British and Irish Literature Jonathan Swift
Gregory Lynall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0151


Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish parents. He entered Trinity College Dublin in 1682 and in 1689 became secretary to retired diplomat Sir William Temple, in Surrey. There he met Esther Johnson (Stella), the daughter of Temple’s housekeeper and during this period began writing Pindaric odes. Swift worked for Temple for over a decade but spent two periods away: in Oxford (receiving an MA in 1692) and in the north of Ireland, as prebend of Kilroot in 1695–1696. After Temple’s death in 1699, Swift served as chaplain (and for a time, private secretary) to the second earl of Berkeley, the new lord justice of Ireland, but was soon appointed to the parish of Laracor, near Trim. Over the next ten years, however, he spent much of his time in London, representing the interests of the Church of Ireland; his major publication during this period was the anonymous A Tale of a Tub (1704, with significant additions to the fifth edition, 1710). In London, he met Esther Vamhomrigh, and mythologized their relationship in Cadenus and Vanessa (composed 1713). He became the Tories’ chief ministerial writer, producing The Examiner (1710–1711) and The Conduct of the Allies (1711). This busy period of his life is detailed in (what has become known as) the Journal to Stella, the many letters sent to Esther Johnson and Rebecca Dingley, then resident in Ireland. Swift was ordained Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Dublin) in 1713 but spent much of the following year and a half in London, during which his relationship with the other “Scriblerians” (Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot, John Gay, and Thomas Parnell) was fostered in particular. Upon Queen Anne’s death and the beginning of the Hanoverian monarchy, Swift recognized that his time of preferment was over and so returned home. In the 1720s and 1730s, he wrote much to rail against Ireland’s political and economic subordination, including the Drapier’s Letters (1724–1725) and the brilliantly ironic A Modest Proposal (1729). Gulliver’s Travels appeared anonymously in October 1726 and was an immediate success, although the author himself was concerned about the number of editorial amendments made to this politically inflammatory book. In 1728–1729, Swift collaborated with Thomas Sheridan on the periodical, The Intelligencer; some of Swift’s greatest poems also emerged from around this time. Swift’s decline began in 1740, and he died in October 1745, aged nearly seventy-eight.

Primary Materials

The standard editions of Swift’s prose and poetry have remained for many years Davis 1939–1968 and Williams 1937, respectively, but the new, extensively annotated Cambridge Edition (Rawson 2008–) is set to supersede them; Online Swift will provide a complete works in digital form. Several compact, undergraduate-friendly editions are available, including Ross and Woolley 2003, Rawson and Higgins 2005, and Rawson and Higgins 2010. Those wishing to use a modernized text of the poetry should consult Rogers 1983. Woolley 1999–2014 is the standard edition of the correspondence; Scriblerian interactions are also documented in Kerby-Miller 1950.

  • Davis, Herbert, ed. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. 16 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1939–1968.

    The standard critical edition for many years; remains the case for texts yet to appear in the Cambridge Works. Unannotated, but with valuable introductions.

  • Kerby-Miller, Charles, ed. The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works, and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.

    The extent of Swift’s contribution to this collaborative prose satire is uncertain, but there are nevertheless crucial connections to his own individual works, and the introduction, appendices, and annotations offer an insightful understanding of the early relationship between the Scriblerians. Republished Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

  • Rawson, Claude, ed. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift. 17 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008–.

    Emerging as the new standard critical edition for both prose and poetry, with extensive annotations, introductions, and headnotes.

  • Rawson, Claude, and Ian Higgins, eds. The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2010.

    The best edition for the undergraduate, with an excellent range of primary texts (including Gulliver’s Travels in its entirety), good factual notes, and reprints of some of the most important critical essays.

  • Rawson, Claude, and Ian Higgins, eds. Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    The most valuable edition for undergraduate study, with a stimulating introduction and lucid endnotes.

  • Real, Hermann J., ed. Online Swift.

    An open-access online critical edition of the prose works, with textual and historical introductions, and copious annotations.

  • Rogers, Pat, ed. Jonathan Swift, The Complete Poems. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.

    The best one-volume edition of the poetry. Modernized and normalized texts (based on Faulkner’s 1735 volume in most cases), with excellent annotations, a handy biographical dictionary, and a map of Irish locations associated with Swift.

  • Ross, Angus, and David Woolley, eds. Jonathan Swift, Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A substantial selection of writings, with useful endnotes, glossary, and biographical index.

  • Williams, Harold, ed. The Poems of Jonathan Swift. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1937.

    Currently the standard edition for critical texts of the poetry but should be used with some caution and is soon to be superseded by Rawson 2008–. Second edition, 1958.

  • Woolley, David, ed. The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, D. D. 5 vols. Frankfurt: Lang, 1999–2014.

    The new standard edition, correcting texts and adding some new letters. Extensively annotated.

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