Anglo-Irish poet, satirist, essayist, and political pamphleteer Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 in Dublin, Ireland. He spent much of his early adult life in England before returning to Dublin to serve as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin for the last 30 years of his life. It was this later stage when he would write most of his greatest works. Best known as the author of A Tale Of A Tub (1704), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729), Swift is widely acknowledged as the greatest prose satirist in the history of English literature.

Swift’s father died months before Jonathan was born, and his mother returned to England shortly after giving birth, leaving Jonathan in the care of his uncle in Dublin. Swift's extended family had several interesting literary connections: his grandmother, Elizabeth (Dryden) Swift, was the niece of Sir Erasmus Dryden, grandfather of the poet John Dryden. The same grandmother's aunt, Katherine (Throckmorton) Dryden, was a first cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Sir Walter Raleigh. His great-great grandmother, Margaret (Godwin) Swift, was the sister of Francis Godwin, author of The Man in the Moone which influenced parts of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. His uncle, Thomas Swift, married a daughter of the poet and playwright Sir William Davenant, a godson of William Shakespeare. Swift’s uncle served as Jonathan’s benefactor, sending him to Trinity College Dublin, where he earned his BA and befriended writer William Congreve. Swift also studied toward his MA before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 forced Jonathan to move to England, where he would work as a secretary to a diplomat. He would earn an MA from Hart Hall, Oxford University, in 1692, and eventually a Doctor in Divinity degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1702.

Swift’s poetry has a relationship either by interconnections with, or by reactions against, the poetry of his contemporaries and predecessors. He was probably influenced, in particular, by the Restoration writers John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and Samuel Butler (who shared Swift’s penchant for octosyllabic verse). He may have picked up pointers from the Renaissance poets John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney. Beside these minor borrowings of his contemporaries, his debts are almost negligible. In the Augustan Age, an era which did not necessarily value originality above other virtues, his poetic contribution was strikingly original.

In reading Swift’s poems, one is first impressed with their apparent spareness of allusion and poetic device. Anyone can tell that a particular poem is powerful or tender or vital or fierce, but literary criticism seems inadequate to explain why. A few recent critics have carefully studied his use of allusion and image, but with only partial success. It still seems justified to conclude that Swift’s straightforward poetic style seldom calls for close analysis, his allusions seldom bring a whole literary past back to life, and his images are not very interesting in themselves. In general, Swift’s verses read faster than John Dryden’s or Alexander Pope’s, with much less ornamentation and masked wit. He apparently intends to sweep the reader along by the logic of the argument to the several conclusions he puts forth. He seems to expect that the reader will appreciate the implications of the argument as a whole, after one full and rapid reading. For Swift’s readers, the couplet will not revolve slowly upon itself, exhibiting intricate patterns and fixing complex relationships between fictive worlds and contemporary life.

The poems are not always to spare in reality as Swift would have his readers believe, but he seems deliberately to induce in them an unwillingness to look closely at the poems for evidence of technical expertise. He does this in part by working rather obviously against some poetic conventions, in part by saying openly that he rejects poetic cant, and in part by presenting himself—in many of his poems—as a perfectly straightforward man, incapable of a poet’s deviousness. By these strategies, he directs attention away from his handling of imagery and meter, even in those instances where he has been technically ingenious. For the most part, however, the impression of spareness is quite correct; and if judged by the sole criterion of technical density, then he would have to be judged an insignificant poet. But technical density is a poetic virtue only as it simulates and accompanies subtlety of thought. One could argue that Swift’s poems create a density of another kind: that “The Day of Judgement” (1731?), for example, initiates a subtle process of thought that takes place after, rather than during, the reading of the poem, at a time when the mind is more or less detached from the printed page. One could argue as well that Swift makes up in power what he lacks in density: that the strength of the impression created by his directness gives an impetus to prolonged meditation of a very high quality. On these grounds, valuing Swift for what he really is and does, one must judge him a major figure in poetry as well as prose.

Swift suffered a stroke in 1742, leaving him unable to speak. He died three years later, and was buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Bibliography

