The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

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“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 epigrams, which are short, witty poems, often satirical in tone. The Greek and Latin root words mean “to write on” or, as it is commonly taken to mean, to write an inscription. “With a Copy of Swift’s Works” is an epigram which serves as an inscription to an edition of his works—akin to something that the giver of a gift might write in a gift book.

“With a Copy of Swift’s Works” begins with the presentation of the book to the reader with the cheery explanation, “Underneath this pretty cover/ Lies Vanessa’s, Stella’s lover.” The poet is making two points here. The first is that all that is left of Swift’s talents and genius is bound in this book. The second is about the speculation that Swift was secretly married to Esther Johnson (Stella). There were rumors circulating in both Dublin and London society during Swift’s lifetime that he was sexually involved with both women; the rumors have never been proven. In the eighteenth century, “lover” was the term for a fiancée or someone who was dating. To say Swift was a “lover” as Cunningham does here is to play off the older and the modern meanings of the term, indicating sexual involvement.

The next ten lines of the poem are its second sentence. The poet instructs the reader not to be saddened by Swift’s life or death. Cunningham assumes the reader is familiar with Swift’s life: He had hoped for a job in London but was rejected and thus entered the ministry and became Dean of St. Paul’s, the most important Anglican church in Dublin. He was rumored to have been very bitter about having to live in Dublin, and some of his earliest critics pointed to his dissatisfaction as the reason he was attracted to satire. The poet’s view of Swift is objective and practical. It is by his success as a writer that the person to whom the gift is given or the poem is addressed should know and appreciate him. Swift was unsympathetic in his handling of satiric subjects, even tactless, and he would neither want nor deserve sympathy, states Cunningham.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

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 source, the existence of God is known through the activities of artists, writers, and musicians, who reveal “the Absolute” to humanity. Humans, then, although mortal, are divine by nature. “The Absolute” was eventually characterized by philosophers between 1803 and 1893 as possessing freedom, reality, truth, and harmony. It is likely that Cunningham was as well acquainted with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s use of the term in his literary periodical The Friend (1809-1810) as he was with the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, James Frederick Ferrier, and Francis Herbert Bradley, all of whom contributed to defining “the Absolute.”

The depiction of “Motion” in the poem has its origins in Aristotle, Galileo, and Thomas Hobbes. Cunningham uses “motion,” “moved,” and “immobile” to relate the action that “the Absolute” takes in relation to Swift. The progress of the remaining couplets is Aristotelian. Aristotle defined the idea of the “Absolute,” when he wrote of the unmoved mover. Motion actualizes potential which creates a form which can change in quality, size, and location. Aristotle’s idea, as it regards humans, is usually taken to include his idea that humanity could achieve perfection. In the poem Swift is put into action by “the Absolute,” which allows him to realize his potential as a writer; then, because he is mortal, he dies.

Galileo’s (1564-1642) theory of uniformly accelerated motion adds the element of evolution over time to the poem. Galileo was interested in the description of motion based on geometric axioms, not in trying to determine the cause of motion. Hence motion moves to its “zero,” and fury freezes as the anger that motivated Swift’s satires diminishes. Finally, Hobbes’s (1588-1679) theory of motion is based on the premise that without force or impetus there can be no motion. He posits that movement happens when the body acted on by the force resists it. At the first push of force, however, the body will yield, no matter how hard or solid it may be. Hobbes’s theory, when applied to the poem, introduces the concept of tension between the external source of the force and the body it moves. Cunningham uses this notion to symbolize the power of death in life, Swift’s mortality, and the reader’s love-hate reaction to satire.