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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 22. Swift On the Death of Dr. Swift

The poem On the Death of Dr. Swift (1731), with its mixture of humour, egotism and pathos, is, in many respects, the best and most interesting of Swift’s verse. An incomplete pirated version appeared in 1733, and an authorised copy in 1739; the poem was finally revised before its issue by Faulkner in 1743. Swift begins with comments on our dislike to be excelled by our friends, and then pictures his own coming death and what his acquaintances would say of him—his vertigo, loss of memory, oft told stories, which could be borne only by younger folk, for the sake of his wine. At last, their prognostications came true: the dean was dead. Who was his heir? When it was known he had left all to public uses, people said that this was mere envy, avarice and pride. The town was cloyed with elegies, and Curll prepared to

  • treat me as he does my betters,
  • Publish my will, my life, my letters,
  • Revive the libels, born to die,
  • Which Pope must bear, as well as I.
  • Friends shrugged their shoulders, and said, “I’m sorry—but we all must die.” Ladies received the news, over their cards, in doleful dumps:
  • The Dean is dead (pray what are trumps?)
  • Then Lord have mercy on his soul.
  • (Ladies; I’ll venture for the vole.)
  • In a year, he was forgotten; his wit was out of date. But, sometimes, men at a club would refer to him and discuss his character. This gives Swift the opportunity for a defence of himself. He had aimed at curing the vices of mankind by grave irony: “What he writ was all his own.” He never courted men of rank, nor was he afraid of the great. He helped those in distress, and chose only the good and wise for friends. “Fair Liberty was all his cry.” He valued neither power nor wealth. He laboured in vain to reconcile his friends in power, and, finally, left the court in despair. In Ireland, he defeated Wood;
  • Taught fools their interest how to know
  • And gave them arms to ward the blow.
  • Perhaps the dean had too much satire in his veins:
  • Yet malice never was his aim,
  • He lashed the vice, but spared the name.
  • … …
  • True genuine dulness moved his pity
  • Unless it offered to be witty.
  • … …
  • He gave the little wealth he had
  • To build a house for fools and mad,
  • And showed by one satiric touch
  • No nation needed it so much.
  • It will be seen, from what has been said, that Swift’s verse has very little imagination or sentiment. It is merely witty prose put into fluent verse, with clever rimes. There is no chivalry, no real emotion, except the fierce passion of indignation. If “poet” connotes the love of beauty, the search after ideals, the preaching of what is ennobling, then Swift is not a poet. But his verse is an admirable vehicle for the expression of his passion and irony; and it is excellent of its kind, simple, sincere, direct, pointed, without any poetic ornament or show of learning.