Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was a writer and Anglican cleric. He was born, raised, and educated in Ireland. With the Glorious Revolution, he moved to England and became secretary to Sir William Temple, obtained an MA at Oxford, and took Holy Orders for the Church of Ireland. Following Temple’s death, he failed to secure an ecclesiastical appointment to his liking in England and so returned to Ireland, where eventually he became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. A friend of Thomas Sheridan, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, he became one of the leading literary figures of the period. He is best known for his satirical essays and fiction, such as The Battle of the Books, A Tale of a Tub, and Gulliver’s Travels.

In this interview, Dr. Dutton Kearney will discuss his pick of five of Jonathan Swift’s  books.

Dutton Kearney is an associate professor of English at Hillsdale College. He previously taught at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee where he was awarded Professor of the Year in 2008. He teaches eighteenth century literature, contemporary literature, and courses in theology and literature. He is the editor of the Ignatius Press edition of Gulliver’s Travels and has published several essays on Jonathan Swift. He is the director of Hillsdale College’s Visiting Writers Program and the director of the College’s new Creative Writing Honors Program.

  1. A Modest Proposal
    by Jonathan Swift
  2. Gulliver's Travels
    by Jonathan Swift
  3. The Battle of the Books
    by Jonathan Swift
  4. A Tale of a Tub
    by Jonathan Swift
  5. The Drapier's Letters
    by Jonathan Swift
    ...and some additional recommendations...
  6. Jonathan Swift: Irish Blow-In and Jonathan Swift: Our Dean
    by Eugene Hammond
  7. Jonathan Swift: His Life and World
    by Leo Damrosch
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

What were the main events of Swift’s life?
He was born in 1667. Just 20 years earlier, England had been embroiled in a civil war. In 1649, they killed the king. With the regicide, there was a vacuum of power and Cromwell stepped in. After Cromwell died, his sons took over but did not really know the art of governance. Suddenly, London was full of regret for having killed Charles I. His brother, Charles II, who had fled to France, was brought back for the Restoration of the Crown.

Swift was born seven years later. He grew up in the household of Sir William Temple, Charles II's Secretary of State.

The Restoration was meant to lay a firm foundation so that England could get on with its business. Unfortunately, Charles II was not an ideal king. He had eleven illegitimate children and did not live up to the high standards expected of a king.

Whenever there is disappointment, often the literature of the time will turn to satire.

In the previous generation, John Dryden had nurtured high hopes and was going to write the British epic. The expectation was that, with Charles II, England was going to get back on track after the Civil War and the regicide. That was not the case.

Swift, therefore, was moving into a period of political turmoil, stasis, and satire. He ended up becoming the greatest satirist in Britain and Ireland, if not the English language.

"As the Dean of St. Patrick's, he found that he had an enormous influence on politics: by making appeals to people’s conscience rather than by passing laws in parliament."

He sought positions in England and helped Sir William Temple in what we now call lobbying. However, he was not successful and settled for placements in Ireland. Are there any other significant events during his ecclesiastical career?
In that period, a man had three choices. He could go either to the court, the church, or the countryside.

In this last case, he would build a garden on his country estate, just as Swift's friend, Alexander Pope did on the estate he had bought with the money made from his translations of Homer.

Swift was friends with people in all areas and had his eye on becoming an Anglican bishop. He had friends in Lord Oxford, Viscount Bolingbroke, and in Dublin Castle, which is within walking distance of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

However, his hopes were dashed in 1712 with the death of Queen Anne.

As head of the Church of England, she would assign the bishoprics. Swift believed he would receive preferment and had asked Temple for assistance. However, that all collapsed with her death.

In the meantime, he had built many relationships over in Dublin Castle.

Ireland was a territory of Great Britain and did not have its own parliament or king. Everything was handled in London.

When he did not become a Bishop in England, he returned to Ireland reluctantly.

However, as the Dean of St. Patrick's, he found that he had an enormous influence on politics: by making appeals to people’s conscience rather than by passing laws in parliament.

" 'Gulliver' means to trick (gull) by means of the truth (vere). So, Lemuel Gulliver is one who is beloved by God (Lemuel) and who tricks by means of the truth. He tricks us about our very nature."

In many of these literary works, Swift engages in political and social debates of the day. Was he more of a political animal or a clergyman?
That is an interesting question.

