The Poem

“With a Copy of Swift’s Works” is a short poem in couplets, totalling twelve lines. It is divided into two sentences; the first is a couplet, and the second is a single thought elaborated over ten lines. The title refers to the occasion of the poem. The speaker is looking at the literary works of the Irish author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who was best known for such satirical prose works as Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal.” Swift also wrote poetry, contributed essays to literary periodicals, and authored a fourteen-volume History of the Reign of Queen Anne. The initial reference in the poem to the pseudonyms of two of Swift’s female friends, “Stella” and “Vanessa,” suggests that the speaker is thinking of Swift’s poetry. Swift helped several eighteenth century Irish women authors, using his editorial, critical, and business skills to connect Dublin-based women writers with publishers in both Dublin and London. He also wrote poetry to Esther Johnson and Esther Vanhomrigh. Johnson was Stella, and Vanhomrigh was Vanessa. Swift’s poems on “Stella’s” birthdays are very well-known. The use of pseudonyms was common in verse written by both men and women in the eighteenth century.

Cunningham’s poem was written in Palo Alto, California, on May 20, 1944. It became one of the forty-three poems that comprise the “Epigram Journal” of his 1947 book, The Judge Is Fury. Swift, too, wrote...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Forms and Devices

The poem is written in couplets. This form is particularly suitable for writing about Swift, as most eighteenth century poets wrote in couplets. The meter of the poem is the trochaic tetrameter, a popular alternative to iambic meters. The trochee is a syllable pattern that goes from unstressed to stressed syllables, while the iamb is a stressed-to-unstressed pattern. Tetrameter has four accented syllables per line. The third couplet, which marks the second part of the poem, demonstrates the technique of catalexis—omitting the stress on the last syllable of the line to create variety in the trochaic line.

“With a Copy of Swift’s Works” employs philosophically based imagery. Cunningham’s construction is dependent on several strains of late seventeenth, mid-eighteenth, and nineteenth century thought. “Absolute” and “Motion” are the richest words of the vocabulary and are the keys to comprehending the balance of the poem. The third couplet states: “Who the Absolute so loved/ Motion to its zero moved.” Swift’s satirical vision, and why he came to write what he did, are being described. “The Absolute” was brought into philosophical vocabulary in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century. The concept had been in existence since the mid-sixteenth century in the work of Baruch Spinoza. The phrase “the Absolute,” as Cunningham uses it, can be interpreted as a manifestation of God, defined as the creative source of everything real in the world. As an essence or primary...

(The entire section is 616 words.)