministers to conclude the Peace of Utrecht.”

Deanery of St. Patrick’s

But, while his influence was great, and he was successful in procuring preferment for others, it was denied to himself; and all that his friends could prevail upon the Queen to grant him was the deanery of St. Patrick’s.

The patent was signed, 23rd February 1712–’13, and he returned to Ireland in June.

His friends Oxford and Bolingbroke fell from power on the death of Queen Anne a year later; and the rest of his life may be said to have been passed in and for Ireland.

At the period of his final settlement in this country he was forty-six years of age.

Personal appearance of Jonathan Swift

His personal appearance was still attractive; his features were regular and striking: he had a high forehead and broad massive temples; heavy-lidded blue eyes, to which his dark complexion and bushy black eyebrows gave unusual capacity for sternness, as well as brilliance and kindliness; a slightly aquiline nose; a resolute mouth; a handsome, dimpled double chin, and over all the pride of a confident, calm superiority.

Hester Vanhomrigh (Vanessa)

During his sojourn in London, Swift formed a friendship with Hester Vanhomrigh (better known by his pet name for her, “Vanessa”), daughter of a deceased Dutch merchant, Bartholomew Vanhomrigh, who had profited to the extent of some £16,000 by dealings connected with the forfeitures in Ireland.

The family lived within a few doors of his lodgings; and there are constant references to them in his letters to Esther Johnson.

Hester Vanhomrigh was born about 1692, and was consequently twenty years old; not remarkable for personal beauty; but of captivating manners, and endowed with brilliant talents and a greater inclination for reading and mental cultivation than was then usually combined with a gay temper.

The Queen of Learning sowed —

“Within her tender mind

Seeds long unknown to womankind,

For manly bosoms chiefly fit,

The seeds of knowledge, judgment, wit.

Her soul was suddenly endued

With justice, truth, and fortitude;

With honour which no breath can stain,

Which malice must attack in vain;

With open heart and bounteous hand.”

Swift thus writes in his poem of Cadenus and Vanessa, considered by Goldsmith to be one of the best of his pieces.

It was penned at Windsor in 1713, and gives an account of the progress of a friendship which resulted in her open declaration of love for him.

After his return to Dublin, Hester Vanhomrigh removed thither, and passed the remainder of her life there and at Marlay Abbey, Celbridge.

She died ten years afterwards, in May 1723, aged 36.

There seems to be small ground for the web of mystery that has been thrown around her intimacy with Swift.

Scott says:

“Enough of blame will remain with Swift, if we allow that he cherished, with indecisive yet flattering hope, a passion which, in justice to himself and Vanessa, he ought, at whatever risk to her feelings and his own, to have repressed as soon as she had declared it.”

Through their correspondence there is nothing to lead us to suppose that Swift ever addressed her as a lover.

She reproaches him with coldness and unkindness, but not with inconstancy.

His letters indicate the utmost perplexity—he remonstrates, reasons, and scolds; he soothes and flatters. He adopted every device that ingenuity can suggest to bring her to reason. He seconded the addresses of two unexceptionable suitors for her hand.

The stories about Hester Vanhomrigh’s letter to Esther Johnson; Miss Johnson’s transmission of it to Swift, and Miss Vanhomrigh’s retirement to Celbridge; Swift’s angry visit to her there; her consequent death; and Swift’s remorse, are unsupported by evidence, and appear to be fully disposed of by a writer in Blackwood’s Magazine for May 1876.

Hester Vanhomrigh, as has been said, died in May 1723. and is supposed to have been buried at Leixlip.

Her will (made 1st May, and proved 6th June) is an orderly document, exhibiting no traces of the resentment against Swift attributed to her.

Dr. George Berkeley, afterwards Bishop of Cloyne, and Robert Marshall, of Clonmel, are named her executors, and are bequeathed all her property, some £9,000, except small legacies to servants and friends, amounting to not more than £500.

Marlay Abbey, at Celbridge, will ever be associated with the memories of Swift and Hester Vanhomrigh; there he often visited her; and there, to commemorate his visits, she planted beside the Liffey laurels, the off-shoots of which are still shown.

The rumour of marriage to Esther Johnson

All through the time of his acquaintance with Hester Vanhomrigh, his affection for Esther Johnson continued unabated.

The story of her pining under his unkindness is unsupported by reliable evidence.

Some of his tenderest and purest effusions are his birthday odes to her for 1719, 1720, 1722, and 1723.

Esther Johnson and Mrs. Dingley, far from living lonely and neglected in Dublin, moved in the best society the city afforded, and occasionally paid prolonged visits to friends in remote parts of the country.

There is no proof of the private marriage that is said to have taken place between Swift and Esther Johnson, in 1716.

The first positive statement regarding it appears in Lord Orrery’s Remarks, penned in 1751; and the most recent researches fail to find any evidence to support it.

