The Poems of Jonathan Swift
Category: Verse
Level 7.27 9:42 h
Johnathan Swift was a writer known for his commentary and comedy. Swift wrote political pamphlets, essays, and satires such as his popular novel Gulliver's Travels. The Poems of Johnathan Swift are a lesser-known collection of his attempt at writing verse. His poems are well respected and are considered just as important to literature as his satirical novels. Read how Swift inserts his humor and commentary into poetic form.

The Poems of Jonathan Swift

Volume I

Jonathan Swift

The Poems of 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.

It was by these lines that Smedley earned for himself a niche in “The Dunciad.” For Swift’s retaliation, see the poems relating to Smedley at the end of the first volume, and in volume ii, at p. 124, note.

This bitterness of spirit reached its height in “Gulliver’s Travels,” surely the severest of all satires upon humanity, and writ, as he tells us, not to divert, but to vex the world; and ultimately, in the fierce attack upon the Irish Parliament in the poem entitled “The Legion Club,” dictated by his hatred of tyranny and oppression, and his consequent passion for exhibiting human nature in its most degraded aspect.

But, notwithstanding his misanthropical feelings towards mankind in general, and his “scorn of fools by fools mistook for pride,” there never existed a warmer or sincerer friend to those whom he loved — witness the regard in which he was held by Oxford, Bolingbroke, Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot, and Congreve, and his readiness to assist those who needed his help, without thought of party or politics. Although, in some of his poems, Swift rather severely exposed the follies and frailties of the fair sex, as in “The Furniture of a Woman’s Mind,” and “The Journal of a Modern Lady,” he loved the companionship of beautiful and accomplished women, amongst whom he could count some of his dearest and truest friends; but

He loved to be bitter at
A lady illiterate;

and therefore delighted in giving them literary instruction, most notably in the cases of Stella and Vanessa, whose relations with him arose entirely from the tuition in letters which they received from him. Again, when on a visit at Sir Arthur Acheson’s, he insisted upon making Lady Acheson read such books as he thought fit to advise, and in the doggerel verses entitled “My Lady’s Lamentation,” she is supposed to resent his “very imperious” manner of instruction:

No book for delight
Must come in my sight;
But instead of new plays,
Dull Bacon’s Essays,
And pore every day on
That nasty Pantheon.

As a contrast to his imperiousness, there is an affectionate simplicity in the fancy names he used to bestow upon his female friends. Sir William Temple’s wife, Dorothea, became Dorinda; Esther Johnson, Stella; Hester Vanhomrigh, Vanessa; Lady Winchelsea, Ardelia; while to Lady Acheson he gave the nicknames of Skinnybonia, Snipe, and Lean. But all was taken by them in good part; for his rather dictatorial ways were softened by the fascinating geniality and humour which he knew so well how to employ when he used to “deafen them with puns and rhyme.”

Into the vexed question of the relations between Swift and Stella I do not purpose to enter further than to record my conviction that she was never more to him than “the dearest friend that ever man had.” The suggestion of a concealed marriage is so inconsistent with their whole conduct to each other from first to last, that if there had been such a marriage, instead of Swift having been, as he was, a man of intense sincerity, he must be held to have been a most consummate hypocrite. In my opinion, Churton Collins settled this question in his essays on Swift, first published in the “Quarterly Review,” 1881 and 1882. Swift’s relation with Vanessa is the saddest episode in his life. The story is amply told in his poem, “Cadenus and Vanessa,” and in the letters which passed between them: how the pupil became infatuated with her tutor; how the tutor endeavoured to dispel her passion, but in vain, by reason; and how, at last, she died from love for the man who was unable to give love in return. That Swift ought, as soon as Hester disclosed her passion for him, at once to have broken off the intimacy, must be conceded; but how many men possessed of his kindness of heart would have had the courage to have acted otherwise than he did? Swift seems, in fact, to have been constitutionally incapable of the passion of love, for he says, himself, that he had never met the woman he wished to marry. His annual tributes to Stella on her birthdays express the strongest regard and esteem, but he “ne’er admitted love a guest,” and he had been so long used to this Platonic affection, that he had come to regard women as friends, but never as lovers. Stella, on her part, had the same feeling, for she never expressed the least discontent at her position, or ever regarded Swift otherwise than as her tutor, her counsellor, her friend. In her verses to him on his birthday, 1721, she says:

