A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General

views updated

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General




Jonathan Swift's "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" was written in 1722 upon the death of the English general John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The poem was first published formally in 1765, when it appeared in Jonathan Swift, Works, edited by John Hawkesworth. Churchill, the duke disparaged in the poem, had a checkered diplomatic and military career. Thus, he became the object of an unsympathetic satirical elegy by Swift, who was one of his leading political enemies.

Swift is known as a great prose satirist rather than as a poet, although he wrote a voluminous amount of poetry, and "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" certainly falls well within his favored mode of expression. Swift is universally known for his novel Gulliver's Travels, a sharp, bitter, and angry satire on everything from the nature of the English government to human nature itself. He is also author of prose satires such as A Tale of a Tub, a commentary on the corruptions of the Christian religion; The Battle of the Books, his entrance into an ongoing learned argument over the superiority of ancient or modern writers; and A Modest Proposal, a tract in which he suggests selling Irish babies of under a year old to rich Englishmen for food as a way to deal with the problem of Irish poverty.

The text of Swift's "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" can be found

in The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, edited by Jay Parini and published by Thomson Wadsworth in 2006.


Swift was born in Ireland to English parents on November 30, 1667. His father, also called Jonathan Swift, a solicitor, died several months before his birth. His mother, Abigail Errick, left Swift in Ireland with his nurse and went to live in England. Until Swift entered the Kilkenny School, some sixty miles from Dublin, he was shuttled back and forth between Ireland and England, sent to stay with his mother, his nurse, or his father's family. At age fourteen, Swift entered Trinity College, Dublin. He was awarded a B.A. in 1686 and began work on a master's degree. In early winter, 1688, William of Orange, a Protestant, overthrew King James II, the Catholic king of England. In Catholic Ireland, Trinity College was thrown into chaos and its classes suspended. As a result of the political turmoil, Swift left Ireland and Trinity College for England in 1689 without getting the master's degree that he had been working towards at the time.

Against this background, Swift came of age intellectually and politically. Within the context of shifting powers and fierce political and religious enmities, Swift had to make his career. In England, Swift became a part of the household of Sir William Temple, statesman and diplomat, whom he served as secretary. At Moor Park, Temple's residence, Swift met Esther Johnson. She was eight years old at the time, her father was dead, and she was the daughter of one of Temple's servants. Swift became her tutor and developed a lifelong relationship with her, which perhaps extended even to matrimony, but that is not clear. He wrote about her, assigning her literary manifestation the name Stella.

Swift was plagued with fits of dizziness, and he left Moor Park for Ireland in 1690 for his health, but soon returned to England. In 1692, Swift earned an M.A. from Hertford College, Oxford University. Afterwards, he again left Moor Park for Ireland, where he was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland and became the administrator of a church in Kilroot. Unhappy with his assignment there and perhaps disappointed in love, rejected by Jane Waring, to whom he had proposed marriage, Swift returned to Moor Park again in 1696. He stayed there until Temple's death in 1699, helping him ready his memoirs and letters for publication. At this time, Swift wrote The Battle of the Books. After Temple's death, Swift accepted an offer to work as secretary and chaplain to the Lord Justice Charles Berkeley in Ireland. The job, however, Swift learned upon his arrival, had been given to someone else. He managed to secure several other positions in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, instead. In 1702, in Dublin, Swift obtained a Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College. In the spring of 1702, Swift returned to England in order to bring Esther Johnson back to Ireland with him. Historical speculation estimates that they may have married fourteen years later, but no authoritative evidence of their marriage exists.

During the first decade of the eighteenth century, Swift published A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, and he began to gain recognition for his writing. He became friendly with the poet Alexander Pope, the playwright John Gay, and the satirist John Arbuthnot (who was also a physician). In 1713, the group formed the Scriblerus Club.

After 1707, Swift became active in English and Irish secular and ecclesiastical politics. In 1710, Swift became editor of the Tory paper Examiner. He wrote strenuously against continuing England's continental war and pointedly against the Duke of Marlborough's role in the war. Indeed, after Marlborough's death, Swift disparaged him in his poem "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," which was written in 1722, and posthumously published in a collection of Swift's works in 1765.

By this time, Swift had become a close advisor to the Tory government. In 1714, when Queen Anne died and the Tories were displaced by the Whigs, who came to power with the ascendancy of George I to the throne, Swift returned to Ireland as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. In Ireland, Swift continued to write political pamphlets urging justice for Ireland. Swift also began writing Gulliver's Travels, which was published in 1726 and enjoyed enormous success, multiple printings, and immediate translation into French, German, and Dutch.

Swift died in 1745, a hero to the Irish, after a prolonged and debilitating illness that began in 1738. He was buried beside Esther Johnson, who had died in 1728. He bequeathed most of his fortune to the establishment of a hospital for the mentally ill.


His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he's gone, no matter how,             5
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He'd wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we're told?                 10
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die.
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason, some folks think,         15
He left behind so great a s—k.
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow's sighs, nor orphan's tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of his hearse.               20
But what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honors in his day.
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.
Come hither, all ye empty things,                25
Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride be taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;                  30
From all his ill-got honors flung,
Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung.


Stanza 1

Swift's "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" is divided into two parts. The first twenty-four lines are the words of a talkative man on a London street speaking to an acquaintance who never gets the chance to say anything. The speaker seems to have run into his silent friend and been told of the death of the Duke of Marlborough, and of the approach of his funeral procession. The poem begins with an expression of his surprise, but, clearly, not of his grief. "His Grace!" he says. "Impossible! what, dead!" This might be read as solemn shock, and yet the tone is more like unbelief, and the tone of the lines following does not suggest sadness. There are three exclamations, as if the speaker were repeating unbelievable but actually rather satisfying news. The three lines following show the pedestrian nature of the great warrior's death: "Of old age too, and in his bed! / And could that mighty warrior fall, / And so inglorious, after all?" If there is any doubt that the tone of the poem is not solemn, it is resolved by the fifth line, which gives the duke an easy dismissal: "Well, since he's gone, no matter how." The words "no matter how" allude derisively to the place of the duke's death, his bed, not the field of honor. He died in comfort, not in sacrifice. The following line then slides into an apparently inoffensive observation regarding the Christian belief that before the last judgment, when souls will be confined to Hell or sent to Heaven, a trumpet will awake the sleeping dead: "The last loud trump must wake him now." This line also indicates that the soldier's trumpet has been replaced by an otherworldly trumpet. The next two lines assure the duke his place in Hell. "And, trust me, as the noise" of the trumpet of the last judgment "grows stronger," the speaker assures us, the duke will "wish to sleep a little longer" because the sound signals his damnation.

The tone and the poem itself are disrespectful to a dead man, a man who, the poem will argue, has earned this particular disrespect despite the usual injunction against speaking badly of the departed. The next four lines continue to show the speaker's scorn: "And could he be indeed so old / As by the newspapers we're told? / Threescore, I think, is pretty high; / 'Twas time in conscience he should die!" The attitude of "Good riddance to the Duke," is expressed quite directly. The next line begins to suggest why it was "time in conscience he should die." The now dead General "cumbered," or burdened, "the world" with his presence. The second section of the speaker's vilification ends with another commonplace, now about burning a candle "to the snuff," till the bad-smelling, charred end of it. With another deft turn, the speaker moves from the image of the candle burning to the end and thus producing a bad smell to the duke's burned out life. The metaphorically burned candle accounts for the "great … s——k" (stink) that the duke has "left behind." Notably, readers are left to conclude for themselves what "s——k" might stand for, but this is an easy task given the rhyming couplets. Indeed, the preceding line in the poem ends with the word "think."

