Friday, November 19, 2010

Jonathan Swift: A Short Biographical Sketch

Birth and Education in Ireland
Jonathan Swift came of an English family which had settled in Dublin (in Ireland). He was born in Dublin on the 30th November, 1667. When he was just three years old, his mother returned to her relatives in England, leaving him in the care of an uncle. The boy was sent to Kilkenny School where he made the acquaintance of Congreve. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Trinity College, Dublin. Why he afterwards felt so much resentment against his relatives is not known; for his uncle gave him not “the education of a dog” but the best education available in Ireland. At college, Swift was often at war with the authorities, and he was not of a very studious turn of mind; but he succeeded in getting his degree (in 1685).

Employment under Sir William Temple
Swift's uncle died in 1688, and Swift was now left to rely on his own efforts and exertions. He joined his mother at Leicester (in England) and looked about for employment. After a time, an opportunity came from Sir William Temple who was then living in retirement at Moor Park, near Farnham. Temple’s father had been a friend of Swift’s uncle; and Lady Temple was related to Swift’s mother. Temple, a man of culture and refinement, and a renowned diplomat, was in need of some one to help him in his literary work, and he entrusted Swift with the job. Swift was at this time an untrained young man of twenty-two. No wonder that Temple treated him entirely as a dependant. In later years, Swift spoke somewhat disparagingly of Temple, saying that he had been treated by that great man as a mere school-boy. Temple sometimes seemed out of humour for three or four days continuously, and Swift was only too ready to construe every passing mood of his patron as an indignity to him.
A Modest Position as a Priest
Temple seems to have done all he could for the young Swift, but he was unable to secure for him any definite position, beyond obtaining for him the prebend of Kilroot, near Belfast, in Ireland, shortly after he had taken holy orders in 1694. Swift stayed in that position for about two years and, feeling tired of Ireland, returned to Temple at Moor Park in 1696.

His First Love-affair
At this time Swift also had his first love-affair. The woman was a certain Miss Jane Waring whom he addressed as “Varina”. He proposed to her by letter in 1696, but received no definite reply from her. However, he kept corresponding with her till 1700 when a final letter by him ended the matter between them.
Experience under Temple’s Patronage
Under Temple’s patronage, Swift had opportunities of studying both men and books that served him in good stead at a later time. Swift was learning much in several-directions while serving Temple as his secretary. He read classical and historical works in Temple’s library; and he heard of public: affairs and of the experiences of his patron
As a Tutor to Esther
During this period he also acted as a tutor to Esther Johnson who was a child of eight when Swift had first met her. Esther was a dependant of Temple’s and had now grown up to be a beautiful girl. She was the woman to whom Swift gave the name “Stella”, and who was destined to playa big part in Swift’s emotional life.
Early Writings
Lady Temple had died in 1694, and Temple himself passed away in 1699. While Temple left a legacy for Esther, he appointed Swift merely to be his literary executor. Up to this time Swift had published no work of his own though he had been writing a good deal on various subjects. He had written The Battle of the Books in 1697; but it did not appear till 1704 when it was published with A Tale of a Tub.
As Lord Berkeley’s Secretary and Chaplaint
In the year following Temple’s death, Swift returned to Ireland with Lord Berkeley as his secretary and chaplain. In addition to this, Swift was also appointed to a group of small livings near Dublin which added to his income. Lady Berkeley had a poius love of sermons, and she commissioned Swift to read out to her the discourses of Boyle. On one occasion, he played a practical joke upon Lady Berkeley by reading out to her his Meditation on a Broomstick (which he had himself written), giving her the impression that it was a sermon by Boyle.

