Jonathan Swift, satire never dies

Omaggio di Zoa Studio a Jonathan Swift

After two weeks of music, today we are talking about literature with Jonathan Swift. Anglo-Irish writer, essayist, politician. He is also a poet and cleric and as such was dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. And also George Orwell’s favorite author, even if he didn’t agree with anything he read!

He is famous for writing Gulliver’s Travels, of which you can read a brief summary. Swift is arguably the greatest prose satirist in the English language. He publishes his works using pseudonyms such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff and M.B. Drapier, or even anonymously. Finally, he is known to be a master of two styles of satire, the Horacian satire and the Juvenalian satire.

But, like Gulliver, we too now take a journey into his life and into his most famous work.

Jonathan Swift’s first years

Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667 in Dublin, to an Anglican father, who died before the writer was born. For this reason he was raised, quite modestly, by his uncles of the Anglican bourgeoisie. From 1681 to 1688 he studied at the world famous Trinity College in Dublin.
In 1689 he left Dublin, and tensions between Protestants and Catholics, to travel to England, where he joined his mother. He then served as secretary to diplomat Sir William Temple, a prominent statesman. Then he also becomes the tutor of Esther Johnson, probably Temple’s illegitimate daughter, whom he nicknames Stella and who will inspire him.
He continued his theological studies which ended in 1692 with a doctorate. In 1694 he was appointed parish priest in Kilroot, near Belfast, but remained there for only a few months. It seems, in those years, that Swift was part of a Masonic Order, but his status as a member remains doubtful. 
He then wrote The Battle of the Books, in which he spoke on the controversy about the superiority of ancient times over modern ones, a theme dear to the literature of the time. In 1704 he wrote The Tale of the Tub, a great work very merciless towards the stupidity of his contemporaries and towards the Anglican church and which would have displeased Queen Anne.
Already in 1701 he had published anonymously his first political pamphlet, A speech on competitions and dissensions in Athens and Rome, in which he sided against the Whigs, the party that was later divided into the liberal one. In 1702, three years after Temple’s death, he returned to Ireland with Esther Johnson (now 20). He will quickly gain the benefit of Laracor in County Mealth and a prestigious role at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

The politics of the time and the impact on Swift

When the Tories came to power in 1710, Swift supported them through articles he wrote for the Examiner from 1711 to 1714, a newspaper of which he was the editor. In 1711 Swift published the political pamphlet “The Conduct of the Allies” attacking the Whig government for not ending the war with France. He thus undertakes to prepare public opinion for peace. It was at this time that the Tory government conducted secret negotiations with France that would lead to the Utrecht Treaties in 1713, which would help end the War of the Spanish Succession.

Arriving at the status of dean of his cathedral, Swift will not enter the bishopric, Queen Anne still holds him in rigor for his virulent Tale of the Tub.

In 1714, the fall of the Tories made his exile in Ireland final. He will then defend his country and publish a large number of political works.

In 1726 he published Gulliver’s Travels, a satire considered one of his two main works (the other being the aforementioned The Tale of the Tub).

Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver’s travels was written by Jonathan Swift in 1721, but was published 5 years later, anonymously. It tells the adventures of Captain Lemuel Gulliver as he discovers the world through his navigations. He will make four trips where he will meet strange worlds and creatures, a bit like Alice in Wonderland or the inhabitants of the Moon of Méliès.

The most famous of his travels causes him to end up in Lilliput. On this island, Gulliver discovers the Lilliputians, 6 inches tall. He appears to them as a giant. The inhabitants are in constant war against the inhabitants of a nearby island. The reason? Everyone thinks they know which way to break an egg!

On his second trip, he finds himself on an island populated by giants over 60 feet (about 20 meters) tall. Gulliver is given as a toy to the king’s daughter.

In his third journey he meets different peoples: a population of scientists, a population of immortals who, however, grow old and get sick and a population of magicians who allow him to meet historical figures.

Finally in the land of the Houyhahom, who are intelligent and wise horses, he meets the Yahoo, which are degenerate and dirty beings that make humans think in a strange way.

Behind the fantastic journeys, Gulliver’s Travels is a philosophical book. They allow us to reflect on the human condition while escaping the censorship of time.

This work is often mistaken for a children’s story (probably because many very watered down editions quickly appeared in libraries specializing in children’s literature). It is in fact, beyond the satire, a philosophical tale.

In 2010 a film was released, Gulliver’s Fantastic Travels, which is worth seeing because it is a modern version of this story, and because the protagonist is Jack Black!

Jonathan Swift’s last years and death

Swift became more and more lonely after Stella’s death in 1728 (whom he may have secretly married in 1716) which followed that of Vanessa (Esther Vanhomrigh, a woman who loved Swift, and whose mutual feelings are possible) in 1723. In the last years he had in fact completely distanced himself from the world, and had become argumentative with everyone and bizarre in his behavior; a bit like Glenn Gould we recently talked about. He was often hosted by his friend Alexander Pope, one of the few people with whom he remained on good terms.

In 1729 he wrote A Modest Proposal, perhaps the most notable satire in English, suggesting that the Irish should engage in cannibalism.

Swift would suffer for his entire life from an illness that combined dizziness, tinnitus and nausea, now known as Menière’s disease, ailments that would not end until his death on October 19, 1745. By 1742 he had already had a stroke that caused him to he had made him lose the use of the word. The money he left behind was used to found a hospital that treated mental illnesses, St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles, created in 1757.

Jonathan Swift is buried in the grounds of his own cathedral, near the coffin of his supposed wife Stella. On the tombstone we can still read the epitaph that he himself had written in Latin:

Here is laid the Body
of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology,
Dean of this Cathedral Church,

where fierce Indignation
can no longer
injure the Heart.
Go forth, Voyager,
and copy, if you can,
this vigorous (to the best of his ability)
Champion of Liberty.

He died on the 19th Day of the Month of October,
A.D. 1745, in the 78th Year of his Age.



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