Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. Analysis

Jonathan Swift

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. consists of 484 lines of jaunty, satirical iambic tetrameter couplets, with strategic footnotes supplied by the poet, purporting to examine the cynical maxim of Duc François de La Rochefoucauld: “In the adversity of our best friends, we find something that doth not displease us” (from Réflexions, 1665). The poem may be conveniently divided into three parts. In the opening section (lines 1-70), Jonathan Swift’s narrator persona finds that the maxim perfectly describes his own jealousy: “In Pope [Alexander Pope, the outstanding poet of his age and Swift’s lifelong friend], I cannot read a line,/ But with a sigh, I wish it mine,” declaring himself as guilty of its truth as anyone. Though the maxim was often denounced as immoral and unchristian, the narrator, representing Swift, an Anglican priest, finds it perfectly accurate: “As Rochefoucauld his maxims drew/ From nature, I believe ’em true.”

In the poem’s second part (lines 71-298), the narrator imagines how his death will be received among friends, acquaintances, and enemies. His fame will not last a year before his books will be sold as scrap, his friends will shed a tear or two but soon forget him, and enemies will list his faults and resurrect old grievances. Everyone will enjoy his death—the ladies at cards, the gossips at court, and the wits at the tavern. Here the satire is generally bitter, naming names, heaping ridicule, and rehearsing grudges from a generation before—so much so that Pope and others published an abbreviated and censored version of...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Swift’s preferred metrical form was the short, four-stress line in couplets, sometimes called Hudibrastic after Samuel Butler’s popular satire “Hudibras” (1678). The meter leads to many forced rhymes—“If with such talents heav’n hath blest ‘em, Have I not reason to detest ‘em?”—and seems appropriate to the gibing, free-swinging narrator found in the first two parts. Swift’s lines, however, do not have the subtle internal movement of Pope’s. Swift is primarily a satirist, interested in arrranging his subject matter for a contrast of ideas.

Swift’s true claim was as the master ironist of the English language, the artist of saying that which is not, a title he claims in lines 55-58:

Arbuthnot is no more my friend,Who dares to irony pretend;Which I was born to introduce,Refin’d it first, and shew’d its use.

In the ironic method, Swift allows his narrators, even those speaking in his own name, various shades of untruth in order to jar the reader into a new moral awareness. In one of his most famous instances of irony, “A Modest Proposal” (1729), the narrator soberly suggests that the problem of Irish overpopulation can be solved by fattening up its babies and selling them as food—a proposition taken seriously by some of his less sensitive readers. His...

(The entire section is 560 words.)