Long be the day that gave you birth
Sacred to friendship, wit, and mirth;
Late dying may you cast a shred
Of your rich mantle o’er my head;
To bear with dignity my sorrow
One day alone, then die tomorrow.

Stella naturally expected to survive Swift, but it was not to be. She died in the evening of the 28th January 1727-8; and on the same night he began the affecting piece, “On the Death of Mrs. Johnson.” (See “Prose Works,” vol. xi.)

With the death of Stella, Swift’s real happiness ended, and he became more and more possessed by the melancholy which too often accompanies the broadest humour, and which, in his case, was constitutional. It was, no doubt, to relieve it, that he resorted to the composition of the doggerel verses, epigrams, riddles, and trifles exchanged betwixt himself and Sheridan, which induced Orrery’s remark that “Swift composing Riddles is Titian painting draught-boards;” on which Delany observes that “a Riddle may be as fine painting as any other in the world. It requires as strong an imagination, as fine colouring, and as exact a proportion and keeping as any other historical painting”; and he instances “Pethox the Great,” and should also have alluded to the more learned example — “Louisa to Strephon.”

On Orrery’s seventh Letter, Delany says that if some of the “coin is base,” it is the fine impression and polish which adds value to it, and cites the saying of another nobleman, that “there is indeed some stuff in it, but it is Swift’s stuff.” It has been said that Swift has never taken a thought from any writer ancient or modern. This is not literally true, but the instances are not many, and in my notes I have pointed out the lines snatched from Milton, Denham, Butler — the last evidently a great favourite.

It seems necessary to state shortly the causes of Swift not having obtained higher preferment. Besides that Queen Anne would never be reconciled to the author of the “Tale of a Tub” — the true purport of which was so ill-understood by her — he made an irreconcilable enemy of her friend, the Duchess of Somerset, by his lampoon entitled “The Windsor Prophecy.” But Swift seldom allowed prudence to restrain his wit and humour, and admits of himself that he “had too much satire in his vein”; and that “a genius in the reverend gown must ever keep its owner down”; and says further:

Humour and mirth had place in all he writ;
He reconciled divinity and wit.

But that was what his enemies could not do.

Whatever the excellences and defects of the poems, Swift has erected, not only by his works, but by his benevolence and his charities, a monumentum aere perennius, and his writings in prose and verse will continue to afford instruction and delight when the malevolence of Jeffrey, the misrepresentations of Macaulay, and the sneers and false statements of Thackeray shall have been forgotten.

Ode to Doctor William Sancroft

Late Lord Bishop of Canterbury

Written in May, 1689, at The Desire of the Late Lord Bishop of Ely


Truth is eternal, and the Son of Heaven,
    Bright effluence of th’immortal ray,
Chief cherub, and chief lamp, of that high sacred Seven,
Which guard the throne by night, and are its light by day;
    First of God’s darling attributes,
    Thou daily seest him face to face,
Nor does thy essence fix’d depend on giddy circumstance
    Of time or place,
Two foolish guides in every sublunary dance;
  How shall we find Thee then in dark disputes?
  How shall we search Thee in a battle gain’d,
  Or a weak argument by force maintain’d?
In dagger contests, and th’artillery of words,
(For swords are madmen’s tongues, and tongues are madmen’s swords,)
    Contrived to tire all patience out,
    And not to satisfy the doubt?


