Poetry Wednesday: Jonathan Swift

When one’s first introduction to a man is an essay proposing that the economic troubles of 1729 Ireland could be easily solved with a little judicious cannibalism, it leaves a certain . . . impression.

The poetry of this man, which I discovered well after I’d gone on to travel extensively with Gulliver,* doesn’t do a thing to change that impression:

Jonathan Swift is the Sarcasm Master.

He’s also cynical as all hell and what he didn’t know about satire is nothing.  He has a sort of sharp  impatience that even his fellow satirist, Alexander Pope, doesn’t often show.  Mr. Swift rarely suffered fools, gladly or at all—he eviscerated them and their practices in verses I won’t share here, because dude.

In his defense, there was a lot for a brilliant person to be impatient about in the early 1700s, from religion to  politics to vast economic disparity, and one can hardly fault him if he occasionally tried to cut the Gordian Knot with his pen.

The Place of the Damned
(Jonathan Swift)

All folks who pretend to religion and grace,
Allow there’s a Hell, but dispute of the place:
But, if Hell may by logical rules be defined
The place of the damned—I’ll tell you my mind.
Wherever the damned do chiefly abound,
Most certainly there is Hell to be found:
Damned poets, damned critics, damned blockheads, damned knaves,
Damned senators bribed, damned prostitute slaves;
Damned lawyers and judges, damned lords and damned squires;
Damned spies and informers, damned friends and damned liars;
Damned villains, corrupted in every station;
Damned time-serving priests all over the nation;
And into the bargain I’ll readily give you
Damned ignorant prelates, and counsellors privy.
Then let us no longer by parsons be flammed,
For we know by these marks the place of the damned:
And Hell to be sure is at Paris or Rome.
How happy for us that it is not at home!

That last line? Sarcasm. Master.

He did write several riddles and odes to various inanimate objects and aspects of nature. Some are aimed at his favorite targets, but others are simply witty wordplay:

An Echo
(Jonathan Swift)

Never sleeping, still awake,
Pleasing most when most I speak;
The delight of old and young,
Though I speak without a tongue.
Nought but one thing can confound me,
Many voices joining round me;
Then I fret, and rave, and gabble,
Like the labourers of Babel.
Now I am a dog, or cow,
I can bark, or I can low;
I can bleat, or I can sing,
Like the warblers of the spring.
Let the lovesick bard complain,
And I mourn the cruel pain;
Let the happy swain rejoice,
And I join my helping voice:
Both are welcome, grief or joy,
I with either sport and toy.
Though a lady, I am stout,
Drums and trumpets bring me out:
Then I clash, and roar, and rattle,
Join in all the din of battle.
Jove, with all his loudest thunder,
When I’m vext, can’t keep me under;
Yet so tender is my ear,
That the lowest voice I fear;
Much I dread the courtier’s fate,
When his merit’s out of date,
For I hate a silent breath,
And a whisper is my death.

Anyone else thinking that Roald Dahl and Tolkein might have been Swift fans? ‘Cause I am.

He also wrote about writing, as writers of any time tend to do. He seemed to be of the opinion that it was a wretched and useless way to attempt to make a living.**

Advice to the Grub Street Verse-writers
(Jonathan Swift)

Ye poets ragged and forlorn,
      Down from your garrets haste;
Ye rhymers, dead as soon as born,
      Not yet consign’d to paste;

   I know a trick to make you thrive;
      O, ’tis a quaint device:
Your still-born poems shall revive,
      And scorn to wrap up spice.

   Get all your verses printed fair,
      Then let them well be dried;
And Curll must have a special care
      To leave the margin wide.

   Lend these to paper-sparing Pope;
      And when he sets to write,
No letter with an envelope
      Could give him more delight.
   When Pope has fill’d the margins round,
      Why then recall your loan;
Sell them to Curll for fifty pound,
      And swear they are your own.

But he did have great respect and affection for several of his contemporaries, including Alexander Pope,*** in his own backhanded way:

In Pope I cannot read a line,
But with a sigh I wish it mine;
When he can in one couplet fix
More sense than I can do in six;
It gives me such a jealous fit,
I cry, “Pox take him and his wit!”

