The Poems of Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift
The Poems of Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift
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Jonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for the Whigs, then for the Tories), poet and Anglican cleric. Swift is remembered for works such as A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver's Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729), and is less well known for his poetry. "The works of Jonathan Swift in prose and verse so mutually illustrate each other, that it was deemed indispensable, as a complement to the standard edition of the Prose Works, to issue a revised edition of the Poems, freed from the errors which had been allowed to creep into the text, and illustrated with fuller explanatory notes."

The Poems of Jonathan Swift

Volume I

Jonathan Swift


The works of Jonathan Swift in prose and verse so mutually illustrate each other, that it was deemed indispensable, as a complement to the standard edition of the Prose Works, to issue a revised edition of the Poems, freed from the errors which had been allowed to creep into the text, and illustrated with fuller explanatory notes. My first care, therefore, in preparing the Poems for publication, was to collate them with the earliest and best editions available, and this I have done.

But, thanks to the diligence of the late John Forster, to whom every lover of Swift must confess the very greatest obligation, I have been able to do much more. I have been able to enrich this edition with some pieces not hitherto brought to light — notably, the original version of “Baucis and Philemon,” in addition to the version hitherto printed; the original version of the poem on “Vanbrugh’s House”; the verses entitled “May Fair”; and numerous variations and corrections of the texts of nearly all the principal poems, due to Forster’s collation of them with the transcripts made by Stella, which were found by him at Narford formerly the seat of Swift’s friend, Sir Andrew Fountaine — see Forster’s “Life of Swift,” of which, unfortunately, he lived to publish only the first volume. From Swift’s own copy of the “Miscellanies in Prose and Verse,” 1727-32, with notes in his own handwriting, sold at auction last year, I was able to make several corrections of the poems contained in those four volumes, which serve to show how Swift laboured his works, and revised and improved them whenever he had an opportunity of doing so. It is a mistake to suppose that he was indifferent to literary fame: on the contrary, he kept some of his works in manuscript for years in order to perfect them for publication, of which “The Tale of a Tub,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and the “Verses on his own Death” are examples.

I am indebted to Miss Wilmot-Chetwode, of Wordbrooke, for the loan of a manuscript volume, from which I obtained some various readings. By the advice of Mr. Elrington Ball, I applied to the librarians of Trinity College and of the National Library, and from the latter I received a number of pieces; but I found that the harvest had already been reaped so fully, that there was nothing left to glean which could with certainty be ascribed to Swift. On the whole, I believe that this edition of the Poems will be found as complete as it is now possible to make it.

In the arrangement of the poems, I have adopted nearly the same order as in the Aldine edition, for the pieces seem to fall naturally into those divisions; but with this difference, that I have placed the pieces in their chronological order in each division. With regard to the notes in illustration of the text, many of them in the Dublin editions were evidently written by Swift, especially the notes to the “Verses on his own Death.” And as to the notes of previous editors, I have retained them so far as they were useful and correct: but to many of them I have made additions or alterations wherever, on reference to the authorities cited, or to other works, correction became necessary. For my own notes, I can only say that I have sought to make them concise, appropriate to the text, and, above all, accurate.

Swift and the educated men of his time thought in the classics, and his poems, as well as those of his friends, abound with allusions to the Greek and Roman authors, especially to the latter. I have given all the references, and except in the imitations and paraphrases of so familiar a writer as Horace, I have appended the Latin text. Moreover, Swift was, like Sterne, very fond of curious and recondite reading, in which it is not always easy to track him without some research; but I believe that I have not failed to illustrate any matter that required elucidation.

W. E. B.

May 1910.


Dr. Johnson, in his “Life of Swift,” after citing with approval Delany’s character of him, as he describes him to Lord Orrery, proceeds to say: “In the poetical works there is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers. They are often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety. They are, for the most part, what their author intended. The diction is correct, the numbers are smooth, and the rhymes exact. There seldom occurs a hard laboured expression or a redundant epithet; all his verses exemplify his own definition of a good style — they consist of ‘proper words in proper places.’”

Of his earliest poems it is needless to say more than that if nothing better had been written by him than those Pindaric Pieces, after the manner of Cowley — then so much in vogue — the remark of Dryden, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a Poet,” would have been fully justified. But conventional praise and compliments were foreign to his nature, for his strongest characteristic was his intense sincerity. He says of himself that about that time he had writ and burnt and writ again upon all manner of subjects more than perhaps any man in England; and it is certainly remarkable that in so doing his true genius was not sooner developed, for it was not till he became chaplain in Lord Berkeley’s household that his satirical humour was first displayed — at least in verse — in “Mrs. Frances Harris’ Petition.” — His great prose satires, “The Tale of a Tub,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” though planned, were reserved to a later time. — In other forms of poetry he soon afterwards greatly excelled, and the title of poet cannot be refused to the author of “Baucis and Philemon”; the verses on “The Death of Dr. Swift”; the “Rhapsody on Poetry”; “Cadenus and Vanessa”; “The Legion Club”; and most of the poems addressed to Stella, all of which pieces exhibit harmony, invention, and imagination.

Swift has been unduly censured for the coarseness of his language upon Certain topics; but very little of this appears in his earlier poems, and what there is, was in accordance with the taste of the period, which never hesitated to call a spade a spade, due in part to the reaction from the Puritanism of the preceding age, and in part to the outspeaking frankness which disdained hypocrisy. It is shown in Dryden, Pope, Prior, of the last of whom Johnson said that no lady objected to have his poems in her library; still more in the dramatists of that time, whom Charles Lamb has so humorously defended, and in the plays of Mrs. Aphra Behn, who, as Pope says, “fairly puts all characters to bed.” But whatever coarseness there may be in some of Swift’s poems, such as “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” and a few other pieces, there is nothing licentious, nothing which excites to lewdness; on the contrary, such pieces create simply a feeling of repulsion. No one, after reading the “Beautiful young Nymph going to bed,” or “Strephon and Chloe,” would desire any personal acquaintance with the ladies, but there is a moral in these pieces, and the latter poem concludes with excellent matrimonial advice. The coarseness of some of his later writings must be ascribed to his misanthropical hatred of the “animal called man,” as expressed in his famous letter to Pope of September 1725, aggravated as it was by his exile from the friends he loved to a land he hated, and by the reception he met with there, about which he speaks very freely in his notes to the “Verses on his own Death.”

On the morning of Swift’s installation as Dean, the following scurrilous lines by Smedley, Dean of Clogher, were affixed to the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

To-day this Temple gets a Dean
  Of parts and fame uncommon,
Us’d both to pray and to prophane,
  To serve both God and mammon.
When Wharton reign’d a Whig he was;
  When Pembroke — that’s dispute, Sir;
In Oxford’s time, what Oxford pleased,
  Non-con, or Jack, or Neuter.
This place he got by wit and rhime,
  And many ways most odd,
And might a Bishop be in time,
  Did he believe in God.
Look down, St. Patrick, look, we pray,
  On thine own church and steeple;
Convert thy Dean on this great day,
  Or else God help the people.
And now, whene’er his Deanship dies,
  Upon his stone be graven,
A man of God here buried lies,
  Who never thought of heaven.

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