“On Poetry: A Rhapsody” by Jonathan Swift (Part 2 of 4)

This post presents Jonathan Swift’s poem “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” which offers humorous advice to aspiring poets. This post is Part 2 of 4. Start with Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet.

A Poem Is Like a Chicken

Summary: Swift uses a simile here. He compares the raising of chickens to the writing of poetry. While it may take a while for a chicken to fatten, the chicken can be cooked and eaten in a short time. Likewise, a poet may take a long time to produce his poem, but the poem can be read, criticized, and discarded very quickly. How can a poet decide whether he has genuine talent, or just likes to write? The aspiring poet should listen to the advice of Swift, “an old experienced sinner.”

Notes: Starv’ling: starving. Bard: an epic poet or traveling minstrel. Thy: your. Simile: a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared. Pence: pennies.

¶Poor starv’ling bard, how small thy gains!
How unproportion’d to thy pains!
And here a simile comes pat in:
Though chickens take a month to fatten,
The guests in less than half an hour
Will more than half a score devour.
So, after toiling twenty days
To earn a stock of pence and praise,
Thy labours, grown the critic’s prey,
Are swallow’d o’er a dish of tea;
Gone to be never heard of more,
Gone where the chickens went before.
How shall a new attempter learn
Of different spirits to discern,
And how distinguish which is which,
The poet’s vein, or scribbling itch?
Then hear an old experienced sinner,
Instructing thus a young beginner.

Select Your Topic and Start Writing

Summary: If you are driven to write poetry, you should decide what type of writing you will attempt: satire, praise, humor, elegies, or prologues. Then you should start writing and editing.

Notes: Aurora: the goddess of the dawn. Muse: one of the nine goddesses who inspire literature, art, and science. Invoke: to called on for help or inspiration.

¶Consult yourself; and if you find
A powerful impulse urge your mind,
Impartial judge within your breast
What subject you can manage best;
Whether your genius most inclines
To satire, praise, or humorous lines,
To elegies in mournful tone,
Or prologue sent from hand unknown.
Then, rising with Aurora’s light,
The Muse invoked, sit down to write;
Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline;
Be mindful, when invention fails,
To scratch your head, and bite your nails.

Write Out the Final Draft of Your Poem

Summary: After you write and edit your poem, you need to write it out carefully by hand. (Swift gave this advice hundreds of years before personal computers.)

Notes: Wipe: (probably) a punch. Jest: joke or mocking remark. Homer: a legendary Greek epic poet of the 8th century B.C.

¶Your poem finish’d, next your care
Is needful to transcribe it fair.
In modern wit all printed trash is
Set off with numerous breaks and dashes.

¶To statesmen would you give a wipe,
You print it in Italic type.
When letters are in vulgar shapes,
‘Tis ten to one the wit escapes:
But, when in capitals express’d,
The dullest reader smokes the jest:
Or else perhaps he may invent
A better than the poet meant;
As learned commentators view
In Homer more than Homer knew.

Your Poem Is Published!

Summary: Now send your poem to the printing press. If the publisher thinks that he can come out even or make a profit, then you are in luck. Your poem will be advertised, and the salesman will show you your poem in print.

Notes: Modish: stylish. Lintot: Barnaby Bernard Lintot, a publisher and bookseller. Quit the cost: sell enough copies to pay for the printing expenses. Hawker: a street salesman. Farthing: a former British coin. “A bastard of your own begetting”: An illegitimate child that you have parented.

¶Your poem in its modish dress,
Correctly fitted for the press,
Convey by penny-post to Lintot,
But let no friend alive look into’t.
If Lintot thinks ’twill quit the cost,
You need not fear your labour lost:
And how agreeably surprised
Are you to see it advertised!
The hawker shows you one in print,
As fresh as farthings from the mint:
The product of your toil and sweating;
A bastard of your own begetting.

Go to Part 3.

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