The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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.

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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 Fire.”

Beginning in verse paragraph 6, the narrator refers to himself as an “old experienc’d Sinner” who will give advice to new poets. They are told to choose the genre that moves them most; to revise carefully; to print the poem in a “modish Dress”; to observe, anonymously, how it is judged at coffeehouses such as “Will’s”; and to try a second and third time if their first attempt is unsuccessful. If still unsuccessful after a third poem, the narrator urges honest poets not to throw away their pens but to forget fame and artistry and to become poets for sale. Such poetasters are transformed into hack writers by learning that the “vilest Verse thrives best at Court” and that flattering kings and prime ministers will “never fail to bring in Pence.”

The rest of the poem, like the attitude expressed in fellow poet Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (1728-1743), satirizes hack poets, in a line in which Swift echoes Pope, as “Dunces, Fools, and Sons of Whores.” The narrator complains that these deluded poets refuse to admit what they are: “O, Grubstreet! How do I bemoan thee,/ Whose graceless Children scorn to own thee!” Also like his friend Pope’s Dunciad, Swift’s poem includes personal attacks on poet laureate Colley Cibber and many other bad poets but is not limited to satiric poetry of personal abuse. Swift attacks the poetic vices of flattery and “Lewdness” not only because they degrade poetry, for him in its true form the most divinely inspired kind of writing, but also, most important, because it leads to the atheism with which the poem ends.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

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 animal sexuality: “So have I seen ill-coupled Hounds,/ Drag diff’rent Ways in miry Grounds.” Both the nature and ancestry of failed poems by false poets are discordant and illegitimate.

The metaphor that unifies the poem is illegitimacy. A poet is compared to a “Bastard” child, and a poem is called a “Bastard.” Poets are described as “Sons of Whores”; readers are told that poets have no “filial Piety” and that they “prostitute the Muse’s Name.” This metaphor of illegitimacy and debauchery functions in the poem to dramatize the corruption at the heart of the narrator’s advice. To reduce art and human life to animal sexuality like “ill-coupled Hounds” is to take Horace’s famous advice about how to write and how to improve society through writing and to destroy all the distinctions between good and bad art and selfish and generous behavior on which that advice rests.

The poem is also unified by circle imagery, which serves to show just how widespread corruption in art and life is in the world Swift satirizes. This imagery appears in many lines and represents human civilization in small groups of people, in towns, and ultimately in the whole country, “taking Britain round.” The circle is the symbol of the “universal Passion, Pride.”

On the matter of language, Swift’s most illuminating word choice is “Rhapsody” in his title. Its meaning in the eighteenth century, as the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, was such that Swift uses the word to suggest an emotional overstatement in which intellectual balance is lost. The advice of the “old experienc’d Sinner” pretends to be rational and realistic but constitutes instead a dangerously emotional fantasy that separates people from divine reality.

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