We have nine of his sermons, maybe even twelve (the authenticity of three is questionable). There is not one joke in any of those nine sermons. There is no satire whatsoever. They are very straightforward.

It seems, therefore, that he had a genuine concern for the care of souls and did want to introduce any confusion in his sermons.

In satire, the whole point of the joke is to say the opposite of what you mean. He definitely did not do that in his sermons.

As to politics, there are instances, such as The Drapier's Letters in which he addresses a specific political situation. Gulliver’s Travels is more of a general satire and works toward a political philosophy.

So, he engaged a little in practical politics but resided more in political philosophy. Religion and the formation of the clergy were always dear to his heart.

Swift was a friend of various important English writers, such as Pope and John Gay. Where does Swift fit into the more general movement within English literature at that time?
For one thing, often he wrote anonymously.

Gulliver’s Travels was published anonymously. He got in touch with the publisher, George Faulkner, and dropped the manuscript off at his doorstep.

Faulkner made a fortune. However, Gulliver's Travels was written by Lemuel Gulliver.

Lemuel means one who is beloved of God and is pronounced Gulli-veer. We know this from Pope’s Dunciad, where 'drapier' and 'Gulliver' rhyme with one another.

'Gulliver' means to trick (gull) by means of the truth (vere). So, Lemuel Gulliver is one who is beloved by God (Lemuel) and who tricks by means of the truth. He tricks us about our very nature.

Swift takes this narrative device from Thomas More, whose Utopia is written by Raphael (i.e. a healer sent from God) Hythloday (i.e. a speaker of nonsense). So, Swift inserts himself within that satirical tradition.

He really rejoiced that his bishop, Archbishop Marsh, with whom he did not get along very well, told him one day that, in his opinion, Lemuel Gulliver was not a real person. Swift really ate that up.

He also published A Modest Proposal and The Drapier's Letters anonymously.

Swift was part of the literary movement of the day. He was not well-known to the public as, say, Pope, Arbuthnot, or Gay, whose The Beggar's Opera was a massive hit. However, he was the centre and locus of all these other individuals. He helped create this literary circle that dominated English literature until 1743 at least and whose influence lasted up until the Romantics.

As you have already mentioned, Swift was a political activist, satirist, and polemicist. However, he did not fit neatly into the political factions of the United Kingdom. He described himself as “a Whig in a politics” on account of his love for liberty, but a High-Churchman or a Tory on account of his religious beliefs. Was he a hybrid, with a foot in each faction?
Yes, but not in a manipulative way. Swift was always Swift, whereas the parties shifted a bit.

He was always a Tory in matters of religion because it cannot be changed. There has to be a hierarchy and the liturgy needs to be somewhat permanent.

In politics, he did love liberty. He probably prized it more than his other colleagues.

Liberty does not tend to flourish under a very strong monarch and a weak parliament. Swift liked the way in which Parliament could limit the king. The whole problem with Charles I was that, when the nobles would not give him money, he decided to just start appropriating it. That is why they pushed back and he was deposed and killed.

In one of his letters, Swift states that the king wants power, the nobles want money, and the populace wants freedom. In his view, we should keep these three in tension with one another.

It appears, therefore, that he shifts from Whig to Tory and then back again. Actually, he is striking a balance. The nobles want to increase their power and station. That would reduce the king's power and the people's liberty. So, there needs to be a corrective that rebalances that, and so on and so forth.

What were Swift’s views on the Catholic Church?
When he was ordained, he was not a fan of Catholics as a people. He wanted to be a bishop in England but was assigned, not to a city such as Belfast or Dublin, but to Carrickfergus, near Belfast.

As it turned out, he found that he could get along with the Anglicans and Catholics but not with the other denominations.

By the time he is assigned to be the Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, he has a good relationship with the Catholics. In fact, he ends up being their main representative in Ireland before London.

One thing to keep in mind is that, in many of his works, he writes expressively against papists.

According to A Modest Proposal, one of the benefits of people eating their child is that it will reduce the number of papists.

When he speaks of papists in the context of the eighteenth-century, he is not expressing a dislike of Catholics, Marian devotion, rosaries, or Mass-going. He is referring to those whose political allegiance is to the pope rather than the king and worries about insurrection.