Writing for the Whigs
Returning to England with Lord Berkeley in 1701, Swift was soon in the midst of a political crisis, throwing all his energies into the Whig cause and writing on their behalf his pamphlet On the Dissensions in Athens and Rome even though, as a churchman, his sympathies were on the whole more in accordance with the policy of the Tory party. However, as he received no encouragement from either of the parties, he gave up politics for the time being, and in disgust went back to Ireland in 1709.
The “Journal to Stella”, and the Pamphlets on Behalf of the Tories
In 1711, Swift was again in London, and the events of the three following years, with all Swift’s thoughts and hopes, are recorded in his letters to Esther Johnson and her companion, Mrs. Dingley. These letters were afterwards to be published as the Journal to Stella. He now joined the Tories, the side with which he was genuinely in sympathy. The interests of
the church were paramount with him; and he had realized that the Tories were the church's natural guardians. He produced a good deal of propaganda on behalf of the Tories. Among the pamphlets that he published during this period were two in favour of peace. One of these, entitled The Conduct of the Allies, was sold out in a few hours.
The Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral; and III-health
Swift had now attained a position of great importance, and the authority he possessed and the respect he received were a source of much gratification to him. However, his worldly position and his income had not improved much. It was only in April, 1713 that a sign of official recognition came to him with his appointment as the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Indeed, this was the first official recognition of his political work, though it was not so great a reward as it appeared, especially because it meant what he regarded as his banishment to Ireland. His health was not so good at this time; he had become subject to frequent attacks of giddiness; and even the reception he got in Dublin was not very friendly.
Esther and Hester (or, Stella and Vanessa)
In Dublin, Swift was in regular contact with Esther Johnson who too had now settled there, but his relations with her were complicated by his friendship for another girl, Hester Vanhomrigh, the daughter of a widow, with whom he had become acquainted in 1708. This girl, to whom Swift gave the name “Vanessa”, was an intellectual and accomplished person whose love for him proved to be the tragedy of her life. Swift’s anger at a letter she had written to Stella brought their friendship of fifteen years to an abrupt end, and caused her death from grief and jealousy in 1723.
The Feeling of Loneliness in Dublin
Swift felt acutely the change from the rush of politics and congenial companionship in London to the loneliness and comparative obscurity of his life in Dublin. “The best and greatest part of my life I spent in England; there I made my friendships and there I left my desires”, he wrote about this period in his life. In London he had formed friendships with most of the famous men of letters like Alexander Pope and Dr. Arbuthnot.
As an Irish Patriot: the “Drapier Letters”
Ireland was at this time in the throes of famine and crime, as a result of the passing of a law restricting trade with the colonies and forbidding the export of woollen manufactures. Swift’s sense of justice revolted against this, and in 1720 he wrote the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures wherein he appealed to every Irish citizen to form an earnest resolve never to appear with one single shred that came from England. Four years later appeared the famous Drapier Letters, which were published anonymously. These letters were occasioned by the grant of a patent to a man called William Wood, authorizing him to mint copper coins for Ireland. The English government was compelled, by the force of the propaganda in Drapier Letters against the grant of this patent, to cancel the contract. When the identity of the author of these letters became known, Swift became the hero of Ireland. In spite of his original scorn for this country, Swift had become a genuine Irish patriot.
No Preferment* for Swift
There was some hope now that he would obtain preferment in England; but none came. In Ireland too there was disappointment for him because he found that the people did not do much to help themselves. His growing misanthropy found expression in a terrible satire in the pamphlet called A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country. However, in spite of his bitterness, he did his work as the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral efficiently and improved the lot of many by his charity. To Mrs. Dingley he gave an annuity of fifty guineas a year, allowing her to believe that the money came from a fund of which he was the trustee.
Bereavement; Deafness; Brain Trouble; Insanity; Death
In 1738 he wrote to Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford: “I am now good for nothing, very deaf, very old, and very much out of favour with those in power. My dear Lord, I have a thousand things to say, but I can remember none of them.” The loss of his friend Sheridan in 1738, and the gradual passing away of all those great minds with whom he had been so familiar, made his last years more and more lonely and helpless. In 1740 he wrote to a cousin: “I have been very miserable all night, and today extremely deaf and full of pain. I hardly understand one word I write. I am sure my days will be very few, few and miserable they must be.” The brain trouble which had threatened all his life became worse, and there came violent fits of temper with considerable physical pain. By 1742, his mental condition had become so bad that it was clear that he had lost his sanity. It became necessary to appoint guardians for him, because he had fallen into a condition of dementia. The end came, at last, on the 7th October, 1745. He left his fortune to establish a hospital for idiots and lunatics. He was buried in his own Cathedral of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, and he lies by the side of Stella who had died in 1728 and had been buried there.
The Contradictions in His Nature, a Result of Some Mental Defect
Various interpretations of Swift's life and work have been offered. Macaulay, Jeffrey, and Thackeray produced unsympathetic studies of Swift. But much has been written in his defence since then; and he still remains somewhat of a mystery. It is not easy to reconcile his contempt for mankind with his affection for his friends and their affection for him. Similarly it is not easy to reconcile his attacks on womenkind with his love for one woman, and the love which two** other women felt for him. Again, it is difficult to explain the offensiveness of some of his writings in the light of the decorum of his own life and his real sense of religion. Probably these contradictions were due to a distorted imagination, or the result of some physical or mental defect. At the same time, it may be pointed out that it is very occasionally that any coarseness appears in his work. There is no lewdness in his work, and no persistent strain of indecency as there is in Sterne, for instance.
A Disappointed, Frustrated, and Embittered Man
Some have suggested that Swift’s avoidance of the common ties of human life was due to his fear of approaching madness. Others find the explanation in his physical infirmities. Others, again, have found the answer in his coldness of temperament or in his strong desire for independence. He appears to have hungered for human sympathy, but to have wanted nothing more. From the passion of love, he seems to have turned away with disgust. The early years of poverty and dependence left a permanent mark on him, and he became a disappointed and embittered man. His mind, possessed by a spirit of scorn, turned in upon itself, and his egotism grew with advancing years. Cursed with excessive pride and arrogance, he became like a suppressed volcano. His keenness of vision caused him to see with painful clearness all that was contemptible and degrading in his fellow-men, but he had little appreciation for what was good and great in them. The pains and giddiness to which he was subject left their impression upon his work. “At best”, he said, “I have an ill head, and an aching heart”. His misanthropy was really a disease, and his life of loneliness and disappointment was a tragedy calling for pity and awe, rather than for blame.
A Summing-up
Although the facts of Swift’s life are fairly clear (with the exception of his relationship with Stella), his complex temperament and personality tend to elude and sometimes repel readers. In religion and politics he was a conservative, a believer in the authority of the Church and the State. He thought that the general and traditional wisdom embodied in these institutions corrected the inherent prejudices of the individual mind. But he realized that institutions might themselves be corrupted, and he had no illusions about the specific kings, ministers, and bishops who directed them. He believed in common sense rather than in systems or in abstract reasoning: he disliked anything theoretical in approach, including metaphysics and what we now call science, as irrelevant to man’s central moral concerns. At the same time, common sense led him to distrust “enthusiasm”, the contemporary term for any kind of fanatical or highly emotional attitude.

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