Jonathan Swift’s Writing Motivations

Jonathan Swift was a man of many masks. In the ‘Letter to Middleton’, Swift wrote that ‘the common motives of writersâÂ?¦are profit, favor and reputation.’ This statement certainly bares some validity for all authors through the ages up to contemporary times. To some extent, Swift denies all of this personas, there is an element of truth and introspection to each of the masks he dons. These issue seem to be one of the more pertinent dilemmas for Swift as a writer, and while damning his contemporaries, he was actually writing a self-effacing apology for himself. Through examination of Swift’s work, one may note that how he changes, yet always displays some elements of seeking profit, favour and reputation throughout his literary life.

Swift’s writing career began with a much egotism that reflected his need to overcome the poverty of his youth and need to secure himself in the world. Childhood for the author was one of impoverishment and debt, and his education proved to be lackluster. In the spring of 1667, Swift’s father died in poor circumstances. As steward to the Society of King’s Inns, Dublin, his burial was paid for by the society he served. Only seven months later, Jonathan Swift was born from his mother-widow. Their existence was to be supported by the pittance that family members, such as his uncle Goodwin, were able to provide. In this manner he undoubtedly endured indignity from the impecunious state in which he was maintained by an uncle who seemed, but in reality was not, wealthy. Thus, his life began with misery, which would appear to be a common theme around his childhood. His education proved to be a series of tribulations that later would give him the need to prove himself worthy. At Trinity College Dublin, “He took his BA in February 1686, at the age of eighteen, speciali gratia” (Downie, 19), that is, he graduated by special dispensation. (He would eventually return to Trinity to receive his Doctor of Divinity) “Swift’s undergraduate career was hardly a distinguished one, and, without a doubt, embarrassing to the future Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin” (Downie, 20). Swift’s undergraduate work did not have establish him effectively by this stage in his life, however. His mother still resided in Leicestershire, where it was impossible for Swift to join her, being that she was recipient herself to the generosity of her friends. Therefore, Swift applied to Sir William Temple, a retired statesman-(who still held some impressive political favor), where he would remain at his residence at Moor Park for the next few years and received a modest salary. In the duration of Swift’s stay with Temple, “[He] declared that he was ‘ashamed to have been more obliged in a few weeks to strangers’ (that is to Oxford University for his MA), then he ever was ‘in seven years to Dublin College’. This is a typical piece of anti-Irish exaggeration, and Swifts attempts to present himself as an Oxford man are among the more distressing minor snobberies of his latter years” (Nokes, 13). Indeed, Swift was favorably received at Oxford. However, after his return from the university Temple seemed to interpret Swift’s desire for advancement as ingratitude. While born with the blood of an impetuous spirit calling him to greatness, for the very first years of his life Jonathan Swift felt the cruel hand of poverty shackling him down. Always a keen observer from his earliest days, Swift would never be content to shut his eyes and find happiness in slavery.

Being the second cousin to the well established poet John Dryden, Swift undoubtedly felt both the capability and need to take his stance in the literary world and cease being tussled as a toy in the universe. Between the summers of 1690 and 1691, an ambitious twenty-three year old Swift composed Ode to the King in honor of King William, presenting him as “the embodiment of goodness and greatness combined” (Nokes, 21). William represented for Swift the protestant power that would but things back in the right for Ireland. The over-ambitious Pindaric style was meant to flatter the King and thus earn Swift favor among the nobility of the occupying powers in a “shameless piece of place-seeking” (Nokes, 21). However, Swift was not quite the wordsmith that his second cousin John Dryden proved to be in this medium. “Swift clearly took [Ode to the King] very, even too, seriously. In most of the verse, he tends to express himself in a style which might suggest a maturity desired but not yet achieved” (McMinn, 5). He later confesses to his cousin Thomas in regards to his prose,

I have a sort of vanity, or Foibles, I do not know what to call it, and which I would fain know if you partake of it, it is (not to be circumstantiall) that I am overfond of my own writings. I would not have had the world think so for a million, but it is so, and I find when I writt that pleases me I am Cowley to my self and can read it a hundred time over�(Ibid., 8 [McMinn, 5])

Dryden, however, was reportedly unimpressed at his cousin’s early efforts. Upon viewing the work, he stated, , “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” (Although it may be argued that Dryden might have, or rather should have stated, that Swift would never be a Pindaric poet.) The remark was never forgiven or forgotten, for it was Dryden that Swift was trying to emulate-the favor and reputation that his soul still cried out for as an impressionable young man.

Swift needed to find a way to provide for his financial well being as well as support his status in anticipation of Temple’s growing displeasure. He returned to Ireland determined to enter the holy orders. Before being admitted a deacon, however, he was required to write to Sir William Temple for a certificate of conduct. Swift’s request was mixed with both prudence and pride, however, it was Temple’s reference (and the influence that he still carried) that permitted Swift’s progression into that of a Deacon. Nevertheless, Temple’s use for Swift was not quite over with. In 1698, Temple died, respectfully remembering his assistant in his will. More importantly then his money and legacy though, were Temple’s literary remains. These Swift was entrusted to edit. “He took advantage of hisâÂ?¦position to personally dedicate the Letters to King William, and write a preface in which he pays tribute to people in high places. This was no time for shyness or anonymity” (McMinn, 10-11). Swift was still seeking the favor of the King for the sole purpose of endearing himself to him. Therefore, at this age, Jonathan Swift is still seeking the favor and glory he desired as an aspiring author, and not quite as concerned with financial realms. Although the politics of economics will always ignite his imagination.