Evidence of the stink left by the memory of Churchill's life comes in the nature of his funeral procession, which is announced with enough pomp to allow the announcement a full line, begun by an introductory "Behold." Following this, the speaker suggests the things that would customarily accompany a funeral procession, but that are lacking in this case. "Nor widows' sighs, nor orphans' tears … Attend the progress of his hearse." Here is a man whose passing rouses no grief. "But what of that?," the speaker interrupts himself lest his description should be deemed to discredit the duke. The duke does not need such honor now, the speaker adds, not because he is dead but because "He had" honor "in his day." Then the speaker turns the knife once more and recasts this praise as a final condemnation. The quality of being "true" becomes a vice. "True to his profit and his pride," that is, loyal to accumulating wealth and titles, gifts and honors for himself through war and corruption. "He made them weep before he died." People do not weep for him now, the speaker reflects, since they have wept because of him already. The militarism he represented and the warfare he practiced were the agents of many deaths and attendant grief.

Stanza 2

The second part of the poem, the last eight lines, shifts away from a particular focus on the duke and even away from scorn for him. Now he is to be used as an exemplum: "Come hither, / all ye empty things" the speaker says, addressing powerful men, who in actuality are no more than "bubbles raised raised by the breath of kings / Who float upon the tide of state." Here, the speaker is disparaging earthly vanity, particularly the kind derived from titles, decorations, and military and political might. Men are compared to bubbles blown up by the breaths of monarchs, but bubbles burst, and men die. Rather than being independent creatures, such men are bound to circumstances and caprice. They are driven by the tides of political power. This is the lesson of the poem, which the speaker reiterates. "Come hither," he repeats, and now offers a direct warning: "and behold your fate!" It is not only the Duke of Marlborough to whom the poet is pointing when he speaks of human vanity. It is to an implicit "you," to the "you" suggested by "all ye empty things," and to the "you" addressed in "behold your fate!" The warnings are meant for anyone reading the poem who cannot sense their own insignificance and mortality. There is a lesson in the duke's death. Death itself is as much a rebuke as the dearth of mourning at the duke's funeral: "Let pride be taught by this rebuke, / How very mean a thing's a duke." The word "mean" indicates pettiness and insignificance. A duke is but a man. Thus, a man is an insignificant thing. He dies and returns to the earth: "From all his ill-got honors flung, / Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung." In these final lines, the poem returns its focus to the duke himself. The speaker refers to Marlborough's "ill-got honors" and suggests that in death Marlborough has undergone a metamorphosis. The word "turned" suggests that the duke is not only returned to the earth but that he has been turned into dirt, his own, true essence. For the duke came from dirt, meaning not just from the earth, but that he gained his power from his association with unclean things such as war, embezzlement, and a corrupt political party.


Death and Mutability

Implicitly and explicitly, Swift's elegy presents the idea that it is human folly to believe in permanence. Mutability, or change, is inevitable. Fortune changes during life's course, as, in fact, the duke's fortune did several times. He enjoyed military victories and suffered military defeats. He was both rewarded and snubbed by people in powerful places throughout his career. Swift does not focus, however, on this kind of change in his elegy. In the poem, death is presented as the greatest agent of change, and the guarantor of impermanence. Although the duke had been a powerful man in his lifetime, he succumbed to death, as every man does. Thus his glory, and the glory of all men, proves transient. In "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," the "General" is shown as a man who lived life without any awareness of death and who sought glory and treasure for himself as if he might always possess them. Those who viewed the duke as if he was a great power were also deluded, as is indicated by the opening exclamations. Indeed, those who might once have spoken of the duke with awe, speak of him instead with disdain and contempt upon his death. In the closing stanza, the poet himself speaks in his own voice, not through a persona, or character whom he pretends to be. Swift compares all who enjoy glory to "bubbles." Bubbles, of course, can and do burst, and their form is fleeting, as is the life of a man.


If everything is subject to change, as the poem asserts, and if death indicates a final and inglorious reversal of fortune, consequently mocking the concept of pride, is there anything that can defeat mutability? If anything can, it is reputation. One's good name can outlive one's deeds, just as the history of one's virtues and accomplishments can outlive those virtues and accomplishments in their concrete forms. The victory, then, that the poet achieves over the duke is his ability to disparage Churchill's life and career. Towards the conclusion of the opening stanza, Swift defines the duke's reputation when he speaks of the misery he has caused others in the course of his career. The disrespect the poet shows threatens to undermine the final possibility remaining to the duke, that of achieving a glorious historical legacy. The poet speaks of the duke not as of a man worthy of honor but as a worthless man who will leave nothing for those who survive him to esteem.


  • Imagine the death of a prominent national political figure, or choose one who has recently died and write a satirical elegy on his or her death.
  • From among films and television programs, choose two satires and write an essay comparing the subjects they satirize, the goals of the programs or films, and the ways in which they accomplish what they set out to do. Be specific in your comparisons.
  • With several of your classmates, write a skit satirizing some aspect of school life and present it in front of the class. In a set of production notes accompanying your presentation, discuss the issues you confronted in creating your skit, focusing particular attention on the limits you decided could not, or should not, be overstepped and why.
  • Read Alexander Pope's mock epic poem The Rape of the Lock or Samuel Johnson's satiric novel Rasselas and prepare a lesson in which you introduce either work to your class and explain the satirical themes and the satirical context of either work.
  • Research the War of the Spanish Succession and Marlborough's role in it and prepare a brief for or against Marlborough's conduct during the war.
  • After doing research on the rise of the Whigs and the Tories, compare the political battles the two parties fought with each other at the beginning of the eighteenth century to the political campaigns the Republicans and Democrats have waged against each other at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Present your findings to the class.


The Duke of Marlborough, the general, is the focus of Swift's satire, but he is also used as an example of pride, an example that can be used to teach a larger lesson or to draw a universal conclusion. What makes the general such fitting material for satire is the magnitude of the self-importance, vanity, and pride that he demonstrated during his lifetime. The duke's pride and vanity can be measured by what Swift saw as greed for recognition and reward, and by the pain the duke caused others in pursuit of his own best interests. Swift is explicit about the general's greed in the final lines of the opening stanza, using the very words "profit" and "pride" in line 23. A model of proud vanity, the general is hardly the only practitioner of this vice. Swift begins the closing stanza with a call for "all ye empty things," which means everyone, for everyone is plagued to some degree by vanity. Through the life of the duke, the poem attempts, as it says in line 29, to teach the reader that "by this rebuke / How very mean a thing's a Duke." If a titled duke is a mean thing (and here the term is used to indicate insignificance), how much more unimportant are all those who cannot even boast such rank? Human beings come from the dirt and return to the dirt, and many live their lives in the midst of dirt. That this recognition ought to cure people of vanity is the moral theme of the poem.



Originally, the elegy was a Latin poem characterized by rhymed couplets with each of the lines composed in a specific meter. The first line introduced a subject and the second line completed it. Usually love or death was the subject of an elegy, as opposed to the heroic acts and tragic events of warfare. Swift uses the form, but subverts it by introducing a tone of mockery and depreciation in order to provide the duke with a final, parting insult.


