This post presents Jonathan Swift’s poem “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” which offers humorous advice to aspiring poets. This post is Part 3 of 4. Start with Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet.
Listen to the Critics
Summary: Now go to the coffee house, be inconspicuous, and listen to what the critics say about your anonymously published poem. If the critics don’t like your poem, you should swallow your pride and remain silent. If you defend your poem, people might realize that you are the author and call you a fool. Then people will believe that all the bad anonymous poetry that is published is yours. In addition, critics can judge anonymous poems impartially, so you should listen to their judgments.
Notes: Will’s: a coffee house that poets and wits often went to in Swift’s day. Lie snug: conceal yourself; Rogue: fool. Spittle: spit, saliva. Beget: produce. “And help yourself to run it down”: You can also criticize your poem so people won’t suspect that you are the author. Paternal pride: Fatherly pride; the pride one feels for having created something. Blab: to reveal something by talking too much. Dunce: fool. Doggerel: bad poetry. Blockhead: fool.
¶Be sure at Will’s, the following day,
Lie snug, and hear what critics say;
And, if you find the general vogue
Pronounces you a stupid rogue,
Damns all your thoughts as low and little,
Sit still, and swallow down your spittle;
Be silent as a politician,
For talking may beget suspicion;
Or praise the judgment of the town,
And help yourself to run it down.
Give up your fond paternal pride,
Nor argue on the weaker side:
For, poems read without a name
We justly praise, or justly blame;
And critics have no partial views,
Except they know whom they abuse:
And since you ne’er provoke their spite,
Depend upon’t their judgment’s right.
But if you blab, you are undone:
Consider what a risk you run:
You lose your credit all at once;
The town will mark you for a dunce;
The vilest dogg’rel Grub Street sends,
Will pass for yours with foes and friends;
And you must bear the whole disgrace,
Till some fresh blockhead takes your place.
Consider the Critiques and Keep Writing
Summary: You kept the secret about your authorship of the poem, but your poem is now being used only for the good that its paper provides. You should try to write a second poem. If your second poem fails, try to write a third, but this time take into account the advice of your critics and try to improve where you made mistakes before. You might have attacked people, but used letters of the alphabet in place of names, to protect the guilty and to avoid censorship. You might also have used too many adjectives to fill in the gaps in your poem.
Notes: Quire: a set of 24 sheets of paper. Cant: slang or special words. Jest: joke or mocking remark. A’s and B’s: the use of letters to represent people’s names, so one can criticize them without being censored. Jobber: an intermediary businessperson. Prelate: a high-ranking member of the leaders of a church. Wench: an immoral woman. Epithet: a descriptive name. Chink: gap. Kennel: an open sewer. Marish: marsh, swamp. Afric: African. Downs: grassy land.
¶Your secret kept, your poem sunk,
And sent in quires to line a trunk,
If still you be disposed to rhyme,
Go try your hand a second time.
Again you fail: yet Safe’s the word;
Take courage and attempt a third.
But first with care employ your thoughts
Where critics mark’d your former faults;
The trivial turns, the borrow’d wit,
The similes that nothing fit;
The cant which every fool repeats,
Town jests and coffeehouse conceits,
Descriptions tedious, flat, and dry,
And introduced the Lord knows why:
Or where we find your fury set
Against the harmless alphabet;
On A’s and B’s your malice vent,
While readers wonder whom you meant:
A public or a private robber,
A statesman, or a South Sea jobber;
A prelate, who no God believes;
A parliament, or den of thieves;
A pickpurse at the bar or bench,
A duchess, or a suburb wench:
Or oft, when epithets you link,
In gaping lines to fill a chink;
Like stepping-stones, to save a stride,
In streets where kennels are too wide;
Or like a heel-piece, to support
A cripple with one foot too short;
Or like a bridge, that joins a marish
To moorlands of a different parish.
So have I seen ill-coupled hounds
Drag different ways in miry grounds.
So geographers, in Afric maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
Go to Part 4.