Jonathan Swift

Stephen Kinsey

I had the honour to be for some years a student at Oxford

Jonathan Swift wrote these words in 1734, at the age of 68. In fact, his time as an matriculated member of the University was rather brief. He was entered at Hart Hall in Trinity term 1692 and took his MA in July that year. But he had a cousin at another college at the time and may have been in the habit of visiting friends at Oxford for a longer period than this. At any rate, since he was proud to allude to his time at Hart Hall, and was one of the finest prose writers of his own or any age, I feel that we should be happy to claim him too.

Swift needed a master's degree in order to be ordained as a clergyman. This was not his first choice of career but one which he might fall back on if he did not advance in the political world and which in the meantime would provide some financial security. His grandfather had been an Anglican priest; his father had died before he was born, and so the family was not well off. After his brief spell at Oxford he returned to the household of Sir William Temple at Moor Park near Farnham in Surrey where he had been a kind of domestic secretary since graduating from Trinity College, Dublin some years before. He wrote some rather bad poetry there, apparently inspired by admiration of his patron, but Sir William, a retired diplomat, was rather too much of a political has-been to be of use in promoting Swift's career. Although it meant the loss of his secretary and his niece’s tutor, he nonetheless provided a testimonial for Swift’s first appointment as an assistant priest in Kilroot, in the run-down (Anglican) Church of Ireland, perhaps suspecting that Swift would return to Moor Park after a year or two of boredom, which he did.

When Temple died in 1699, Swift, who had continued to write, began editing his former patron's memoirs for publication. Eventually, however, as his only opportunities for financial independence seemed to be ecclesiastical ones, he took a post as a parish priest in the diocese of Derry at the age of 32. He stayed in Ireland long enough to finish and then publish A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books (1704), displaying what Dr. Johnson later called his 'vehemence and rapidity of mind' and mocking both religious fanaticism and the pretensions and ephemerality of modern literature.

In the following ten years, he returned regularly to England and became friends with Alexander Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, William Congreve (with whom he had been at school) and other literary figures. They formed a group of writers who called themselves the Scriblerus Club. After becoming Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713, he remained chiefly in Ireland. His politics were, for the times, a curious blend of Tory and Whig, and he could be fiercely anti-establishment. He was celebrated as an Irish patriot following the publication of the Drapier Letters in 1724. William Hazlitt was later to say that he could forgive Swift for having been a Tory because his political sentiments had died with him, leaving much else '...of a solid and imperishable nature'.

He meant particularly Gulliver’s Travels (1726) which enabled nineteenth century readers to treat Swift principally as a novelist rather than a poet or pamphleteer. Thus Swift’s reputation survived the political changes and the shifts in literary tastes of the following centuries. When he died in 1745 after a sad decline, it was said that a hush fell over Dublin, so highly was he regarded.

How much actual studying Swift had to undertake for his MA 53 years earlier is not clear. He certainly read and learned a great deal in the library at Moor Park, both before and after. But his time at Hart Hall did at least provide a foundation for his subsequent career, as well as the basis for some harmless boasting in his old age.