“On Poetry: A Rhapsody” by Jonathan Swift (Part 1 of 4)

This post presents Jonathan Swift’s poem “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” which offers humorous advice to aspiring poets. This post is part 1 of 4.


Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) spent his life in Ireland and England. He wrote satire in both prose and poetry, and he became a Dean in Dublin, Ireland. Today, he is most famous for his prose satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

This post is the first in a 4-part series. This series will cover about half of Swift’s 544-line poem, “On Poetry: A Rhapsody.” Swift’s poem offers humorous advice to aspiring poets. In Swift’s time, there were many people who wanted to be poets. According to Poetry: A Critical and Historical Introduction (by Ribner and Morris, 1962), “The eighteenth century is extraordinary for the amount of bad poetry it produced by now-forgotten hacks and poetasters.” The “hacks and poetasters,” the producers of mediocre poetry, are the target of Swift’s advice and jibes in his poem.

In my opinion, everyone should be welcome to attempt poetry. While most people will never become masters of the art, how will people know whether they have the talent if they don’t try it out and practice? Although I have certain tastes when it comes to poetry, I try not to be too critical of others’ efforts. There is already too much disdain, snobbery, and envy in this area, and I realize that we can all improve our writing abilities.

What makes Swift’s poem enjoyable is that he uses humor to mock our pretenses to poetic greatness. Although we might feel that Swift is criticizing us for not reaching his level of mastery—and that feeling might be justified to a certain extent—it seems that Swift wrote this poem with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

In this series of posts, I will summarize each section of the poem, define unusual terms and references, and then present the text of Swift’s poem.

Everyone Wants to Be a Poet

Summary: Everyone wants to be smart and witty, but few are talented in this area. Although Britain’s master poets are few and far between, every dabbler in verse wants to be called a poet. Animals don’t try to do something that is unnatural or impossible for them, but humans stubbornly charge ahead in areas where they have no talent, even when Nature tells them to stop and reconsider.

Notes: Fain: gladly, willingly. Wit: a person who is able to make quick and clever remarks. Sprig of bays: “a wreath of bay leaves, a classical token of honor given to poets and conquerors” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Brutes: animals. Founder’d: lame, as with a broken leg. Forbear: to stop.

All human race would fain be wits,
And millions miss for one that hits.
Young’s universal passion, pride,
Was never known to spread so wide.
Say, Britain, could you ever boast
Three poets in an age at most?
Our chilling climate hardly bears
A sprig of bays in fifty years;
While every fool his claim alleges,
As if it grew in common hedges.
What reason can there be assign’d
For this perverseness in the mind?
Brutes find out where their talents lie:
A bear will not attempt to fly;
A founder’d horse will oft debate,
Before he tries a five-barr’d gate;
A dog by instinct turns aside,
Who sees the ditch too deep and wide.
But man we find the only creature
Who, led by Folly, combats Nature;
Who, when she loudly cries, Forbear,
With obstinacy fixes there;
And, where his genius least inclines,
Absurdly bends his whole designs.

The Difficulties of Becoming a Poet

Summary: Other professionals, such as soldiers, debaters, lawyers, and scientists, don’t need as much inspiration from heaven as a poet does. No lowly-born person, who is not qualified to fill a prestigious position in society, is as ill-fitted for the job as one who feels inspired to write poetry. If no one wants your poetry, how can you make a living? It is difficult to become a well-paid professional.

Notes: Valour: courage. Muse: one of the nine goddesses who inspire literature, art, and science. Lyre: a stringed instrument played by a muse. Brat: a disorderly child. Pedler: peddler, salesman. Spawn: something produced, as a child. Bridewell: a house of reform to which prostitutes were taken. Gispsies: gypsies. Phoebus: the god of the sun, or the personification of the sun. Ware: product (i.e., poem). Smatter: to talk about something with little knowledge of the subject. Grub Street: “Famous for its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers, Grub Street existed on the margins of London’s journalistic and literary scene.” (Wikipedia)

¶Not empire to the rising sun
By valour, conduct, fortune won;
Not highest wisdom in debates,
For framing laws to govern states;
Not skill in sciences profound
So large to grasp the circle round,
Such heavenly influence require,
As how to strike the Muse’s lyre.

¶Not beggar’s brat on bulk begot;
Not bastard of a pedler Scot;
Not boy brought up to cleaning shoes,
The spawn of Bridewell or the stews;
Not infants dropp’d, the spurious pledges
Of gipsies litter’d under hedges;
Are so disqualified by fate
To rise in church, or law, or state,
As he whom Phoebus in his ire
Has blasted with poetic fire.
What hope of custom in the fair,
While not a soul demands your ware?
Where you have nothing to produce
For private life, or public use?
Court, city, country, want you not;
You cannot bribe, betray, or plot.
For poets, law makes no provision;
The wealthy have you in derision:
Of state affairs you cannot smatter;
Are awkward when you try to flatter;
Your portion, taking Britain round,
Was just one annual hundred pound;
Now not so much as in remainder,
Since Cibber brought in an attainder;
For ever fix’d by right divine
(A monarch’s right) on Grub Street line.

Go to Part 2.

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