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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY (continued)
Despite his disappointment Swift worked hard for his church in Ireland and for the cause of Irish freedom against the Whigs, many of whom considered Ireland more of a colony than a country. For most of the rest of his life, Swift was a clergyman/writer/activist. In 1729, when he was sixty-three, he wrote A Modest Proposal, considered by many to be the best satire ever written in English. In it Swift makes use of the persona of a respectable Whig businessman. His protagonist makes the suggestion that the Irish should fatten their children so that they could grace the tables-in the form of food-of the English. This would solve two problems, argued Swift's Whig. First, it would relieve Ireland's overpopulation problem. Second, English lords wouldn't have to import meat from so far away. In A Modest Proposal Swift made his readers take notice of the dire situation in Ireland, and he pointed a finger at the English who he considered responsible for it and callous about it, to boot.
Swift's aims in the Proposal were humanitarian, yet his satire cut like a knife. This is in keeping with Swift's contradictory personality, which makes him one of the most puzzling figures in English literature. Acknowledged as a brilliant man of his age, he was a poor student. He entered the church reluctantly as a way of earning a living, yet he quickly became an ambitious and influential clergyman. His harsh satires caused many to call him a misanthrope, one who hates people. Yet he was a very outgoing man, a dazzler in the sparkling intellectual/literary/political/social constellation of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele. He wrote many letters, and with few exceptions, they are witty, charming, and lively.
Even Swift's biographers have had to live with the hard fact that the story of Swift's life is hidden behind the public events, the verifiable dates, and the published works. For all his activism and close relations with public figures, we know surprisingly little about the private Swift. No one even knows if Swift ever married. He had a years-long, passionate relationship with Esther Johnson and many have suspected that the two were secretly married. Though they saw each other every day, they didn't live together, and always visited in the company of a chaperone. Swift's famous Journal to Stella, in which he satirizes his own fame and writing (another contradiction-he worked hard to achieve recognition, and obviously wanted it badly), was written from 1710 to 1714 while he was in London with the Tories. Swift also had an involvement with a woman he called Vanessa (her real name was Hester Vanhomrich), who left England to be with Swift in Ireland. They also didn't live together, though Vanessa was devoted to Swift for years. Because Swift died insane, some biographers have suggested that he never married because he'd contracted syphilis as a young man and feared passing it on. We'll never know.
We do know, however, that Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667. Swift's father, an English lawyer, died while his wife was pregnant with Jonathan. Right after Jonathan was born his mother left him to be raised by her brother. Jonathan, never a good student, was graduated from Trinity College as a favor to his uncle. He worked halfheartedly on a masters degree, but left to join the Glorious Revolution.
From then on we have a pretty full accounting of his public deeds, but the private man remains mysterious. Swift was simultaneously praised to the skies and criticized severely for Gulliver's Travels. His admirers called attention to the literary merits of the book and its ultimately humanitarian concerns; his critics said he hated mankind and cited his invention of the Yahoos as proof. It seems impossible to have a lukewarm opinion on Swift; the work is too strong and his personality, as his contemporaries tell it, seemed larger than life. As in the work there are few "mellow" passages, so Swift seemed to swing from one extreme mood to another.
Swift's last years were a torment. He suffered awful bouts of dizziness, nausea, deafness, and mental incapacity. In fact, Swift's harshest critics tried to discredit the Travels on the grounds that the author was mad when he wrote it. But he wasn't. The Travels were published in 1726- and Part IV, which raised the most controversy, was written before Part III-and Swift didn't enter a mental institution until 1742. He died in 1745.
Gulliver's Travels, which you're about to explore, may well be the world's most brilliant "homework assignment." Along with Pope, Arbuthnot, Gay, and other literary lights, Swift was a member of The Martinus Scriblerus Club. The purpose of this club was to satirize the foolishness of modern man. Each member was given a topic; Swift's was to satirize the current "boom" in travel literature. The final result, ten years later, was Gulliver's Travels.