Jonathan Swift is probably best remembered today as the author of Gulliver’s Travels.
This story is often regarded as a children’s adventure story but was really a political satire on 18th century Britain and Ireland.
Swift was born in Dublin on 30th November 1667 to protestant Anglo-Irish parents. His father died a few months before Swift was born, leaving the family short of money.
Even so, Swift was able to attend Kilkenny Grammar School and went to Trinity College Dublin when he was only 15. He graduated at the age of 19, although he was not considered an outstanding student.
Writer and man of the church
Swift began his working life as a secretary to the English diplomat Sir William Temple. He was also ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland. He would later become the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Religion and politics were his two major interests and the subject of most of his writing.
In 1692, Swift published his first poem but it was not a great success. The great playwright of the day, John Dryden, who was distant relative of Swift, said: “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”
Much to Swift’s disappointment, that turned out to be true but he did go on to become the leading political and religious satirist of his day – so much so that his works are now probably better remembered than Dryden’s plays.
The savage satire of Gulliver’s TravelsIn 1726, Swift published Gulliver’s Travels using the pseudonym, Lemuel Gulliver, who is the main character in the book. Because the book sees Gulliver going to strange lands populated by tiny people, giants and even horses, Gulliver’s Travels is often considered as an adventure story.
In fact, it was a savage satire on the pettiness of human nature.
For example, in Gulliver’s Travels the Lilliputians go to war over disagreements about whether a boiled egg should be cracked open from the broad end or the narrow. It is a comment, of course, on the pointless wars that plague every generation.
In the book, the leading character Gulliver challenges the reader to disagree with him and prove him wrong in his description of human frailties.
A Tale of a Tub – the divisions in religion
In a Tale of a Tub, Swift satirises the divisions that appear in religion. It’s a story of three brothers who Swift uses to represent the three main strands of Christianity.
Each brother is left a coat by their father with strict instructions that the coats cannot be altered in any way. However, as time passes the coats fall out of fashion and the sons try to find ways to get round their father’s wishes so they can alter the coats to suit their own styles.