Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In this poem, Swift emphasizes the need to follow one’s true vocation, especially if that vocation is not poetry. Does he do this simply to promote personal satisfaction or a sense of individual well-being? The clear choice as Swift presents it in this poem is either to put one’s own will first, which eventually leads to moral disaster and atheism, or to put God’s will first. To choose one’s true vocation is to be in harmony with God’s will and to contribute to God’s kingdom on earth by pursuing God-given work as directed by one’s natural abilities.

The poem ends in atheism because the “old experienc’d Sinner,” who becomes narrator of the rest of the poem after line 70, and who at first seems to be Swift’s playful way of referring to himself as a sixty-six-year-old poet, is instead Swift’s satiric antithesis. The new narrator, in effect replacing Swift, is introduced with these lines: “How shall a new Attempter learn/ Of diff’rent Spirits to discern”? Swift, as a Christian minister, believed that only God can discern spirits. Anyone claiming this ability is engaging in blasphemy. The lines that follow seem to limit the reference to spirits simply to the writing and judging of poetry: “And how distinguish, which is which,/ The Poet’s Vein, or scribling Itch?” The new narrator’s real point of view is revealed throughout the poem by his perpetually advising hack poets to put their own wills before God’s will. This...

(The entire section is 525 words.)