Jonathan Swift: Poems Summary

Jonathan Swift: Poems Summary

"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D."

A long poem—verging on 500 lines—inspired by an observation noted by French author François de la Rochefoucauld: "In the misfortune of our best friends we always find something that does not displease us.” Swift first spends about 70 lines providing examples that argue the maxim’s assertion before launching into a satirical overview of his own life and what people are likely to say about him upon the occasion of his demise.

“The Beasts’ Confession to the Priest”

Men from several fields—law, religion, politics—makes confessions that test the thesis that animals are intellectually inferior to humans. The men refuse to acknowledge sin as sin and rather forward the proposition that sin is merely the result of overzealous practice of virtue.

“Strephon and Chloe”

An iconic example of what has been criticized as Swift’s obsession with the excremental in his poetry. It is the tale of a husband who cannot fully engage in a normal adult sexual relationship with his wife because of an overdeveloped revulsion toward the dirtiness of her body.

“Cadenus and Vanessa”

The goddess Venus creates a virtuous woman named Vanessa as an experiment as part of her role as a judge in a dispute between nymphs and shepherds. The nymphs have made the claim that the shepherds are no longer capable of love. She eventually falls in love with an older clergyman named Cadenus who rejects on the grounds of just wanting to be friends. Venus declares men to be utterly without sense.

“Cassinus and Peter”

Another exploration of Swift’s anal retentive psychology in which a distraught Cassinus confesses to friend Peter that his beloved Celia has committed a crime beyond the pale of all that is proper and human. The crime? Going to the bathroom and dispensing her bowels. The satirical point is intended to undermine the idealization of women as something more or perhaps less than mortal.

"A Description of a City Shower"

Elevated, lofty, “poetic” language is here satirically engaged to inscribe upon a simple common rainstorm the kind of fantastic symbolic meaning that poets apply to other common occurrences. The poem’s ironic use of such language is directed toward undermining the artistic hubris of many poets.

“A Description of the Morning”

Swift here takes something of the opposite approach that was used in describing the rain shower. This poem is a simple, realistic description the dull, dreary reality occurring in London. The prosaic quality of a life in London far removed from the romanticized images portrayed by other poets creates a startling counterpoint every much as arresting as the epic description of a typical city shower.

"Stella's Birthday, 1721"

“Stella” is actually Esther Johnson, daughter of the steward to Sir William Temple with whom Swift engaged in a long-term relationship that may or may not have resulted in a secret marriage at some point. Swift composed several “birthday poems” for Stella and this one was written for what Esther described as her 36th birthday, but which Swift insisted was actually her 40th birthday.

“Drapier’s Hill”

A poem written on the occasion of Swift’s purchase of a tract of land on which he planned to build a mansion. Both the land and the mansion have been referenced as Drapier’s Hill, but Swift eventually changed his mind about the construction.

“The Lady’s Dressing Room”

This is yet another of the excremental poems in which the design is to reveal the titular “lady” Celia as utterly, grossly human while subjecting her lover Strephon—yes, Stephon again—to the sharp needle of satire which deflate his romanticized idealism as the beliefs of a buffoon. This particular visit to the dark side resulted in an equally famous retort, however. In response to the poem, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu published “The Reasons that Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room.” While Swift insisted that his reasons for taking his poetry into the realm of “potty humor” was designed for the objective purpose of subverting the idealization of the feminine, Montagu’s verse suggests a more subjective reason having to do with Swift’s own sexual desires being frustrated by their object.

“A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General"

The general in question is John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. He was a British general who enjoyed a less than stellar reputation. As a staunch Irish nationalist who did not shy from attacking British oppression of his fellow countryman, the satirical stripping away of the General using the normally honorable form of an elegy is hardly surprising.

“On the Irish Bishops”

Political poem prompted by Swift’s opposition to Parliamentary consideration of Bill of Residence and Bill of Division. The real object of the ire of this verse are the bishops overseeing and exploiting the lesser clergy.

“On Poetry: A Rhapsody”

One of Swift’s most significant poems, it represents an outline—in verse—of his philosophy of the essential function of poets. The poem can be broken down in three distinct sections. The first admits that while readers are too often confronted with the difficulty of discerning between the true and the false poet, that very same public all too often fails to appreciate the role that the poet provides. The bulk of verse is taken up by the middle section in which an experienced writer doles out advice to beginners and the very short final section is a lesson in marketing from the old to the young with special emphasis on the vital talent of flattery to draw attention.

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