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Picture of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels; seventeenth century Irish Literature

November 30, 1667
Jonathan Swift   (1667 - 1745)
Jonathan Swift, Dublin's Child
by Steve King

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On this day in 1667, Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin. The exact location seems pregnant with significance: a few blocks this way was St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Swift would be Dean; much closer that way, almost his backyard, was Dublin Castle, representing the Englishness he would both covet and skewer; the specific address, his uncle's home at 7 Hoey's Court, almost perfect for perhaps the most famous scoffer in literature.

Swift's parents also seem to have been given portentous roles, or non-roles. His father died seven months before Swift was born. His mother left him in the care of his nurse at the age of one; with or without permission, she took him to live with her relatives in England, while the mother went to live with her own English family. The mother briefly reappeared and then permanently disappeared, passing the care-giving on to the Dublin Swifts. Whether all this truly gave Swift the detachment he needed for satire -- or, as some say, the maladjustment that would turn to misanthropy, scatology, etc. -- it seems to have given him dinner table material for a lifetime. His early adventures with the nurse, wrote Swift's nephew and early biographer, "gave occasion to many ludicrous whims and extravagances in the gaiety of his conversation," all turned in a semi-miraculous, Tristram Shandy direction. Something of all this is in Gulliver's second, near-fatal childhood among the giant Brobdingnagians:
    When Dinner was almost done, the Nurse came in with a Child of a Year old in her Arms, who immediately spied me, and began a Squall that you might have heard from London-Bridge to Chelsea, after the usual Oratory of Infants, to get me for a Play-thing. The Mother out of pure Indulgence took me up, and put me towards the Child, who presently seized me by the Middle, and got my Head in his Mouth, where I roared so loud that the Urchin was frightened, and let me drop, and I should infallibly have broke my Neck if the Mother had not held her Apron under me. . . .
The subsequent passage is often psychoanalyzed, as it features the man-child Gulliver-Swift's horror-fixation with the suckling of a six foot Breast. Swift tried to save the analysts such trouble, and to spit in their eye, by composing his own self-analysis in "Verses on the Death of Dr Swift." This concludes with these famous lines concerning his bequest to St. Patrick's psychiatric hospital, which lives on, though neighboring Hoey's Court is now gone:
    He gave the little wealth he had
    To build a house for fools and mad;
    And show'd by one satiric touch,
    No nation wanted it so much.
    That kingdom he hath left his debtor,
    I wish it soon may have a better.

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Related authors:  Alexander Pope, Cyrano de Bergerac, Francois Rabelais, John Dryden, Voltaire, William Congreve
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March 18, 2018
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