Today in Literary History – October 19, 1745 – Jonathan Swift dies

Jonathan Swift, the great Irish clergyman and satirist died on October 19, 1745, just short of his 78th birthday.

He is best remembered today for his fantastical adventure Gulliver’s Travels, a book I have loved for years, and for his black satire A Modest Proposal, where he matter-of-factly proposed that poverty in Ireland could be eradicated by the policy of eating babies.

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London,” he writes, in a famous passage, “that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

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Although born in Dublin Swift lived much of his life in London, returning to Ireland in 1713 to become dean of St. Patrick”s Cathedral.

Swift had been in poor health most of his life. He suffered from tinnitus, vertigo and intermittent deafness. Modern researchers presume that he had what is now known as Ménière’s disease.

He seems to have fallen into a severe depression after the death of his mistress and muse, Esther “Stella” Johnson, in 1728.

Later he developed gout; his deafness increased; his eyesight failed and he refused to wear eyeglasses and he was troubled by his faulty memory.

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Swift had always feared going mad and as his depression and dementia increased he became more and more irrational. In 1742 he seems to have suffered a stroke and stayed bedridden and stopped speaking.

When he did speak he was either incomprehensible or repeated the phrase “I am what I am, I am what I am.”

At his death he left money for the founding of a hospital for the mentally ill. He was buried next to his beloved Stella. W.B. Yeat’s translated the Latin on Swift’s tomb as:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

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