On Poetry: A Rhapsody

by Jonathan Swift

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

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 “old experienc’d Sinner” speaks the voice and point of view of Satan, who eternally wants to put self before God. Swift wants readers to ask who is the oldest and most experienced sinner, and whether one should follow his advice.

In the worldview of Swift’s poem, how many people are being foolishly willful in trying to be poets when they are not? Line 282 gives a specific number. The hack poets “Amount to just Nine thousand Souls.” This number, as large as it is, would seem to amount to a small percentage of society as a whole. Yet, reminding oneself about the size of the reading public for even the most popular literary works of the first three decades of eighteenth century England, it seems clear that Swift intends to say that all readers are trying to be writers.

How many people tend to put their will before God’s will? The poem begins with these lines: “All Human Race wou’d fain be Wits,/ And Millions miss, for one that hits.” He immediately follows these opening lines with a reference to Edward Young’s satiric seven-part poem The Universal Passion (1725-1728): “Young’s universal Passion, Pride,/ Was never known to spread so wide.” Finally, then, On Poetry: A Rhapsody is important in the body of Swift’s writing not because it attacks hack writing as disrespectful of the divine source of true poetry but because it intends to show each reader that selfishly putting one’s will before God’s, especially in the matter of life’s work, is a disaster for humans and for the world.

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