Self-deprecation and the gesture towards improvement: Why I love Jonathan Swift’s weird poem about his own death

I have no title to aspire

Yet when you sink I seem the higher

(Jonathan Swift, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” transcribed from memory).

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Friends – The above is a quote from my favorite 18th Century poem “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” written by Jonathan Swift himself and published in 1739.

Here is how I meet this poem.

I am sitting in a lecture hall during my freshman year at Smith College after suffering through a section on the Metaphysical Poets and Milton in a required survey class. I have stopped coming to class at a certain point, because I hate the Renaissance and what follows, much to the distress of the young guy who is my discussion leader, William Oram, who is – as luck would have it — an expert on Spencer and who will eventually become the chair of the English Department.

Eventually, the lectures on Paradise Lost fade away, a classmate tells me we’ve moved on and I come back to class. That’s when I encounter verses that go like this:

Vain human kind! fantastic race! 

Thy various follies who can trace? 

Self-love, ambition, envy, pride, 

Their empire in our hearts divide. 

Give others riches, power, and station, 

‘Tis all on me a usurpation. 

I have no title to aspire; 

Yet, when you sink, I seem the higher. 

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!”

(https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45272)

 

What silly sounding couplets!

And listen to that rhythm! The lines are going dee Dum dee Dum dee Dum dee Dum (iambic) and that makes this poem sound like an evil Hallmark card.

Which it is, at least in part. “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” is a comic confession of artistic jealousy, a satirical speculation on how people are going to react to the author’s decline and death, and finally – and very surprisingly – a wishful imagining about the future. The poem’s last section switches gears entirely and engages in an overview of Swift’s life from the point of view an unbiased observer, who will say genuinely nice things about the author when he has died.

This poem encapsulates for me many of the things I admire and personally love about 18th Century writing in English.

First of all, it’s pretty easy to understand! No more elevated speech and fancy metaphor, like that gosh-darned John Donne. I can understand what Swift is talking about, and the limerick style of the poem makes me feel at home. If you know that “Pope” is Alexander Pope (a well known poet of the period), you can easily understand Swift’s jealousy. It’s hard work being a writer, and it’s tough on your ego when you encounter someone who is more talented and successful than you.

Some things never change, apparently.

And that’s another thing. I recognize some very contemporary emotions in these lines: competition anxiety, envy, and the wish for recognition, money, and privilege.

Welcome to the beginnings of what cultural critic Theodor Adorno calls “the culture industry” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_industry). The 18th Century is the beginning of the writer who writes – not for a patron or family of patrons– but for a market.

That’s good, right? In some ways, yes. But any contemporary writer will tell you that the market is not always a fun thing to deal with. That awareness of having to please, not just one person, but an entire population feels fresh to me because it’s truer than ever.

What else feels familiar? Well, the self-deprecation does. I like the way that Swift – himself a famous and important writer – is making fun of himself. He’s no saint; he may have written Gulliver’s Travels (which he published in 1726), but he reveals that he’s just a jerk like the rest of us. He is jealous, petty, and secretly resentful.

But the satire is not just reserved for the author. The subsequent sections of the poem ironically portray people’s reactions to Swift as he ages, and even at the youthful stage of 18, I found this pretty funny and pretty true:

 

“See, how the Dean begins to break! 

Poor gentleman, he droops apace! 

You plainly find it in his face. 

That old vertigo in his head 

Will never leave him till he’s dead. 

Besides, his memory decays: 

He recollects not what he says; 

He cannot call his friends to mind: 

Forgets the place where last he din’d; 

Plies you with stories o’er and o’er; 

He told them fifty times before. 

How does he fancy we can sit 

To hear his out-of-fashion’d wit? 

But he takes up with younger folks, 

Who for his wine will bear his jokes. 

 

 

This next part is awesome:

Yet, should some neighbour feel a pain 

Just in the parts where I complain, 

How many a message would he send? 

What hearty prayers that I should mend? 

Inquire what regimen I kept, 

What gave me ease, and how I slept? 

And more lament when I was dead, 

Than all the sniv’llers round my bed. 

 

People really are selfish and hypocritical Swift is saying. Again, the fun verse meter keeps us going.

Now that I am 62, rather than 18, I really feel the accuracy of this nasty observation. And, I don’t know about you older readers, but I absolutely DO listen with great interest to people suffering from some ailment that I either have or fear getting. And, I’m embarrassed to say, when my friend Theda died a year and a half ago, one of the creepiest realizations I had was “Oh – I guess I’m really going to die too. BUMMER.”

But the final part of the poem goes someplace else. Having shown us how despicable we ALL are (because remember, Swift has already lampooned himself), the author envisions an impartial person who will give a fair assessment of him after his death.

The Dean, if we believe report, 

Was never ill receiv’d at Court. 

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. 

 

The unbiased observer notes that Swift’s writing was valued by people (yay for the market!), and that what he wrote was written from a very good intention: namely to make the world a better place (“to cure the vices of mankind”). And, we are told, he was an original writer, aka he didn’t steal ideas or tropes from anybody else.

Interesting. Originality. Another very modern idea, which is not an aesthetic value until this period.

 

The unbiased observer concedes that Swift was not perfect:

 

“Perhaps I may allow, the Dean

Had too much satire in his vein;

And seem’d determin’d not to starve it,

Because no age could more deserve it.

Yet malice never was his aim;

He lash’d the vice, but spar’d the name;

No individual could resent,

Where thousands equally were meant.