But where is even thy Image on our earth?
    For of the person much I fear,
Since Heaven will claim its residence, as well as birth,
And God himself has said, He shall not find it here.
For this inferior world is but Heaven’s dusky shade,
By dark reverted rays from its reflection made;
  Whence the weak shapes wild and imperfect pass,
  Like sunbeams shot at too far distance from a glass;
       Which all the mimic forms express,
Though in strange uncouth postures, and uncomely dress;
    So when Cartesian artists try
  To solve appearances of sight
    In its reception to the eye,
And catch the living landscape through a scanty light,
    The figures all inverted show,
    And colours of a faded hue;
  Here a pale shape with upward footstep treads,
    And men seem walking on their heads;
    There whole herds suspended lie,
  Ready to tumble down into the sky;
  Such are the ways ill-guided mortals go
  To judge of things above by things below.
Disjointing shapes as in the fairy land of dreams,
  Or images that sink in streams;
  No wonder, then, we talk amiss
  Of truth, and what, or where it is;
  Say, Muse, for thou, if any, know’st,
Since the bright essence fled, where haunts the reverend ghost?


If all that our weak knowledge titles virtue, be
(High Truth) the best resemblance of exalted Thee,
    If a mind fix’d to combat fate
With those two powerful swords, submission and humility,
    Sounds truly good, or truly great;
Ill may I live, if the good Sancroft, in his holy rest,
    In the divinity of retreat,
  Be not the brightest pattern earth can show
    Of heaven-born Truth below;
  But foolish man still judges what is best
    In his own balance, false and light,
    Following opinion, dark and blind,
    That vagrant leader of the mind,
Till honesty and conscience are clear out of sight.


And some, to be large ciphers in a state,
Pleased with an empty swelling to be counted great,
Make their minds travel o’er infinity of space,
  Rapt through the wide expanse of thought,
  And oft in contradiction’s vortex caught,
To keep that worthless clod, the body, in one place;
Errors like this did old astronomers misguide,
Led blindly on by gross philosophy and pride,
    Who, like hard masters, taught the sun
    Through many a heedless sphere to run,
Many an eccentric and unthrifty motion make,
  And thousand incoherent journeys take,
    Whilst all th’advantage by it got,
    Was but to light earth’s inconsiderable spot.
The herd beneath, who see the weathercock of state
  Hung loosely on the church’s pinnacle,
Believe it firm, because perhaps the day is mild and still;
But when they find it turn with the first blast of fate,
    By gazing upward giddy grow,
    And think the church itself does so;
  Thus fools, for being strong and num’rous known,
  Suppose the truth, like all the world, their own;
And holy Sancroft’s motion quite irregular appears,
    Because ‘tis opposite to theirs.


In vain then would the Muse the multitude advise,
  Whose peevish knowledge thus perversely lies
    In gath’ring follies from the wise;
  Rather put on thy anger and thy spite,
    And some kind power for once dispense
  Through the dark mass, the dawn of so much sense,
To make them understand, and feel me when I write;
  The muse and I no more revenge desire,
Each line shall stab, shall blast, like daggers and like fire;
  Ah, Britain, land of angels! which of all thy sins,
(    Say, hapless isle, although
    It is a bloody list we know,)
Has given thee up a dwelling-place to fiends?
    Sin and the plague ever abound
In governments too easy, and too fruitful ground;
     Evils which a too gentle king,
     Too flourishing a spring,
     And too warm summers bring:
   Our British soil is over rank, and breeds
   Among the noblest flowers a thousand pois’nous weeds,
   And every stinking weed so lofty grows,
   As if ‘twould overshade the Royal Rose;
   The Royal Rose, the glory of our morn,
      But, ah! too much without a thorn.


