Jonathan Swift Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3123

In 1689, Jonathan Swift, at the age of twenty-two, came to Moor Park to serve as secretary under Sir William Temple. It was to be Swift’s brush with gentility, polite learning, and aristocracy, and it served him well. As a raw, aspiring man of letters, the youthful Swift hoped to...

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In 1689, Jonathan Swift, at the age of twenty-two, came to Moor Park to serve as secretary under Sir William Temple. It was to be Swift’s brush with gentility, polite learning, and aristocracy, and it served him well. As a raw, aspiring man of letters, the youthful Swift hoped to make his name as a serious poet, and in this period, he composed a series of rather maudlin and certainly pedestrian poems that sought to soar in the panegyric strain, Pindaric odes in the manner of Abraham Cowley (and of John Dryden in his youth): polite but plodding celebrations and praises—to King William after the Battle of the Boyne (“Ode to the King,” 1690-1691), to a supposedly Learned Organization (“Ode to the Athenian Society,” 1692), to William Sancroft, to the successful Irish playwright William Congreve, and two effusions to Sir William Temple himself (all in 1692 and 1693). Like many young beginners, he was rather excessively enamored of his own productions (“I am overfond of my own writings . . . and I find when I writt what pleases me I am Cowley to my self and can read it a hundred times over,” he tells a relative in a letter of May 3, 1692), but by 1693 even Swift himself recognized the hopeless nature of this stiflingly formal and elevated gentlemanly verse, for he broke off rudely in the midst of his second Ode to Temple and renounced such a Muse forever.

Certainly, politesse and officious, gaudy, and Cavalier verse (already a mode passing out of date since the Restoration in 1660) were never to be Swift’s forte, yet even in these formal pieces there are some sparks and signs of the later Swift, for he could not restrain periodic outbursts of an inborn satiric temper as in “Ode to the Athenian Society”:

 She seems a Medly of all AgesWith a huge Fardingal to swell her Fustian Stuff, A new Comode, a Top-knot, and a Ruff, Her Face patch’t o’er with Modern Pedantry,  With a long sweeping TrainOf Comments and Disputes, ridiculous and vain,  All of old Cut with a new Dye. . . .

In a rather strained posture—even for a satirist—he let himself boast of “My hate, whose lash just heaven has long decreed/ Shall on a day make sin and folly bleed . . .” (“To Mr. Congreve”). In his poem to Congreve, in fact, he had recommended that the writer should “Beat not the dirty paths where vulgar feet have trod,/ But give the vigorous fancy room.”

Antipoetic practices

Within a year Swift would take his own advice and relinquish oppressive formal structures and grand studied compliments. Indeed, throughout the remainder of his career as a poet, Swift purposely eschewed all hints of genteel elegance, polite praise, or formal density. Thereafter, his verse was rough, chatty, and colloquial, deliberately informal, low in diction and in subject—scrupulously out of the beaten track of the faddish mode in verse, the heroic couplet. For the rest of his life, Swift’s poetry took its measure instead from the witty, learned, and coyly antipoetic practices of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678), making use of the almost singsong, Mother Goose-like octosyllabic couplet, pedestrian subjects, far-fetched rhymes, and coarse mien. In addition, Swift never indulged in the longer epical modes so much in favor in his day; his poems remained prosaic and short.

“Verses wrote in a Lady’s Ivory Table-Book”

Hence, in the next extant verse of Swift to appear (“Verses wrote in a Lady’s Ivory Table-Book”), the new mode is almost fully formulated and matured. He mocks the typical empty-headed young lady whose hall guest book is entirely scribbled over (by suitors and herself as well) with the muck of self-regard and of shallow tastes, flirtatious clichés, and torpid vanities; such “Brains Issue” the poet considers “Excrement”—and real gentlemen are warned to avoid such a tart:

Whoe’re expects to hold his partIn such a Book and such a Heart,If he be Wealthy and a FoolIs in all Points the fittest Tool,Of whom it may be justly said,He’s a Gold Pencil tipt with Lead.

