Jonathan Swift, as 'poet'

Swift's poetry can't really be described as 'poetical'. There's no allusion to love or romance, no exaltation of natural beauty as one finds in the verses of Wordsworth, Shelley or Keats, amongst others.
His mock obituarist 'Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift'  is full of hard truth and satire regarding society, the literary and political establishment, and human nature in general. He playfully and cynically mocks everyone, especially himself whom he finally reveals in full. With humour and irony he imagines how he will be remembered. On hearing the sad news, for example, mundane female 'friends' continue their card game without so much as a pause. He starts by alluding to the maxims of Rochefoucauld- Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons toujours quelque chose, qui ne nous déplait pas... making his own equivalent observation-

"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."

Here are a few more lines from this fairly long and complete poem referring, in this case, to how he self-deprecatingly imagines his work will be considered and remembered after his death.

Some country squire to Lintot ° goes       
Inquires for Swift in verse and prose.                       
Says Lintot, "I have heard the name
He died a year ago." -  "The same."
He searches all his shop in vain.
"Sir, you may find them in Duck Lane: ¹                    
I sent them with a load of books,                   
Last Monday to the pastry-cook's. ²              
To fancy they could live a year!                    
I find you're but a stranger here.
The Dean was famous in his time,
And had a kind of knack at rhyme.
His way of writing now is past:
The town has got a better taste.
I keep no antiquated stuff;
But spick and span I have enough.
Pray do but give me leave to show 'em
Here's Colley Cibber's birthday poem.
° Bernard Lintot- bookseller, publisher of Pope's 'Homer' and earlier work.
¹ Where second hand books and out of print books were sold.
² To be used as lining paper for baking dishes.

There are no heart-aches, swoonings, exquisite perfumes and flowery ornamentations, as the offensive whiff that emanates from- and brings to life- this next complete example. As is most of his prose, his poetry is satirical, but never devoid of humour. Its purpose was/is to influence, awaken and reform, as well as to amuse the reader. This poem, in fact, reminds one of the accurate, objective, lucid and unpoetical observations of Samuel Pepys in his diaries.

A Description to a City Shower.

Careful observations may fortell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread the shower:
While rain depends,° the pensive cat gives o'er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Returning home at night, you'll find the sink ¹
Strike your offended sense with double stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to dine;
You'll spend in coach hire more than save in wine.
A coming shower your shooting corns presage,
Old achés throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dullman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen.²
Meanwhile the South, rising with dabbled wings,
A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings,
That swilled more liquor than it could contain,
And, like a drunkard, give it up again.
Brisk Susan whips her linen from the rope,
While the first drizzling shower is borne aslope:
Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean ³
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean:
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop.
Not yet the dust had shunned the unequal strife,
But, aided by the wind, fought still for life,
And wafted with its foe by violent gust,
'Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust.
Ah! where must needy poet seek for aid,
When dust and rain at once his coat invade?
Sole coat, where dust cemented by the rain
Erects the nap, and leaves a mingled stain.
Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.
To shops in crowds the daggled females fly,
Pretend to cheapen° goods, but nothing buy.
The Templar spruce, while every spout's abroach,¹
Stays till 'tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While streams run down her oiled umbrella's sides.
Here various kinds, by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.
Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs
Forget their feuds,² and join to save their wigs.
Boxed in a chair ³ the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clattering o'er the roof by fits,
And ever and anon with frightful din
The leather sounds;° he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed,
Pregnant with Greeks impatient to be freed
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do,
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through),¹
Laocoön struck the outside with his spear,
And each imprisoned hero quaked for fear.²
Now from all parts the swelling kennels ³ flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St Pulchre's shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.°
Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats,¹ all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.²

° 'depends'- impends (use of elevated register used satirically being inappropriate with the subject).
¹ 'sink'- sewer
² It was thought that the melancholy tendency of the English-'the spleen', was due to the wet climate. 'Dullman' from 'dull man.
³ 'quean'- slut or wench.
° Bargain for. 'daggled'- muddied.
¹ 'abroach'- spewing out water. 'The Templar' -young man studying, or pretending to study, law.
² At the time the government of Whigs had fallen. Swift was then associated with the Tories until their fall in 1714, when Queen Anne died.
³ Sedan chair.
° The sedan chair's roof was of leather.
¹ Run them through with swords. The bully, then common in London's streets and public places.
² Aeneid 2. 40-53.
³ The uncovered gutters in the middle of the roads.

° Eastern end of Holborn and West Smithfield.
¹ Little herrings.
² The authentic drainage system of the time. Finally a fetid, open sewer, draining into Fleet Ditch. 

Text and image © Mirino. Source- Norton Anthology English Literature, with thanks. 
February, 2011

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