Jonathan Swift

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Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.

Jonathan Swift (30 November 166719 October 1745) was an Irish writer and satirist. Swift is probably the foremost prose satirist in the English language, although he is also well known for his poetry and essays.

Quotes[edit]

  • When I behold this I sighed, and said within myself, "Surely mortal man is a broomstick!" Nature sent him into the world strong and lusty, in a thriving condition, wearing his own hair on his head, the proper branches of this reasoning vegetable, till the axe of intemperance has lopped off his green boughs, and left him a withered trunk; he then flies to art, and puts on a periwig, valuing himself upon an unnatural bundle of hairs, all covered with powder, that never grew on his head; but now should this our broomstick pretend to enter the scene, proud of those birchen spoils it never bore, and all covered with dust, through the sweepings of the finest lady's chamber, we should be apt to ridicule and despise its vanity. Partial judges that we are of our own excellencies, and other men's defaults!
    • Meditation on a Broomstick (1703-1710)
  • Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.
    • The Battle of the Books, preface (1704)
  • Instead of dirt and poison we have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light.
    • The Battle of the Books, preface (1704)
  • Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.
    • A Tritical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind (1707)
  • There are few, very few, that will own themselves in a mistake, though all the World sees them to be in downright nonsense.
    • The Tatler No. 63 (September 1709)
  • And surely one of the best rules in conversation is, never to say a thing which any of the company can reasonably wish had been left unsaid…
    • Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation (1709)
  • 'Tis very warm weather when one's in bed.
    • Journal to Stella (November 8, 1710)
  • We are so fond of one another, because our ailments are the same.
    • Journal to Stella (February 1, 1711)
  • I love good creditable acquaintance; I love to be the worst of the company.
    • Journal to Stella (May 17, 1711)
  • …one enemy can do more hurt, than ten friends can do good.
    • Journal to Stella (30 June, 1711)
  • But nothing is so hard for those who abound in riches, as to conceive how others can be in want.
    • A Preface to the Bishop of Sarum's Introduction to the Third Volume of the History of the Reformation of the Church of England (8 December, 1713)
  • 'Tis an old maxim in the schools,
    That flattery's the food of fools;
    Yet now and then your men of wit
    Will condescend to take a bit.
    • Cadenus and Vanessa (1713)
  • Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
    • Letter to a Young Clergyman (January 9, 1720)
  • Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired...
    • Letter to a Young Clergyman (January 9, 1720), on proving Christianity to unbelievers
  • If Heaven had looked upon riches to be a valuable thing, it would not have given them to such a scoundrel.
  • So weak thou art, that fools thy power despise;
    And yet so strong, thou triumph'st o'er the wise.
    • To Love, found in Miss Vanhom­righ's desk after her death, in Swift's hand­writing
  • For, in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery: but in fact, eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt.
  • Libertas et natale solum:
    Fine words! I wonder where you stole 'em.
    • Verses Occasioned by Whitshed's Motto on his Coach (1724); the Latin indicates "liberty and my native land", and Whitshed was a chief justice enraged by The Drapier's Letters
  • A set of phrases learnt by rote;
    A passion for a scarlet coat;
    When at a play to laugh, or cry,
    Yet cannot tell the reason why:
    Never to hold her tongue a minute;
    While all she prates has nothing in it.
    • The Furniture of a Woman's Mind (1727)
  • For conversation well endued;
    She calls it witty to be rude;
    And, placing raillery in railing,
    Will tell aloud your greatest failing.
    • The Furniture of a Woman's Mind (1727)
  • Those dreams that on the silent night intrude,
    And with false flitting shapes our minds delude
    ... are mere productions of the brain.
    And fools consult interpreters in vain.
    • On Dreams (1727)
  • This evil fortune, which generally attends extraordinary men in the management of great affairs, has been imputed to divers causes, that need not be here set down, when so obvious a one occurs, if what a certain writer observes be true, that when a great genius appears in the world the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
    • Essay on the Fates of Clergymen (1728)
  • Not die here in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.
    • Letter to Bolingbroke (March 21, 1729); reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, 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.
  • A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
  • Yet malice never was his aim;
    He lashed the vice but spared the name.
    No individual could resent,
    Where thousands equally were meant.