A number of strategies in operation here are certainly worthy of note, for they remained Swift’s hallmarks throughout his career. First, Swift owes many of his themes to the Restoration and its stage themes of fops, seducers, and fashionable lovers; a frequent topic of his art is the idle, frivolous, vacant, and flirtatious city maiden and her mindless, posturing fop or “gallant.” Swift endows these conventional and even humdrum subjects with venomous sting: Such a woman is, in his imagery, no better than a whore, a prostitute of fashion, and her suitors are portrayed as perverse and impotent whoremasters: “tools” “tipt with Lead.”

Savage satire

Swift’s poetry transforms the polite inanities of social intercourse into monstrosities. His poetry gains all the more telling force precisely because of its seemingly innocuous outer clothing; bobbing along in quaint, informal four-footed lines, and immersed in chatty diction, the verse promises to be no more than light and witty. However, the images soon transform such poetry into a species of savagery. Swift once mildly observed in one of his poems that “Swift had the Sin of Wit no venial Crime,” and that “Humour, and Mirth, had Place in all he writ. . . .” It is true that Wit and Mirth are featured dramatically in virtually all Swift’s creations, but let no reader be lulled into expectations of mild pleasure and repose, for the Dean’s poetry often turns wit and humor deliberately sour.

“The Description of a Salamander”

A good example of this transformation may be observed in an early lampoon, “The Description of a Salamander,” a deliberate cold-blooded attack on Baron Cutts the warrior, who had been nicknamed the “Salamander.” In the poem, Cutts is metamorphosized into a salamander and reptile. Swift savors setting up the analogy, and does so with painstaking nicety:

. . . should some Nymph who ne’er was cruel,Like Carleton cheap or fam’d Duruel,Receive the Filth which he ejects,She soon would find, the same Effects,Her tainted Carcase to pursue,As from the Salamander’s Spue;A dismal shedding of her LocksAnd, if no Leprosy, a Pox.

Although this is an early effort, there is no doubt that Swift is adept at being ruthlessly unkind: words such as cheap, Filth, Spue, and Pox are staccato-like Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, and only seemingly simplistic. What is more, they are amassed with furious delectation and vigor. Nevertheless, the poem remains tightly contained, purporting throughout to be a calm, disinterested argument, a scientific demonstration, a precise comparison. Swift’s robustness arises precisely because he can interfuse the careful language of reasoning with the gross irrationality of nightmarish visions of infectious and loathsome vice and disease.

Classical influences

Needless to say, a number of Swift’s poems are less vicious, but there is always in them a certain flickering spark that implies imminent combustion. A number of his early poems are deliberate imitations or paraphrases of Horace, and others follow Ovid in telling a far-fetched story. Swift learns much from both of these classical authors about the manipulation of animal imagery, about the handling of diverse tones, and above all about sophistication: the juggling with diction, the juxtaposition of high and low styles, and the sly use of irony and indirection. Behind these deft usages is the potential adder and spike of the Swiftian assault.

City pastorals

Two companion pieces in this early period are almost universally admired: “A Description of the Morning” and “A Description of a City Shower.” Both are studied presentations, ironic, quiet, and steady, while they also demonstrate another of Swift’s strengths: parody. The two poems are species of City Pastoral, a mock-form that laughs at the fad of writing polite bucolic pieces about some never-never land of innocent shepherds and of the happy life in a pristine garden. Swift simply moves eclogues and idylls heavy-handedly indoors—and into the reeking, overcrowded, dirty London of the eighteenth century. The result (a frequent strategy in much of Swift’s verse) is polite Vergilian verse that is overcome by gross content: thieving swains, whorish nymphs, and maids and apprentices too lazy to do any work.

Exposing affectation

Swift likes nothing better than to puncture civilization’s postures, to divulge what Henry Fielding called affectation, and to blast holes in a nation’s language of hypocrisy, concealment, euphemism, and deceit. Such uncovering can take the form of exposé: polite, tedious love-verse that is merely a tissue of clichés is rigorously parodied and exposed by hilarious ineptitudes of language (“A Love Song in the Modern Taste”), or a gross physical deformity is laid bare as a “modern nymph” disrobes and reveals herself to be in the last stages of disintegration from syphilis (“A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed”). Swift would argue that false and impure language is exactly as viciously deceptive as ulcerous and pox-ridden physical reality. Both are instances of human-made corruption. With satiric glee, Swift loves to paint a running sore in technicolor.