His satire points at no defect,

But what all mortals may correct;

For he abhorr’d that senseless tribe

Who call it humour when they gibe.

He spar’d a hump, or crooked nose,

Whose owners set not up for beaux.

True genuine dulness mov’d his pity,

Unless it offer’d to be witty.

 

If you’ve read the complete Gulliver’s Travels, you know how dark a satirist Swift can be. Gulliver finally experiences a perfect society but unfortunately it’s not inhabited by humans, but rather by horses. Swifts famous hero goes mad, and returns to England a mere shadow of his former self. Swift’s self-defense is that he never mocked people who were disfigured or disabled or people who were – at least in his opinion – genuinely dopey. Rather he attacks the crappy things that people do, and points to the possibility of correction and improvement.

Critics and readers of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” have argued for centuries about the discrepancy between the beginning of the poem and its concluding section. How can Swift say that all people (including him) are completely self-interested and then end up with a guy who isn’t self-interested at all, and who calmly speaks the truth? I myself have wondered about it out loud in my scholarly book on satire.

But reading the poem again — what strikes me about it is precisely this appeal to an unbiased observer. Yes, the poem is saying we are selfish people, we DO envy those who have more than us. And – this is interesting – we ARE enmeshed in the beginnings of market capitalism (money matters, privilege matters.).

But at the same time, Swift seems to be suggesting that we also have it in us to seek the truth of things. We have it in us, to approach that generously fair observer in the final section of the poem. We may even have it in us to become that person – the one who rises above petty self-interest to make an evaluation of a situation and of a person.

This combination of humorous self-deprecation, social critique, and a modest belief that human beings can be better and wiser and more discerning than their worst emotions, and that indeed, we are morally obliged – for the good of everyone — to try to be better than those emotions – characterizes Enlightenment writing as a whole.

I think you can see that mixture in some of our foundational texts.

Take that odd phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for example. That combination of self-critical analysis and idealism is arguably why “the pursuit of happiness” and not “survival” or just plain old “happiness” is in there. As human beings we dream of more than survival, but we are surely going to have to work mighty hard to get to actual happiness. The word “pursuit” is so important there, I think. Swift would have approved of it.

So — who read Jonathan Swift in America?

You won’t be surprised to know that John Adams did. Here’s an excerpt from his diary:

 

March 8th 1754

A Clowdy morning. I am now reading my lord Orrerys letters to his son Concerning Dr. Swift and his writings, which for softness and delicacy of style, accuracy and serenity of sentiment, are absolutely inimitable.

(http://founders.archives.gov/?q=Jonathan%20Swift&s=1111311111&sa=&r=2&sr=)

 

It’s interesting that Adams sees Swift as a writer of “softness” and “delicacy of style” and that he appreciates what he calls Swift’s “serenity of sentiment.” Swift is not exactly what I would call a serene writer. But Adams doesn’t see it that way. He sees, I am guessing, a sort of kindness in the way Swift writes, and he is aware of the considerable skill that Swift brings to his writing, in a way that is invisible to us. We just feel that the writing “works.”

“Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift” ends with a sort of hopeful generosity.

The Declaration of Independence is also not without a certain generosity of spirit. Note this sentence:

We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

My point is not to say that Jonathan Swift directly influenced the penning of the Declaration (although – guess what? He was apparently a distant relation of Thomas Jefferson). My point is to suggest that this belief in the importance of moving towards impartiality, to fairness, and beyond that to generosity – is part of Enlightenment thinking. And it is part of how the United States was first conceptualized.

 

That insistence on our ability to improve ourselves is a deep part of the Enlightenment project and that challenge feels as great today as it did in 1814, when Adams wrote the following to Jefferson:

 

“…the vast Variety of experiments that have been made of Constitutions, in America in France, in Holland, in Geneva in Switzerland, and even in Spain and South America, can never be forgotten. They will be Studied, and their immediate and remote Effects, and final Catastrophys noted. The result in time will be Improvements. And I have no doubt that the horrors We have experienced for the last forty Years, will ultimately terminate in the Advancement of civil and religious Liberty, and Ameliorations, in the condition of Mankind. For I am a Beleiver, in the probable improvability and Improvement, the Ameliorability and Amelioration in human Affaires…” (July 16, 1814)

http://founders.archives.gov/?q=Benjamin%20Franklin%20Dean%20Swift&s=1111311111&sa=&r=5&sr=

The advancement of civil and religious liberty and ameliorations in the conditions of humankind — these are profoundly American concerns, and anyone who thinks they aren’t, hasn’t read Adams, that admirer of Jonathan Swift.  Further, to see yourself as part of a larger trajectory — a trajectory towards greater freedom and greater improvement in the human condition — this is part of the Enlightenment project AND the American Project.

Swift’s and Adams’s abilities to imagine beyond themselves and to hope, not just for a generous assessment, but for better writers and politicians to come along after them is my hope too. For this country, and for the planet we live on.

courtesy http://www.quotehd.com/quotes/jonathan-swift-writer-i-never-wonder-to-see-men-wicked-but-i-often-wonder-to-see
courtesy http://www.quotehd.com/quotes/jonathan-swift-writer-i-never-wonder-to-see-men-wicked-but-i-often-wonder-to-see

11_24_jonathan-swift_class-and-society_there-are-few-wild-beasts-more-to-be-dreaded-than-a-talking-man-having-nothing-to-say600

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