    His satire points at no defect
    But what all mortals may correct;
    For he abhorred that senseless tribe
    Who call it humor when they gibe.
    • Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, l. 459 (1731)
  • Then gave him some familiar Thumps,
    A College Joke to cure the Dumps.
    • Cassinus and Peter: A Tragical Elegy (1734); reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Conversation is but carving!
    Give no more to every guest
    Than he's able to digest.
    Give him always of the prime,
    And but little at a time.
    Carve to all but just enough,
    Let them neither starve nor stuff,
    And that you may have your due,
    Let your neighbor carve for you.
    • Conversation
  • Under an oak, in stormy weather,
    I joined this rogue and whore together;
    And none but he who rules the thunder
    Can put this rogue and whore asunder.
    • Marriage Certificate. From the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, James Sutherland, ed. (1975), no. 77
  • Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse. Whoever makes the fewest persons uneasy is the best bred in the company.
    • A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding (1754, published posthumously)
  • Pedantry is properly the over-rating of any kind of knowledge we pretend to.
    • A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding
  • Pride, ill nature, and want of sense, are the three great sources of ill manners.
    • A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding
  • I can discover no political evil in suffering bullies, sharpers, and rakes, to rid the world of each other by a method of their own; where the law hath not been able to find an expedient.
    • A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding
  • Nothing is so great an instance of ill manners as flattery. If you flatter all the company, you please none; if you flatter only one or two, you affront the rest.
    • Hints on Good Manners
  • It is impossible that any thing so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by Providence as an evil to mankind.
    • Thoughts on Religion (1765), published posthumously
  • I shall be like that tree; I shall die from the top.
    • Predicting that he would go senile, as quoted in The Highway of Letters and its Echos of Famous Footsteps (1893) by Thomas Archer, p. 380
  • Reason is a very light rider and easily shook off.
    • As quoted in The World's Laconics : Or, The Best Thoughts Of The Best Authors (1827) by Johan TImbs, p. 25
  • Ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit
    • Translation: Where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.
    • Epitaph. Inscribed on Swift's grave, St. Patrick's, Dublin
  • Hail fellow, well met.
    • My Lady's Lamentation, The Poems of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Vol. II, edited by William Ernst Browning (1910); reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I 've often wish'd that I had clear,
    For life, six hundred pounds a year;
    A handsome house to lodge a friend;
    A river at my garden's end;
    A terrace walk, and half a rood
    Of land set out to plant a wood.
    • Imitation of Horace, book ii. Sat. 6.; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • How we apples swim!
    • Brother Protestants; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

A Tale of a Tub (1704)[edit]

  • It is a maxim, that those to whom everybody allows the second place have an undoubted title to the first.
    • Dedication
  • Seamen have a custom, when they meet a whale, to fling him out an empty tub by way of amusement, to divert him from laying violent hands upon the ship.
    • Preface
  • There are certain common privileges of a writer, the benefit whereof, I hope, there will be no reason to doubt; particularly, that where I am not understood, it shall be concluded, that something very useful and profound is couched underneath; and again, that whatever word or sentence is printed in a different character, shall be judged to contain something extraordinary either or wit of sublime.
    • Preface
  • Bread is the staff of life.
    • Preface
  • I have one word to say upon the subject of profound writers, who are grown very numerous of late; and I know very well the judicious world is resolved to list me in that number. I conceive therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers as with wells - a person with good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there: and often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and a-half under-ground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep upon no wiser reason than because it is wondrous dark
  • Books, the children of the brain.
    • Sect. 1
  • As boys do sparrows, with flinging salt upon their tails.
    • Sect. 7
  • He made it a part of his religion never to say grace to his meat.
    • Sect. 11

Thoughts on Various Subjects from Miscellanies (1711-1726)[edit]

  • We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.
  • Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.
  • A nice man is a man of nasty ideas.
  • Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.
  • What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not we are told expressly: that they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.
  • The Stoical scheme of supplying our wants by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.
  • The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable; for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit.
  • The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.
  • Positiveness is a good quality for preachers and orators, because he that would obtrude his thoughts and reasons upon a multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.
  • Politics, as the word is commonly understood, are nothing but corruptions, and consequently of no use to a good king or a good ministry; for which reason Courts are so overrun with politics.
  • Men are contented to be laughed at for their wit, but not for their folly.
  • Although men are accused of not knowing their own weakness, yet perhaps as few know their own strength. It is in men as in soils, where sometimes there is a vein of gold, which the owner knows not of.
  • Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices; so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping.
  • The reason why so few marriages are happy is because young ladies spend their time in making nets, not in making cages.
  • Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.
  • Invention is the talent of youth, and judgment of age…
  • I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.
  • No wise man ever wished to be younger.
  • The Bulk of mankind is as well equipped for flying as thinking.
  • Complaint is the largest tribute heaven receives, and the sincerest part of our devotion.
  • When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
  • The two maxims of any great man at court are always to keep his countenance and never to keep his word.[1]

Gulliver's Travels (1726)[edit]

He gave it for his opinion, that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
I said the thing which was not. (For they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood.)
  • He is taller by almost the breadth of my nail, than any of his court, which alone is enough to strike an awe into the beholders.
    • On the Emperor of Lilliput, in Voyage to Lilliput, Ch. 2
  • Big-endians and small-endians.
    • Voyage to Lilliput, Ch. 4
  • It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown.
    • Voyage to Lilliput, Ch. 4
  • I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.
    • Voyage to Brobdingnag, Ch. 6
  • And he gave it for his opinion, that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
    • Voyage to Brobdingnag, Ch. 6
  • He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.
    • Voyage to Laputa, Ch. 5
  • I said the thing which was not. (For they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood.)
    • Voyage to Houyhnhnms, Ch. 3
  • Poor Nations are hungry, and rich Nations are proud, and Pride and Hunger will ever be at Variance.
    • Voyage to Houyhnhnms, Ch. 5
  • A soldier is a Yahoo (man) hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.
    • Voyage to Houyhnhnms, Ch. 5
  • I told him...that we ate when we were not hungry, and drank without the provocation of thirst.
    • Voyage to Houyhnhnms, Ch. 6

