The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Stella’s Birthday, 1727” is a verse epistle, or letter written in verse. It is the last in a series of birthday poems written by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift for his beloved friend Esther Johnson. Swift met Johnson (“Stella”) when she was a child of eight. The daughter of a retainer to Swift’s friend and patron Sir William Temple, Johnson served not only as one of Swift’s most important correspondents but also as his literary muse. Swift’s charming custom of presenting Johnson with the gift of a verse epistle commemorating her March 13 birthday began in 1719 and resulted in a series of “Stella’s Birthday” poems culminating in the final poem of 1727.

Johnson died on January 28, 1728, at the age of forty-seven, after years of intermittent poor health. Swift’s touching birthday poem of 1727 is both a moving testament to a woman who exemplified for him the feminine ideal of decency, modesty, and prudence, and a tender valedictory to a dear friend. On learning from a servant on January 28 that Johnson had died “about six in the evening of this day,” a heartbroken Swift recorded in his journal that he had lost “the truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend, that I, or perhaps any other person ever was blessed with.” The following day, still grief stricken, he notes sadly in his journal, “My head aches, and I can write no more” (On the Death of Mrs. Johnson, 1765).

Swift begins the poem by assuring Stella that despite her failing health and his own advancing age and increasing infirmities, he intends, as always, to celebrate her birthday with optimism and joy: “This day, whate’er the Fates decree/ Shall still be kept with joy by me:/ This day then, let us not be told,/ That you are sick, and I grown old.” Although Swift seeks throughout the poem to cheer his ailing friend by recalling her past acts of generosity and compassion, he also attempts to assuage his own pain at the possibility that she is dying. Unlike the earlier “Stella’s Birthday” poems of 1719 and 1721, which are informed by a mood of playful optimism and satirical whimsy, the final 1727 poem contains an air of unrelieved morbidity expressed in a series of pointed questions implying that the person most in need of...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A standard eighteenth century verse epistle, “Stella’s Birthday, 1727” is written entirely in couplets: forty-four pairs of rhymed eight-syllable lines. This poetic form helps convey the intimate, almost conversational tone of the poem while providing a tightly controlled frame for the poet to express his innermost thoughts. Despite the regularity of the meter and the rigidity of the rhyme scheme, the form is not as confining as it may appear. Swift takes advantage of the epistle form to speak directly and concisely to Stella. The poem’s lines are short, to the point, and virtually devoid of imagistic language or extended metaphor. Rather than masking his message in rhetorical flourishes or elevated language, Swift employs the more direct and humble address of the letter writer and friend. For example, late in the poem he urges Stella not to abandon herself to despair but rather to gain strength from the visible effects of her past virtuous actions:

Believe me, Stella, when you showThat true contempt for things below,Nor prize your life for other ends,Than merely to oblige your friends;Your former actions claim their part;And join to fortify your heart.

This is not to suggest, however, that Swift wholly abandons the use of poetic device or diction. At various points in the poem he uses metaphor and personification to convey the active importance of “Virtue” in Stella’s life. In line 62, for example, he likens virtue to a “nutriment that feeds the mind,” and later, in lines 73 and 74, he equates the personified Virtue to Janus, the mythological god possessing two faces, one looking forward and one backward.