Capable of the warmest friendship, Swift appears to have been insensible to the passion of love.

It has been said that in the whole of his writings not one word occurs, in the whole course of his life not one act is recorded, indicative of passion.

Mrs. Dingley, who was never separated from Esther Johnson from the time of their arrival in Dublin until the death of the latter, and who could not by possibility have been ignorant of the marriage, had it taken place, laughed at the story “as an idle tale, founded only on suspicion.”

Dean Swift at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Swift’s life, from his settlement in Ireland until his first appearance in Irish public matters in 1720, was chiefly occupied with the affairs of his Cathedral, in study, and in intercourse with his friends.

His zeal for the rights and welfare of the Church soon made his influence paramount with his chapter.

Perhaps for economy, he boarded with a friend whose wife preserved that neatness and good order which was particularly agreeable to him.

He kept two public days weekly at the deanery, where his entertainments were accounted rather parsimonious.

He had received his preferment on terms that involved him in considerable debt; yet his parsimony, though often ludicrous, and in his declining years deplorable, never interfered with the claims of justice or benevolence.

He gathered round him a coterie, for whose amusement many of his verses, and those of his friends Sheridan and Delany, were thrown off.

He sometimes resided for months at a time at Sheridan’s residence at Quilca, or at Gaulstown House, the seat of Chief-Baron Rochford.

During these years he renewed his early intimacy with Addison, which had been broken off by the political events of 1711.

Irish politics

In 1720 he entered the arena of Irish politics by the publication of a Proposal for the Universal use of Irish Manufactures.

Government sought in vain to punish the printer.

His satirical essays on the project for a National Bank caused the measure to be rejected by Parliament; and his Last Dying Speech of Elliston, a noted thief, intimating that he had left a list of the names of his companions, to be proceeded against in case they did not relinquish their evil courses, almost put an end to street robberies in Dublin for some years.

Drapier’s Letters

In 1723 Swift electrified the Irish nation by the publication of his Drapier’s Letters.

Ireland had for some time been suffering from the want of copper currency; and Walpole, through the influence of the Duchess of Kendal, the king’s mistress (who stipulated that she should receive a large share of the profits), granted a patent to a person of the name of Wood, for the coinage of £108,000 in halfpence.

Neither the Government nor the people of Ireland were in any way consulted in the matter—a striking proof of the condition of subserviency to which the country had been reduced.

Its dignity and independence were felt to be grossly outraged; and the report that the coins were not worth their nominal value spread through the country, and was confirmed by Parliament.

Swift, somewhat disingenuously, it is true, seized the opportunity to arouse the public spirit of Ireland; and, writing in the character of a Dublin draper, printed a series of letters, in which he asserted that all who took the new coin would lose nearly eleven-pence in the shilling; that every section of the community would lose by their introduction; the beggars were even assured that halfpence had been selected for adulteration, so that their ruin at least should be compassed.

A great turmoil was created; and a general panic ensued, which the Ministry in vain endeavoured to allay by an examination of the coin at the mint, and the issue of a certificate of its purity signed by Sir Isaac Newton.

Swift’s fourth letter turned the agitation into the desired channel. Declaring that a people long used to indignities soon lose by degrees the very idea of liberty, he boldly and clearly defined the limits of the prerogatives of the Crown, asserted the independence of Ireland, and the nullity of those measures which had not received the sanction of the Irish Parliament.

“He avowed his entire adherence to the doctrine of Molyneux; he declared his allegiance to the King, not as King of England, but as King of Ireland; and he asserted that Ireland was rightfully a free nation, which implied that it had the power of self-legislation; for, ‘government without the consent of the governed, is the very definition of slavery.’

All parties in Ireland combined in resistance to the obnoxious patent; the Lord-Chancellor denounced the coin; the Lords-Justices refused to sanction its circulation; Parliament voted addresses against it; most of the grand juries at quarter sessions condemned it; Primate Boulter lamented “that the people of every religion, country, and party here are alike set against Wood’s halfpence, and that their agreement in this has had a very unhappy influence on the state of this nation, by bringing on intimacies between Papists and Jacobites, and the Whigs.”

Neither the Duke of Grafton nor his successor, Lord Carteret, was able to quell the agitation; a reward of £300 was in vain offered for the discovery of the author (who was well known to be Swift); the grand jury refused to find a bill against the printer; public feeling grew stronger every day; and at last Walpole was compelled to cancel the patent.

