Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. was written toward the end of Swift’s creative life, with almost all his famous work behind him. Despite its irony, it stands as an apology for his life and work, a looking back with various regrets and satisfactions. However personal it may appear, it has models in classical and contemporary literature. Its themes of friendship, death, and the transitory nature of fame suggest the satires of the Roman poet Horace, which both Swift and Pope imitated. A theme more significant to Swift, however, one consistently involved throughout his writing, was his belief that humans are innately sinful and degenerate, the lowest of all God’s creatures, a view derived from the religious doctrine of the Fall of Man and one which he found to be true by common observation.
Rochefoucauld’s cynicism pales before Swift’s savage attacks on human nature. As the king of the Brobdingnagian giants said to Gulliver after European culture had been described to him, “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.” The whole of Gulliver’s Travels is a violent attack on pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins and the origin of all other sins because it is the condition of humans putting themselves above God.
Because of his terrible strictures against human nature, Swift was often charged with misanthropy. A final irony is that Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. presents a Swift, who, by embracing Rochefoucauld’s maxim, actually moderates his anger toward human nature. As the Latin epitaph he wrote for himself states, in translation, the dean lies in a place “where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart.”