Themes and Meanings
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 This reader is acquainted with the rudiments of Swift’s life, Swift’s own unpublished “Verses on the Death of Dr.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.
Cunningham, like Swift, uses the glib briskness of the satirist’s stance to appear lighthearted about serious matters. “With a Copy of Swift’s Works” addresses the theme of the relationship between a writer’s life and the work produced. When the figure is one of the stature of Swift, it is easy for the reader to misinterpret his motives in writing satirical works and compassionate poetry. Cunningham, while relying on the reader’s knowledge of Swift, implies that Swift was acting out the will of a higher power or force in his writing. His satires were not motivated by bitterness about a life that could not be, but by a soul tormented by the realization that perfection is within the grasp of humanity, which is too weakened by vice and self-interest to attain it. When Swift realized that he had accomplished all he could with his work, fury froze within him and he died in harmony with “the Absolute,” which had directed his actions to its satisfaction. When fury’s force was silenced, the writer ceased to move.