In what ways do we see Jonathan Swift's poetry as a critique of his society and the time in which he lived and wrote?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Jonathan Swift was certainly well known for satirizing British society. To satirize is to use comedy to expose and criticize something, especially society. While one of his best socially satirical works is his essay A Modest Proposal, there are certainly several poems that also satirize society.

One example can be seen in his poem "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General." Here, Swift uses the theme of the death of a famous general to satirize society's understanding of greatness. Swift lived in a period when war was still considered to be glorious and those who died in war would have also been glorified as heroes. However, Swift is pointing out the irony that society often failed to recognize greatness if that person died outside of war, even if the person has accomplished so much for his country during war, like a general, making him a famous general. Swift's point can best be seen in his opening lines:

His Grace! impossible! what, dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that might warrior fall,
And so inglorious, after all?

He continues to satirize his society's common understanding of greatness by describing that the townspeople absolutely would not shed a tear over this famous general's death, simply because he died of old age and not in war. Hence, Swift is arguing here that he should have been treated with greater honor because of all of his noble accomplishments during his life, despite the fact that he did not die at war. Overall, Swift is commenting on the hypocrisy, arrogance, and foolishness of his society.

Throughout Swift's poetry, we can certainly see other criticisms of society as well.