Certain Protestant factions were strongly against Catholics for being Catholics. However, when it comes to Swift and his circle, especially in politics, anti-papism denoted a concern that Catholics would not obey the laws promulgated by the king.

There were reasons for this. There was the Popish Plot. This was revealed to be a hoax. Nevertheless, people were worried that there was going to a Guy Fawkes Part Two, with Catholics blowing up Parliament on the pope’s orders. This popular sentiment was used to maintain a sense of paranoia. However, Swift is making a political assertion, not a spiritual or religious one.

What drew you to become a Swiftie (of Jonathan, not Taylor)?
Well, I was a Swiftie up until Speak Now, but I am not sure what she is doing now. We lived in Nashville for a while and had a daughter who really enjoyed her. So, we went to one of her concerts.

I am a late convert from atheism. When I converted, I obtained a master’s in theology from the University of Dallas to find out what I had gotten myself into. The formation was wonderful.

One of my professors had written his dissertation on Henri de Lubac. He said that he really enjoyed reading the same Greek texts as De Lubac, but that reading the French was tough. He wished that he had chosen instead one of the ressourcement theologians who had written in English.

I thought that I should study someone who had written in English, knew the classics, and was funny. Swift checked all those boxes.

All the books that you have selected belong to the genre in which Swift excelled most: satire. How would you rate his poetry or epistolary writings, such as A Journal to Stella?
His poetry is okay. He told Alexander Pope, “You say in in two lines what it takes me eight to say.” He was right. He was not a great poet. John Dryden was his cousin and said, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” That put a chip on Swift's shoulder. He did not like to admit the truth about his poetic abilities.

A Journal to Stella is fascinating. It is a personal, intimate letter to another individual.

His poems are not too bad. You can tell that he is working on them and crafting them. I should not dismiss all of them. There is “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” “The Beasts’ Confession to the Priest,” which is set up as a dialogue between body and soul. Then, he writes birthday poems to Stella. He can float in and out of innuendo, allusion, Latin, straightforward English, and shorthand. His poetry reveals a really playful side of him.

This morning, I read a letter from Pope. He tells how he and a friend went over to Dean Swift’s place to talk. Swift asked if they had come for a free dinner, as if the Dean of St. Patrick's were there to feed them. They protested that they just wanted to talk to him. “Fine,” he said, “Alright, we can get you two lobsters or just one.” He went through all the options and catalogued the cost of each with a straight face. Pope and his friend were shocked as he outlined all this. Then, he gave them money and told them to leave.

For Swift, this was just a grand joke. The problem with reading Swift is that he is very serious. He does not smile at all nor laugh at any of his jokes. You wonder whether he is joking.

He does this in his satires too because satire has a hint of truth.

Nor does he pour out his heart in a letter or A Journal to Stella. He is still playing around with a mask and a persona.

It may never be possible to get to the real Swift. Maybe you can 95-98% of his person, but he holds a lot close to the vest.

Swift is very much a writer who engages the debates and issues of the day. Nevertheless, he often seems to be criticising issues that are still to the fore today, 300 years later. Is this the case?
Definitely. I am teaching a course on A Tale of a Tub. Its basic argument is that there is a severe, theological problem with people’s understanding of the spirit, and that this theological problem has its origins in bad philosophy. People use the language of the immaterial to talk about the spirit but apply it and act as if the soul were material.

Swift traces this all the way back to the Presocratics, whose materialism is neutralised by Aristotle but reintroduced by Bacon. Descartes picks up on Bacon and then Hobbes picks up on that tradition. Swift is right in the middle of this.

He points out that, if the soul is made out of matter, we do not have a higher claim on our soul. Rather, we shall behave as if the here and now is all there is.

This is a fundamental problem or question. How you live depends very much on whether you believe your soul is material or rather the form of your body, immaterial, and something that is not really yours.

Someone like Dante will say, “If the body leads your soul, welcome to hell. If your soul leads your body, welcome to purgatory and heaven.”

This problem never changes. Swift was prescient in showing us the entire intellectual lineage of this movement.

In our age, we can no longer talk about the immaterial. We do not have the necessary vocabulary. In Swift’s time that vocabulary was in the act of disappearing.


The first book you have selected is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). Swift satirises British policy and rationalist social theory by proposing, with a straight face, that the poor sell their children as food to the rich. Have you chosen this book first because it is disturbingly close to some current policies?

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