By Ricardo Quintana to Some Verse Pieces by Dr Swift

NO ONE has ever claimed for Swift the status of a major poet. He is, however, a first-rate minor one, one of the foremost in an age distinguished beyond most others for the remarkable quality of its minor poetry. Swift's range in verse was not great. If he had a progenitor it was Samuel Butler, the author of the famous mock-epic-romance Hudibras, whose satiric weapon had been the octosyllabic couplet pointed with witty rhyme. Swift's natural medium was also the octosyllabic couplet, the naturally quick movement of which he often accelerated — as in the wonderfully vigorous Helter Skelter — by the free use of the trochaic beat. In poem after poem the ironist is present. A Description of the Morning, contributed to the Tatler in April, 1709, is pastoralism applied to the city, pastoralism as it were turned inside out— satiric anti-poetry. The Progress of Beauty is brutal exposure of what lies concealed behind a false front. Death and Daphne is a grim comedy, and it ends according to the traditional formula, with a reversal or unexpected turn of events and a recognition of the true state of affairs. In the Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, one of the most remarkable of all self-characterizations, the ironic doubleness appears in the conduct of the Dean's friends on hearing of his death.

Unquestionably the most powerful of Swift's later poems is the Day of Judgement, composed about 1731. As a vision which comes to a sudden and surprising end it has the provocative quality which marks the prose satires. The latest of the poems given here is the Epistle to a Lady, finished about 1733, when Swift was in his sixty-sixth year. The reader needs to have the omitted words, which are as follows: at line 159, Walpole; 222, King; 239, a crown'd Head; 242, St. James; 244, St. Stephens; 246, Sir Robert Brass (for Sir Robert Walpole, in reference to Walpole's defeat in the matter of Wood's "brass" halfpence). The contempt expressed in the Epistle for George II, the Prime Minister, and the conduct of national affairs under the Whigs is in perfect keeping, we should remember, with the spirit which then animated Tory satire and which Pope and Gay voiced as often and as forthrightly as Swift.

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