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Jonathan Swift won literary fame but desperately wanted a bishopric

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion on Thursday, 28 June 2012

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This edited article about Jonathan Swift originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 743 published on 10 April 1976.

Gulliver's Travels, picture, image, illustration

A scene from Gulliver’s Travels by Dean Swift (inset). Picture by John Keay

In the narrow, overhanging streets, sedan chairs conveyed haughty women to meet their friends and gossip. In busy coffee houses, men discussed the topics of the day.

This was London of the early eighteenth century. The reign of Queen Anne was blossoming with romance and intrigue.

One day a writer stepped into the centre of the current political squabbles. His name was Jonathan Swift. Seldom has a writer wielded so much power as did Swift, in London from 1710 to 1713.

He launched violent criticism against the policies of Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State and the Duke of Marlborough, Britain’s hero after his victory at Blenheim, who had since grown greedy for power.

The country was fascinated by Swift’s outbursts. The Whigs lost their power; the Tories took over; the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough lost their influence at Queen Anne’s court. In each case the pen of Swift had been the vital weapon.

Swift was born in Dublin on St. Andrew’s Day, 1667. His parents were English but he was to spend most of his life in Ireland.

Although a famous writer, he was also a devout churchman and in 1700 he became the Vicar of Laracor, with a congregation of about fifteen ‘most of them gentle and all simple.’

He soon produced his first satires – ‘The Battle of the Books’ and ‘A Tale of a Tub’.

When ‘A Tale of a Tub’ reached England the Archbishop of York suggested to Queen Anne that the book was blasphemous. So Swift’s hopes for a bishopric were shattered.

But more was soon heard of the Vicar of Laracor. While in London in 1710 he met the great letter writers of the day – Addison and Steele – in coffee houses seething with discussion.

Soon his pen was scratching sharp attacks on Marlborough and the Whigs.

The country responded to his articles in a journal called the ‘Examiner’ and Marlborough fell from office. The Tories rejoiced. Swift was the hero of the hour.

But Swift’s campaign did not win him the bishopric he still craved. He became the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

The publication of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in 1726 was greeted with frenzied interest in England and Europe.

The story about the giant and the midgets became a great favourite with children, who enjoyed its fantasy. But this is not what Swift intended. The book was a satire, in which Gulliver looked down on the follies of the human race.

The last ten years of Swift’s life were made miserable by illness. He died in 1745 at his Deanery.

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