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Jonathan Swift is the foremost prose satirist in the English language. His greatest satire, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), is alternately described as an attack on humanity and a clear-eyed assessment of human strengths and weaknesses. In addition to his work as a satirist, Swift was also an accomplished minor poet, a master of political journalism, a prominent political figure, and one of the most distinguished leaders of the Anglican church in Ireland. For these reasons he is considered one of the representative figures of his age.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Lonely Childhood Amid Political Turmoil
Swift’s childhood was characterized by separation. His father died shortly before Swift’s birth, and his mother left him in the care of a nurse for three years at a very young age. However, Swift was financially provided for, and he was educated in the best schools in Ireland. He was enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin when, in 1689, a wave of civil unrest erupted in the wake of the abdication of the Catholic King James II. Many Anglo-Irish escaped to the safety of England, including Swift.
The Temple Years
In England, Swift secured a position as secretary to Sir William Temple, a scholar and former member of Parliament engaged in writing his memoirs. Except for two trips to Ireland, Swift remained in Temple s employ and lived at his home, Moor Park, until Temple s death in 1699. During this period, Swift read widely, was introduced to many prominent individuals in Temple s circle, and began a career in the Anglican church, an ambition thwarted by Temple s inaction in obtaining Swift a promised preferment in the church. Around this time, he met Esther Johnson, stepdaughter of Temple s steward. ”Stella, as Swift nicknamed her, became an intimate, lifelong confidante to Swift. Despite rumors to the contrary, their relationship remained platonic; Swift’s correspondence with her was later collected in The Journal to Stella (1963).
Toward the end of this period, Swift wrote his first great satires, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Both were completed by 1699 but were not published until 1704 under the title A Tale of a Tub, Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, to which is Added an Account of a Battle between the Ancient and Modern Books in St. James’s Library. Framed by a history of the Christian church, A Tale satirized contemporary literary and scholarly pedants as well as the dissenters and Roman Catholics who opposed the Anglican church, an institution to which Swift would be devoted during his entire career.
The Protestant control of England under Oliver Cromwell had resulted in an attempt by the government to impose the stringent, unpopular beliefs of Puritanism on the English populace. Swift detested such tyranny and sought to prevent it through his writings. The Battle of the Books was written in defense of Temple. A controversial debate was being waged over the respective merits of ancient versus modern learning, with Temple supporting the position that the literature of the Greek and Roman civilizations was far superior to any modern creations. Swift addressed Temple s detractors with an allegorical satire that depicted the victory of those who supported the ancient texts. Although inspired by topical controversies, both A Tale and The Battle are brilliant satires with many universal implications regarding the nature and follies of aesthetics, religious belief, scholasticism, and education.
When Temple died in 1699, Swift was left without position or prospects. He returned to Ireland, where he occupied a series of church posts from 1699 to 1710. During this period he wrote an increasing number of satirical essays on behalf of the ruling Whig party, whose policies limiting the power of the crown and increasing that of Parliament, as well as restricting Roman Catholics from political office, Swift staunchly endorsed. In these pamphlets, Swift developed the device that marked much of his later satire: using a literary persona to express ironically absurd opinions. When the Whig administration fell in 1709, Swift shifted his support to the Tory government, which, while supporting a strong crown unlike the Whigs, adamantly supported the Anglican Church. For the next five years, Swift served as the chief Tory political writer, editing the journal The Examiner and com-posing political pamphlets, poetry, and prose. Swift s change of party has led some critics to characterize him as a cynical opportunist, but others contend that his conversion reflected more of a change in the parties philosophies than in Swift s own views. Always one to place the interests of the church above party affiliation, he chose to serve the party that promoted those interests.
With the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the accession of George I, the Tory party lost power to the Whigs, and Swift returned to Ireland in 1714 to become dean of St. Patrick s Cathedral. Except for brief visits to London, Swift spent the rest of his life in Ireland. For the first five years after his return, he refrained from political controversy. By 1720, however, he renewed his interest in the affairs of Ireland, producing a series of pamphlets attacking the economic dependence of Ireland upon England and criticizing the policies of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. His most well-known, A Modest Proposal (1729) is a bitter satire inspired by the plight of the masses of impoverished Irish. In it, Swift ironically suggests that a growing population and widespread starvation could both be alleviated if the poor began eating their children. Considered one of the greatest satirical essays in world literature, Swift s piece attacks complacency in the face of misery and the coldly rational schemes of social planners who fail to perceive the pain resulting from their action or inaction.
On August 14, 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote to his friend Charles Ford: ”I have finished my Travells, and I am now transcribing them; they are admirable Things, and will wonderfully mend the World. Gulliver’s Travels challenged his readers’ smug assumptions about the superiority of their political and social institutions as well as their assurance that as rational animals they occupied a privileged position in the world. Universally considered Swift’s greatest work of this period, Gulliver’s Travels (published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts; by Lemuel Gulliver), depicts one man s journeys to several strange and unusual lands. Written over a period of several years, some scholars believe that the novel had its origins during Swift s years as a political agitator, when he was part of a group of prominent Tory writers known as the Scriblerus Club. The group, which included Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, collaborated on several satires, including The Scriblerus Papers. They also planned a satire called The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, which was to include several imaginary voyages. Many believe that Gulliver’s Travels was inspired by this work. Although the novel was published anonymously, Swift s authorship was widely suspected. The book was an immediate success.
