Jonathan Swift's father died before the boy was born, and the care of his education was kindly undertaken by Mr. Godwin Swift, his uncle, a very eminent attorney at Dublin, who likewise took his mother and his sister under his protection, and thus became a guardian to the family. When his nephew was six years of age he sent him to school at Kilkenny, and about eight years afterward he entered him a student of Trinity College in Dublin, where Swift lived in perfect regularity and in an entire obedience to the statutes; but the moroseness of his temper often rendered him unacceptable to his companions, so that he was little regarded and less beloved; nor were the academical exercises agreeable to his genius.
He held logic and metaphysics in the utmost contempt, and he scarcely attended at all to mathematics and natural philosophy, unless to turn them into ridicule. The studies which he chiefly followed were history and poetry, in which he made great progress; but to other branches of science he had given so very little application, that when he appeared as a candidate for the degree of bachelor of arts, after having studied four years, he was set aside on account of insufficiency, and at last obtained his admission speciali gratiá, a phrase which in that university carries with it the utmost marks of reproach. Swift was fired with indignation at the treatment he had received in Ireland, and therefore resolved to pursue his studies at Oxford. However, that he might be admitted ad eundem, he was obliged to carry with him a testimonial of his degree. The expression speciali gratiá is so peculiar to the university of Dublin, that when Mr. Swift exhibited his testimonial at Oxford, the members of the English university concluded that the words speciali gratiá must signify a degree conferred in reward of some extraordinary diligence and learning. He was immediately admitted ad eundem, and entered himself at Hart Hall, now Hartford College, where he constantly resided (some visits to his mother, at Leicester, and to Sir William Temple, at Moose Park, excepted) till he took his degree of master of arts, which was in the year 1691. And in order to recover his lost time he now studied eight hours daily for seven years.
Swift, as soon as he had quitted the University of Oxford, lived with Sir William Temple as his friend and domestic companion. When he had been about two years with Sir William, he contracted a very long and dangerous illness by eating an immoderate quantity of fruit. To this surfeit he was often heard to ascribe that giddiness in his head which, with intermissions sometimes of longer and sometimes of shorter continuance, pursued him to the end of his life.
In compliance with the advice of physicians, when he was sufficiently recovered to travel, he went to Ireland, to try the effects of his native air; but finding the greatest benefit arose from the exercise of travelling, he followed his own inclination. He soon returned into England, and was again received in a most affectionate manner by Sir William Temple, who was then settled at Shene, where he was often visited by King William.
Here Swift had frequent conversations with that prince, in some of which the king offered to make him a captain of horse, which offer, in splenetic dispositions, he always seemed sorry to have refused; but at the time he had resolved within his own mind to take orders: and during his whole life his resolutions, when once fixed, were ever after immovable.
About this time he assisted Sir William Temple in revising his works. He likewise corrected and improved his own "Tale of a Tub," a sketch of which he had drawn up while he was a student at Trinity College, Dublin. Sir William's conversation naturally turned upon political subjects, and Swift improved the frequent opportunities he had of acquiring from this able statesman a competent knowledge of public affairs. But at length he suspected that Sir William neglected to provide for him, merely that he might keep him in his family; and he resented this so very warmly that a quarrel ensued, and they parted in the year 1694, and he went to Ireland, where he took orders.
Sir William, however, notwithstanding the differences between them, recommended him in the strongest terms to Lord Capel, then lord-deputy, who gave him a prebend, of which the income was about £100 a year. Swift soon grew weary of his preferment: it was not sufficiently considerable, and was at so great a distance from the metropolis that it absolutely deprived him of that conversation and society in which he delighted. He had been used to different scenes in England, and had naturally an aversion to solitude and retirement. He was glad, therefore, to resign his prebend in favor of a friend, and to return to Shene, to Sir William Temple, who was so much pleased with his return, which he considered as an act of kindness to him in the close of life, that a sincere reconciliation took place, and they lived together in perfect harmony till the death of Sir William. By his will he left him a considerable legacy in money, and the care, trust, and emolument of publishing his posthumous works. During Swift's residence at Shene he became intimately acquainted with Miss Johnson, who was the daughter of Sir William's steward, and who was afterward so distinguished and so much celebrated in Swift's works under the name of Stella.