From the very title onwards, the duke is being mocked. Rather than being named in the title, he is called "a Late Famous General." There is a hint of disdain there, suggesting the emptiness of fame and rank. The tone of mockery continues in the first lines. The duke becomes the object of a cheap, tabloid sort of gossip. "His grace! Impossible! What dead!" The mockery continues throughout the poem and, in fact, is amplified as the poem progresses. Not only does the speaker mock the duke, so do circumstances. No mourners grace his funeral procession. Despite all his earthly accomplishments, his body turns to dirt and his soul, at the trumpet's sound, will supposedly enter hell.

Rhymed Couplets

Swift's "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," like much of eighteenth-century verse, is written in rhymed couplets, pairs of lines that rhyme. While such a rhyme scheme can serve forms of verse other than satire, it is particularly suited for satire because each second line gives the poet the opportunity to conclude an observation with a rhyme that accomplishes a sense of wit and finality. This is especially true because the first line of the couplet imitates a rising tone of voice and the second a falling, as in the seventh and eighth lines: "And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger / He'd wish to sleep a little longer." The satisfying resolution achieved through rhyme illustrates the poet's command of his subject and focuses attention on his skill and, consequently, his superiority to his subject. In Swift's poem, the arch, wry, and detached effect of an a,a; b,b rhyme scheme is evident. The duke is "dead" in his "bed," and some folks "think" he left behind a stink.


Satire is an early poetic form once practiced by Greek and Roman poets, who used it to ridicule and reform human and social evils. The Greek playwright, Aristophanes, c. 448-380 B.C.E. satirized everything from philosophy to warfare. The Roman satirist Petronius, c. 27-66 C.E. satirized Roman decadence and new wealth. Since then, satire has been used to edify as it entertains, as it is most commonly used to promote societal change through the use of humor. Although "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" ridicules Swift's political enemy, it also discusses loftier ideas regarding vanity, morality, and mortality.


The Instability of the English Monarchy

By the 1700s, the English monarchy had been unstable for centuries. Henry VIII contributed greatly to its instability when he broke with the pope, in 1534, and separated English Christianity from Roman Catholicism. Not only did Henry form the Anglican Church with the Archbishop of Canterbury as its head, he also, by this very break, fostered a rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in England, a rivalry that became political as well as religious. Subsequently, the monarchs of England were either Protestant, like Elizabeth I, or Catholic, like her successor, James I. In 1642, the Protestant Puritans began an attack on the English monarchy. The nine-year struggle ultimately led to the defeat of the forces of King Charles I in 1649, and the establishment of the English commonwealth. The commonwealth was defeated in 1660 and Charles's son, King Charles II, returned from exile in France to rule in England. Catholicism, as well as the monarchy, was restored to England. But when Charles's successor, James II, was overthrown in 1688 by the Protestant William of Orange, England again became Protestant and remained Protestant thereafter.

Religion was not the only issue causing the instability of the English throne. The power of the king was also an issue, as was the struggle to limit the power of the English monarch. As early as 1215, a group of English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, a document curtailing his authority and increasing their rights. By Swift's time, the English monarchy had evolved from an absolute monarch ruling by divine right, that is, with God's approbation, into a constitutionally limited monarchy functioning alongside a parliament controlled by political parties. Such a development made it possible for the satirical form that Swift favored to develop and survive the wrath of the very powers it mocked and rebuked.


  • Early 1700s: England is divided about the War of Spanish Succession, with the Whigs endorsing the war against France and the Tories opposing it.

    Today: England is the primary partner of the United States in the Iraq War. The ruling Labor government supports the war, but the majority of English citizens oppose it.

  • Early 1700s: Writing in the Examiner, Swift attacks men like Marlborough who continue the continental war and profit from it.

    Today: Journalists like Robert Fisk, writing in the London Independent, write critically about the war in Iraq and uncover the corruption involved in pursuing it.

  • Early 1700s: Swift presents the news of the Duke of Marlborough's death from the point of view of a common gossip.

    Today: Papers like the Daily Mail in England and the New York Post in the United States present news in terms of gossip about well-known personalities.

The War of the Spanish Succession

When Charles II, king of Spain, died childless in 1700, he named Philip, Duke of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV, king of France, as his heir. This provided Louis with the opportunity to unite Spain and France into one kingdom and into a mighty European power under his control. The Dutch, the Austrians, and the English declared war on Louis in 1702 in order to thwart his designs and protect their own interests. The war lasted until 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. By the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, Philip remained king of Spain, but the Spanish monarchy was kept separate from the French monarchy. Marlborough was undoubtedly a hero of the war. But military ventures, no matter what their outcome, were abhorred by Swift, whose political beliefs were second to or determined by his hatred of war. Marlborough, moreover, despite his victories, appeared to win them at the expense of, rather than for, his countrymen. His military campaigns in the service of English royal power, caused death and grief to the English, but served as opportunities for Marlborough to advance himself and profit financially from war.

The Whigs and the Tories

Under William and Mary, political parties based on conflicting interests began to have significant power. The Whigs favored the power of Parliament over the King and Court. They favored Protestantism over Catholicism, and in the early eighteenth century, Whigs supported the English continental war against France. The Tories represented the court party, supported the Anglican Church, and were eager to end the War of the Spanish Succession. The Tories were interested in making England a sea-power dominant in trade, which it became. Marlborough was a Whig. Swift, by the early 1700s had become a Tory, impelled greatly by his deep opposition to war and to the Whig support of the continental war.


Much has been written about Swift and his prose works, but much less has been written on his poetry and on "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General." The first disadvantage Swift encounters as a poet is the age in which he lived. The tastemakers of the nineteenth century simply did not respect the verse of the eighteenth century as real poetry. J. A. Downie, in Jonathan Swift: Political Writer cites late nineteenth-century critic and Swift biographer, Henry Craik, who asserted in 1882, "We cannot claim for any of [Swift's] verses the qualities of real poetry. … We find in them no flights of imagination: no grandeur either of emotion or of form: and even the deftness of his rhythmical skill never attains to the harmony of poetic utterance."

Regarding his verse, however, Swift is his own first and most uncompromising critic. "I have," David Ward quotes Swift as saying, in Jonathan Swift: An Introductory Essay, "been only a man of rhymes, and that upon trifles, never having written serious couplets in my life." Indeed, there is evidence of this sentiment in Swift's "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." In an excerpt of the poem provided by Downie, Swift even rhymed his discontent with himself as a poet; he considered the work of his friend, Alexander Pope, to be superior:

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.

Indeed, Swift's universal renown is for a great prose satire, for Gulliver's Travels, and for several other highly esteemed if somewhat less well-known satirical prose works like A Modest Proposal, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub, which Harold Bloom, in an introductory essay to a volume of Modern Critical Views: Jonathan Swift, has called "the most powerful prose work in the language." Regarding Swift's poetry, Ward takes issue with the author's humility, asserting that "there is enough really impressive work to justify the claim that Swift is among the best minor poets in the English language." It is moreover doubtful that Swift believed the content of "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" was trivial, especially because the poem deliberately trifles with the reputation of a famous man regarded by some as great. In that poem, as in all of Swift's satire, Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., argues in Swift and the Satirist's Art that Swift's strategy was to show that "Man's myopic complacency can be fought only by devastating attacks on the very foundations of his self-esteem." Swift believed, Rosenheim argues, that "without the benefit of reasoned argument, without nuances, [Man] must be shown raw fact about his origins and endowments. From his fraudulent pinnacle of self-admiration, he must, in truth, be ‘turned to that dirt from whence he sprung.’" Thus, Swift's power as a satirist is not in argument, but in subversion of the esteem usually conferred upon his target through rhetorical ridicule.

