Thorn in the side of the British government
Swift’s satirical writing made him a thorn in the side of successive British governments in the first half of the 18th century.
His Drapier’s Letters poured scorn on plans to provide the Irish with new copper coinage. Critics, including Swift, feared the currency would be debased by the use of cheaper metals.
Drapier’s Letters were written anonymously and swayed opinion so far against the government that it offered a reward to find the identity of the author.
It was an open secret in Dublin that Swift wrote the letters but no one gave him away.
The government was so rattled by Swift’s attacks that it had to hire the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton to verify the value of the new copper coinage.
A Modest Proposal – why not eat children?
In A Modest Proposal, Swift satirises attempts by the British Government to reduce the burden that the Irish poor placed on the state. Swift’s deliberately outrageous solution is to reduce the number of poor by using their children as food for the rich.
He wrote: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food…”
The public loved the way Swift punctured the pomposity of the rich and powerful, and his writing was very successful. Although he was from the Anglo-Irish tradition, he came to be seen as an Irish patriot.
Letters to Stella and Vanessa
Swift maintained friendships with several women throughout his life. The two most prominent were Esther Johnson, who was given the name Stella in a series of letters published by Swift called The Journal to Stella.
The nature and seriousness of the relationship is uncertain. There was a rumour that they secretly married but this has never been proven.
Swift also maintained a close relationship for many years with Esther Vanhomrigh who he referred to in his writings as Vanessa. She became the inspiration for his poem, Cadenus and Vanessa.
Both the poem and letters between the two suggest they may have been infatuated with each other but nothing is known for certain.
Descent into old age and senility
Swift suffered from vertigo and nausea for most of his life. The cause was unknown at the time but it’s now thought he suffered from Meniere’s Disease.
This plagued him more and more as he got older and his memory started to fail prematurely. He foresaw his fate and wrote that he would “wither from the top” meaning that his mind would fail before his body.
By 1738, it’s thought Swift was suffering from senile dementia. He later suffered a stroke and guardians were appointed to look after his affairs. He died on October 19 1745. He was buried at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, alongside Esther Johnson, as he had requested.
He left £12,000, a huge fortune in those days. His will stipulated that the money should be used to found a hospital for the mentally ill. It still remains as a psychiatric hospital in Dublin.
Swift’s reputation has survived the passing of time and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest satirical writers of the 18th century.
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