Why must I be outdone by Gay
Who dares to irony pretend,
Which I was born to introduce,
Refin’d it first, and show’d its use.

St. John, as well as Pultney, knows
That I had some repute for prose;
And, till they drove me out of date,
Could maul a minister of state.
If they have mortify’d my pride,
And made me throw my pen aside;
If with such talents Heav’n has blest ’em,
Have I not reason to detest ’em?

To all my foes, dear Fortune, send
Thy gifts; but never to my friend:
I tamely can endure the first,
But this with envy makes me burst.

(from “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.“)

And his sincere affection for his dear friend and probable muse Esther Johnson—whom he named “Stella” in his work—can’t be mistaken, though he just can’t help being himself:

Stella’s Birthday, 1719
(Jonathan Swift)

All travellers at first incline
Where’er they see the fairest sign
And if they find the chambers neat,
And like the liquor and the meat,
Will call again, and recommend
The Angel Inn to every friend.
And though the painting grows decay’d,
The house will never lose its trade:
Nay, though the treach’rous tapster, Thomas,
Hangs a new Angel two doors from us,
As fine as daubers’ hands can make it,
In hopes that strangers may mistake it,
We think it both a shame and sin
To quit the true old Angel Inn.
Now this is Stella’s case in fact,
An angel’s face a little crack’d.
(Could poets or could painters fix
How angels look at thirty-six
This drew us in at first to find
In such a form an angel’s mind;
And every virtue now supplies
The fainting rays of Stella’s eyes.
See, at her levee crowding swains,
Whom Stella freely entertains
With breeding, humour, wit, and sense,
And puts them to so small expense;
Their minds so plentifully fills,
And makes such reasonable bills,
So little gets for what she gives,
We really wonder how she lives!
And had her stock been less, no doubt
She must have long ago run out.
Then, who can think we’ll quit the place,
When Doll hangs out a newer face?
Nail’d to her window full in sight
All Christian people to invite.
Or stop and light at Chloe’s head,
With scraps and leavings to be fed?
Then, Chloe, still go on to prate
Of thirty-six and thirty-eight;
Pursue your trade of scandal-picking,
Your hints that Stella is no chicken;
Your innuendoes, when you tell us,
That Stella loves to talk with fellows:
But let me warn you to believe
A truth, for which your soul should grieve;
That should you live to see the day,
When Stella’s locks must all be gray,
When age must print a furrow’d trace
On every feature of her face;
Though you, and all your senseless tribe,
Could Art, or Time, or Nature bribe,
To make you look like Beauty’s Queen,
And hold for ever at fifteen;
No bloom of youth can ever blind
The cracks and wrinkles of your mind:
All men of sense will pass your door,
And crowd to Stella’s at four-score.

I’ll tell you, at two score and (cough), I’d be tickled to death to have this tucked in a card . . . after I re-read it once or twice.

But I think my favorite of his poems is the one he wrote, tongue firmly in cheek, about how he imagined the world might take his death. It’s full of self-depreciation and humor, and not a few digs at his detractors, but it also contains, I think, a true epitaph for a man who used his wit and words to exaggerate situations as they never were to show the world as it really was.

As for his works in verse and prose
I own myself no judge of those;
Nor can I tell what critics thought ’em:
But this I know, all people bought ’em.
As with a moral view design’d
To cure the vices of mankind:
His vein, ironically grave,
Expos’d the fool, and lash’d the knave.
To steal a hint was never known,
But what he writ was all his own.


*Just occurred to me that what this political season desperately needs is some bladder flappers. If you have no idea what this means or you think you do and are uncomfortably shocked, get thee to a library immediately and read chapter eighteen, because you’re missing out on an excellent in-joke.

** I’m not entirely sure he included his work in this, for all his self-deprecation—but he certainly wouldn’t be the first or last writer to have a big ego and low self-esteem.

***And other writers who were also part of the Scriblerus Club, which was formed in 1713.