In later works in the early 1700’s that were of more artistic integrity, Swift continued to remain anonymous. However, in 1704 The Tale of the Tub and Battle of the Books appeared. The former presents an allegory of three sons who acted against the will of their father. “As a parody of ‘modern’ writing, A Tale of the Tub is intended to mock the emptiness and superficiality of contemporary English letters. By adopting the mask of a Grub Street hack trying to sell a story while constantly digressing, a story preceded and concluded by numerous literary formalities, Swift hoped to show the superiority of a classical literature which the hack despises” (McMinn, 15). Here Swift displays his credo for the abandonment of the pursuit of money through art. While also satirizing the conceits of the Church, it is the literary criticism that sparks the interest of most readers. Indeed, The Tale of the Tub quickly gave Swift the initial acclaim he was looking for, and placed him among the ranks of Addison, and Steele, thus lending Swift intellectual stimulation and companionship, in addition to an increasable ego boost. The work offended Queen Anne however, who forevermore would not concede to his having the diocese which he desired later in life. From this stage on in life, Swift was now fairly financially sound with his religious affiliations, his only need for advancement was to secure the right geography-in which England was usually his hearts desire. Favor was now something that needed to be approached via more subtle means, not through direct flattery, but through connections with political groups, literary circles, and societies elite. Only through these means could he secure the reputation as a great writer that he so coveted, and now seemed so close it was virtually palpable.

Swift was about to come into more power as a writer in his own right in the following years of his life. From having been a minor clergyman, and “after the frustration he experienced throughout the 1690s and during his visits to England in the first decade of the eighteenth century, while acting for the Church of Ireland in seeking remission of the First Fruits and the Twentieth Parts, Swift enjoyed the elating experience of finding himself not merely settled in London after 1710, but of being courted by Harley and the Tory Ministry, and of finding himself accepted as an equal by the leading writers of the day” (Ross, 82-83). His own works were praised, but also thought of as anti -Anglican and sacrilegious. He had still not lost the arrogance of his earlier works, however, his pride seems more justified at this stage. In The Description of a City Shower, Swift concludes his mock-georgic with: “Sweepings from Butches Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,/Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,/Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.” When the poem was reprinted in the Micellanies in 1711, “Swift added a footnote to these lines, explaining why Dryden and other poets in the reign of Charles II introduced these variations. He stated that they were the result of ‘Haste, Idleness and a want of Money!” (McMinn, 159). True to case, Swift had no more want for money, being financially secure in his position. While the parsimonious Swift, “refused to light a fire until 1 November, no matter what the weather” (McMinn, 54). He would always remain a prudent and frugal man, Swift commented in the Journal to Stella “I itch to lay out nine or ten pounds for some fine editions of fine authors. Bit ‘this too far, and I shall let it slip, as I usually do all such opportunities.” Therefore, once again Swift scorns profit, but he has yet to abandon his on yearnings for fame. He is so confident of his abilities at this stage, he just needs a greater audience to recognize it.

By 1710 the new print culture was fashionable, and Swift still held influence with politicians. Swift was to now encounter a metropolitan atmosphere with all the mixed emotions one would expect. Swift’s position as a gentleman writer is now a bit too accessible. He realizes his standing by now, but is still wondering if he made it as a writer, and still hoping for a career in England. “Swift realized only too well that in order to gain acceptance into the inner circles of English political and social life, he would not only have to possess exceptional qualities of mind and soul, but would also have to make these qualities of well-born, influential ‘spectators’ of the age” (Fabricant, 203). However, this pompous promenade proved to be problematic for Swift. The satirist who could never keep his thoughts away from political and economic concerns.

Swift’s pamphlets and tracts on Ireland began, and stayed, with practical and material questions of survival. Whatever political idealism we may confer on him, economy is the dominant theme. For someone who asserted that ‘Happiness is nine parts Wealth, and one part Health’, this attention to the material foundation of life is to be expected. Residence and observation in Ireland confirmed this skeptical realism. Economy seems an unpromising subject for such a literary talent as Swift’s, yet, as Ehrenpreis shrewdly observes, ‘Money was always a key that unlocked his imagination’. Swift found many fictional designs for this subject and, most ingeniously, was able to relate them to the satirical fantasies of his early writing (McMinn, 99-100).