Writing about satire in general, Northrop Frye explains in Anatomy of Criticism, that "two things … are essential" to a successful piece of satire. "One is wit or humor founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack." Certainly, both are present in "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General." The object of attack, Marlborough, is unambiguously present. The satire on his death, which imagines his death as provoking neither mourning nor ceremony, ought to be grotesque, as it ought to be absurd, since it is contrary to accepted practice and sentiment.


  • W. H. Auden's, "The Unknown Citizen" was written in 1939 and was first published in 1940. Auden's poem is a satire on war, patriotism, and the docility of citizens to the government's demands.
  • e. e. cumming's, "next to of course god" (1926), is a satirical sonnet cast in the form of an American politician's jargon-filled Fourth of July oration.
  • Winston Churchill's Marlborough: His Life and Times was published in 1968. This book, written about Churchill's ancestor, presents the story of the Duke of Marlborough's life and career. Here, the duke is portrayed as a good man and even as a hero.
  • Charles Dickens's Hard Times was first published in serial installments in Dickens's magazine Household Words between April 1 and August 12, 1854. As in many of Dickens's longer novels, there are a number of plot strands that fan out and rejoin each other. Of particular interest is the strand concerning Mr. Gradgrind, the satiric object of Dickens's contempt for the followers of the Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, whom Dickens saw as promoting materialism and denying the importance of the human spirit.
  • Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1729) is an epic novel that not only carries a complicated and moral plot but is also a comic novel that satirizes several literary forms as well as many human follies.
  • Dwight MacDonald's Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm and After was printed in 1960. MacDonald has assembled an anthology of literary parodies and satires of famous works as well as of particular persons and issues.
  • William Morris's News from Nowhere appeared in print in 1890. Morris's utopian novel, by imagining a future world that is the opposite of the world as it was in England at the end of the nineteenth century, satirizes late nineteenth-century England by exposing its barbarities and cruelties.
  • Alexander Pope's The Dunciad, first published in 1728 and again in a revised version in 1743, is a long poem in rhymed couplets in which Pope directs scorn at his literary inferiors.
  • Gulliver's Travels (1726) is Swift's best-known novel. The narrator, Captain Gulliver, in four journeys, explores the depths of mankind's follies and the extent of his own capacity to accept humanity.


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In the following essay, Heims argues that Swift not only satirizes Marlborough in "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," but also satirizes the elegiac form in general. Heims alsocompares the poem to an earlier prose satire about the duke that Swift wrote several years before Churchill's death.

Swift's last literary encounter with his old enemy, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, was his "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General." The poem was the last slight he could bestow on a man whom he held in contempt and whom he had already savaged twelve years before, in 1710. Then, in a broadsheet called the Examiner, a Tory journal that Swift edited, Swift accused the duke of lining his own pockets at the expense of the English people. Simply by calling his poem on Churchill's death "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," Swift shows his contempt by refusing to directly name the duke.

If the poem is a satire, as the title indicates, what or who is it satirizing or ridiculing? The answer seems reasonably to be the "Late Famous General." But that is not entirely clear. The elegy is written, according to its title, not on him but on his "Death." Therefore the satire is not satirizing the general. The elegy itself, as a literary form, is being satirized. An elegy, properly, offers praise for its subject, laments the deceased, and offers consolation to those grieving for him. Swift's "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General" does not do that. Churchill's death is the vehicle Swift uses in order to subvert the elegiac form. Instead of offering a tribute to Churchill, the verses condemn him to Hell, and, they assert, deservedly so. To use an elegy in this way satirizes the elegy, even does violence to it, by setting it to perform a task directly opposed to its intended purpose.

Why would Swift take this approach? Because, in Swift's view, the duke had polluted and violated each of the revered institutions he entered. Thus, his death is used here to do the same. Churchill was corrupt as a general and corrupt as a member of the queen's governing party. Alive, he had corrupted his offices. Now dead, he corrupts a poetic form just by being its subject. The condemnation and diminution of Churchill are woven into the poem, but complete damnation is left for the last line: "Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung." Swift uses the word "dirt," not the more common terms "dust," "earth," or "soil." This enforces the idea of the duke's inherent filthiness.

Damning is precisely what Swift intended to do regarding Churchill. The general was an enemy of formidable proportions, a man firmly connected to the Whig establishment. His victories over the French armies in the War of the Spanish Succession, while not yet, in 1710, conclusive, made him seem indispensable to the nation, especially in his own eyes. Once the Tories, who were eager to end the war and sign a peace treaty with France, had, in 1710, defeated the Whigs at the polls, they began to consider how to lessen Churchill's political power without injuring their plans for peace. The Tory plan was to expose the duke's faults and topple him through dishonor and shame rather than by stripping him of his powers directly. Swift's power of satirical invective was the means they chose to further the duke's undoing.

In the Examiner of November 23, 1710, Swift took on the duke's power and popularity by using a satirical strategy of reversal. He began by arguing that opposition to "the late removals at Court," that is, the recent changes in ministers and the Whigs's loss of power at court, was caused by "the Fear of giving Uneasiness to a General who hath been long successful abroad: And accordingly, the common Clamor of Tongues and Pens for some Months past, hath run against the Baseness, the Inconstancy and Ingratitude of the whole Kingdom to the Duke of Marlborough." Swift, thus, begins by establishing as his major premise and by seeming to accept its veracity, that England has been ungrateful to Churchill. Swift continues, as if he were making a serious argument, to show the terrible extent of that ingratitude. Swift presents a straight-faced table, titled "Bill of BRITISH Ingratitude," comparing the way England has rewarded the duke with "A Bill of ROMAN Gratitude," which lists the rewards received by Roman heroes of the ancient Republic. Comparing the two columns, as if he were making entries in a ledger, Swift shows that Roman heroes were rewarded by their countryman to the tune of 994 pounds, 11 shillings, tenpence. The duke, columns beside the Roman entries show, in a national display of ingratitude, has been given, altogether, 540,000 pounds. Rather than arguing against the duke's arrogance and corruption, Swift seems to side with the duke's advocates, focusing on the accounts, leaving it for his readers to conclude indignantly that those of the duke's party who proclaim "British Ingratitude" toward the duke are absurd. Only at the conclusion of his satire does Swift quietly make his point unambiguous. "We find many ungrateful Persons in the world," Swift writes, "but we make more, by setting too high a Rate upon our Pretensions, and undervaluing the Rewards we receive." That is the moral lesson of Swift's satire. His indictment is the indictment of unchecked power.

However, in "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," Swift does not need to focus on the details of political or economic issues. The Duke of Marlborough is dead, and what is death if not the ultimate check on power? Now, Swift's attack need not be on the duke or his deeds and misdeeds, but it must be on the underlying vice or vices that caused them. It must be on the demeaning effect of corruption on a corrupt man, and it must demonstrate the folly of human vanity, from which most corruption springs. Swift takes aim at Churchill's vanity from the first words and insists on humbling the duke by withholding any expression of grief at his passing or of awe at his accomplishment. Swift achieves Churchill's deflation by making the poem's speaker slightly detached: a gossip who enjoys talking about the great and powerful with an undeserved familiarity. The duke is not regarded by the speaker as a person but as a celebrity, and as a celebrity, he is subject to public opinion. Swift shows the effects of corruption when he writes of the "great" stink that remains in Churchill's wake. By this stink, the duke is compared to the Devil himself, the incarnation of evil, who is notorious for leaving the unpleasant smell of sulfurous brimstone behind him.