Selected Books

  • A Discourse Of The Contests and Dissensions Between The Nobles and the Commons In Athens and Rome, With The Consequences they had upon both those States (London: Printed for John Nutt, 1701; Boston, 1728).
  • A Tale Of A Tub, Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind. Diu multumque desideratum. To which is added, An Account of a Battel Between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James's Library (London: Printed for John Nutt, 1704); enlarged as A Tale of a Tub ... The Fifth Edition: With the Author's Apology and Explanatory Notes (London: Printed for John Nutt, 1710).
  • A Project For The Advancement of Religion, And the Reformation of Manners (London: Printed for Benj. Tooke, 1709).
  • Baucis and Philemon, Imitated from Ovid (N.p., 1709).
  • A Meditation Upon A Broom-Stick, and Somewhat Beside; Of The Same Author's (London: Printed for E. Curll & sold by J. Harding, 1710).
  • The Examiner, by Swift and others, 6 volumes (London: Printed for John Morphew, 1710-1714).
  • Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (London: Printed for John Morphew, 1711; enlarged edition, 5 volumes, London: Printed for Benjamin Motte, Lawton Gilliver & Charles Davis, 1727-1735).
  • The Conduct Of The Allies, And Of The Late Ministry, In Beginning and Carrying on The Present War (London: Printed for John Morphew, 1712 [i.e., 1711]).
  • The Fable of Midas (London: Printed for John Morphew, 1712).
  • A Proposal For Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining The English Tongue; In A Letter To the Most Honourable Robert Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, Lord High Treasurer of Great Britain (London: Printed for Benj. Tooke, 1712).
  • Part of the Seventh Epistle Of The First Book Of Horace Imitated: And Address'd to a Noble Peer (London: Printed for A. Dodd, 1713).
  • The First Ode Of The Second Book Of Horace Paraphras'd: And Address'd to Richard St--le, Esq (London: Printed for A. Dodd, 1713).
  • The Lucubrations Of Isaac Bickerstaff Esq., 5 volumes (London: Printed for E. Nutt, A. Bell, J. Darby, A. Bettesworth, J. Pemberton, J. Hooke, C. Rivington, R. Cruttenden, T. Cox, J. Battley, F. Clay & E. Simon, 1720).
  • The Bubble: A Poem (London: Printed for Benj. Tooke & sold by J. Roberts, 1721).
  • Apollo's Edict (N.p., 1721).
  • Fraud Detected; Or, The Hibernian Patriot. Containing, All the Drapier's Letters to the People of Ireland, on Wood's Coinage, &c. (Dublin: Reprinted & sold by George Faulkner, 1725).
  • The Birth Of Manly Virtue From Callimachus (Dublin: Printed by & for George Grierson, 1725).
  • Cadenus and Vanessa. A Poem (Dublin, 1726).
  • Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships, 2 volumes (London: Printed for Benj. Motte, 1726); enlarged as Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World ... To which are prefix'd, Several Copies of Verses Explanatory and Commendatory; never before printed, 2 volumes (London: Printed for Benj. Motte, 1728).
  • The Intelligencer, by Swift and others (Dublin: Printed by S. Harding, II May 1728-7 May 1729; collected edition, London: Printed for Francis Cogan, 1730).
  • A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children Of Poor People From being a Burthen to their Parents, Or The Country, And For making them Beneficial to the Publick (Dublin: Printed by S. Harding, 1729).
  • An Epistle Upon An Epistle From a certain Doctor To a certain great Lord: Being A Christmas-Box for D.D---y (Dublin, 1730).
  • An Epistle To His Excellency John Lord Carteret, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (Dublin, 1730).
  • A Libel On D--------D-------And A Certain Great Lord (N.p., 1730).
  • Lady A--S--N Weary of the Dean [single sheet] (N.p., 1730).
  • A Panegyric On the Reverend Dean Swift (London: Printed for J. Roberts & N. Blandford, 1730).
  • An Apology To The Lady C--R--T (N.p., 1730).
  • Horace Book I. Ode XIV. O navis, referent, &c. Paraphrased and inscribed to Ir--d (N.p., 1730).
  • Traulus ... In A Dialogue Between Tom and Robin, 2 volumes (N.p., 1730).
  • A Soldier And A Scholar: Or The Lady's Judgment Upon those two Characters In the Persons of Captain---and D--n S--T (London: Printed for J. Roberts, 1732); republished as The Grand Question debated (London: Printed by A. Moore, 1732).
  • An Elegy On Dicky and Dolly, With the Virgin: A Poem. To which is Added The Narrative of D. S. when he was in the North of Ireland (Dublin: Printed by James Hoey, 1732).
  • The Lady's Dressing Room (London: Printed for J. Roberts, 1732).
  • The Life And Genuine Character Of Doctor Swift, Written by Himself (London: Printed for J. Roberts, 1733).
  • An Epistle To A Lady, Who desired the Author to make Verses on Her, In The Heroick Stile. Also A Poem, Occasion'd by Reading Dr. Young's Satires, Called the Universal Passion (Dublin & London: Printed for J. Wilford, 1734 [i.e., 1733]).
  • On Poetry: A Rapsody (Dublin & London: Printed & sold by J. Huggonson, 1733).
  • A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex. Pars minima est ipsa Puella sui. Ovid Remed. Amoris. To Which Are Added, Strephon and Chloe. And Cassinus and Peter (Dublin & London: Printed for J. Roberts, 1734).
  • The Works of J. S, D.D, D.S.P.D., 4 volumes (Dublin: Printed by & for George Faulkner, 1735; enlarged to 20 volumes, 1738-1772).
  • An Imitation Of The Sixth Satire Of The Second Book Of Horace, by Swift and Alexander Pope (London: Printed for B. Motte, C. Bathurst & J. & P. Knapton, 1738).
  • The Beasts Confession To The Priest, On Observing how most Men mistake their own Talents. Written in the Year 1732 (Dublin: Printed by George Faulkner, 1738).
  • A Complete Collection Of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England. In Three Dialogues, as Simon Wagstaff (London: Printed for B. Motte & C. Bathurst, 1738); also published as A Treatise On Polite Conversation (Dublin: Printed by & for George Faulkner, 1738); dramatized as Tittle Tattle; Or, Taste A-la-Mode. A New Farce. Perform'd with Universal Applause by a Select Company Of Belles and Beaux, At The Lady Brilliant's Withdrawing-Room, as Timothy Fribble (London: Printed for R. Griffiths, 1749).
  • Verses On The Death Of Dr. Swift. Written by Himself: Nov. 1731 (London: Printed for C. Bathurst, 1739).
  • Directions To Servants (Dublin: Printed by George Faulkner, 1745); enlarged as Directions To Servants In General (London: Printed for R. Dodsley & M. Cooper, 1745).
  • The Last Will And Testament Of Jonathan Swift, D.D. (Dublin & London: Printed & sold by M. Cooper, 1746).
  • D--n Sw--t's Medley (Dublin & London: Printed & sold by the booksellers, 1749).
  • The History of the Four Last Years of the Queen (London: Printed for A. Millar, 1758).