Life After Gulliver
Swift remained active throughout the 1720s and 1730s as a political commentator, satirist, and, more importantly, as a poet. During this period, he wrote much of his best poetry, including Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift. The last years of Swift’s life, from approximately 1736 until his death, have been the subject of much legend and misinformation. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, critics and biographers mistakenly concluded that Swift was insane during the years before his death. However, throughout his life he had suffered from what is known as Meniere’s Syndrome, or labyrinthine vertigo, a disease of the inner ear that causes attacks of nausea, dizziness, temporary deafness, and extreme pain. He also suffered a paralytic stroke in 1740 that caused aphasia and loss of memory. Eventually, in 1742, he was declared incapable of caring for himself and placed in the custody of guardians. Swift died in 1745 and was buried beside Esther Johnson in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Works in Literary Context
Satire or Cynicism?
During the Enlightenment, eighteenth-century thinkers espoused an increasing faith in the rationality of human beings and in the capacity of reason to improve and even perfect the human condition. Swift categorically rejected these views; educated in the seventeenth century, he held to that period’s emphasis on the imperfection of human beings resulting from the Fall of Man. Although Swift believed humans capable of reason, he also believed they rarely exercised this capacity. Thus, while he endorsed some measures of social reform, he argued for their implementation through means that acknowledged a need to control human corruptibility. Swift’s departure from the prevailing thought of his time earned him censure in his lifetime, and for centuries afterwards, by critics who accused him of misanthropy and portrayed him as a bitter individual who hated humanity. However, his defenders, mostly twentieth-century critics, argued that his acerbic prose merely expressed his pain at the disparity between the world as it was and the world as it should have been. By portraying people in shocking extremes of baseness and monstrosity, they argue, he sought a better world. Swift defended his view of human-kind by writing: ”I have ever hated all Nations, professions, and Communityes and all my love is toward individuals … I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.”
A Novel of Imaginary Voyages
Of course Gulliver’s Travels is satirical, but is it also a novel? ”Probably not,” Robert C. Elliot remarks, ”although it is not easy to say (except by arbitrary stipulation) why it is not.” Part of the problem in classifying Gulliver’s Travels as a novel arises from Swift’s inclusion of large quantities of material which are neither purely narrative nor satirical, but are largely philosophical. Indeed, Gulliver’s Travels has most often been described as an imaginary or ”philosophic” voyage, a subgenre most clearly defined by William A. Eddy as ”a didactic treatise in which the author’s criticism of society is set forth in a parable form of an Imaginary Voyage made by one or more Europeans to a nonexistent or little known country… together with a description of the imaginary society visited.”
Works in Critical Context
Between 1945 and 1985, nearly five hundred books and articles devoted their attention to Swift’s most popular work, Gulliver’s Travels. Even today, Swift scholars still do not know how to classify a work which has been regarded as a children’s tale, a fantastic voyage, a moral allegory, and a novel.
Gulliver’s characterization has also been much debated. Early critics viewed him as Swift’s mouthpiece and accepted everything Gulliver said as authorial opinion. Modern critics, however, recognize him as a distinct character whom Swift uses to subtler purposes. The most significant contemporary debate centers on Swift’s intentions regarding the creation of Gulliver— whether he is meant to be a consistently realized character, a reliable narrator, or a satiric object whose opinions are the object of Swift’s ridicule. This debate over the nature of Gulliver is important because critics seek to determine whether Gulliver is intended to be a man with definite character traits who undergoes a transformation, or an allegorical representative of humanity. In general, Gulliver is considered a flexible persona manipulated by Swift to present diverse views and satirical situations and to indicate the complexity and unpredictability of human nature.
While Swift’s earliest readers greeted Gulliver’s Travels enthusiastically, later critics complained that the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms constituted a ”real insult upon mankind.” Edward Young spoke for many when he accused Swift of having ”blasphemed a nature little lower than that of the angels.” Victorian critics could only explain the corrosive satire of the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms by positing an author who was both misanthropic and mad. Sir Walter Scott, for example, traced Swift’s ”diatribe against human nature” to that ”soured and disgusted state of Swift’s mind, which doubtless was even then influenced by the first impressions of that incipient mental disease which in this case, was marked by universal misanthropy.” Novelist William Thackeray Asked, ”What had this man done? What secret remorse was rankling at his heart?” Thackeray’s queries typify the desire of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century biographers to explain Swift’s satirical indignation by conjuring up a dark and largely imaginary past.
- Lock, F. P. The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels. Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press, 1980.
- Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift, A Hypocrite Reversed: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Pollak, Ellen. The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
- Rawson, C. J. Gulliver and the Gentle Reader. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
- Rosenheim, Edward, Swift and the Satirist’s Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
- Tuveson, Ernest, ed. Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
- Voight, Milton, Swift and the Twentieth Century. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1964.
- Williams, Kathleen. Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1958.
- Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 (Summer 1989). Texas Studies in Language and Literature (Fall 1990).
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