An Analysis of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”
by Janice Campbell*
“In the misfortune of our best friends
we always find something that does not displease us.”
In “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.” satirist Jonathan Swift is inspired by a maxim, “In the misfortune of our best friends we always find something that does not displease us,” by Francois de la Rochefoucauld. He begins by arguing that Rochefoucauld’s cynical maxims are based upon the truth of human nature, and proceeds to cite several examples—some demonstrating a passive state of being “not displeased,” and others showing an active effort to raise self by lowering others—proving his point. In addition to supporting the maxim, he uses his verses to cynically question the values, follies, and customs of humanity.
The poem can be divided into seven parts. It is structured so that the first part (1-38) introduces and expounds upon the maxim as it is demonstrated in humankind. The second part (39-72) deals with the maxim as it relates to Swift and his friends. The third part (73-143) addresses the application of the maxim to onlookers of Swift’s last illness. The fourth part (144-204) discusses public and political reaction to Swift’s death, and the fifth part (205-242) covers the reactions of his friends and associates. The sixth part (243-298) reflects on the fate of his work one year after his death, and the seventh and final part (299-484) presents a eulogistic account of Swift’s life by a supposedly impartial observer.
Swift’s use of satire is itself an illustration of the maxim. The satirist has been defined as one who uses sarcasm, irony, or wit to point out the follies and weaknesses of himself and others. The satirist’s stance as a cynical observer provides emotional distance from his subject, allowing him to feel not only the superiority of a detached observer, but also—as the maxim anticipates—a bit of guilty pleasure at the opportunity to highlight (and perhaps profit from) the foibles of his friends and acquaintances.
Swift begins by translating the maxim, “In all distresses of our friends / We first consult our private ends, / While Nature, kindly bent to ease us, / Points out some circumstance to please us” (7-10). To support his assumption that overweening self-interest is human and universal, Swift cites several apparently incontrovertible arguments. First, no one in a crowded place wishes to have his view obstructed by another—even a dear friend—standing higher. Second, competitive envy may inspire the friends of a hero to “wish his laurels cropped” (26). Third, it is easier to bear patiently the pain and illness of another than it is to bear an illness of one’s own. And fourth, no poet would want to see others “write as well as he” (32). Proclaiming that “The strongest friendship yields to pride, / Unless the odds be on our side” (37-38), Swift wraps up these examples by declaiming, “Vain humankind! Fantastic race! / Thy various follies who can trace?” (39-40). By implicating universal human nature in the sin of selfishness and pride, Swift impugns the honesty of those who would claim natural feelings of sympathy and altruism, thus discounting the possibility of goodness and lowering the status of humanity in general.
Once he has credited all humankind with “Self-love, ambition, envy, pride” (41), Swift turns his pen upon himself in the second scene, stating frankly, “when you sink, I seem the higher” (46). He compares himself to fellow writers, Pope, Gay, Arbuthnot, St. John, and Pultney, pointing out the strengths of each. As he declares his jealousy and mortification over their achievements, however, he implies they are competing on his turf, with tools of poetry, prose, wit and irony, of which he was the original master. Although seeming to elevate his friends, he has actually managed to elevate his own gifts. His justifying statement, “If with such talent Heaven hath blessed ‘em, / Have I not reason to detest ‘em?” (65-66) winds up with an oblique reference to the maxim: “To all my foes, dear Fortune, send / Thy gifts, but never to my friend: / I tamely can endure the first, / But this with envy makes me burst” (67-70).
In the third scene of the poem, Swift imagines the reaction of his friends to news of his last illness. In another interpretation of the maxim, he foresees that “my special friends / Will try to find their private ends: / Though it is hardly understood / Which way my death can do them good” (75-78). He then proceeds to demonstrate how his friends will find in his misfortune something that pleases them. He imagines them detailing his failing gifts and dulling wit, then hugging “themselves, and reason[ing] thus: / ‘it is not yet so bad with us’” (115-116). He highlights the natural human desire to be right in predictions of bad news by pointing out that the friend who prophesies his worsening health would “rather choose that I should die, / Than his prediction prove a lie” (131-132). Swift’s imaginings serve to point out the way in which news of his final illness will not displease his friends, and to highlight the selfishness of their concerns despite the overt “tenderness” (105) of their words.
The fourth and fifth sections depict reactions to the news of Swift’s death—first, public, political, and professional reaction, and then the reaction of those Swift considered to be friends. Friend, acquaintance, and public alike are tarred with the brush of apathetic unconcern as Swift declares, “Indifference clad in wisdom’s guise / All fortitude of mind supplies” (213-214). He sarcastically revisits the principle of the maxim, stating, “When we are lashed, they kiss the rod, / Resigning to the will of God” (217-218). Swift’s ironic record of the imaginary reactions to his death leaves his friends and acquaintances clad in but the scantiest rags of concern, although his words imply that he bears them no ill will. Again, the self-centeredness of his friends (and by extension, humanity) lowers them in the reader’s estimation.
The sixth scene shifts to the fate of Swift’s works one year after his death. Although the maxim is not overtly stated in this section, Swift illustrates once more that his personal misfortune—death—would prove pleasing to aspiring writers whose work would move higher on the bestseller list. As a country squire visits Lintot, the bookseller, to inquire about Swift’s works, he is told that although the “Dean was famous in his time, / And had a kind of knack at rhyme. / His way of writing is now past: / The town has got a better taste” (263-266). Swift uses the bookseller’s sales pitch to ironically critique the scribes who have taken his place on the bookseller’s shelves, thus lowering them in the reader’s eyes.
The seventh and final part of the poem consists of a eulogistic evaluation of Swift’s life by a person, supposedly “quite indifferent in the cause” (305). This final history serves as another brief illustration of Rochefoucauld’s maxim. When a famous person dies, marginal acquaintances often enlarge and capitalize upon their connection to the famed one for the purpose of burnishing their own reputation. Swift’s death has provided an opportunity for a long-winded bore to monopolize the tavern conversation with an intimate account of Swift’s life and motives, which doubtless did not displease the bore. In addition, his final bequest of funds to endow “a house for fools and mad” (480) created more new “friends” (the inmates) who would thus find in his final misfortune, something that did not displease them.
Because the purpose of satire is often the reduction of others and the elevation of self, the overall poem serves to elevate Swift. Though he does not spare himself the ironic jabs he aims at others, or generally at humanity, his position as narrator provides him with a position of superiority. His lightly ironic, but carefully crafted, depiction of himself as a scholarly and honorable—though altogether human—political activist and scribe is what remains when the poem is finished. And that’s what counts, isn’t it?
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*This is a poetry analysis I wrote for a British Literature class in college long, long ago.