Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923
“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 cheering is not Stella but Swift. In reminding Stella of the lasting value of her past acts, he asks,
Does not the body thrive and growBy food of twenty years ago?And, had it not been still supplied,It must a thousand times have died.Then, who with reason can maintainThat no effects of food remain?
Swift suggests that true virtue has permanence, nourishing both the virtuous individual and the lives of those who have been touched. These lines reflect the poet’s pained awareness not only that he is losing his dearest friend but also that the world is losing an exemplary human being, and it is this sobering realization that haunts the moving central sections of the poem.
Beginning with line 15, the poet beseeches Stella not to dwell on present miseries but rather to take comfort from having lived an unblemished life. In line 18, he urges Stella to “look with joy on what is past.” Later, still intent on raising her spirits, he gently challenges her not to dwell on the bleakness of the future but rather to derive satisfaction from a lifetime of virtuous achievement: “Say, Stella, feel you no content,/ Reflecting on a life well spent?” “Virtue,” as Swift is at pains to remind Stella, himself, and the reader, can, if properly recalled, “assuage/ Grief, sickness, poverty, and age.”
As proof of Stella’s exemplary conduct and as a means of paying tribute to her integrity and decency, Swift provides a brief but eloquent catalog of her virtues. He extols her selflessness in ministering to the needy and sick, reminding her that had it not been for her compassion, others less fortunate would surely have died of disease or want: “Your skilful hand employ’d to save/ Despairing wretches from the grave;/ And then supporting with your store/ Those whom you dragg’d from death before.” He praises her “gen’rous boldness” in staunchly defending the reputation of “an innocent and absent friend” against the idle gossip and malicious slurs of others. He commends her “detestation” of “vice in all its glitt’ring dress” and, finally, notes with awe her remarkable “patience under torturing pain/ Where stubborn stoics would complain.” In thus enumerating Stella’s many virtues, the poet establishes for both his subject and the reader that here is an individual of extraordinary merit worthy of everyone’s esteem.
Although Swift seeks throughout the poem to repel darker thoughts of Stella’s death, he confronts, at the conclusion, the likelihood that she is dying. In the final section, Swift implores Stella to pity those who, like himself, will suffer most from losing her: “O then, whatever Heav’n intends,/ Take pity on your pitying friends!/ Nor let your ills affect your mind,/ To fancy they can be unkind.” The poem ends with a deeply moving tribute in which the poet expresses both his desire to change places with the dying Stella and his gratitude that he is at least able to tell her so:
Me, surely me, you ought to spare,Who gladly would your suff’rings share;Or give my scrap of life to you,And think it far beneath your due:You, to whose care so oft I oweThat I’m alive to tell you so.
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269
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.