Did Jonathan Swift go mad?

Counter-Enlightenment Figures Read more from
Chapter The Enlightenment Period

Some thought he did, based on the scatological and prurient interests that his later writings expressed. For instance, in his 1732 poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” after morbidly describing a long list of disgusting physical effluvia from a woman’s process of cleaning, grooming, dressing, and applying makeup, he wrote at the end: “Disgusted Strephon stole away / Repeating in his amorous Fits, / Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

At the same time, Swift also wrote another strange poem, “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” which is about a woman who repulsively removes all the parts of herself, including prostheses, that made her seem attractive. Swift apparently had an obsession about the falseness of women. Although he was a priest in the Anglican Church, he had a 17-year love affair with Esther Vanhomrigh, a former tutee, whom he rejected for the younger Esther Johnson, known in his writings as “Stella.” Esther Vanhomrigh, or “Vanessa” to Swift, was the friend who left money to George Berkeley (1685–1783). She died soon after Swift finally rejected her. Esther Johnson also died young.

In 1742, Swift was pronounced of unsound mind and memory, incapable of looking after himself or his affairs. When Swift died in 1745, he left his estate to found an insane asylum, but he was apparently not insane from psychological causes. Rather, he had labyrinthine vertigo, known as “Ménière’s Disease,” a physiological ailment that was not well understood in his day. His final words were, “I am a fool.” Swift’s Latin epitaph reads in English: “When savage indignation can no longer torture the heart, proceed, traveler, and, if you can, imitate the strenuous avenger of noble liberty.”


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