Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
On one important level, “Stella’s Birthday, 1727” is Swift’s heartfelt tribute to a much-loved and dying friend. Yet, like virtually all of Swift’s works, “Stella’s Birthday, 1727” contains satiric elements that allow the central message of the poem to operate on a more universal level. The speaker’s voice is both intensely personal and broadly didactic. One of the central issues raised in the poem is the importance of virtue, “by all sages understood/ To be the chief of human good.” The poet thus paradoxically uses the twin occasions of Stella’s forty-seventh birthday and her impending death to reflect broadly on the importance of a virtuous life well lived.
The Stella of Swift’s poem is a model of rectitude, courage, and moral decency, and, as such, she stands as a shining example to all human beings. Stella’s willingness to place the needs of others before her own, her devotion to truth and honor, her many charitable deeds, and, above all, her keen understanding of what it means to be a friend all mark her as an individual of the highest moral character and thus worthy of emulation. Swift’s personal anguish at the thought of losing so beloved a friend ultimately contains a larger message: that true virtue is an irreplaceable commodity and that those who possess it, such as Stella, need always to be reminded of their value to others. In the concluding lines of the poem, Swift pays lasting tribute to a woman he regarded as the embodiment of virtue, decency, and moral rectitude, a woman he once described, in On the Death of Mrs. Johnson, as having “all the softness of temper that became a lady, [and] the personal courage of a hero.”