The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jonathan Swift’s On Poetry: A Rhapsody consists of 494 lines of iambic tetrameter couplets that satirize the relationship of poetic inspiration, vocation, and flattery of those in positions of political power, both kings and prime ministers. The poem dramatizes the corrupting results of misplaced human ambition that ignores one’s true aptitudes and that transforms poetry from an inspired art form into a debased and chaotic utterance.

In the first verse paragraph of the poem, animals are presented as wiser than people because animals follow their natural abilities. A human being is “the only Creature,/ Who, led by Folly, fights with Nature.” This human folly involves seeking work where one’s “Genius least inclines.” The first seventy lines of the poem examine this destructive desire to reject one’s proper vocation by presuming to become a poet. Swift insists in the second and third verse paragraphs that all other careers, whether in government, law, or science, require less “heavenly Influence” than poetry. However, if poetry is a heavenly pursuit for true poets, who receive little or no money or public respect, for those who have misjudged their abilities, writing poetry involves a series of trials that cannot be won and a curse from which there is no escape. This dire “Fate” comes from Apollo, the god of poetry and prophecy: “whom Phebus in his Ire/ Hath blasted with poetick...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Swift’s admiration of the first century b.c.e. Latin poet Horace, a father of satire in English literature, is revealed in a number of important ways in Swift’s poem On Poetry: A Rhapsody. Horace’s persona or narrator in his satires was often mocked, along with the people at whom the satire was aimed. The narrator in Swift’s poem, an “old experienc’d Sinner,” receives his share of savage, if understated, irony.

A second and major influence on Swift’s poem is the prescriptive poetics of Horace’s Ars Poetica (17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry). In this work the Roman poet teaches the arts of poetry and criticism and instructs writers about how to know their poetic strengths and how to revise copiously and strenuously. An example of a poetic structure that needs revision is “Similes that nothing fit.” Soon after this line, Swift uses three similes that satirize the use of combined epithets, which are in practice mere lists to fill up space, “Like stepping Stones to save a Stride,” or “like a Heel-piece to support/ A Cripple,” or “like a Bridge that joins a Marish/ To Moorlands.” In this section of the poem where the narrator, speaking in his satiric voice, is telling poets how to improve poetic technique after producing three failed poems, the list of simile epithets is used to lead to and provide comparison with lines of discordant...

(The entire section is 524 words.)