Mr. Lecky says:

“Such were the circumstances of this memorable contest—a contest which has been deservedly placed in the foremost ranks in the annals of Ireland. There is no more momentous epoch in the history of a nation than that in which the voice of the people has first spoken, and spoken with success. … Before this time rebellion was the natural issue of every patriotic effort in Ireland. Since then rebellion has been an anachronism and a mistake. The age of Desmond and of O’Neill had passed. The age of Grattan and of O’Connell had begun. Swift was admirably calculated to be the leader of public opinion in Ireland, from his complete freedom from the characteristic defects of the Irish temperament. His writings exhibit no tendency to exaggeration or bombast; no fallacious images or far-fetched analogies; no tumid phrases, in which the expression hangs loosely and inaccurately around the meaning. His style is always clear, keen, nervous, and exact. He delights in the most homely Saxon, in the simplest and most unadorned sentences. His arguments are so plain that the weakest mind can grasp them, yet so logical that it is seldom possible to evade their force. … After the Drapier’s Letters, Swift published several minor pieces on Irish affairs, but most of them are very inconsiderable. The principal is his Short View of the State of Ireland, published in 1727, in which he enumerated fourteen causes of a nation’s prosperity, and showed in how many of these Ireland was deficient. He also brought forward the condition of the country indirectly, in his amusing proposal for employing children for food — a proposal which a French writer is said to have taken literally, and to have gravely adduced as a proof of the wretched condition of the Irish. His influence with the people, after the Drapier’s Letters, was unbounded. … There are few things in the Irish history of the last century more touching than the constancy with which the people clung to their old leader, even at a time when his faculties had wholly decayed; and, notwithstanding his creed, his profession, and his intolerance, the name of Swift was for many generations the most universally popular in Ireland. He first taught the Irish people to rely upon themselves. He led them to victory at a time when long oppression and the expatriation of all the energy of the country had deprived them of every hope.”

Swift’s feelings towards the native Irish

Swift’s scornful feelings towards the native Irish have been much exaggerated.

In a letter addressed by him to Sir Charles Wogan in July 1732, we find the following estimate of the Irish Catholics abroad and at home:

“I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland, who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think above all other nations, which ought to make the English ashamed of the reproaches they cast on the ignorance, the dullness, and the want of courage in the Irish natives; those defects, wherever they happen, arising only from the poverty and slavery they suffer from their inhuman neighbours, and the base, corrupt spirit of too many of the chief gentry.”

Gulliver’s Travels

Swift’s masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most popular works in the English language, was published in two octavo volumes, with plates, in London, in 1726–’7.

Its full title was as follows: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in four parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

The first edition contains some anecdotes omitted in subsequent issues.

Swift had had the work on hands for some time.

It is likely that the immense popularity it almost immediately attained was a great surprise to him.

Racy and brilliant as it reads in the present day, it must have appeared infinitely more so at the date of its first publication, when every allusion to the politics and customs of the time was at once appreciated.

Lord Jeffrey wrote of it:

The Voyages of Captain Lemuel Gulliver is undoubtedly his greatest work. The idea of making fictitious travel the vehicle of satire as well as of amusement is at least as old as Lucian, but has never been carried into execution with such success, spirit, and originality as in this celebrated performance.”

Sir Walter Scott says:

“Perhaps no work ever exhibited such general attractions to all classes. It offered personal and political satire to the readers in high life, low and coarse incident to the vulgar, marvels to the romantic, wit to the young and lively, lessons of morality and policy to the grave, and maxims of deep and bitter misanthropy to neglected age and disappointed ambition.”

The death of ‘Stella’

In the same year that Gulliver was published, Swift paid a visit to London, to enjoy the society of such of his old friends as survived, and the credit arising from the book; but he was suddenly called home by the illness of Esther Johnson.

She lingered for nearly a year.

Her death, on 28th January 1727–’8, was the greatest affliction of his life.

Few nobler tributes have ever been paid to the memory of a deceased friend than that penned by him at the time:

“The truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, was ever blessed with. I knew her from six years old, and had some share in her education, by directing what books she should read, and perpetually instructing her in the principles of honour and virtue, from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life. … Never was any of her sex born with better gifts of the mind, or who more improved them by reading and conversations. … Her advice was always the best, and with the greatest freedom, mixed with the greatest decency. 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. … With all the softness of temper that became a lady, she had the personal courage of a hero.”

By her own desire she was buried in the aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Most of her property was left in trust for the benefit of her mother and sister, and after their death for the payment of the salary of a chaplain for Steevens’ Hospital, unless, “which God forbid, at any time hereafter the present Established Episcopal Church of this kingdom should come to be abolished and be no longer the national established Church of this said kingdom.” (Swift, who probably drew up her will, subsequently left lands for the benefit of Laracor upon similar conditions.)

She also left legacies to her servants, and money to apprentice a little boy, Brian McLoghlin, whom she was charitably bringing up.

The last years of Dean Swift

Swift increased his reputation by literary and patriotic labours after Esther Johnson’s death; but his spirits never recovered the shock.

A sad list of “men famous for their learning, wit, or great employments or quality, of my acquaintance, who are dead,” bears date February 1728–’29.