The purpose of the poem is less to recognize the duke, even in his diabolical aspect, than to use him as an example against vanity and pretension. "Let pride be taught by this rebuke, / How very mean a thing's a Duke," Swift writes in the poem's concluding lines. He is no longer using the voice of the street persona who spoke the first twenty-four lines. This is not a flighty statement. The "rebuke" spoken of is death itself. The duke's greatness at last, through the agency of the poem, has achieved a certain useful virtue as it becomes an edifying example of the vanity of human covetousness. Even the degree of fame and power that the duke had achieved is reduced to nothing by the greater power of death.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on "A Satirical Essay on the Death of a Late Great General," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.

Hermann J. Real

In the following essay, Real examines what motivations Swift may have had for his negative portrayal of the Duke of Marlborough in the poem. The critic finds answers to Swift's attitude in another of his works, Journal to Stella.

Swift's "Satirical Elegy" has been variously labeled "unchivalrous," "ungenerous," even "as vicious as it was unnecessary." Undoubtedly, value judgments like this are not only motivated by a conviction, frequent in theories of satire, that the satirist should attack only what is corrigible, but even more by a maxim which has been a guideline of tact ever since Solon: De mortuis nil nisi bene. One might well ask why, for Swift, this rule did not apply to Marlborough. The answer, I think, lies in the Journal to Stella, where Swift characterized Marlborough as "covetous as Hell, and ambitious as the Prince of it." Thus for Swift, Marlborough obviously did not, as all satiric victims do, merely exhibit some moral deficit, but a moral deficit of diabolical proportions. In other words, Marlborough was the incarnation of the devil. This becomes evident in vv. 13-6 of the poem:

This world he cumber'd long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a s—k.

The satiric implications of these lines are lost if the candle image is interpreted merely as a symbol of the "passage of time and the ephemerality of life." Nor is it simply an ironic inversion of the interpretation associated with the candle in emblematic literature, aliis in serviendo consumor. More to the point is an idea which seems to have been widely spread in superstition and folklore: "The devil leaves a stink behind." As Samuel Butler put it in "Upon Modern Critics":

And as the Devil, that has no Shape of's own,
Affects to put the ugliest on,
And leaves a Stink behind him, when he's

If the interpretation is correct, evaluations like "unchivalrous," "ungenerous" or "vicious" are no longer legitimate, for what good could Swift, or anybody for that matter, have said about the Devil? De mortuis nil nisi vere.

Source: Hermann J. Real, "Swift's ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General,’" in Explicator, Vol. 36, No. 2, Winter 1978, pp. 26-27.

Alan S. Fisher

In the following essay, Fisher discusses several of Swift's biographical "portraits" in the following excerpt, including "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General." Of this poem, Fisher notes that it begins "with lamentation," as most elegies do, before turning into a mocking, devastating portrait of the Duke of Marlborough.

Critics long have recognized that portraits are a major source of insight in the satirical verse of Dryden and Pope. Portraits are largely ignored in Swift, however, probably because verse is not Swift's most important medium, and because he uses portraits in his verse rather sparsely. Nevertheless, I believe they are worth studying, for they will provide the same critical focal point for Swift as they do for the study of his contemporaries.

Portraits have this importance because they are a specially rich kind of metaphor. On the surface, they do not seem metaphoric at all, they seem biographical—statements based on a set of facts about a man. (Such "facts" may actually be legends, half-truths, or outright lies, but whether they are true or false, all portraits rely upon the reader's willingness not to challenge them.) Metaphors, on the other hand, deal in analogies, not in facts: the biographical character sketch becomes a portrait, in the sense I use the term, only when its details become analogical—that is, when they fall into a pattern, or concept, or essence, some entity which exists in the imagination, largely free from the pressure of objective factuality. To study portraits, therefore, is to study the way an author transforms the facts of the world he inhabits into the patterns of his imagination—in short, it is to study how his mind works. …


Swift was aware that a portrait is a metaphor and not a biography. One of his earliest portraits, "The Description of a Salamander" (1705), begins with lines that exactly define the portraitist's creed:

… men have got from Bird and Brute
Names that would best their Natures suit:
The Lyon, Eagle, Fox and Bear
Were Hero's Titles heretofore,
Bestow'd as Hi'roglyphicks fit
T' express their Valor, Strength or Wit.
For, what is understood by Fame
Beside the getting of a Name? (7-14)

The portraitist is a giver of names, and a "name," as we see, is an analogy—the precise one that distills a man's character and deeds into a meaningful essence.

In the piece at hand, however, it soon develops that Swift is not conferring a name, but is ironically defending one already given. John, Lord Cutts, the poem's victim, was a soldier who had earned the nickname, "salamander." Salamanders, according to OED, were "supposed to live in, or be able to endure fire"; to call a soldier one was to pay tribute to his bravery. Swift defends the relevance of the name from Pliny's Natural History, a source which includes much more about salamanders than their ability to endure fire:

… our Author has defin'd
This Reptil, of the Serpent kind,
With gawdy Coat, and shining Train,
But loathsom Spots his Body stain:
Out from some Hole obscure he flies
When Rains descend, and Tempests rise,
Till the Sun clears the Air; and then
Crawls back neglected to his Den. (29-36)

Swift now fits this analogically to a whole class of men:

SO when the War has rais'd a Storm
I've seen a Snake in human Form,
All stain'd with Infamy and Vice,
Leap from the Dunghill in a trice,
Burnish and make a gaudy show,
Become a General, Peer and Beau,
Till Peace hath made the Sky serene,
Then shrink into it's Hole again.(37-44)

And with the analogy thus established, Cutts must stand upon his name: "All this we grant—why, then look yonder / Sure that must be a Salamander!" (45-46).

This piece works differently from the usual portrait because it is little concerned with essences. We do not understand the significance of Cutts by understanding the class of men to which he belongs; what we understand is a typical process which Cutts represents—the way in which it always happens, during wars, that "reptiles" become the leaders of men. Consequently, the poem does not so much deal with a finished concept, like Salamanderism, as with putting that concept through a process of redefining, and what is left after reading the poem is not a sense that now we understand the concept better, but a sense that before we understood it very falsely. The poem's interest in concepts is to destroy the false, but not necessarily to build up true ones in their place.

In other words, the focus of the poem is devaluative. So also is most satire: what sets this poem apart is the emphasis it gives to devaluation. Most satirists try to avoid making devaluation seem their principal point of interest. They treat evil as a coating of rust upon the good, and their devaluating is therefore a kind of scouring, the ultimate purpose of which is to uncover an ideal truth that everyone knows is under the rust. The only ideal Swift seems to offer, however, is Salamanderism. In the common understanding, this is a cliché, hapless before Swift's derision, and in the poem's revised understanding, it is no ideal at all, but a paradigm of rottenness. There being no ideal of truth, what becomes "truth" in this poem is the process of devaluation itself, and what becomes ideal in it is the vigor and gusto with which the devaluation is carried out. This vigor makes us aware of sensing somewhere in our experience of the poem a critical, detached, free-standing intellect. The poem offers nothing to believe in, save this intellect: if processes only, not concepts, are truth, then surely the process closest to an ideal is the critical one, which subjects concepts—especially such egregiously empty ones—to destruction.

