Summarize the poem " A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General, " by Jonathan Swift.

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem, a sort of parody of an eulogy, was written following the death of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough in 1722. The Duke, who was intimately connected to royalty, was viewed by Swift (no fan of military men in general) as an unscrupulous man who had amassed wealth through war-profiteering. The poem begins with a response one might expect to the death of a public figure in eighteenth-century Britain:

Churchill is dead! And in that Word is lost/the bravest leader of the bravest host...through half the sever'd Globe obtain'd Renown/and with its brightest Gems adorn'd the British crown...

Swift soon makes it clear that he has little use for Churchill, observing that the world would have been a better place if he had died earlier:

'Twas time in conscience he should die/This world he cumber'd long enough/He burnt his candle to the snuff;/And that's the reason, some folks think,/He left behind so great a stink.

This passage is vintage Swiftian satire, using the image of a candle burned to the end and smoking, along with the smell of a death-chamber, to indicate that the legacy the Duke left behind, in the final analysis, stinks. He goes on to show that the death of the Duke should demonstrate to the high and mighty that death is a great leveller. Churchill, in the end, took all of his honors with him to the grave: "Let pride be taught by this rebuke/How very mean a thing's a Duke..." 

droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The clue to understanding this poem is in its name: a satirical elegy. Swift, renowned as a master of satire, uses his cutting wit in this poem to issue a warning to statesmen and others who, like the Duke in the poem, make themselves so unpopular in life that they "made [people] weep before they died," and thus will garner no mourners at their funerals.

The first stanza of the poem is a pastiche of a more standard elegy or eulogy, declaring disbelief at the Duke's death and sadness that such a great warrior should have gone out "so inglorious, after all." However, Swift quickly follows up on this with the comment that when the noise of the "final trump . . . grows stronger / He'd wish to sleep a little longer," suggesting that when the Duke becomes aware that he is about to meet his God, he will have no desire to do so, fearing the outcome.

Evidently, Swift has no love for this Duke, who "this world . . . cumbered long enough." He also states that this was a commonly held opinion of the Duke, who received no "widow's sighs, nor orphan's tears"—he had caused these people such grief in life that they were delighted he was dead. And so, Swift says, other nobles, only "bubbles raised by breath of kings," should be "taught by this rebuke / How very mean a thing's a Duke." A duke, if he should live his life badly, Swift says, will die ignominiously and without his "ill-got honours" as he returns, like all of us, to dirt.