Jonathan Swift aka Dean Swift as a Satirist, a Moralist and a Reformer

Updated October 10, 2022

Jonathan Swift (1667– 1745) was great literary figure of the 18th century precisely, in the Age of Pope. “The Battle of Books”, “A Tale of a Tub”, Gulliver’s Travels”, “The Drapier Letters”, “A Modest Proposal”, “A Meditation Upon a Broomsticks, “A Letter of Advice to a young poet” etc. by Swift are transcendental to time & space.

Anglo-Irish Jonathan was a great satirist, author, essayist, political pamphleteer and poet during Augustan Age. You would find no other English writer comparable to Jonathan when it comes to penning down the ironical satire that concerns society and common people. Swift’s entire work is full satirical in tone and biting in essence.

Biography of Jonathan Swift

Swift’s Early Life & Education

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin. His father was dead before the birth of Jonathan Swift. Jonathan Swift the elder left his baby daughter, his wife and an unborn child to the care of his brothers. He was a sickly child. It was later discovered that he was suffered from Meniere’s disease. However, his uncle took care of his education. At the age of six, he went to the Kilkenny School, a best school at that time. In 1682, he went to the Trinity College for his Bachelor of Arts.

Swift continued his stay at the Trinity College for his Master of Arts, but due to the Glorious Revolution (1688-89), he had to flee from the Ireland and came to England for security. He took shelter at the distant relative of his mother, Sir William Temple, at Moor Park. Swift continued his stay there as the assistant of Temple.

During his stay at the Moor Park, he helped Sir William Temple in writing and publishing his essay and memoirs. Further, through the Temple’s good offices, he received the degree of M.A. at the University of Oxford. He met the daughter of Temple’s housekeeper, Esther Johnson (future Stella).

Despite, there was considerable age gap between Swift and Esther Johnson, they remained the lover and get married. Jonathan Swift gave her the nickname of ‘Stella’. It is being said that Swift kept the lock of Johnson’s hair as the possessions

Swift’s Writing

Neither his mother nor his father was Irish people but he had connection with Ireland more or less till his death. During his stay at the Moor Park, England, Swift took a visit of Ireland twice. On a trip in 1695 or his second visit, he took all necessary requirements to become an ordained priest in the Anglican tradition.

Under the authority of Sir William Temple Swift came to intellectual maturity. Between 1691 and 1694 Swift wrote a number of poems, notably six odes. His true genius did not find impression until he turned from verse to prose satire. Swift composed mostly at Moor Park between 1696 and 1699.

Swift published anonymously in 1704, “A Tale of Tub”, “Battle of Books” and the “Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit”. Among them ‘A Tale of Tub’ is the most impressive work contains exuberance of satiric wit and energy.

Although, “A Tale of Tub” was popular in large masses, it was harshly disapproved of by the Church of England. Nonetheless, his writings earned a good reputation in London. So, he his real chance came in 1710, when the Tories overthrew the Marlborough faction and came into office.

To them, Swift devoted the gigantic powers of his pen, became a political star of some magnitude. Swift wrote some of the most cutting and well-known political pamphlets of the day, including The Conduct of the Allies, an attack on the Whigs.

Of his Irish writings, the “Drapier’s Letters” (1724–25) and “A Modest Proposal” are the best known.  He also published “The Journal to Stella”, his private feelings in a stream of letters to his beloved Stella. Jonathan Swift’s greatest satire, Gulliver’s Travels, was published in 1726.

Swift’s Prose Writing Style and Skill

The vigorous and indomitable spirit of criticism and the contributions he made to the development of the English prose style, secured Swift a unique position in the history of English literature. He made a departure from the 17th century prose style which was highly ornamental, full of emotional strain and heavy with the use of Latin.

He aimed at the purity and dignity of English language. His prose style is lucid, vigorous and rhythmical and there is inevitability about his choice words, which truly classic. This can be seen in the following lines of “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”.

“With hands laid on, ordain me fit
For the great cure and ministry of Wit.”

Swift’s style is remarkable for its clarity, precision and consciousness. He had a deep insight. His vision was extensive, he was probing and above all the he remained simple and clearly comprehensive. Directness and simplicity, plainness and economy of words, deep and passionate conviction, simple, precise and transparent languages are some of the features of his style.

The clarity, he valued most, but he never attempted to round the sentences by redundant words. He was aware that from the simplest and the fewest arise the secret spring of genuine harmony.

