Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 1. Swift’s parentage and descent

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 1. Swift’s parentage and descent

SWIFT’S writings are so closely connected with the man that they cannot be understood properly without reference to the circumstances under which they were produced. The best way, therefore, of arriving at Swift’s views and methods will be to set out briefly the chief events of his life, and, afterwards, to consider the more important of his writings.

Jonathan Swift’s royalist grandfather, Thomas Swift, of a Yorkshire family, was vicar of Goodrich, and married Elizabeth Dryden, niece of Sir Erasmus Dryden, the poet’s grandfather. The eldest of his large family, Godwin, a barrister, went to Ireland, where he became wealthy; and some of his brothers followed him. One of them, Jonathan, who had married Abigail Erick, was made steward of the king’s inns, Dublin, but he did not live long, and, seven months after his death, on 30 November, 1667, his only son, Jonathan, was born. The widow was left dependent mainly on her husband’s brother, Godwin. A nurse took the child to Whitehaven, and kept him there three years; and, not long after his return to Dublin, his mother returned to her relatives in England, leaving the boy in his uncle’s care. He was sent to Kilkenny school, where he met Congreve; and, when he was fourteen, he was entered as a pensioner at Trinity College, Dublin. Why he afterwards felt so much resentment against his relatives is not clear; for his uncle gave him, not “the education of a dog,” but the best obtainable in Ireland. Swift was often at war with the college authorities; but he got his degree in 1685.