Swift is not always savage, cunning, or voracious. Some of his most pleasant verse remains Horatian, and plays quieter games. An early piece, “Mrs. Harris’ Petition,” reveals his mastery of mimicry; he assumes the voice and exact intonations of a middle-aged busybody servant who has lost her purse—and considers that event the greatest cataclysm since The Flood. (For a similar tone of voice, consult “Mary the Cook-Maid’s Letter to Dr. Sheridan”). One of his longest poems in the early years, Cadenus and Vanessa is a masterpiece of coy indirection; one Esther Vanhomrigh had indiscreetly pursued the older Swift with some heat and passion: A polite and circuitous allegorical tale is used to cool her down and warn her off.

Poems to Stella

Swift is at times at his most elegant (if such a term may be applied to his hobble-footed, four-stressed, grossly rhymed lines) in a number of poems over the years (1719-1727) to Stella. These are usually poems on slight topics, birthday celebrations, or graver reflections in the later years on her growing illness. They are always light and bantering in style, polite yet quaintly backhanded with compliments, and sometimes almost insulting. Swift was a master not only of the direct attack but also of ironic indirection, and, following Vincent Voiture, he loved what he called “raillery”—a kind of bantering jest that paid compliments by seeming complaints and mock- or near-insults. A good example would be lines from “On Stella’s Birth-day 1719”:

STELLA this Day is thirty four,(We shan’t dispute a Year or more)However Stella, be not troubled,Although thy Size and Years are doubled,Since first I saw Thee at SixteenThe brightest Virgin on the Green,So little is thy Form declin’dMade up so largly in thy Mind.

The jesting continues until that last line, and so do the whimsical inaccuracies: Stella was not thirty-four (but older), and Swift had not first met her when she was sixteen (more likely at eight); she is obviously invited to wince at the trite phrases about bright Virgins, lofty queens, village greens, and sweet sixteens, for these are the pabulum of most pedestrian Muses (even today they thrive in popular lyrics and Hallmark cards). Finally, there is the innuendo about her girth—so paradoxically multiplied but nevertheless “So little . . . declin’d.” Swift could not resist in some way speaking the truth. Much of his verse is of this seriocomic, semiprivate nature (and includes epigrams, puns, some pig Latin, invitations to dinner, verse epistles, windowpane scribblings, and merest notes), but all of it has a certain effervescence—and the Stella poems are surely the most accomplished in this vein.

Political invective

Another body of poems, like the verse attacking Lord Cutts, consists of savage political invective, bred of the heat and animosity of factions, contentions, and parties. Some of the most acerb include a potent libel against Richard Tighe in “Mad Mullinix and Timothy,” a most vicious portrayal of the duke of Marlborough, the renowned Whig general (“A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a late Famous General”), and, in his strongest poem of this type, a savage libelous attack on the Irish Parliament, in “A Character, Panegyric, and Description of the Legion Club,” which indicts the group as a crowd of mad demoniacs. One of the most artful of these politically tinged poems incorporates themes about similar corruptions in the arts: On Poetry: A Rapsody. Like Pope’s Peri-Bathos: Or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), this poem purports to be a manual of instruction, a how-to handbook guiding one who seeks to become a degenerate modern-day political hanger-on and hack writer. The final implication is that most men are already so degraded, abject, and profligate that there ought to be no one, really, who needs such “helpful” advice. That is exactly Swift’s point: The so-called Age of Reason is in reality decimated and dissolute, the last, the Fifth or Iron Age of Vice (in Hesiod’s terms): the final stage of creation’s decline. Like Juvenal before him, Swift the satirist found it expedient to assume the worst about humankind’s propensity for deterioration and debasement.