Forgive (original mildness) this ill-govern’d zeal,
‘Tis all the angry slighted Muse can do
     In the pollution of these days;
  No province now is left her but to rail,
  And poetry has lost the art to praise,
     Alas, the occasions are so few:
     None e’er but you,
     And your Almighty Master, knew
  With heavenly peace of mind to bear
(Free from our tyrant passions, anger, scorn, or fear)
The giddy turns of popular rage,
And all the contradictions of a poison’d age;
  The Son of God pronounced by the same breath
    Which straight pronounced his death;
  And though I should but ill be understood,
  In wholly equalling our sin and theirs,
  And measuring by the scanty thread of wit
  What we call holy, and great, and just, and good,
(Methods in talk whereof our pride and ignorance make use,)
  And which our wild ambition foolishly compares
    With endless and with infinite;
  Yet pardon, native Albion, when I say,
Among thy stubborn sons there haunts that spirit of the Jews,
  That those forsaken wretches who to-day
    Revile his great ambassador,
  Seem to discover what they would have done
(  Were his humanity on earth once more)
To his undoubted Master, Heaven’s Almighty Son.


But zeal is weak and ignorant, though wondrous proud,
  Though very turbulent and very loud;
    The crazy composition shows,
Like that fantastic medley in the idol’s toes,
  Made up of iron mixt with clay,
  This crumbles into dust,
  That moulders into rust,
  Or melts by the first shower away.
Nothing is fix’d that mortals see or know,
Unless, perhaps, some stars above be so;
    And those, alas, do show,
  Like all transcendent excellence below;
    In both, false mediums cheat our sight,
And far exalted objects lessen by their height:
    Thus primitive Sancroft moves too high
    To be observed by vulgar eye,
    And rolls the silent year
    On his own secret regular sphere,
And sheds, though all unseen, his sacred influence here.


Kind star, still may’st thou shed thy sacred influence here,
  Or from thy private peaceful orb appear;
  For, sure, we want some guide from Heaven, to show
  The way which every wand’ring fool below
    Pretends so perfectly to know;
  And which, for aught I see, and much I fear,
     The world has wholly miss’d;
  I mean the way which leads to Christ:
Mistaken idiots! see how giddily they run,
  Led blindly on by avarice and pride,
    What mighty numbers follow them;
    Each fond of erring with his guide:
  Some whom ambition drives, seek Heaven’s high Son
  In Caesar’s court, or in Jerusalem:
    Others, ignorantly wise,
Among proud doctors and disputing Pharisees:
What could the sages gain but unbelieving scorn;
  Their faith was so uncourtly, when they said
That Heaven’s high Son was in a village born;
    That the world’s Saviour had been
    In a vile manger laid,
    And foster’d in a wretched inn?


Necessity, thou tyrant conscience of the great,
Say, why the church is still led blindfold by the state;
  Why should the first be ruin’d and laid waste,
  To mend dilapidations in the last?
And yet the world, whose eyes are on our mighty Prince,
    Thinks Heaven has cancell’d all our sins,
And that his subjects share his happy influence;
Follow the model close, for so I’m sure they should,
But wicked kings draw more examples than the good:
  And divine Sancroft, weary with the weight
Of a declining church, by faction, her worst foe, oppress’d,
    Finding the mitre almost grown
    A load as heavy as the crown,
  Wisely retreated to his heavenly rest.


Ah! may no unkind earthquake of the state,
    Nor hurricano from the crown,
Disturb the present mitre, as that fearful storm of late,
  Which, in its dusky march along the plain,
    Swept up whole churches as it list,
    Wrapp’d in a whirlwind and a mist;
Like that prophetic tempest in the virgin reign,
  And swallow’d them at last, or flung them down.
  Such were the storms good Sancroft long has borne;
  The mitre, which his sacred head has worn,
Was, like his Master’s Crown, inwreath’d with thorn.
Death’s sting is swallow’d up in victory at last,
    The bitter cup is from him past:
    Fortune in both extremes
  Though blasts from contrariety of winds,
    Yet to firm heavenly minds,
Is but one thing under two different names;
And even the sharpest eye that has the prospect seen,
  Confesses ignorance to judge between;
And must to human reasoning opposite conclude,
To point out which is moderation, which is fortitude.

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