Cover illustration for Gulliver’s Travels by Grandville, 1838

Early in the twentieth century, a collector of folklore spoke to a farmer in County Cavan, near to where Jonathan Swift had written much of Gulliver’s Travels almost two hundred years earlier. The farmer told the folklorist that there were still people called Bradley living in the area and that they were remarkably small. Their equally tiny ancestors, he said, had worked as laborers for the more prosperous landowners, the Brookes, who were in turn neighbors of Swift’s friend Thomas Sheridan. Sheridan’s laborers were unusually large men. Swift, the farmer claimed, had watched the two sets of workers laboring together and “was so amused at the contrast, and at seeing the giant Sheridans lift up the dwarf Bradleys in their hands and place them like dolls on the haycocks that he joked and laughed with Mr. Brookes at what he had seen that day in the hayfield.”

The farmer’s delightful tale, with the implication that these local dwarfs and giants became the natives of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, is a typical just-so story. It seeks to explain a great literary invention by tracing it back to a biographical incident. Few scholars would take it seriously as evidence of anything other than Swift’s remarkable presence in the Irish popular imagination, even though a version of it also appears in an early biography written by Sheridan’s son. Yet critics themselves have, for centuries, belabored Swift with just-so stories. They differ from the farmer’s lovely yarn principally in being Freudian rather than folkloric and bleak rather than warm. But their status as evidence is hardly more secure.

Swift is almost unique among great prose writers in that, as well as being admired by the literate, he was also loved by the illiterate. There is a Swift contained and explored in thousands of books; there is another Swift remembered and celebrated in Irish oral traditions that were alive up to the 1930s. The Swift of this oral tradition is not a high Tory with a bitter disposition and a streak of misanthropy. He is funny, quick-witted, humane, and human. He is often heard, as in the farmer’s story, joking and laughing. As late as 1933, an informant in County Kerry told a folklore collector of Swift that “people say he was honest, and a good friend to this country while he lived. He was witty and well-spoken, and his intellect and his learning and his cunning were better than that of anybody before him or since.”

In the large body of stories about him in the collections of the Irish Folklore Commission, Swift is almost always “the Dean”—he was dean of Saint Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745—or, in popular pronunciation, “the Dane.” The name shows immediate awareness that he was a high functionary of the established, Protestant, Church of Ireland—an institution unpopular with the oppressed Catholic majority. Yet he transcends these sectarian divisions. He was revered by middle-class Protestants, who named inns and ships after him and built bonfires to celebrate his birthday. Catholics, meanwhile, attached to “the Dean” many of the common trickster stories that circulated around Europe. Swift and his servant, usually called Jack, form a comic double act.

The Dean of this popular imagination is a connoisseur of human foibles. In one story, he is walking through a field when he sees a boy slouched lazily against a fence. Swift asks him for directions but the boy is so lazy that he merely points his leg in the right direction. Swift is so amused that he offers the boy a shilling if he can do anything lazier than he has just done. The boy says, “Put the shilling in my pocket,” and the Dean laughs with pleasure. When Swift asks which way the wind is blowing and the boy answers “Sou’ southwest,” he offers him another shilling if he can elaborate on this laconic reply. The boy drawls “Sou’ southwest, sir.” The Dean again laughs heartily and hires the laziest boy in Ireland as his servant.

The story is striking for its image of Swift’s pure comic delight—and for the way it, and most of the other oral yarns, contrast with the literary record. In the folktales, Swift and his servants compete in trickery almost as equals and the Dean is amused by roguery. In literary biography as early as Samuel Johnson’s Life of Swift, written in 1780, Swift’s maltreatment of servants forms part of the case for the prosecution: “To his domesticks he was naturally rough…a master that few could bear…. Tyrannick peevishness is perpetual.” Here is considerable irony: the descendants of the servant class remembered the Dean as a lovable master; those rich enough to employ servants themselves recorded him as an unbearable tyrant.


This clash between the folkloric and the literary memories encapsulates a larger division: Swift as peevish misanthrope or laughing friend to humanity. How might such a contradiction, emblematic of so many others, be resolved? We can look to documentary evidence. It suggests that on the one hand, Swift (not unreasonably given the prevailing squalor of eighteenth-century urban life) was fastidious and afraid of dirt—making him a demanding master indeed. It also shows that he was kind (he paid very good wages) and affectionate. As well as the famous monuments to himself and his devoted companion “Stella” (Esther Johnson) in St. Patrick’s, there is, more remarkably, a plaque that Swift erected to his servant Alexander McGee. Interestingly, in the text that Swift wrote for it, he referred to himself as McGee’s “grateful friend and master,” but “friend” was deleted as too scandalous a term: senior clergymen could not be friends with their servants. Even then, Swift’s gesture of affection was quickly interpreted by literary commentators as satiric misanthropy—by memorializing a mere servant Swift was surely engaging in a bitter burlesque. He cannot be allowed to be merely a man mourning a friend.