Editions and Collections

  • The Works Of Dr. Jonathan Swift, 14 volumes (London: Printed for C. Bathurst, 1751).
  • The Works Of D. Jonathan Swift ... To which is prefixed, The Doctor's Life, with Remarks on his Writings, from the Earl of Orrery and others, not to be found in any former Edition of his Works, 9 volumes (Dublin & Edinburgh: Printed for G. Hamilton, J. Balfour & L. Hunter, 1752).
  • The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift ... With Some Account of the Author's Life, And Notes Historical and Explanatory, edited by John Hawkesworth, Deane Swift, and John Nichols, 27 volumes (London: Printed for C. Bathurst, 1754-1779).
  • The Sermons of the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Swift (Glasgow: Printed for Robert Urie, 1763).
  • The Works Of The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift ... Arranged, Revised, And Corrected, With Notes, edited by Thomas Sheridan, 17 volumes (London: Printed for C. Bathurst, 1784); corrected and revised by Nichols, 24 volumes (London: Printed for J. Johnson, John Nichols &Son, 1803; New York: Durell, 1812).
  • The Poetical Works, of Jonathan Swift, edited by Thomas Park, 4 volumes (London: Printed by Charles Whittingham for J. Sharpe & sold by W. Suttaby, 1806).
  • The Works Of Jonathan Swift ... Containing Additional Letters, Tracts, And Poems, Not Hitherto Published; With Notes, And A Life Of The Author, edited by Sir Walter Scott, 19 volumes (Edinburgh: Printed for Archibald Constable & Co., 1814).
  • The Works of Jonathan Swift ... Containing Interesting and Valuable Papers, Not Hitherto Published, edited by Thomas Roscoe, 2 volumes (London: Washbourne, 1841).
  • The Poems of Jonathan Swift, edited by Harold Williams, 3 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937; revised, 1958).
  • Collected Poems of Jonathan Swift, edited by Joseph Horrell, 2 volumes (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul / Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958).
  • Swift: Poetical Works, edited by Herbert Davis (Oxford: Standard Authors; London: Oxford University Press, 1967).
  • Gulliver's Travels, edited by Robert A. Greenberg (New York: Norton, 1970).
  • Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, edited by Pat Rogers (London: Penguin Books / New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Other

  • "Ode to the Athenian Society," in The Supplement To The Fifth Volume Of The Athenian Gazette (London: Printed for John Dunton, 1692).
  • Memoirs Of Capt. John Creichton. Written by Himself, edited by Swift (N.p., 1731).
  • "The Legion Club," in S---t contra omnes. An Irish Miscellany (Dublin & London: Sold by R. Amy & Mrs. Dodd, 1736).

Letters

  • Letters Between Dr. Swift, Mr. Pope, &c. From the Year 1714 to 1736. Publish'd from a Copy Transmitted from Dublin (London: T. Cooper, 1741).
  • The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope, In Prose, volume 2, includes letters by Swift (London: J. & P. Knapton, C. Bathurst & R. Dodsley, 1741).
  • Letters To and From Dr. J. Swift, D.S.P.D. From The Year 1714, to 1738 (Dublin: George Faulkner, 1741).
  • The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D.D., edited by F. Elrington Ball, 6 volumes (London: Bell, 1910-1914).
  • The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, edited by Harold Williams, 5 volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-1965).