Swift's portrait satire adopts this pattern: the world is understood in terms of process, not essence; devaluation is truth; and the closest approach to a true ideal is the irreverent, critical intellect which sees through false ideals. Such ultimate skepticism is not complete until skepticism itself is treated skeptically; this happens in another early piece, "V[an]'s House" (1708). "Van" is John Vanbrugh, the playwright who also was an architect, and who built a house for himself upon the ruins of a wing of Whitehall Palace which had burned down in 1703. Being both poet and builder, Vanbrugh calls to mind the mythical archetype of Amphion, whose power of singing was such that the very stones obeyed his will. Swift's first concern is to deal with the myth, bypassing its idealistic side and forcing it into a context of literalism and process:

IN Times of Old, when Time was Young,
And Poets their own Verses Sung,
A Verse could draw a Stone or Beam
That now would overload a Team;
Lead 'em a Dance of many a Mile,
Then rear 'em to a goodly Pile.
Each Number had it's diff'rent Pow'r;
Heroick Strains could build a Tow'r;
Sonnets, or Elogies to Chloris
Might raise a House about two Stories;
A Lyric Ode would Slate; a Catch
Would Tile; an Epigram would Thatch. (1-12)

This destroys the myth, of course, but it does one other thing as well: it connects that destruction with modernism. The attitude of these lines is a matter of the present debunking the past, and although Swift truly intends the debunking—Amphionism being an impossible concept—we also see this process as a paradigm of the way the present recasts the world of the past in its own paltry mold. Modern thinking is insolently literalistic; the insolence can be amusing, but the literalism cheapens. Turning from this passage to his attack on Vanbrugh, Swift turns the paradigm of modern devaluation upon the modern devaluators themselves. Vanbrugh, the modern Amphion, takes his place within myth turned into farce by the very habits of thinking he represents.

Granted a reinstatement of the Amphionic power, Vanbrugh falls to scribbling a play, which, in modern style, he plagiarizes. His matching power to build, therefore, extends only to second-hand bricks (Whitehall's ruins). As the play is written, the house arises: two acts are the cellar (because "the plot as yet lay deep"); two acts are two rooms above; the fifth act is the roof; the epilogue is the outhouse. When completed, poets throng to it as the shrine of their ancient power restored, and a fitting shrine it is, for it is so tiny that they have difficulty finding it among the other ruins on the site. At this point, the symbolism of the poem comes fully into focus: the smallness of the house is correlative to the paltry talent of its builder and to the spirit of modernism itself, which not only is paltry, but is corrupting:

Born like a Phoenix from the Flame,
But neither Bulk, nor Shape the same:
As Animals of largest Size
Corrupt to Maggots, Worms and Flyes.
A Type of Modern Wit and Style,
The Rubbish of an Antient Pile. (121-126)

This poem has the familiar elements: the incessant transforming of a concept (the power of Amphion) into processes, the equating of devaluation with truth, the free, critical spirit one senses behind it all. But it adds something very important to this formula: the ambiguity it casts upon the process of devaluation. For devaluation can be used both by true men of taste and by pretenders to taste, and though devaluation is truth in all cases, the truth it yields in the hands of a pretender is perfunctory or simply worthless. Debunking itself is not valuable, Swift says, what matters is the mind we sense behind it.

Twenty years later, Swift's procedure has not changed. Here are some lines on George II, addressed to anyone who would praise him:

… your Encomiums, to be strong,
Must be apply'd directly wrong:
A Tyrant for his Mercy praise,
And crown a Royal Dunce with Bays:
A squinting Monkey load with charms;
And paint a Coward fierce in arms.
Is he to Avarice inclin'd?
Extol him for his generous mind … (117-124)

Tyrant, dunce, monkey, coward, avaricious man—all are concepts, and all come together in some grand concept: George is the worst of all possible kings. This, however, is not an interesting thing to call him; the interest one has in these lines is not the concept they present, but the process they embody. What this process is appears a few lines earlier, where Swift confesses that satirists are "blackeners":

'Tis not deny'd that when we write,
Our Ink is black, our Paper white;
And when we scrawl our Paper o'r'e,
We blacken what was white before.
I think this Practice only fit
For dealers in Satyrick Wit … (107-112)

—and anyone who praises the king must undertake a process precisely the reverse. Swift addresses his hypothetical panegyrist:

… you some white-lead ink must get,
And write on paper black as Jet:
Your Int'rest lyes to learn the knack
Of whitening what before was black. (113-116)

These lines go beyond their attack on supine panegyrics and take on a metaphorical significance. It is natural and true that paper should be white and ink, black: to reverse them is unnatural and false. But if the satirist is natural and true, so also is the "blackening" he admits to: for good or for ill, devaluation is truth.

Swift's most celebrated portrait satire is his "Satirical Elegy" on Marlborough. Again a concept (Marlborough's reputation) is broken down into processes and devaluated. The piece begins, as elegies should, with lamentation, but this one becomes a mockery, the casual banality of typical town conversation:

And could he be indeed so old
As by the news-papers we're told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die.
This world he cumber'd long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a s—k. (9-16)

One critic asserts that this is not the voice of Swift speaking, but the voice of the Town itself. Seen this way, the passage becomes meaningful in two respects: in the first place, the Town giveth and taketh away such greatness as Marlborough had—"Marlborough's reputation will quickly be destroyed by the very men who praised him while he was alive and powerful"; secondly, the passage is an example of devaluative criticism in hands unworthy of it—true though it may be, we need not admire it. There is an ironic poetic justice in all this: Marlborough exposed in his true paltriness by minds whose own paltriness once made him great.

The critical intellect behind the poem does not appear until its last eight lines, in which the voice changes sharply:

Come hither, all ye empty things,
Ye bubbles rais'd by breath of Kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride be taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turn'd to that dirt from whence he sprung.

"Dirt" expresses Swift's personal disgust, but it contains a broader meaning in its allusion to "dust." Dust is the end of all things mortal; to mention it here is to remind the reader that the very processes of living are enemies of human constructs, concepts, and essences. The principles of devaluation and decay are laws of the universe. Again, when the poem insists that we must recognize the truth of such processes, it does not insist that we admire them. The somber power of these lines—and that of Swift's critical intelligence—derives from this ability to recognize the true power of decay, without admiring it.


"Dirt," in the Marlborough elegy, provides a convenient paradigm of Swift's satirical method. Three things can be said about the word: (i) it is a stroke of wit that springs a joke: we expect one monosyllable that begins and ends with "d" and "t," but we get another and strangely more appropriate one; (ii) it delivers a severe indictment, for "dirt" is synonymous to filth and excrement; (iii) it alludes, as I have said, to the process of decay built into the fabric of the world we must live in, a process about which we can do little or nothing. The compression of these effects and ideas into a single word is unusual in Swift's verse, but the mixture itself, in varying proportions, occurs in all of the portrait satires.

They all entertain the reader with a jest, usually accepting a standard formula and extracting from it unexpected consequences. In the examples at hand, Cutts is a salamander not because he is brave, but because he is a reptile; Vanbrugh is an Amphion not in the ancient, but in the modern construing of the myth; George II is the perfect panegyric hero, not by the conventional, but by the "true" standards of panegyric. Nearly every portrait that appears in Swift is based on a reversal, a redefinition, or an unexpected jolt. Jests notwithstanding, Swift's portraits always bring strong indictments upon their subjects. Reptilian ugliness represents the moral ugliness Swift finds in Cutts; Vanbrugh building or writing is compared to maggots devouring a carcass; the true George II is a "squinting monkey"; and Marlborough is reduced to a stinking vapor.

