Five Fascinating Facts about Jonathan Swift

The life of Jonathan Swift told through five pieces of interesting trivia

1. Jonathan Swift invented the girls’ name Vanessa. The name Vanessa originated as Swift’s pet name for his friend and lover Esther Vanhomrigh (c. 1688-1723), who was over 20 years his junior. Swift wrote a poem, Cadenus and Vanessa (1713), about Esther/Vanessa.

2. He was a cousin of John Dryden. Dryden reportedly remarked to his distant cousin, ‘Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.’ Sure enough, it would be in prose – with such works as ‘A Modest Proposal’, A Tale of a Tub, and Gulliver’s Travels – that Swift would create his enduring legacy.

3. Swift coined the famous phrase ‘sweetness and light’. The phrase ‘sweetness and light’ was first used by Jonathan Swift 2Swift when he was defending the classics against the moderns in his essay ‘Battle of the Books’. The expression has a rather curious origin. Swift saw the classical writers (with whom he sided) as bees and the inferior moderns as spiders. Hence the honey and wax we get from the bees is ‘sweetness and light’.

4. His novel Gulliver’s Travels was a huge bestseller in its day. Swift’s most famous book, its full title was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. It was published anonymously in October 1726 and was a resounding hit right from the start. The book proved something of an instant bestseller: 10,000 copies were sold in the first three weeks.

5. He may have been the author of a 1722 essay called ‘The Benefit of Farting Explain’d’. He may also have been the author of a treatise on human excrement under the pen name ‘Dr Shit’. In truth, both pamphlets have been attributed to Swift but whether he was definitely the author of them remains unknown.

If you enjoyed these fascinating Jonathan Swift facts, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: Bust of Jonathan Swift at St Patrick’s Cathedral, photo by Andreas F. Borchert, Wikimedia Commons.

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