‘Portrait of Jonathan Swift (1675-1739)’ by Charles Jervas © Bridgeman Images

Jonathan Swift used to ridicule the idiotic “modern” idea of understanding writers through their biography. He thought it ridiculous to render writing contingent on disappearing moments and vanishing contexts. Instead, he believed that literature weathers history, unmarked by incidentals, imparting universal truths from one epoch to another. This, Swift thought, was why the “ancients” had lasted.

Even so trenchant a view has not, of course, saved Swift from biographers. John Stubbs’s gargantuan cradle-to-grave account is the most recent of many. On the bookshop table it looks like one of the tombstone lives that Lytton Strachey overturned. But while Stubbs acknowledges a particular debt to Leo Damrosch’s excellent Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (2013), through agile prose and erudition he also succeeds in offering something delicate, subtle and new.

Stubbs — whose previous books include a prizewinning biography of John Donne, The Reformed Soul (2006) and a group biography, Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War (2011) — opts here for a chronological structure, following Swift from his birth in Dublin in 1667 to his death in the same city in 1745. Yet along the way he continually probes the social, political and literary experiences that shaped Swift’s writing. Swift was always a writer-in-waiting. Even in early childhood, Stubbs finds an echo of Gulliver put on a show during his travels, “dancing and gamboling for the casual delight of astronomically large leering faces”. The first 30-odd years of Swift’s life are described by Stubbs as “the passive period”, during which he published nothing and suffered a great deal of humiliation.

Swift’s father died while Swift was in utero of a disease caught from a “foul bed”. The “cure” for syphilis, or “the itch”, was a mercury sweat bath, which deranged and disfigured those it did not poison outright. Stubbs argues that Swift seems not to have connected his father’s death with promiscuity or infidelity, but developed an obsession with dirt and cleanliness that runs like a sewer through his writing. In old age he wrote scathing verses on the courtesan Corinna, the “pride of Drury-Lane”, dismantling herself for bed: “Untwists a Wire; and from her Gums/ A set of Teeth completely comes. Pulls out the Rags contrived to prop/ Her flabby Dugs and down they drop.”

In Swift’s infancy, his wet-nurse took him on an impromptu trip to England and, according to his autobiographical account, his mother sent orders “by all means not to hazard a second voyage, till he could be better able to bear it”. So already half-orphaned, he was fostered in a foreign country for his first three years. Swift would always insist he was English, not Irish. When he returned to Ireland, he was a child prodigy, able to read any book of the Bible before he had received formal schooling. Education was one of his many resentments. He was sent to school in Kilkenny, where Irish Confederates had established a government in 1642. The city was ransacked by Cromwell’s forces and was afterwards “at the heart of plans to impose the Restored Anglican regime on the island”. Swift was a poor student, but continued on to Trinity College, Dublin, where he failed to distinguish himself.

He left Ireland again aged 21 to become secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat and distant relative, whose father, Sir John Temple, Master of the Rolls in Ireland, wrote The Irish Rebellion (1646), a lurid account including Protestants stripped naked and driven “like hogs” to places of execution, Irish children trained to kill English children, and a 12-year-old boiled alive in a cauldron. In William Temple’s household at Moor Park House in Surrey, Swift was introduced to more elevated circles, started writing though not yet publishing, and began the most significant emotional relationship of his life with Temple’s housekeeper’s eldest daughter, Esther (Stella) Johnson, aged eight when he first met her. In 1694 Swift left Moor Park for two years to be ordained back in Dublin. He returned gratefully in 1696 and began writing what would later be his first significant publication, A Tale of a Tub (1704).

Stubbs describes Swift reading Lucretius’s De rerum natura three times during this period of experiment in his writing. In A Tale of a Tub, Swift places Lucretius alongside Epicurus in a band of lunatic philosophers, but his attitude to the Roman poet remains ambivalent. Stubbs points out that “Lucretius’s sustained assaults on metaphysics and spiritualism manifestly had their attractions, given Swift’s contempt for evangelical freethinking”. In addition, Lucretius’s paradoxes of scale and reflections on the way the size of things that surround us, including our own bodies, limits our capacity to comprehend greater phenomena, might count as “one of the many hints Swift found in books, folklore and life for the big and small worlds of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.”

Swift continued his to-and-fro between Ireland and England, returning to Dublin after Temple’s death as chaplain to the second earl of Berkeley; moving back to London in 1701; and eventually becoming dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 1713. In a letter to Archbishop King, he described himself as “a Man floating at Sea”, a Ulysses of the Church who knew not what he might do if he ever found the shore. Without in any way reducing literature to biography, Stubbs concludes that “much of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is implicitly “about” Swift’s years as a ministry man”.

As soon as it was published, Gulliver’s Travels attracted “the wide spectrum of readers (and listeners) it has held for centuries now”. The first print run, expensively priced at 8s.6d., sold out in a week. Swift became hugely popular in Ireland as an opponent of the grinding poverty he found unacceptable. In Stubbs’s fine and sensitive book, he emerges an embittered, deeply humane man: someone who turned his own experience of abandonment and humiliation into a vicious literary scourge of the callous and powerful establishments of his time. Stubbs restores Swift’s writing to its rich religious and cultural contexts without diminishing its autonomy. Swift himself was buried in his own cathedral and wrote his own epitaph: “Go forth, Voyager,/and copy, if you can,/ this vigorous (to the best of his ability)/Champion of Liberty.”

Ruth Scurr is the author of ‘John Aubrey: My Own Life’ (Chatto)

Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, by John Stubbs, Viking, RRP£25, 752 pages

Photograph: Bridgeman Images

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