Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World

The questions that cannot be answered about Jonathan Swift number so many that I wonder how his biographers keep their spirits up. Just to begin with, essential and insoluble mysteries surround his parentage, his marital status, and the nature of his relationships with "Stella" and "Vanessa," the two great loves of his life. There are complete gaps, too, sequences of years during which there is no evidence at all as to what Swift was up to. Even his writing is an exercise in sustained ambiguity: What precisely is the meaning of A Tale of a Tub? What really is the message of Gulliver's fourth journey? And what, in the name of all that is euphemistic, did this man of the cloth mean by the expression "coffee" in his letters to Vanessa? (It was something, it would seem, to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.)

Leo Damrosch begins with some of these questions in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, a fine biography that is also a running engagement with other students of Swift. Chief among those is Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose massive three-volume work, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, might have been thought the last word on the great man if scholars were not the ceaseless burrowers and malcontents that they are. In this respect, Damrosch takes particular exception to Ehrenpreis's presumption in furnishing Freudian interpretations of Swift's motives. ("There is not the slightest evidence for this quite offensive interpretation.")

So, what is there evidence for? Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, seven months after his father's death. When he was around one year old, his wet nurse absconded with him, taking him to England and only returning him to Ireland "several years" later -- at which point his mother herself left for England, leaving him with his uncle. If all this seems pretty odd, it also may be untrue. There are no baptismal or other records or documents to confirm it. Rather, it is the story that the notoriously evasive and inventive Swift claimed to have been told. Looking into these matters, Damrosch presents various hypotheses offered by earlier inquirers, including those concerning the identity of Swift's actual father. One of these puts Swift in a close blood relationship to Hester Johnson, or "Stella," whom he either did or did not marry, and whom he fell out with shortly before her death, possibly because he would not publicly acknowledge the union -- if indeed there was one.

You see what I mean?

We do know for certain that Swift went to Trinity College, Dublin, and became a secretary for William Temple, hoping that the influential Tory statesman would further his career in England -- either in the church or in politics. No such luck, and Temple was only the first of Swift's patrons to disappoint him. Swift's political writing on behalf of the Tories was powerful, but his career was stymied at many junctures thanks to dilatory patrons, the entanglement of many Tories with the exiled Stuarts, the arrival of Whig political dominance with the reign of George I, and his own outrageous publications (notably A Tale of a Tub). He was also a lifelong victim of Ménière's disease, the resulting vertigo and nausea incapacitating him both physically and mentally for grueling stretches of time. Swift, who had longed for a well-endowed English bishopric, ended up as dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, where he presided for thirty-two years. There, he became so admired and loved that his (putative) birthday was celebrated every year by a citywide pealing of bells. Even today in Dublin he is familiarly known as the Dean.

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