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

by Jonathan Swift
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

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.”

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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 poem, “The Life and Character of Dr. Swift” (1739), in order to protect Swift.

Because of its parade of personal references, and despite Swift’s footnotes, this part of the poem can seem off-putting. The reader must possess some essential facts of Swift’s life in order to understand it. In middle life, from 1707 to 1714, Swift, already a priest, became one of the most important political personages in England. He was a favorite of Queen Anne, the editor of a leading Tory journal allied to Robert Harley’s government, and highly regarded for his acid and very partisan pen. Around him was a distinguished group of friends who figure prominently in the poem: Pope; poet John Gay; Dr. Martin Arbuthnot, Queen Anne’s personal physician; Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke; and Tory leader Robert Harley, the first earl of Oxford. All his life Swift hoped to be made a bishop, a preferment he thought had been promised him. However, the fall of the Tory government and the death of Queen Anne dashed his hopes. With his enemies in power and fearing for his life, he fled to Ireland in self-imposed exile, an Anglican priest among Roman Catholics, far from the seat of power. Though regarded by the Irish as a patriot for his efforts on their behalf, he viewed the Irish as barbaric and never ceased to ridicule them. The poem looks back upon these glory years with a forlorn memory.

Part 3 of the poem (lines 299-484) shows an unexpected shift in tone. The narrator imagines his death being discussed by “one quite indiff’rent in the cause” at the Rose, a fashionable London tavern. In this voice the narrator praises himself in such generous terms that Pope declared the passage “too vain” and allowed it to be altered. Swift answers the critics’ objections that he was personally cruel in his satires (“Yet, malice never was his aim;/ He lash’d the vice, but spar’d the name”), too stridently partisan (“But, power was never in his thought,/ And, wealth he valu’d not a groat”), and, as a cleric, unspiritual in his demeanor (“Perhaps I may allow, the Dean/ Had too much satire in his vein”). The poem ends on this apparently positive and non-satirical assessment—although those who are familiar with Swift are quickly suspicious of the self-flattery.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

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 irony, in fact, can be so subtle and complex as to make the interpretations of his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), subject to debate after almost three hundred years. The reader should beware of regarding Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. as “sincere” and “confessional,” even though Swift the historical figure was known to have many of the preoccupations about which he wrote. Even Pope seems to have been “bit, ” that is, seduced into taking as true what is strategically untrue, in his interpretation of the last part of the poem.

The poem is best regarded as a composition, consisting of a number of voices played against each other for ironic purposes. Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D., far from being “sincere,” undermines the premises it asserts. After the narrator declares Rochefoucauld’s maxim to be true, for instance, the reader is shown the impartial observer who remembers Swift’s virtues and accomplishments. Fame, which in the account of Swift’s narrator persona does not last a year, is in no danger, according to the impartial observer; even the footnotes the poet supplies argue that history is in some sense preservable. The proof that fame can be maintained is belied by history itself, for, centuries after the event, readers are still rehearsing the facts of obscure people because of the roles they played in Swift’s life. What is one to make of the “indiff’rent” observer’s apparently overgenerous account?

Swift was notorious for his scurrilous and scatalogical attacks, a characteristic even his friends had to recognize. In “The Legion Club” (1736), for instance, the Irish senator Sir Thomas Prendergast was described in these vile and highly personal terms: “Let Sir Tom, that rampant ass,/ Stuff his guts with flax and grass;/ But before the priest he fleeces,/ Tear the Bible all to pieces.” One is not always sure, in other words, just where and when the joke applies, but the reader should recognize Swift’s constant ironic turn of mind.

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Themes