On Poetry: Poetry, a Rhapsody (1733)[edit]

  • So geographers, in Afric maps,
    With savage pictures fill their gaps,
    And o'er unhabitable downs
    Place elephants for want of towns.
  • Where Young must torture his invention
    To flatter knaves, or lose his pension.
  • Hobbes clearly proves that every creature
    Lives in a state of war by nature.
  • So, naturalists observe, a flea
    Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
    And these have smaller still to bit 'em;
    And so proceed ad infinitum.
    Thus every poet, in his kind,
    Is bit by him that comes behind.

Polite Conversation (1738)[edit]

  • A penny for your thoughts.
    • Introduction.

Dialogue 1[edit]

  • Do you think I was born in a wood to be afraid of an owl?
  • 'Tis as cheap sitting as standing.
  • I won't quarrel with my bread and butter.
  • She's no chicken; she's on the wrong side of thirty, if she be a day.
  • She looks as if butter wou'dn't melt in her mouth.
  • If it had been a bear it would have bit you.
  • She wears her clothes, as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.
  • Promises and pie-crust are made to be broken.
  • I mean you lie—under a mistake.
  • Lord M. What religion is he of?
    Lord Sp. Why, he is an Anythingarian.

Dialogue 2[edit]

  • He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.
  • That's as well said, as if I had said it myself.
  • You must take the will for the deed.
  • Fingers were made before forks, and hands before knives.
  • She has more goodness in her little finger, than he has in his whole body.
  • Lord, I wonder what fool it was that first invented kissing!
  • They say a carpenter 's known by his chips.
  • The best doctors in the world are Doctor Diet, Doctor Quiet, and Doctor Merryman.
  • I'll give you leave to call me anything, if you don't call me "spade".
  • May you live all the days of your life.
  • I have fed like a farmer: I shall grow as fat as a porpoise.
  • I always love to begin a journey on Sundays, because I shall have the prayers of the church to preserve all that travel by land, or water.
  • I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.
  • I thought you and he were hand-in-glove.
  • Better belly burst than good liquor be lost.
    • Earlier proverb, quoted in James Howell's English Proverbs (1659)
      • Better belly burst than good drink lost.

Dialogue 3[edit]

  • 'T is happy for him that his father was before him.
  • There is none so blind as they that won't see.
  • She watches him as a cat would watch a mouse.
  • She pays him in his own coin.
  • There was all the world and his wife.
  • Sharp's the word with her.
  • There's two words to that bargain.

Quotes about Swift[edit]

  • Swift has a higher reputation than he deserves. His excellence is strong sense; for his humour, though very well, is not remarkably good. I doubt whether The Tale of a Tub be his; for he never owned it, and it is much above his worldly manner.
  • [...] giant and great as this Dean is, I say we should hoot him. Some of this audience mayn't have read the last part of Gulliver, and to such I would recall the advice of the venerable Mr. Punch to persons about to marry, and say, 'Don't'. When Gulliver first lands among the Yahoos, the naked howling wretches clamber up trees and assault him, and he describes himself as 'almost stifled with the filth which fell about him.' The reader of the fourth part of Gulliver's Travels is like the hero himself in this instance. It is Yahoo language: a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind -- tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.
  • As fierce a beak and talon as ever struck -- as strong a wing as ever beat, belong to Swift. [...] One can gaze, and not without awe and pity, at the lonely eagle chained behind the bars [...] An immense genius: an awful downfall and ruin. So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling.


Attributed[edit]

  • You beat your pate, and fancy wit will come;
    Knock as you please, there's nobody at home.
    • On a Dull Writer, reported in John Hawkesworth, The Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin (1754), p. 265. Alternately attributed to Alexander Pope by Bartlett's Quotations, 10th Edition (1919). Compare: "His wit invites you by his looks to come, But when you knock, it never is at home", William Cowper, Conversation, line 303
  • I know nothing of music; I would not give a farthing for all the music in the universe.
    • Observations on Lord Orrery's Remarks on Life of Swift, Delany, (1754), p. 192.
  • It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
    • Attributed to Swift in Scientific American, Vol. 7 (Munn & Company, 1851), p. 338; also in M. M. Ballou's Treasury of Thought (1884), p. 433, and several other dictionaries of quotations. According to the Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations (Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 270), this quotation is "not traced in Swift's works", and is thus "probably apocryphal".


Misattributed[edit]

  • There is, indeed, no wild beast more to be dreaded than a communicative man having nothing to communicate.
  • As love without esteem is volatile and capricious; esteem without love is languid and cold.
  • A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.
    • Alexander Pope, Thoughts on Various Subjects (1727), Published in Swift's Miscellanies (1727)

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