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Jonathan 'Isaac Bickerstaff' Swift (1667-1745)

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland on 30 November 1667, second child and only son of Jonathan Swift1 and Abigaile Erick Swift. His father was dead before Jonathan, Junior was born, so the child's education was arranged by other relatives. Jonathan graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 16862 and then went to England to try his luck. He found a job as secretary to Sir William Temple, and it was in Sir William's household that he met Esther (Stella) Johnson3 and became her tutor. Now Sir William was an extremely important statesman of the day. He helped arrange the marriage of future British monarchs William and Mary4.

Anyway, Jonathan wrote a lot of stuff in between tutoring sessions, but unfortunately burned most of it. The writing that survives shows signs of the great satirist he was to become. But when Sir William died in 1699, Jonathan was left scrambling for a job and eventually ended up with several odd little Church positions5 back in Ireland6. He became a very fashionable satiric writer as far as Dublin society was concerned7.

And now for one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. In the early 1700's, a man named John Partridge, a cobler by trade, took up printing almanacs to make some extra money. He challenged his readers to try their hands at prophecy and see if they could beat Partridge's own prophetic abilities. Well, Partridge had made some attacks on the Church of England, and in 1708, Jonathan decided to stand up for his employer. Using the name Isaac Bickerstaff8, he prophesied "a trifle...[Partridge] will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at Night, of a raging fever." At the proper time, using another name, Jonathan announced the fulfillment of said prophecy9. Partridge, in his next almanac, protested loudly that he was still alive, but no one believed him. The Stationer's Register had already removed his name from their rolls, and that was good enough for most people10.

Somewhere around 1716, some biographers say he married Stella Johnson, but there's no proof of this, and you'd think there'd be some sign if he had. Though they lived near each other for most of their lives, they were always very properly chaperoned and may very well have never been alone together11.

Gulliver's Travels was published in 1726, Jonathan's first big dive into prose. Though it's been pretty solidly labeled a children's book, it's also a great satire of the times that is pretty much beyond most children. It shows Jonathan's desire to encourage people to read deeper and not take things for granted: readers who paid attention could match all of Gulliver's tall tales with current events and long-term societal problems. In 1729, Jonathan wrote one of my favorites, A Modest Proposal, supposedly written by an intelligent and objective "political arithmetician" who had carefully studied Ireland before making his proposal. Most of you probably know this one. The author calmly suggests one solution for both the problem of overpopulation and the growing numbers of undernourished people: breed those children who would otherwise go hungry or be mistreated in order to feed the general public12.

Jonathan died on 19 October 1745, aged 78. He hadn't been in a good frame of mind for some time13. He managed to keep some of his sense of humor, though--his last will and testament provided funds to establish somewhere around Dublin a hospital for "ideots & lunaticks" because "No Nation wanted [needed] it so much."

(Quotes are from Jonathan Swift by Robert Hunting, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1967.)


  1. Yep, he was a junior.

  2. Actually, he didn't, strictly speaking, graduate. Sometimes they gave diplomas to people who hadn't actually earned them, just to clear out the place. Jonathan was one of four students in his 38-member graduating class to earn a degree in this manner.

  3. I didn't give her that nickname; that was Jonathan. They were apparently very close, in a distant sort of way, but more on that later.

  4. You know, like the colleges. Actually, it couldn't have been all that difficult to arrange the marriage, since they already knew each other. They were first cousins.

  5. To be precise, he became the rector of Agher in Meath, vicar of Laracor & Rathbeggan, and the prebend of Dunlavin. Talk about a long resume.

  6. Jonathan traveled back and forth between England and Ireland far too often to keep track of. He was a staunch Tory, but those darn Whigs kept taking power and Jonathan always got a little nervous living in a Whig state.

  7. Naturally. He was mainly satirizing the English.

  8. Jonathan usually didn't write under his own name. He felt a little bit safer that way, since the courts of the time were absolutely bursting with libel cases against other satirists (see Henry Fielding).

  9. Jonathan even wrote Partridge a nice little epitaph:
    Here Five Foot deep lyes on his back
    A Cobler, Starmonger, and Quack,
    Who to the Stars in pure Good-will,
    Does to his best look upward still.

  10. That made Partridge pretty much legally dead. Without his name on that list, he couldn't vote or sue people for saying he was dead or anything. On the other hand, he didn't have to pay taxes either, so I guess it all works out in the end.

  11. That wouldn't have been much of a marriage, even in those propriety-laden times.

  12. I once heard a stand-up comedian start out his routine with a similar suggestion. Who says studying literature doesn't enter into the real world?

  13. Two years before his death, when he was told that the citizens of Dublin were going to celebrate his birthday, Jonathan reportedly said, "It is all folly; they had better leave it alone."

Post Script

I have it on good authority that a 'cobler' was a brewer/innkeeper.
Contributed by: Bemish
Source: "The Classic 1000 Cocktails" 1996

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