Certainly, there would be plenty of economic issues that were about to erupt in Ireland that would prove to be the outlet for a wealth of Swift’s creative energies. There were a plethora of characters that earned his abhorrence, both political and professional, and one by one they felt the lash of his pen; Wharton, Somers, Marlborough, Sunderland, and Goldolphin. His writings earned him more enemies then perhaps he originally anticipated, and with more disappointments around the horizon, “the quarrel between Harley and St. John, the collapse of the Tory Ministry, and the death in August of 1714 of Queen Anne-gave rise to reiterated determinations to leave England for Ireland, and frequent assertions of the pleasures of retirement” (Ross, 83). He eventually did return to a quiet life with his lady loves in Ireland, however it was all too brief, and Ireland’s economic troubles would soon lead him away from afternoons of socializing. In 1720 his indignation in regards to the treatment of Ireland exploded in A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufactures, in Clothes and Furniture of Houses, &c. The proposal was well received. Despite the economic stance of the piece, it read as a political attack on relations with England. Therefore, it stirred the anger of authorities to the point where the printer was prosecuted. Here, Swift lacks the political favor that he used to crave so keenly. However, there is a new reputation of a great political activist at stake. Today’s terrorist is tomorrows martyr.

The Drapiers Letters are just as much as a self-effacing apology as they are a damnation of those who have earned Swift’s abhorrence. The phrase “Do you good” in Drapiers Letters in comparison to “Sure there is some wonderous joy in doing good” in Ode to the King bear echoes of one another, but now Swift is on another pole . In the Drapier’s letters, it is Swift who is doing the good, where in Ode to the King it was pure pandering to the power of the monarch. This shift is extremely important in that he has moved from endorsing the government position to damning it. Additionally, he has realized his potential as a public speaker and is at the same time when he states, “I speak in general, from the Drapier down to the maker of ballads;” speaking specifically of himself. Therefore, when Swift enters the issues of the common motives of writers being that of “profit, favour and reputation” he is indeed also referring to himself, as much as he tries to dismiss this subsequently in the text. His literary life proves this. It is ironic and odd that Swift did not use his own voice as a clergyman. Although there were internal politics within the church and its leaders still fought among themselves, the church and state were still very much together. Interestingly enough, only about half a dozen of Swifts sermons survive-none of which were published in his lifetime. Swift felt that the clergy’s position was to ‘tell the people their duty, and convince them it is so.’ “Through a variety of rhetorical, particularly satiric means, Swift again and again turns the tables-or to be more precise the eyes-on his beholders/oppressors and subjects them to the same imperious and humiliating scrutiny he himself had to endure as part of his daily existence” (Fabricant, 203).

Swift’s economic pursuits continued, and in 1723 a Mr. Wood acquired a patent to coin 180,000 pounds of copper for the use of Ireland, by which he would have made enormous gain at the cost of the people. Swift’s response came in the 1724 Drapier’s Letter, and ultimately, the government yielded. Wood’s patent was surrendered for a yearly grant of 3000 pounds for twelve years. Although, however, Swift achieved an economical success, the victory was not as political an achievement as Swift would have desired. Therefore, as the rest of the world applauded, Swift fell into despair, feeling that his life’s work was for naught.

At this stage Swift abandoned some of his need for a prestigious reputation. He produced his ‘scatological poems’ in the early 1730s. Prose “which have done more to blacken his reputation with later generations then anything else he wrote” (Nokes, 365). However, these verses are for the most part about the art of writing itself, and when one lifts the veil of the grotesque, some genuine commentary about the superficiality and pretentious nature of writing can be revealed. Swift had not abandoned his integrity for a few chuckles, he was just letting go all pretense and letting stretching satire to the up most limits. However, one of the more lasting versions of his prose also occurs around the same time period, those being Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift-first appearing in 1731, of which there are many additions. “Many people have expressed a desire to read their own obituaries. Swift went one better and wrote his. He also wrote his own epitaph” (Nokes, 362). Swift was determined, even while questioning his own purpose on earth, to declare it for himself-to claim his own reputation.

Swift swayed with the experiences life presented him. While he does not appear to be very culpable in the area of profit as a motive for writing, after his impetuous younger years had run their course, he is however, more so guilty of coveting ‘favour and reputation’. Primarily, favor became an issue that evolved for Swift from seeking political prestige to a valuable tool used as a means to access a wider audience to achieve his political goals. However, reputation is a key factor that Swift was incapable of turning from, even as his life approached near dementia. As the illustrious epic poet John Milton states in Lycidas,

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. (70-71)

However, just as the character of Phoebus was quick to point out in Milton’s prose, the glory did not end for Jonathan Swift after his death. He will be forever studied, followed and celebrated, as one of the greatest writers of all time. Despite how torn his motivations might have been.

Works Cited

Douglas, Aileen, Patrick Kelly, and Ian Campbell Ross. Locating Swift. Dublin: Four
Courts Press, 1998.
Downie, J.A. Jonathan Swift: Political Writer. London: Routlege & Kegan Paul plc., 1984.
Fabricant,Carole. Swifts Landscape. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1982.
Kelly, Ann Cline. Swift and the English Language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
McMinn, Joseph. Jonathan Swift: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd, 1991.
Nokes, David. Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed. London: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Ross, Angus and David Woolley (eds), Jonathan Swift. London: Oxford Authors, 1984.

Richard Rodino and Hermann Real, eds., Reading Swift: Papers from the Second
M�¼nster Symposium on Jonathan Swift. Munich: W. Fink, 1993.

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