What, then, do Swift’s imaginative works tell us? He seems, in his own poems, much more like the Dean of folklore than the Swift of the early biographies. In “My Lady’s Lamentation and Complaint Against the Dean,” he has one society hostess disturbed to find her eminent guest overly familiar with her servants: “Find out, if you can,/Who’s master, who’s man;/ Who makes the best figure,/The Dean or the digger;/And which is best/At cracking a jest.” In this self-portrait, Swift is remarkably like the figure of the folktales who engages in duels of wit with his own servants.

More importantly, Swift makes comic art out of this very relationship. The funniest of the mock-treatises collected in the latest volume of Cambridge’s splendid new edition of his works is “Directions to Servants.” It is a parody of contemporary manuals on the management of domestic staff. Typically, it instructs the servants in every form of sloth, surliness, mendacity, and unhygienic practice. It can be read, on one dull level, as a mere attack on bad servants. What gives it comic life, however, is the way Swift, like his folkloric alter ego, takes a childlike delight in the tricksters who outwit their masters:

While Grace is saying after Meat, do you and your brethren take the Chairs from behind the Company, so that when they go to sit down again, they may fall backwards, which will make them all merry; but be you so discreet as to hold your Laughter till you get to the Kitchen, and then divert your Fellow-servants.

Socially and intellectually, Swift may be with the unfortunate guests. But his comic imagination is always in the kitchen, laughing with the insolent servants.

More than any other writer, Swift has suffered from the biographical fallacy that someone whose work is so often grotesque must have harbored, beneath his witty and brilliant Ego, a rather foul Id. His words are occasionally spattered with excrement, from Strephon’s horrified discovery about his beloved in the mock-pastoral poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”) to Gulliver being literally shat upon by Yahoos. Therefore Swift must have thought about little else but dung: George Orwell tells us that he “thought about [human dung] incessantly, as is evident throughout his works.” Gulliver urinates on the fire in the palace in Lilliput, therefore, to Henry Miller, “the name Swift was like a clear, hard pissing against the tin-plate lid of the world.”

The self-described “savage indignation” with which he viewed war, poverty, oppression, and folly is evidence not of an entirely sane response to the era of the interminable War of the Spanish Succession, the South Sea Bubble, and famine in Ireland, but of his own nihilism. Orwell, again, declares Swift a man animated only by “disgust, rancor and pessimism,” deformed by his “inability to believe that life…could be made worth living.”

He subjects women to the same satirical gaze he trains on men; therefore he must have, as his generally sympathetic biographer Victoria Glendinning puts it, a “screwed-up attitude to women.” His skeptical view of sex, insistence on the reality of the body, and unconventional relationship with two younger women, “Stella” and “Vanessa” (Esther Vanhomrigh), mean that he must have been incapable of having sex. Orwell declares him “presumably impotent,” and his leading biographer Irvin Ehrenpreis defines him as asexual. No one quite claims that because, in “A Modest Proposal,” Swift has his “author” suggest the eating of babies, he himself must have harbored cannibalistic fantasies, but pretty much everything else in his work is read as the manifestation of a sick mind.


This pathological approach amounts in reality to nothing more than a collection of just-so stories. It treats a comic writer, whose stock-in-trade is exaggeration, wild invention, and anarchic juxtapositions of the high-minded and the filthy, as if he were a psychological realist. It conveniently forgets that Swift is very, very funny and that the best humor is never far from its roots in the outrageous, the scatological, and the obscene. It largely ignores the context of the work. The excremental strain in Swift is just that—one seam among many others. It is hardly all that surprising in a writer who lived at a time when the chances of having a chamber pot emptied on your head as you walked through the streets were pretty good. The petty, rancorous pessimism that Orwell detects is hard to see in the man who devoted so much of his life—at high personal risk—to arguments and projects for the practical improvement of Irish economic life. The Swift who, in his thin disguise as the Drapier, ran a brilliantly effective political campaign against English financial control over Ireland disappears from view.

Swift’s alleged obsession with the unfortunate realities of the human body is much more obviously a counterpoint to falsity and decorousness in both manners and art. It is also a philosophical position. Swift is an anti-Cartesian: against the dualism of mind and body, he reminds us that we are inescapably (and none too prettily) embodied. As he puts it in the mock-scientific “Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit”:


National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

‘Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral’; pencil sketch by Isaac Whood, 1730

The Spinal Marrow, being nothing else but a Continuation of the Brain, must needs create a very free Communication between the Superior Faculties and those below: And thus the Thorn in the Flesh serves for a Spur to the Spirit.

Unfortunately for Swift, biographers have tended to take him entirely at his word, and to reduce his spirit to his flesh.

