The posthumous child of an expatriate English lawyer, Swift was born in Dublin, where he remained after his mother returned to England when he was three. His uncle, who cared for him, sent him to school in Kilkenny, where Congreve was a fellow pupil. He attended Trinity College Dublin, but only managed to scrape through his degree in 1686.
In 1689, avoiding the Williamite wars in Ireland, he moved to England, and took up a position as secretary to Sir William Temple. This should have been the start of his rise to prominence in public life, but after this failed to materialise, he took an M.A. in Oxford in 1692, which allowed him to become a clergyman. Swift remained with Temple until 1684, reading, beginning to write, and acting as tutor to the eight-year-old Esther Johnson, better known as 'Stella'. He was ordained into the Church in 1694, and briefly took up a clerical position just outside Belfast.
Back with Temple, in 1696, he began The Battle of the Books, but when his patron died in 1699, Swift was left "unprovided both of friend and living", and was forced to return to Dublin, where he got a position in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and Stella soon joined him.
On several trips to England, he found himself increasingly popular in Whig circles, a position which was confirmed by his anonymous publication of Tale of a Tub in 1704. This brillantly witty satire on contemporary intellectual abuses brought Swift to remark, many years later, "What a genius I had when I wrote that book." In the following years, however, Swift dissociated himself from the Whigs, and became part of the circle of Tory wits by 1710. His reputation as the author of free-spoken attacks on religious hypocrisy prevented his being granted a bishopric, though the Tories were then in government.
He gained the deanery of St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1713, but regarded this as confirmation of his banishment from the circles of power and influence in London. Within a year, the Tories fell from power, and all hope was gone. He was joined in Dublin at this time by the wealthy, twenty-year-old Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he called 'Vanessa'. She fell in love with him, first encouraged by him, then rejected. Her presence in Dublin almost caused a rift between himself and Stella, and it appears he quarrelled violently with Vanessa shortly before her death from tuberculosis in 1723. The exact details of these emotional entanglements are obscure, despite the Journal to Stella and the long poem Cadenus and Vanessa. It is quite likely that he was secretly married to Stella.
Condemned, as he saw it, to a future in Ireland, Swift began to champion the rights of Ireland and the Irish against English abuses. He defended the cause of the Irish economy and, in The Drapier's Letters, he successfully opposed the imposition of a debased coinage on the country. This firmly established him as a hero of the Catholic poor of Dublin who are reported to have massed together to prevent his arrest.
Swift's complex personality is expressed through the many poems he wrote throughout his life, but these become much blacker in his later years. His anger and misanthropy were clearly legible in Gulliver's Travels, ironically famous as a childrens' classic on the basis of it's first part, the voyage to Lilliput. The horror at human society, evident in the Yahoos of the final chapters, is a very different matter. His satire of three years later, A Modest Proposal, which recommends solving in one stroke the twin evils of hunger and overpopulation by having the superflous children of the poor served as food to the wealthy, achieves an extraordinary intensity through its air of calm reason.
In 1728, Stella died, and Swift was abandoned to loneliness, illness, and an abiding fear of insanity. The giddiness and deafness which had always afflicted him grew more oppressive, and in 1742, declared "of unsound mind and memory", he was put into the care of guardians. On his death, three years later, he left �8000 to build a hospital for the insane, and for himself the epitaph "fierce indignation can no longer lacerate his heart."