Jonathan Swift Poetry Analysis

death / jonathan swift / poem


Title: Verses on the Death of Dr Swift

 ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’ (written in 1731 and published in 1739) is a very unusual poem of a prominent British writer Jonathan Swift. It is both his own obituary and a satirical review of his life and social phenomena in time of his Irish career; it is, on the one hand, his uncover of the dirt and, on the other hand, his egotistical thought of himself.

This short outline of the first two and the final sections of the poem highlights the greatest problem which the poem presents and which many wise minds have tried to resolve: the contradictory relationship between panegyric at the end of the poem and the maxim of La Rochefoucauld (“In the hard times of our best friends we find something that doesn't displease us”):


"In all distresses of our friends,

We first consult our private ends;

While Nature, kindly bent to ease us,

Points out some circumstance to please us." (7-10)


Therefore, in his first section (1-72) Swift agrees with the maxim of La Rochefoucauld and demonstrates the universal scope and the applicability of the maxim. He states that he can prove that even with the best of us


“The strongest friendship yields to pride,

Unless the odds be on our side.” (37-38)

Swift has a very dark view of human nature, and chooses to display the worst of mankind:


“We all behold with envious eyes

Our equal rais'd above our size.

Who would not at a crowded show

Stand high himself, keep others low?

I love my friend as well as you

But would not have him stop my view” (13-18)


The second section of the poem (73 – 299) is the practical application of the poem to a specific case: Swift imagines what his friends will think after his death. Swift points out how these friends will act when he has first died.

They will grieve and try to remember the best about him, when in reality they are thinking about what will happen to his estate.

Do they get a piece of the pie, as his good friends? Unfortunately, Swift has given his money to the insane asylum, as no one else in society looks after the mentally ill.

The people who disliked Swift during his lifetime will ask questions about how he died. Line 191 makes a reference to shoes, inquiring whether Swift was hanged or not


“Now Chartres, at Sir Robert's levee,

Tells with a sneer the tidings heavy:

"Why, is he dead without his shoes?"

Cries Bob, "I'm sorry for the news:

O, were the wretch but living still,

And in his place my good friend Will!”(189-194)


As much as the people might be glad that Swift has passed on, they feel cheated that they did not have the satisfaction of seeing him hanged.

However, the last section, the final and the panegyric section of the poem – where Swift imagines what people are speaking of him a year after his death. It is a very contradictory part in comparison with the first two sections.

For in the final section of the poem Swift offers himself as that man to whose actions La Rochefoucauld’s maxim is not applicable; as a man who, far from finding his private ends in his friends’ misfortunes,


”Without regarding private ends,

Spent all his credit for his friends;” (331-332)


This is a very egotistical and contradictory conclusion which makes the whole poem very unusual, but it fits well with the Swift’s political and social satyre.







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