Scatological poems

Perhaps Swift’s most renowned poems are his most shocking; they defame women, employ scatology, and have often been considered “obscene” and even “unprintable.” They use the typical Swiftian ploy of jolting the reader into paying attention by using paradoxes and coarse language, and they include in their number some of Swift’s best verse. On the borderline in this category are such fine poems as “The Progress of Marriage” and “Phillis: Or, The Progress of Love,” poems that speak in the crassest terms of ill-matched marriages, and which frankly wage battle against the trifling romantic slogans that presume that “true-love” and “feelings” and“good intentions” and “high hopes” will win out against all practical odds. Rather grimly, Swift shows—in gruesome detail—the fate of such marriages.

The most blatantly offensive of the scatalogical poems include “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” “Strephon and Chloe,” and “Cassinus and Peter.” Every one of these poems mocks the “double standard” that allows men to be most coarse in their everyday affairs and yet somehow naïve about the single topic of women (whom they place on pedestals in the tradition of courtly love). This self-deception leads inevitably to disillusionment, misery, and the destruction of lives, just as it has made for sheaves of tedious, lackluster love poetry. In Swift’s poems, rather dirty modern urban swains are baldly confronted with nymphs who defecate and stink (as do all people) and who in extreme cases are coming apart with syphilis and gonorrhea. The bane of Venus, in short, is that she is fetid and venereal. As a consequence of such a confrontation, the knavish and foolish men in these poems usually run mad—precisely as Gulliver does when he encounters man-as-Yahoo. The lesson applies as well to these dubious Lovers as it does to Gulliver: They are so easily unhinged because their minds never were screwed very well together; they have trained themselves—and society has trained them—to ignore or distort reality, to set up screens and shields and ideals—clouds of obfuscation that cut one off from everyday physical reality. Swift implies that if such men shut out actuality, they deserve the manure and laughter he heaps rather furiously on them. These verses deserve more consideration than they usually receive.

Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.

Swift’s most fruitful years span the period from 1730 to 1733, and special notice should be given to his masterpiece, the 484-line Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. In it, the Dean chooses to defend a rather nasty maxim by François La Rouchefoucauld asserting that adversities befalling our friends do not necessarily displease us. Here is a sterling opportunity to expose human perversity, and Swift rises to the occasion. He points out amicably that all people like to get ahead of their acquaintances, and especially of their friends. Then he commences to use a marvelous example to “prove” his case: the occasion of his own demise. Sure enough, as Swift would have it, all his friends in some way gloat over his passing. Even more curiously, enemies actually lament the Dean’s death. Before the poem is through, it is paradoxically worked out that only men “indifferent,” absolute strangers, can ever fairly assess one’s merits or judge one’s worth.

There is a further stickler that the reader should grasp in the thorny thicket of ironies infesting Swift’s delightful poem: All men do in some way indulge in self-aggrandizement; a man naturally exalts his ego over others, and does not mind in the least treading on toes (or heads) in the implacable urge to ascend. The last touch of irony includes even Dean Swift, who was so curiously “generous” in consenting hypothetically to “sacrifice” his own life so that he might win this argument. That is the very point: Swift, like the rest of humankind, will stop at nothing to salve his ego or to engineer a victory—even the most trifling triumph in a debate. Men will sacrifice friends, relatives, and even twist and convert enemies, so that they might, in Swift’s fond phrase, “lie uppermost.” Men are engendered in heaps; it is each one’s voracious inclination to climb to the top. Thus stands one of Swift’s most pleasing (and yet vexing) conundrums.

Critical response

For some two hundred years, Swift’s poetry was seldom taken very seriously; it was, after all, not in the mainstream of the poetry of his own day, and much of it was crass and vulgar in the bargain. Swift himself had contributed to this downplaying of his talents, typically paying himself a left-handed compliment: His verse, he reports in a prose addendum to a poem (“A Left-handed Letter to Dr. Sheridan,” 1718), is slight, for he composes with his “Left Hand, [when he] was in great Haste, and the other Hand was employed at the same Time in writing some Letters of Business.” More and more often, however, recent criticism has been coming to take that self-deprecation with a grain of salt. The truth is that Swift’s poetry is both dexterous and sinister—full of easy grace as well as of two-fisted power. His poems are disturbing yet pleasing, and growing numbers of readers are acknowledging that vexation and that pleasure. Perhaps the oppressive reality of warfare, terrorism, and recession has suggested that Swift and La Rochefoucauld came close to putting humanity in its place.

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