Soon after the death of his patron, Swift came to London, and took the earliest opportunity of transmitting a memorial to King William, under the claim of a promise made by his majesty to Sir William Temple, "that Mr. Swift should have the first vacancy that happened among the prebends of Westminster or Canterbury." The memorial had no effect; and, indeed, Swift himself afterward declared that he believed the king never received it. After a long and fruitless attendance at White Hall, Mr. Swift reluctantly gave up all thoughts of a settlement in England. In the year 1701 he took his doctor's degree; and toward the latter end of that year King William died.
On the accession of Queen Anne, Dr. Swift came to England. It cannot be denied that the chief ministers of the queen, whether distinguished under the titles of Whigs or Tories, of high-church or of low-church, were from the beginning to the end of her reign encouragers of learning and patrons of learned men. The wits of that era were numerous and eminent. Amid the crowd, yet superior to the rest, appeared Dr. Swift. In a mixture of those two jarring parties called Whig and Tory, consisted the first ministry of Queen Anne; but the greater share of the administration was committed to the Whigs, who soon engrossed the whole. The queen, whose heart was naturally inclined toward the Tories, remained an unwilling prisoner several years to the Whigs, till Mr. Harley at length took her majesty out of their hands, and during the remainder of her life surrounded her with a set of Tories, under the conduct of the Duke of Ormond and himself.
Dr. Swift was known to the great men of each denomination. It is certain that he was bred up and educated with Whigs, at least with such as may be found ranged under the title. His motives for quitting Whigism for Toryism appear throughout his works. He had commenced as a political author in 1701, when he published "A Discourse on the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and Commons in Athens and Rome, with the Consequences they had upon both States." This was written in defence of King William and his ministers against the violent proceedings in the House of Commons. But from this time to the year 1708, Lord Orrery informs us, he did not write any political pamphlet. From this year to 1710 he worked hard to undermine the Whigs and to open a way for the Tories to come into power. His intimacy with Harley commenced, as may be deduced from his works, in October, 1710. It seems undeniable that a settlement in England was the constant object of Dr. Swift's ambition; so that his promotion to a deanery in Ireland was rather a disappointment than a reward, as appears by many expressions in his letters to Mr. Gay and Mr. Pope.
The business which first introduced him to Harley was a commission sent to him by the primate of Ireland to solicit the queen to release the clergy of that kingdom from the twentieth-penny and first-fruits. As soon as he received the primate's instructions, he resolved to wait on Harley; but before the first interview he took care to get himself represented as a person who had been ill used by the last ministry, because he would not go such lengths as they would have had him. The new minister received him with open arms, soon after accomplished his business, bade him come often to see him privately, and told him that he must bring him to the knowledge of Mr. St. John (Lord Bolingbroke). Swift presently became acquainted with the rest of the ministry, who appear to have courted and caressed him with uncommon assiduity.
From this era to the death of Queen Anne we find him fighting on the side of the ministers and maintaining their cause in pamphlets, poems, and weekly papers. But notwithstanding his services to the ministry, he remained without preferment till the year 1713, when he was made Dean of St. Patrick's. In point of power and revenue such a deanery might appear no inconsiderable promotion; but to an ambitious mind whose perpetual aim was a settlement in England, a dignity in any other kingdom must appear only an honorable and profitable banishment. There is great reason to imagine that the temper of Swift might occasion his English friends to wish him happily and properly promoted at a distance. His spirit was ever untractable, the motions of his genius irregular. He assumed more the airs of a patron than a friend. He affected rather to dictate than advise, and was elated with the appearance of enjoying ministerial confidence.
Dr. Swift had little reason to rejoice in the land where his lot had fallen: for upon his arrival in Ireland to take possession of his deanery, he found the violence of party reigning in that kingdom to the highest degree. The common people were taught to look upon him as a Jacobite, and they proceeded so far in their detestation as to throw stones at him as he passed through the streets. The chapter of St. Patrick's, like the rest of the kingdom, received him with great reluctance. They thwarted him in every particular he proposed. He was avoided as a pestilence, opposed as an invader, and marked out as an enemy to his country. Such was his first reception as Dean of St. Patrick's. Fewer talents and less firmness must have yielded to such violent opposition. But so strange are the revolutions of this world that Dean Swift, who was then the detestation of the Irish rabble, lived to govern them with absolute sway.