"

Cambridge University Library houses the great Rothschild collection of Swift materials. The Forster collection, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was put together toward the end of the nineteenth century by John Forster, who intended to write a biography of Swift but died after publishing only one volume. The materials gathered by Swift 's most famous bibliographer, Herman Teerink, are deposited at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of the items in Teerink's personal collection were destroyed during World War II and so were not available to his bibliographical successor, Arthur H. Scouten.

Further Readings

  • Herman Teerink, A Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of Jonathan Swift, D.D. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1937); revised and corrected by Teerink and edited by Arthur H. Scouten as A Bibliography of the Writings of Jonathan Swift (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963).
  • Louis A. Landa and James Edward Tobin, Jonathan Swift: A List of Critical Studies Published from 1895 to 1945. To Which Is Added Remarks on Some Swift Manuscripts in the United States by Herbert Davis (New York: Cosmopolitan Science and Art Service, 1945).
  • Ricardo Quintana, "A Modest Appraisal: Swift Scholarship and Criticism, 1945-65," in Fair Liberty Was All His Cry: A Tercentenary Tribute to Jonathan Swift 1667-1745, edited by A. Norman Jeffares (London: Macmillan / New York: St. Martin's, 1967), pp. 342-355.
  • James J. Stathis, A Bibliography of Swift Studies 1945-1965 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967).
  • David M. Vieth, Swift's Poetry 1900-1980: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies (New York & London: Garland, 1982).
  • Richard H. Rodino, Swift Studies, 1965-1980: An Annotated Bibliography (New York & London: Garland, 1984).
  • Laetitia Pilkington, Memoirs Of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington, Written by Herself. With Anecdotes of Dean Swift (Dublin & London: R. Griffiths & G. Woodfall, 1748).
  • John Boyle, Earl of Cork and Orrery, Remarks On The Life and Writings Of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, In a Series of Letters from John Earl of Orrery To his Son, the Honourable Hamilton Boyle (London: A. Millar, 1752).
  • Patrick Delany, Observations Upon Lord Orrery's Remarks On The Life and Writings Of Dr. Jonathan Swift, &c. To which are added, Two Original Pieces never before publish'd (London: W. Reeve, 1754).
  • John Hawkesworth, The Life Of the Revd. Jonathan Swift, D.D. Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin (London & Dublin: S. Cotter, 1755).
  • Samuel Johnson, "Life of Swift," in his Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, To The Works Of The English Poets, 10 volumes (London: J. Nichols, 1779-1781), VIII: 1-112.
  • Thomas Sheridan, The Life Of The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean Of St. Patrick's, Dublin (London: C. Bathurst, 1784).
  • Sir Walter Scott, Memoirs Of Jonathan Swift, D.D. Dean Of St. Patrick's, Dublin, 2 volumes (Paris: Galignani, 1826).
  • John Middleton Murry, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Biography (London: Cape, 1954).
  • Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, 3 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962-1983).
  • John M. Aden, "Corinna and the Sterner Muse of Swift," English Language Notes, 4 (1966): 23-31.
  • F. Elrington Ball, Swift's Verse: An Essay (London: John Murray, 1929; New York: Octagon Books, 1970).
  • Louise K. Barnett, Swift's Poetic Worlds (Newark: University of Delaware Press / London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1981).
  • J. A. Downie, Jonathan Swift: Political Writer (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).
  • A. B. England, Energy and Order in the Poetry of Swift (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press / London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1980).
  • John Irwin Fischer, On Swift's Poetry (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1978).
  • Fischer and Donald C. Mell, Jr., eds., Contemporary Studies of Swift's Poetry (Newark: University of Delaware Press / London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1980).
  • Aldous Huxley, "Swift," in his Do What You Will (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1929), pp. 99-112.
  • Nora Crow Jaffe, The Poet Swift (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1977).
  • Maurice Johnson, The Sin of Wit: Jonathan Swift as a Poet (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1950).
  • Johnson, "Swift's Poetry Reconsidered," in English Writers of the Eighteenth Century, edited by John M. Middendorf (New York, 1971), pp. 233-248.
  • Timothy Leonard Keegan, "The Theory and Practice of Swift's Poetry," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1979.
  • Felicity A. Nussbaum, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women 1660-1750 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984).
  • Brendan O Hehir, "Meaning in Swift's Description of a City Shower," ELH, 27 (1960): 194-207.
  • Peter J. Schakel, The Poetry of Jonathan Swift: Allusion and the Development of a Poetic Style (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).
  • Michael Shinagel, A Concordance to the Poems of Jonathan Swift (Ithaca, N.Y. & London: Cornell University Press, 1972).
  • W. B. C. Watkins, Perilous Balance: The Tragic Genius of Swift, Johnson, & Sterne (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1939).