As for Swift’s “screwed-up attitude to women,” one might ask—compared to whose? All those eighteenth-century feminist clerics? Swift loved the company and conversation of women (he wrote to Alexander Pope of being ensconced among a “triumfeminate” of literary women in Dublin), treated many as intellectual equals, and passionately supported women’s education. His closest friend was Stella and he was clearly loved by Vanessa too. The evidence that he was impotent is as strong as the evidence supporting the Irish folktales in which, on the contrary, he is depicted as a hearty sexual adventurer. (In one of the most common tales, the duties of his servant include the provision of a different woman for his master’s bed every night.) It, too, is a just-so story. There is nothing to suggest that it is true and, as we shall see, a great deal to suggest that it is not.

As well as these biographical fallacies, Swift’s reputation was assaulted by the medical fallacy—the insistence that physical ailments carry moral meanings. Swift (an early enthusiast for jogging) was generally healthy, but he was afflicted by two complaints. One—as later diagnosed by Oscar Wilde’s father, the distinguished doctor Sir William Wilde—was Ménière’s syndrome, a deformity of the inner ear that gave him spells of dizziness and nausea. It was all too easily taken as evidence of his mental imbalance.

The other was what we would call Alzheimer’s, probably accompanied by minor strokes. In his last five years (he lived to be seventy-seven), he was barely seen in public. This allowed his enemies, even before his death, to put it about that he was “awaked from a mere animal life into a thorough misanthropy and brutality of lust,” or as Johnson disgracefully crowed, “Swift expires a driv’ler and a show.” The point of these rumors was not that Swift has thereby fallen away from his real self, but that this was his real self and that all of his accomplishments had been but a veneer. As Thomas Birch reported, “I doubt that these were always the real dispositions of him; but now it happens, that the thin disguise, which before scarce covered them, is absolutely fallen off.”

Why did this vile exploitation of Swift’s illness prove so effective that its traces still linger? Because it was oddly comforting. To read Swift is to experience Ménière’s syndrome for ourselves. His vast comic invention, his dazzling ventriloquism, his peerless orchestration of multiple voices, none of them securely his own, his vertiginous shifts of perspective, make us dizzy. And his rage at human degradation does induce nausea.

No one before or since has taken such a powerful verbal blowtorch to all forms of authority—religious, political, military, intellectual, scientific. Against this assault, there is just one effective defense—the idea that Swift was, after all, mad or degenerate or both. It is not war or exploitation or poverty that is insane. The problem lay with Swift, who merely projected his own twisted misanthropy onto the world. As Lord Orrery put it in the Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, which created the template for later writers, Swift failed to sustain his political career in England, became embittered, and thus “from his early, and repeated disappointments, he became a misanthrope.” Swift’s nasty writings do not merely express his own nastiness, they deepen it: “In painting YAHOOS he becomes one himself.” This gives rise to Thackeray’s imprecation on Swift: “filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.”

Freeing Swift from these fallacies has not been easy. David Nokes’s Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (1985) is relentlessly negative, arguing that Swift was so terrified of seeming a hypocrite that he behaved appallingly. When not taking evidence merely from the long line of anti-Swift polemics, it relies on grandiose assertions: Swift “realized that, although he did not love Stella, he had built up a life in which he had grown dependent upon her unchallenging submissiveness.”

Glendinning is more balanced, but her book, published in 1998, is a broad “portrait” rather than a detailed biography. Both Nokes and Glendinning write in the shadow of Irvin Ehrenpreis’s monumental three-volume Swift: The Man, His Works and the Age, completed in 1983. Ehrenpreis’s biography is, and remains, the standard and indispensible work. It is, however, as his former colleague at the University of Virginia, Leo Damrosch, argues in the preface to his own book, deeply indebted to a rather mechanical and reductive Freudianism for its psychological interpretations. As Damrosch justly puts it:

An older man—even if just a few years older—must be a father figure, or else resented for not being one. A woman Swift’s age or older is a mother figure. And, inevitably, a younger woman is a daughter figure.

This is not unfair: Ehrenpreis himself writes that “much of my discussion of Stella and Vanessa is speculation based on Freudian psychology or on inferences drawn from a few data.”

The first pleasure of Damrosch’s breezy and engaging book is therefore what it does not do. It does not set out to ask the question that is implied in most of its predecessors: What is wrong with Swift? It does not approach him with the assumption that some kind of perversion must be identified in order to explain how the man wrote books with such disturbing matter in them and how he carried on long-term relationships with two younger women without marrying either or them. It does speculate—with a life in which so much is irredeemably obscure, it is impossible to do otherwise—but not by placing an imaginary Swift on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Damrosch makes the assumption—unusual in Swift biographers but usual in almost any other context—that his subject is a normal man. Thus, for example, the contrast between his treatment of Swift’s relationship with Vanessa and that in Ehrenpreis. Ehrenpreis assumes that Swift did not have sex with this attractive and devoted woman, more than twenty years his junior, and resorts to tortured prose: “In her own yearning for a surrogate father who would prefer the daughter to her rival brothers, I think she responded magically to Swift’s effort to enjoy sexual excitement while transcending sexuality.”

