Poetry was never the form in which Jonathan Swift’s talents were exhibited at their greatest, but his incisive satirical wit made his verses a powerful political weapon and a strong defense of common sense and morality. His poetic works, as well as his prose, stand high in the ranks of Augustan writing.
Swift’s first poems were floundering attempts to master the rather formless Pindaric ode popularized by Abraham Cowley, but he soon discovered that the heroic couplet gave him the control and discipline he needed to compress his ideas for the greatest satiric effect. Even the early odes, however, products of the years when Swift lived at Moor, Park as secretary to Sir William Temple, show brief flashes of the poet’s characteristic, terrifyingly clear awareness of mankind’s hypocrisy, folly, and vice: Describing Philosophy in the “Ode to the Athenian Society,” he wrote:
More oft in Fools and Mad-menshands than SagesShe seems a Medley of all Ages,With a huge Farthingale to swell herFustian Stuff,A new Commode, a Top-knot, and aRuff,Her Face patch’t o’er with ModernPedantry.
By 1693, when he wrote his ode to the playwright Congreve, Swift had a clear idea of his mission as a poet:
’Twas in an evil hour to urge my hate,My hate, whose lash just heaven haslong decreedShall on a day make sin and folly bleed.
The view of vice and folly as physically disgusting, as well as morally repellent, that was responsible for the creation of the Yahoos in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS is also evident in the Congreve poem. The muse
Sham’d and amaz’d beholds the chat-t’ring throng,To think what cattle she has gotamong;But with the odious smell and sightannoy’d,In haste she does th’ offensive herdavoid.
Swift had found his true poetic voice in the couplets of the ode to Congreve, and he forced himself to even greater brevity and conciseness in many of his later poems by using a tetrameter rather than a pentameter line and speeding up his rhythm with the occasional use of trochaic feet. Both the brevity and the rhyme of his favorite verse forms lent themselves to the effective juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the trivial, the moral and the immoral in his satires. Typical of his experimentation with this juxtaposition is “Verses Wrote in a Lady’s Ivory Table Book,” where he notes:
Here you may read (Dear CharmingSaint)Beneath (A new Receit for Paint)Here (lovely Nymph pronounce mydoom)There (A safe way to use Perfume).
Much of Swift’s poetry was occasioned by particular events, especially those on the political scene. He often attacked, sometimes bitterly, sometimes humorously, public figures who had aroused his enmity, his contempt, or his amusement. Lord Berkeley, Lord Justice of Swift’s native Ireland from 1699 to 1707, was an early target; the poet ridiculed his stupidity and his dependence upon his secretary. The poet-architect John Vanbrugh fared worse than Berkeley as Swift attacked his grandiose building plans and his aspirations to be a dramatist in “Vanbrugh’s House”:
The Building, as the Poet Writ,Rose in proportion to his Wit:And first the Prologue built a WallSo wide as to encompass all.The Scene, a Wood, produc’d no moreThan a few Scrubby Trees before.The Plot as yet lay deep, and soA cellar next was dug below:But this a Work so hard was found,Two Acts it cost him under Ground.
The bursting of the “South Sea Bubble,” the economic crisis which followed wild speculative investing in a proposed trading venture, called forth more ridicule from the prophet of common sense. Here, as in his prose, Swift points out the essential absurdity of the scheme by giving physical form to an abstract concept, that of multiplying one’s investment ten times:
Ye wise Philosophers explainWhat Magic makes our Money riseWhen dropped into the Southern main,Or do these Juglers cheat our Eyes?Put in Your Money fairly told;Presto be gone—Tis here again,Ladies and Gentlemen, beholdHere’s ev’ry Piece as big as ten.
The poet’s concern for Ireland and his fury at the exploitation of her people and her lands by the English inspired many of his most powerful poems. In an epilogue to a benefit production of HAMLET he pleaded with the English audience to use Irish wool to help alleviate the dire poverty of the Irish weavers. During the 1720’s Swift used his verse, as well as the impassioned prose of THE DRAPIER...
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