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JONATHAN SWIFT (1667—1745)

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Originally appearing in Volume V26, Page 225 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JONATHAN SWIFT (1667—1745), dean of St Patrick's, Dublin, British satirist, was born at No. 7 Hoey's Court, Dublin, on the 30th of November 1667, a few months after the death of his father, Jonathan Swift (164o—1667), who married about 1664 Abigaile Erick, of an old Leicestershire family. He was taken over to England as an infant and nursed at Whitehaven, whence he returned to Ireland in his fourth year. His grandfather, Thomas Swift, vicar of Goodrich near Ross, appears to have been a doughty member of the church militant, who lost his possessions by taking the losing side in the Civil War and died in 1658 before the restoration could bring him redress. He married Elizabeth, niece of Sir Erasmus Dryden, the poet's grandfather. Hence the familiarity of the poet's well-known " cooling-card " to the budding genius of his kinsman Jonathan: " Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet." The young Jonathan was educated mainly at the charges of his uncle Godwin, a Tipperary official, who was thought to dole out his help in a somewhat grudging manner. In fact the apparently prosperous relative was the victim of unfortunate speculations, and chose rather to be reproached with avarice than with imprudence. The youth was resentful of what he regarded as curmudgeonly treatment, a bitterness became ingrained and began to corrode his whole nature; and although he came in time to grasp the real state of the case he never mentioned his uncle with kindness or regard. At six he went to Kilkenny School, where Congreve was a schoolfellow; at fourteen he entered pensioner at Trinity College, Dublin, where he seems to have neglected his opportunities. He was referred in natural. philosophy, including mathematics, and obtained his degree only by a special but by no means infrequent act of indulgence. The patronage of his uncle galled him: he was dull and unhappy. We find in Swift few signs of precocious genius. As with Goldsmith, and so many other men who have become artists of the pen, college proved a stepmother to him. In 1688 the rich uncle, whose supposed riches had dwindled so much that at his death he was almost insolvent, died, having decayed, it would seem, not less in mind than in body and estate, and Swift sought counsel of his mother at Leicester. After a brief residence with his mother, who was needlessly alarmed at the idea of her son falling a victim to some casual coquette, Swift towards the close of 1689 entered upon an engagement as secretary to Sir William Temple, whose wife (Dorothy Osborne) was distantly related to Mrs Swift. It was at Moor Park, near Farnham, the residence to which Temple had retired to cultivate apricots after the rapid decline of his influence during the critical period of Charles II.'s reign (1679-1681), that Swift's acquaintance with Esther Johnson, the " Stella " of the famous Journal, was begun. Stella's mother was living at Moor Park, as servant or dame de compagnie of Temple's strong-minded sister, Lady Giffard. Swift was twenty-two and Esther eight years old at the time, and a curious friendship sprang up between them. He taught the little girl how to write and gave her advice in reading. On his arrival at Moor Park, Swift was, in his own words, a raw, inexperienced youth, and his duties were merely those of account-keeper and amanuensis: his ability gradually won him the confidence of his employer, and he was entrusted with some important missions. He was introduced to William III. during that monarch's visit to Sir William's, and on one occasion accompanied the king in his walks round the grounds. In 1693 Temple sent him to try and convince the king of the inevitable necessity of triennial parliaments. William remained unconvinced and Swift's vanity received a useful lesson. The king had previously taught him " how to cut asparagus after the Dutch fashion." Next year, however, Swift (who had in the meantime obtained the degree of M.A. ad eundem at Oxford) quitted Temple, who had, he considered, delayed too long in obtaining him preferment. A certificate of conduct while under Temple's roof was required by all the Irish bishops he consulted before they would proceed in the matter of his ordination, and after five months' delay, caused by wounded pride, Swift had to kiss the rod and solicit in obsequious terms the favour of a testimonial from his discarded patron. Forgiveness was easy to a man of Temple's elevation and temperament, and he not only despatched the necessary recommendation but added a personal request which obtained for Swift the small prebend of Kilroot near Belfast (January 1695), where the new incumbent carried on a premature flirtation with a Miss Jane Waring, whom he called " Varina." In the spring of 1696 he asked the reluctant Varina to wait until he was in a position to marry. Just four years later he wrote to her in terms of such calculated harshness and imposed such conditions as to make further intercourse virtually impossible. In the meantime he had grown tired of Irish life and was glad to accept Temple's proposal for his return to Moor Park, where he continued until Temple's death in January 1699. During this period he wrote much and burned most of what he had written. He read and learned even more than he wrote. Moor Park took him away from brooding and glooming in Ireland and brought him into the corridor of contemporary history, an intimate acquaintance with which became the chief passion of Swift's life. His Pindaric Odes, written at this period or earlier, in the manner of Cowley, indicate the rudiments of a real satirist, but a satirist struggling with a most uncongenial form of expression. Of more importance was his first essay in satiric prose which arose directly from the position which he occupied as domestic author in the Temple household. Sir William had in 1692 published his Essay upon Ancient and Modern Learning, transplanting to England a controversy begun in France by Fontenelle. Incidentally Temple had cited the letters of Phalaris as evidence of the superiority of the Ancients over the Moderns. Temple's praise of Phalaris-led to an Oxford edition of the Epistles nominally edited by Charles Boyle. 'While this was preparing, William Wotton, in 1694, wrote his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, traversing Temple's general conclusions. Swift's Battle of the Books was written in 1697 expressly to refute this. Boyle's Vindication and Bentley's refutation of the authenticity of Phalaris came later. Swift's aim was limited to co-operation in what was then deemed the well-deserved putting down of
End of Article: JONATHAN SWIFT (1667—1745)
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