Damrosch, without the shadow of Freud to obscure his vision, simply looks very closely at the letters that passed between them. He notes that they are full of suggestive references to “coffee”—a drink that was often associated with sex: “I wish I were to walk with you fifty times about your garden, and then—drink your coffee”; “I drank no coffee since I left you, nor intend till I see you again, there is none worth drinking but yours….” Swift’s godson and first Irish biographer, Thomas Sheridan, wrote that it is implausible to imagine that, in all the hours they spent alone together over almost a decade, Swift and Vanessa never gave way to “the frailty of human nature.” Damrosch, freed from the burden of proving Swift impotent or sexually pathological, agrees. So, perhaps, does Swift himself in “Cadenus and Vanessa” (Cadenus being himself):

Cadenus, to his Grief and Shame,
Cou’d scarce oppose
Vanessa’s Flame….

This leaves the other woman in Swift’s life, Stella. They met in 1689, when he was secretary to Sir William Temple in Surrey and she was just nine, and they remained in a loving relationship until her death in 1728. The prosecutorial question has always been why Swift did not marry her. It is by no means certain that he did not—contemporary gossip spoke of a secret wedding and even a secret child. Damrosch, though, tends to discount these rumors and seeks an explanation instead in a speculative but not inherently implausible idea. He gives a sympathetic hearing to a theory put forward by the playwright Denis Johnston in his 1959 book In Search of Swift: that Swift and Stella were, in fact, closely related by blood. It is highly likely that Stella was the “natural daughter” of Sir William Temple himself—hence his generosity to a girl who was, officially, merely the child of his housekeeper.

What makes this intriguing is the obscurity of Swift’s own origins. His apparent father, a relatively lowly legal clerk, died before he was born. Yet money was made available for his education, after which he was taken into the Temple household in England. This was not accidental: the Swifts were “intimately acquainted” in Dublin with Temple’s father, Sir John. Johnston’s theory is that Sir John was in fact Swift’s father—making him, by blood, Stella’s uncle.

Damrosch hedges his bets, describing this as “perhaps a wild conjecture” that nonetheless “bears thinking about.” It is, in any case, no wilder a conjecture than most of what passes for psychological insight into Swift’s supposedly strange sexuality. It has the advantage, moreover, of rendering the more tortuous speculations redundant. If Swift and Stella were related (or, perhaps more to the point, if Swift suspected they were), their close but asexual relationship is simply what it appears to be: a profound and loving friendship. Damrosch, in turn, is liberated by the conjecture. He doesn’t need to plumb the depths of Swift’s supposed perversity, so he can concentrate on what he does very well: providing a clear, well-paced narrative of Swift’s literary and political career.

That career is itself fascinating enough. It is a tale of marvelously productive failure. Swift, like any normal man of high intelligence and forceful personality, wanted to make the most of himself. He hoped to be an Anglican bishop, even though he seems to have had very little religious belief. (Damrosch says that “there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of Swift’s faith”—A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels surely seem reason enough.) His loyal service to the church—and his satiric attacks on its enemies—were motivated by a mixture of personal ambition and a belief that, since all religions are hypocritical, it is as well not to allow religious differences to start wars.

He also wanted to be a powerful political figure: a status he came close to achieving through his links with the Tory administration of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, between 1711 and 1714. The collapse of all those hopes and his return to Dublin gave him the setting—marginal but urgent, relatively powerless but passionately engaged—for his greatest work, both as a political agitator and propagandist of genius and as a satirist with unparalleled powers of creative destruction. Damrosch tells this story with occasional repetitions and contradictions but for the most part with great energy and elegantly worn erudition. He restores to Swift the dignity he deserves, reminding us that the really shocking things about him lie not in his life but in his work.

In October 1984, when the Gaiety Theatre, a Victorian music hall in Dublin, held a gala performance to mark its reopening after refurbishment, the actor Peter O’Toole was invited to do the opening turn. He decided to read, slowly and deliberately, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” with its suggestion that the children of the Irish poor should be sold as food for their landlords, “who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

Some members of the audience began to heckle; others walked out. The state television station, which was broadcasting the show live, cut O’Toole off in the middle of the reading and went to an ad break. The Irish Times reported next day that it had received “a number of calls, which were preponderantly critical of O’Toole.” Swift would surely have been pleased that even after more than two centuries, his sharpest words were still unutterable in polite company. He might have wished it just so.