He made no longer stay in Ireland than was requisite to establish himself a dean, and in the beginning of the year 1714, returned to England. He found his great friends at the helm much disunited among themselves. He saw the queen declining in health and distressed in situation. The part which he had to act upon this occasion was not so difficult as it was disagreeable; he exerted all his skill to reunite the ministers. Finding his endeavors fruitless, he retired to a friend's house in Berkshire, where he remained till the queen's death, an event which fixed the period of his views in England and made him return as fast as possible to his deanery in Ireland, oppressed with grief and discontent.
His works from the year 1714 to the year 1720 are few in number and of small importance. "Poems to Stella" and "Trifles to Dr. Sheridan" fill up a great part of that period. But during this interval, Lord Orrery supposes, he employed his time in writing "Gulliver's Travels." His mind was likewise fully occupied by an affecting private incident. In 1713 he had formed an intimacy with a young lady in London, to whom he became a kind of preceptor; her real name was Vanhomrigh, and she was the daughter of a Dutch merchant who settled and died at Dublin. This lady was a great admirer of reading, and had a taste for poetry. This increased her regard for Swift till it grew to affection, and she made him an offer of marriage, which he refused, and upon this occasion he wrote his little poem of "Cadenus and Vanessa." The young lady from this time was called Vanessa; and her mother dying in 1714, she and her sister followed the dean to Ireland, where he frequently visited them; and he kept up a literary correspondence with Vanessa until her death, which followed closely on a bitter quarrel with him.
In the year 1720 he began to reassume the character of a political writer. A small pamphlet, in defence of the Irish manufactories, was supposed to be his first essay, in Ireland, in that kind of writing; and to that pamphlet he owed the turn of the popular tide in his favor. The pamphlet recommended the universal use of the Irish manufactures within the kingdom. Some little pieces of poetry to the same purpose were no less acceptable and engaging; nor was the dean's attachment to the true interest of Ireland any longer doubted. His patriotism was as manifest as his wit; he was looked upon with pleasure and respect as he passed through the streets, and had attained to so high a degree of popularity as to become the arbitrator in disputes among his neighbors.
But the popular affection which the dean had hitherto acquired, may be said not to have been universal until the publication of the Drapier's Letters, in 1724, which made all ranks and professions universal in his applause. These letters were occasioned by a patent having been obtained by one William Wood, to coin £180,000 of halfpence for the use of Ireland. The dean, in character of a draper, wrote a series of letters to the people, urging them not to receive this money; and Wood, though powerfully supported, was compelled to withdraw his patent, and his money was totally suppressed. Never was any name bestowed with more universal approbation than the name of the Drapier was bestowed upon the dean, who had no sooner assumed it than he became the idol of Ireland, even to a degree of devotion; and bumpers were poured forth to the Drapier, as large and as frequent as to the glorious and immortal memory of King William III. Acclamations and vows for his prosperity attended him wherever he went, and his portrait was painted in every street in Dublin.
The dean was consulted in all points relating to domestic policy in general, and to the trade of Ireland in particular; but he was more immediately looked on as the legislator of the weavers, who frequently came to him in a body to receive his advice in settling the rates of their manufactures, and the wages of their journeymen. When elections were pending for the city of Dublin, many of the companies refused to declare themselves till they had consulted his sentiments and inclinations.
In 1727 died his beloved Stella, in the forty-fourth year of her age, regretted by the dean with such excess of sorrow as only the keenest sensibility could feel, and the most excellent character excite. After the death of Stella his life became very retired, and the austerity of his temper increased; his public days for receiving company were discontinued, and he even shunned the society of his most intimate friends.
We have now conducted the dean through the most interesting circumstances of his life, to the fatal period wherein he was utterly deprived of his reason, a loss which he often seemed to foresee, and prophetically lamented to his friends. The total deprivation of his senses came upon him by degrees. In the year 1736 he was seized with a violent fit of giddiness: he was at that time writing a satirical poem, called the "Legion Club;" but he found the effects of his giddiness so dreadful that he left the poem unfinished, and never afterward attempted a composition of any length, either in verse or prose. However, his conversation still remained the same, lively and severe; but his memory gradually grew worse and worse, and as that decreased he grew every day more fretful and impatient. From the year 1739 to the year 1744 his passions grew so violent and ungovernable, his memory so decayed, and his reason so depraved, that the utmost precautions were taken to prevent all strangers from approaching him, for till then he had not appeared totally incapable of conversation. He now, however, grew rapidly worse, and died in 1745. He had willed all his fortune to be used in founding a home for incurable madmen.