The jesting and the damning are obvious enough. The pessimism, though not always blatant, is also basic. In the Marlborough piece, decay is poetic justice for a wicked man. But although its justice may be some consolation, the portrait also reminds us that decay works upon all men, good and evil alike. In the other pieces the pessimism is less general, but equally important. With Cutts, Swift restricts himself to the consequences of war, but one of those consequences is a natural process by which salamanders in all their ugliness always emerge from their holes. The Vanbrugh piece is not heavily pessimistic, but there is an undertone: nobody would want these modern forms and processes, yet there seems to be no way anyone can avoid them. In the portrait of George II, the pessimism is political: "this monkey tyrant is our king," Swift seems to say; "we cannot get rid of him, but we do not have to worship him."

In one way or another, then, the clever jest, the bitter indictment, and the pessimistic idea that the evils under attack are somehow in the nature of things are the components of Swift's portrait satire. This combination causes a complicated reaction. We laugh at evil as something paltry, for Swift shows it in poses of utter absurdity; yet we must hate as well as laugh, because whatever the pose, evil is extremely ugly—Swift's terms for it usually are physically shocking; and further, we recognize that neither laughing nor getting sick is likely to change what exists. No one accepts something so ridiculous and so ugly with philosophic detachment, yet Swift allows no illusions about doing away with it. It is there, and all we can say is that we are not obliged to like it.

Source: Alan S. Fisher, "Swift's Verse Portraits: A Study of His Originality as an Augustan Satirist," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer 1974, pp. 343-56.

Robert W. Uphaus

In the following excerpt, Uphaus argues that while Swift does indeed reshape traditional poetic conventions in much of his work, he still works within those traditions. The critic notes that Swift subverts the "conventional three-part structure of the elegy—praise, lamentation, consolation"—in"Satirical Elegy," but Uphaus contends that the work is still recognizable as an elegy.

A number of Swift's poems have often been used as evidence of his opposition to poetry—his "anti-poetic" it is most often called. Such assertions, regrettably, have tended to assume that Swift's poems "demonstrate all the limits, and none of the uses, of conventional literary categories." By measuring a selection of Swift's poems against this assumption, I intend to show how Swift makes poetry by projecting his own vision of reality—a simultaneous opposition to the visionary imagination and a firm commitment to the material world as the primary source of human knowledge—within certain traditional literary conventions. That Swift alters or reshapes poetic conventions should not be surprising, for this is the traditional prerogative and responsibility of poets. Indeed, this is how good poets make meaning….

Now it is not my intention to philosophize about the profundity or the inherent poetic magic of obscenity, but since Swift's obscenity is often used as evidence of his "anti-poetic" attitude, I would like to suggest that the obscenity in "The Description of a Salamander" is both conventional (that is, it has poetic precedents) and thematically necessary. As much as I may agree with Sir Harold Williams that this poem about Lord John Cutts is a "scurrilous invective against a brave man," I do not find the poem "inexcusable," because, given the conventions of invective, the one thing I do not expect is fairness and impartiality.

The creation of this poem appears to have occurred this way. Swift, capitalizing on the nickname "Salamander" which Cutts had won at the siege of Namur and remembering Pliny's description of a salamander in his Natural History, seized the opportunity to exploit the parallels between a mythical salamander, alleged to have the power to endure fire, and Lord Cutts, who is also said to have endured fire—gunfire. From this parallel, as the following lines show, Swift quickly points to the dislocation between the titles of classical heroes and the ironic appropriateness, in his view, of calling a "modern" hero a salamander:

So men have got from Bird and Brute
Names that would best their Natures suit:
The Lyon, Eagle, Fox and Boar
Were Hero's Titles heretofore,
Bestow'd as Hi'roglyphicks fit
To shew their Valor, Strength or Wit.
For, what is understood by Fame
Besides the getting of a Name?
But e're since Men invented Guns,
A different way their Fancy runs;
To paint a Hero, we enquire
For something that will conquer fire. (ll.7-18)

Two lines later he writes a couplet whose rhyme words "grander" and "Salamander" effectively disclose the poem's ironic version of Cutts's heroism. By invoking what Irvin Ehrenpreis has called "parallel history," Swift uses Cutts as an example of his culture's trivialization of genuine heroism; among other things, the poem suggests that any warfare which uses guns is distinctly unheroic. But there are two other characteristics of a salamander which Swift applies to Cutts—its gaudy skin and serpentine shape, and its resistance to heat.

In the first instance, the parallel is both general and obvious:

So when the War has rais'd a Storm
I've seen a Snake in human Form,
All stain'd with Infamy and Vice,
Leap from the Dunghill in a trice,
Burnish and make a gaudy show,
Become a General, Peer and Beau,
Till Peace hath made the Sky serene,
Then shrink into it's Hole again. (ll.37-44)

But for the second characteristic, the salamander's coolness, Swift may well have had in mind the opening lines of John Cleveland's "The Antiplatonic," which employs a popular seventeenth-century literary figure for a lover's coolness to passion. I quote some lines from Cleveland's poem:

For shame, thou everlasting Woer,
Still saying Grace and ne're fall to her!
Love that's in Contemplation plac't,
Is Venus drawn but to the Wast.
Unlesse your Flame confesse its Gender,
And your Parley cause surrender,
Y'are Salamanders of a cold desire,
That live untouch't amid the hottest fire.

Cleveland's military metaphor (parley, surrender, fire) is, of course, appropriate to Swift's subject. But Swift goes several steps beyond the genial wit of Cleveland's poem. Here is his obscene version of Cutts's alleged coolness amid love's "hottest fire":

SO have I seen a batter'd Beau
By Age and Claps grown cold as Snow,
Whose Breath or Touch, where e'er he came,
Blew out Love's Torch or chill'd the Flame:

And Swift continues in a more explicitly syphilitic vein for a few more lines. What seems to me decidedly worth noticing, in light of the assumptions about Swift's alleged "anti-poetry," is that this poem is firmly rooted in the conventions of invective; as nasty as the poem may be, its meaning emerges and is shaped by recognizable literary precedents. Swift certainly has worked at collapsing Cutts's grandeur, but he has not "engineered" the collapse of poetic language.

It would appear, at first reading, that "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a late Famous General" (namely, Marlborough) is nothing more than a repetition of "The Description of a Salamander." Such, however, is not the case. This poem is much more than an invective; it is an inverted elegy in which Swift contrasts Marlborough's military greatness (a fact Swift seems willing to concede) with the mundane circumstances of Marlborough's unheroic death. If Swift had stopped at this point, the poem would certainly have resembled an invective. But the fact is, he uses Marlborough's pride to reinforce the lesson of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?"

To begin my discussion of this poem, I would like to contrast the opening of Swift's "Satirical Elegy" with Henry King's elegy, "The Anniversarie." Both poems are based on similar literary conventions (down to almost the last image), although their thematic intent clearly differs. I may be laboring the obvious, but it seems to me that the difference between the two poems does not necessitate our calling one poem poetry and the other "anti-poetry." Rather, the two poems are an effective object lesson of the expansiveness of the language and conventions of poetry. Here are the opening lines of King's elegy:

So soone grow'n old? Hast thou bin six
    yeares dead?
Poore Earth, once by my Love inhabited!
And must I live to calculate the time
To which thy blooming Youth could never
But fell in the ascent? Yet have not I
Study'd enough Thy Losse's History?
How happy were mankind, if Death's strict
Consum'd our Lamentations like the Cause!
Or that our grief, turning to dust, might end
With the dissolved body of a friend!

And here are the first sixteen lines of Swift's elegy:

His grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that Mighty Warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he's gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He'd wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the news-papers we're told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
'Twas time in conscience he should die.
This world he cumber'd long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that's the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.