A growing misunderstanding with the Court party in England ended in a complete rupture in 1731, owing to some unfortunate interference of Mrs. Barber.

In 1736 the attacks of giddiness to which he had been subject through life, culminated in confirmed ill-health; already he had penned his characteristic “Lines on the Death of Dr. Swift.”

The first collected edition of his works was published by George Faulkner about this time.

In 1740 Swift settled down into a condition of hopeless imbecility.

According to Sir William Wilde, this was due, not to insanity or idiotcy, but to effusion on the brain, in addition to chronic meningitis and cerebritis.

Some of his last lucid thoughts were given to arrangements for the Hospital for the Insane, for which he had been saving during the latter part of his life.

The last words he ever penned were in a note to his cousin, Mrs. Whiteway: “If I do not blunder, it is Saturday, July 26th 1740.”

His estate was put under the management of trustees, and his person was carefully tended by Mrs. Whiteway for the sad three remaining years of his life, in the course of which he was known to speak only once or twice.

The death of Dean Swift

On 19th October 1745, in the 78th year of his age, he was released from his sufferings.

“It was then,” says Scott, “that the gratitude of the Irish showed itself in the full glow of national enthusiasm. The interval was forgotten during which their great patriot had been dead to the world, and he was wept and mourned, as if he had been called away in the full career of his public services. Young and old of all ranks surrounded the house, to pay the last tribute of sorrow and of affection.”

Swift’s interment and epitaph

Swift was by his own desire interred privately in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, beside the remains of Esther Johnson.

The epitaph was prepared beforehand by himself:

“Hic depositum est corpus Jonathan Swift, S.T.P., hujus ecclesiæ Cathedralis Decani: ubi sæva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit. Abi viator, et imitare, si poteris, strenuum pro virili libertatis vindicem. Obiit anno 1745: mensis Octobris: die 19: ætatis anno 78.”

Jonathan Swift’s legacy

In old age Swift’s countenance conveyed an expression which, though severe, was noble and impressive.

About £10,000 of his property was available for the foundation of the Hospital for the Insane in Dublin, which bears his name, and which for generations has tended to alleviate the sufferings of that unhappy class.

It would be impossible in a notice of this character to do justice to Swift’s genius by an effective examination of his writings.

The coarseness that disgraces them cannot be palliated, and has done more than anything else to unfairly degrade his character in the eyes of posterity.

Scott says that three peculiarities stamped his character as an author—originality—total indifference to literary fame or to the profits arising from his works—and the distinguished pitch of excellence which he attained in every style of composition he attempted: he might have added his entire absence of any feelings of literary jealousy.

Mr. Lecky thus concludes the ablest essay that has ever been written upon Swift’s life and character:

“Of the intellectual grandeur of his career it is needless to speak. The chief sustainer of an English Ministry, the most powerful advocate of the Peace of Utrecht, the creator of public opinion in Ireland, he has graven his name indelibly in English history, and his writings, of their own kind, are unique in English literature. … Gulliver and the Tale of a Tub remain isolated productions, unrivalled, unimitated, and inimitable.”

Swift a sincere Churchman

Swift showed himself through life a sincere Churchman, of the type that would now be considered “high.”

There is no reason to suppose that he participated in the latitudinarian views of many of his contemporaries and friends.

While he made no pretence of religion, it is known that in all his cures, at Kilroot, Laracor, and afterwards as Dean of St. Patrick’s, he was strict in the performance of the ceremonies of the Church.

It was only by chance his friends discovered that he used to steal out to early service in London, and that he read prayers regularly in his own family.

His principles regarding Church prerogative were extreme.

He advocated the passage of the Test Act, which would have prevented all but members of the Church from filling public offices; whilst he brought the proposal for the equality of Protestant dissenters in Ireland to the supposed reductio ad absurdum that it would imply a like freedom being accorded to Catholics.

Swift’s life and works in print

The best edition of his Life and Works is that by Sir Walter Scott, in 19 vols.

Literature has, in the present century, sustained few greater losses than the death of Mr. Forster before the completion of his Life of Swift.

The work, imperfect as it stands, is the most important contribution yet made towards enabling the world to form a proper estimate of Swift’s character.


212. Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland—Swift, Flood, Grattan, and O’Connell: William E. H. Lecky. First and Second Editions. London, 1861–’71.
Lecky, William E. H., see No. 212.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

320. Swift, Jonathan, Life of: John Forster. London, 1875.

320a. Swift, Jonathan, Remarks on his Life and Writings: Earl of Orrery. Dublin, 1752.

321. Swift, Jonathan, Works, with Notes, and Life: Sir Walter Scott. 19 vols. Edinburgh, 1824.

322. Swift, Jonathan, Closing Years: William R. Wilde. Dublin, 1849.