He is plain, urgent and flexible like Bacon. His style strikes us with a force of hammer. “A Modest Proposal” exhibits Swift’s malignity which arose from a great love of truth and of righteousness. He was exceptionally sensitive to the gap between what is and what ought to be.

He is terribly disturbed to discover the man having double faces in “A Modest Proposal”, in purely dry economic term he shows how the children become only a numerical in the data of food resources. It may be nauseating but there is effective expression of his deep sadness at the sight of this malady of society.

Critic has opinions that Swift employed figures of speech and epigrammatic expressions very rarely. But, this is not an absolute truth. He had used figures of speech here and there. In fact, he tried to avoid the figurative language and most of the rhetoric devices such as balance, rhythm and antithesis.

Swift does not use Latin words in his works. He believed that these Latin words create obscurity in his style. Likewise, he was strongly opposed to the stylistic devices of contracting and abbreviating words. Many a critic admired the Swift’s style and his skill in the prose satire.

Jonathan Swift as Satirist, Moralist & Reformer

Swift as a Moralist and a Reformer

Swift attempts to satirize almost each and every folly of the age which affected the society adversely. His apparent malignity arose not from his sense of hate for the fellow being but from a great love of his fellow characters. It arose from a love of truth and of righteousness (morality) and a sense to work for the welfare of his countrymen.

He was exceptionally sensitive to the gap between what is and what ought to be. He was terribly disturbed to discover the man having double faces in ‘A Modest Proposal’. Swift is a moralist and he is always interested in moral uplift of the people. His assertion regarding his love for the common men amply substantiates the point:

I hate and detest the animal called man although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth.

In “A Modest Proposal”, Swift does not attack an individual but he attacks the society and the heartless ruling class. The terrible sufferings of the people in Ireland are revealed in mocking suggestion. He writes that the poor should devote themselves to the rearing of their children which are to be killed and eaten.

The tone in which he unfolds his grotesque (ugly) proposal for preventing the children of Ireland from being a burden to their parents and country is nothing but a thin layer of cooled lava covering the pit of boiling indignation.

Swift launched vigorous satirical offensive against Walpole, Wood and absentee landlords who had literally torn the bread from the hands of the Irish children and flesh from their bones. These people were bent upon sucking the last drop of blood of the poor Irish people.

He knew that the officials will not provide any help to them. Swift also knew that appeals for mercy would fall on the deaf ears or would help the needy temporarily. He employed ridicule as the most effective weapon.

Jonathan Swift as a Satirist

A Letter of Advice to a young Poet” evokes laughter. It is the best Ironical essays of the Swift. The way he advises a young poet to pursue his vocation writing poems leaves us smiling long after reading the text. In this essay, Swift presents for us “the tricks by which scribblers invoking the aid of the Muses”.

Swift discusses some of the commercial battles of books waged continuously in Grub Street in his time. He intends to impart some scholarly bits to the poetasters of his time. Swift’s first suggestion to a young poet who has adopted English poetry as his profession and business, is regarding the “diminutive tool” i.e. the pen. He suggests the poets how to hold the pen.

Then he suggests the poets not to have any serious thought about God and religion. He, however, suggests the poet to have a sound and thorough knowledge of scriptures. This will enable them to borrow materials from the scriptures which are a rich source of literary pursuits. Swift’s vehemence against religion can be seen in the following lines”:

Religion, like a single drop of malt-liquor in claret, will muddy and discompose the brightest poetical genius.

Swift’s another interesting suggestion to the young poet is that he should study some standard authors of antiquity. They can borrow the sentiments, the form, the ideas, in other words, almost everything from these writers. Swift emphasizes that the young poet must go for rhyme.

Further in the letter, Swift suggests that a poet must put on his worst clothes while writing a poem because this will inspire his skills in verse making. He should begin his career by writing libel, lampoon or satire.

Further, Swift suggests that every state must have a Muse house on the pattern of play house. Such a Muse house will provide a proper platform to the upcoming poets where they can exchange their wits; discuss the probable subjects of their verses, etc. In this way, Swift says, the town will not be littered with the filth of poetry. He closes the letter with an apology or writing an unusually long letter.

His other essays such as “A Meditation Upon a Broomstick”, “A Letter to the Whole people of Ireland” are highly satirical in tone. Even his complete books such as “A Tale of a Tub”, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “The Battle of Books” are brilliant pieces of satire. Swift’s satires cover various aspects of human life. His satire is not to show his wit but to expose the folly of men and society. Of course, the ultimate aim is to correct the society follies.

Beyond Jonathan aka Dean Swift Under Literature Reads

Leave a comment