Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The reader’s satisfaction with “With a Copy of Swift’s Works” depends on prior knowledge of Swift’s life and works. Cunningham presumes a reader who knows Swift and would want his works. This reader is acquainted with the rudiments of Swift’s life, Swift’s own unpublished “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.” (1731), his epitaph, and the philosophical theories of the mover and the moved, developed in Swift’s life and expanded upon after his death.

The principal theme of the poem is that Swift’s works represent him well. The “pretty cover” of the volume is deceptive, as many of his works were intended to expose the “ugliness” or vice-ridden aspects of human nature. The poet is suggesting that there is no need to feel sorry for this writer, who achieved what he intended.

Cunningham previously alluded to Swift in a 1932 poem, “The Wandering Scholar’s Prayer to Saint Catherine of Egypt.” In this poem, collected in The Helmsman (1942), Cunningham evokes Swift as a specter of death to describe the hobos in the train yards who are dying of starvation and neglect as “Swift in idiot froth.” Swift was declared insane and therefore mentally incompetent in 1742 when the symptoms of Mèniére’s syndrome had debilitated him beyond his ability to care for himself. He died a painful and miserable death, and his illness caused his reputation to suffer and created a lack of compassion among the public....

(The entire section is 426 words.)