The conventional three-part structure of the elegy—praise, lament, consolation—has dropped out of sight, but not out of mind. Swift knows what the usual procedures of elegy require, but he plays the reader's expectations against the obvious informality of the poem. The commonness of Marlborough's death suggests, once again, that Swift is suspicious of public greatness because it leads men to overestimate their inherent worth. In this regard, Swift is actually writing in the main line of Augustan poetry; one recalls, for example, Dr. Johnson's harsh lines in The Vanity of Human Wishes about the distinctly unheroic last days of Swift and Marlborough: "From Marlb'rough's eyes the streams of dotage flow / And Swift expires a driv'ler and a show" (ll. 317-18). Moreover, the final lines of "A Satirical Elegy" use Marlborough in much the same way that Dr. Johnson uses Charles XII of Sweden: "He left the name, at which the world grew pale, / To point a moral, or adorn a tale" (ll.221-22). One need only compare these lines with the conclusion of Swift's elegy:

Come hither, all ye empty things,
Ye bubbles rais'd by breath of Kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride be taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing's a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turn'd to that dirt from whence he sprung.

The images of dirt and water, coupled with the verb "sprung," precisely locate the incongruity between man's common origin and his grand aspirations. This is a poem written with Old Testament fervor and poetic tact: that Swift turns the dust of King's elegy into dirt, that he reduces the conventional restorative waters of weeping to the airy bubbles of the vanity of human wishes, in no way compels us to conclude that he was writing anything other than effective poetry. …

Let me quote from Swift's address to a young beginner in "On Poetry":

How shall a new Attempter learn
Of diff'rent Spirits to discern,
And how distinguish, which is which,
The Poet's Vein, or scribling Itch? (ll.71-74)

Again, I think it's instructive to realize the literary precedents from which Swift inherits this distinction between the "Poet's Vein" and "scribling Itch," for his attack on bad poetry could mistakenly be called "anti-poetry." (Herbert Davis, for example, has said that "Swift is of course not concerned in this poem with any poetic ideal.") The Latin origin of "scribling Itch" ("scribendi cacoethes") occurs in Juvenal's Seventh Satire (1.52). The exact phrase also occurs in Oldham's imitation of Boileau's Eighth Satire, and other variations of this phrase are in Rochester's "An Allusion to Horace," Dryden's translation of Boileau's Art of Poetry, and Roscommon's "Essay on Translated Verse." Looking beyond Swift's poem, the phrase "Poetick Itch" appears in Pope's "Epistle to Augustus." I mention these occurrences only as evidence of Swift's intent, which is not to collapse poetry, but to align himself with poets and poems written in defense of poetry.

The terrible distortion of the "anti-poetry" thesis, then, is this: the charge has been brought against a poet who is himself attempting to preserve the distinction between genuine poetry and derivative scribbling. Swift attacks those men whose lack of talent subverts the dignity of poetry, and yet in doing so he has been mistakenly called an "anti-poet." But even a cursory look at "On Poetry: A Rapsody," I hope, has demonstrated that Swift's attack on bad poetry ought not to be taken as an attempt to collapse the resources of poetic language. It would require a "Perverseness in the Mind" to misconstrue the intent of the following passages from "On Poetry":

Hobbes clearly proves that ev'ry Creature
Lives in a State of War by Nature.
The Greater for the Smaller watch,
But meddle seldom with their Match.

But search among the rhiming Race,
The Brave are worried by the Base.
If, on Parnassus' Top you sit,
You rarely bite, are always bit: (ll.327-30).

Thus ev'ry Poet in his Kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind;
Who, tho' too little to be seen,
Can teaze, and gall, and give the Spleen;
Call Dunces, Fools, and Sons of Whores,
Lay Grubstreet at each others Doors;
Extol the Greek and Roman Masters,
And curse our modern Poetasters.
Complain, as many an ancient Bard did,
How Genius is no more rewarded;
How wrong a Taste prevails among us;
How much our Ancestors out-sung us;
Can personate an awkward Scorn
For those who are not Poets born:
And all their Brother Dunces lash,
Who crowd the Press with hourly Trash.

There is another way that we can look at "On Poetry: A Rapsody," one that best summarizes all that I have been trying to say in this paper. This poem does not simply depict the presence of good and bad poetry; it suggests, as well, that only through the careful preservation of the distinction between the "Poet's Vein" and "scribling Itch" will truthful language remain invulnerable to barbarism and decadence. This poem, together with the others I have examined, deals ultimately with one basic conflict—that between mankind's susceptibility to the language of pride and flattery and the poet's obligation to uphold the language of virtue and truth. In an age darkened by uncreating words (to use Pope's phrase), the best a sensitive poet could do was either to retreat into a highly private kind of poetry and defend his own integrity (which Pope was tempted to do) or else aggressively seek out the causes of such decadence and publicly expose them as Pope did in The Dunciad. I think in his late career the choice for Swift was even narrower than this: it was either silence or satire, complete abdication or militant attack. That Swift chose to attack the scribblers who were progressively corrupting the resources of poetry is wholly consistent with the responsibilities of the poet. That he aligned his verse with, rather than against, the traditional uses of poetry is ample evidence of his faith in poetry as a vehicle for truth.

Source: Robert W. Uphaus, "Swift's Poetry: The Making of Meaning," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer 1972, pp. 569-86.


Bloom, Harold, "Introduction," in Modern Critical Views: Jonathan Swift, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, p. IX.

Cody, David, "Jonathan Swift: A Brief Biography," http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/swift/bio.html (accessed March 30, 2007).

Downie, J. A., Jonathan Swift: Political Writer, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 305.

Foot, Michael, The Pen and The Sword, MacGibbon & Kee, 1958, pp. 36-72, 133-54.

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 224.

Rosenheim, Edward W., Jr., Swift and the Satirist's Art, University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 229.

Swift, Jonathan, "A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," in The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, Thompson Wadsworth, 2006, pp. 151-2.

Ward, David, Jonathan Swift: An Introductory Essay, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1973, p. 184.


Berwick, Donald, The Reputation of Jonathan Swift, 1781-1882, 1941; reprinted by Haskell, 1965.

This is a compendium of essays and biographies about Swift written during these years.

Bredvold, Louis I., "The Gloom of the Tory Satirists," in Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by James L. Clifford, Oxford University Press, 1959.

Bredvold defines and explores what he calls "gloom," which he argues characterizes the writings of both Swift and his contemporary, Alexander Pope. Bredvold also argues that there is a moral purpose for these writers' satires.

Ehrenpreis, Irvin, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, in three volumes, Methuen, 1962-1983.

This is a highly regarded biography of Swift, focusing on the man himself and on his role in his times.

Ellis, Frank H., Swift vs. Mainwaring: The Examiner and the Medley, Clarendon Press, 1985.

Ellis compiles satiric, political pieces Swift wrote and the response made to them by Arthur Mainwaring, a Whig opponent.

Jack, Ian, Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660-1750, Clarendon Press, 1952.

This study primarily explores the kind of satiric poetry Pope and John Dryden wrote and what their purposes were in writing it.

Lord, George deForest. et al., eds., Poems on Affairs of State: Augustan Satirical Verse, 1660-1714 in seven volumes, Yale University Press, 1963-1975.

A collection of hundreds of satirical poems, written between 1660 and 1714, the book reflects the political and cultural issues of the times. There are copious notes for clarification and orientation, and the poems are arranged chronologically and thematically.

About this article

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article