This post presents Jonathan Swift’s poem “On Poetry: A Rhapsody,” which offers humorous advice to aspiring poets. This post is Part 4 of 4. Start with Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet.
Make Money by Writing Political Poems
Summary: If your third attempt at poetry also fails, you don’t have to give up. You can try to make money by writing for or against politicians. You can also praise the government and describe the virtues of the nation.
Notes: Essay: attempt. Party: political party. Thrive: to get along well. Court: political court. Lampoon: satire that attacks someone. Pence: pennies. On the nail: immediately. Extol: praise. Confound: confuse, embarrass, or defeat. Thou lyest: you lie (the “——“ in the previous line might be a placeholder for “Christ”: “they don’t believe in Christ,” since “Christ” rhymes with “lyest.”)
¶But, though you miss your third essay,
You need not throw your pen away.
Lay now aside all thoughts of fame,
To spring more profitable game.
From party merit seek support;
The vilest verse thrives best at court.
And may you ever have the luck
To rhyme almost as ill as Duck;
And, though you never learn’d to scan verse
Come out with some lampoon on D’Anvers.
A pamphlet in Sir Bob’s defence
Will never fail to bring in pence:
Nor be concern’d about the sale,
He pays his workmen on the nail.
Display the blessings of the nation,
And praise the whole administration.
Extol the bench of bishops round,
Who at them rail, bid —— confound;
To bishop-haters answer thus:
(The only logic used by us)
What though they don’t believe in ——
Deny them Protestants—thou lyest.
Poems for Deceased Leaders Are Burned
Summary: When a leader takes office, everyone praises him (or her) and lists his virtues. But after he dies, people start to say bad things about him. All of his virtues are denied. All of the poems that praised him are burned to ashes.
Notes: Emblem: a picture with verses. Bauble: a pretty but useless thing. Impute: to say that someone has some characteristic. Confute: disprove. Panegyrics: speech or writing that highly praises a person. Knell: funeral bell. Imp: young demon. Levee: reception. Charon: in Greek mythology, the boatman who takes the dead to hell. Cerberus: in Greek mythology, a three-headed dog that guards the gate of hell. Sop: a piece of food soaked in a liquid. Elysium: in Greek mythology, the place that good people go after death.
¶A prince, the moment he is crown’d,
Inherits every virtue round,
As emblems of the sovereign power,
Like other baubles in the Tower;
Is generous, valiant, just, and wise,
And so continues till he dies:
His humble senate this professes,
In all their speeches, votes, addresses.
But once you fix him in a tomb,
His virtues fade, his vices bloom;
And each perfection, wrong imputed,
Is fully at his death confuted.
The loads of poems in his praise,
Ascending, make one funeral blaze:
His panegyrics then are ceased,
He grows a tyrant, dunce, or beast.
As soon as you can hear his knell,
This god on earth turns devil in hell:
And lo! his ministers of state,
Transform’d to imps, his levee wait;
Where in the scenes of endless woe,
They ply their former arts below;
And as they sail in Charon’s boat,
Contrive to bribe the judge’s vote;
To Cerberus they give a sop,
His triple barking mouth to stop;
Or, in the ivory gate of dreams,
Project excise and South-Sea schemes;
Or hire their party pamphleteers
To set Elysium by the ears.
Write Poems in Praise of Kings
Summary: If you desire to make a living on your poetry, praise the virtues of living kings. Give your poems to the king and he will believe that the good things you say about him are true. You can also re-use your poem to praise the next monarch, if you remember to change the names.
Notes: Cluster: bunch. Muster: gather together. Garland: a wreath of flowers used to honor someone. Ermine: a position or rank that is marked by the wearing of weasel fur on one’s robe.
¶Then, poet, if you mean to thrive,
Employ your muse on kings alive;
With prudence gathering up a cluster
Of all the virtues you can muster,
Which, form’d into a garland sweet,
Lay humbly at your monarch’s feet:
Who, as the odours reach his throne,
Will smile, and think them all his own;
For law and gospel both determine
All virtues lodge in royal ermine:
I mean the oracles of both,
Who shall depose it upon oath.
Your garland, in the following reign,
Change but the names, will do again.
Become a Critic
Summary: If you think the job of praising kings is beneath your dignity, you can become a critic. But first you need to learn all of the special words that critics use. Be sure to quote famous people, such as Horace, and learn Aristotle’s rules. Read the prefaces of Dryden, which were initially written only to make books longer and more expensive.
Notes: Jargon: special words. Horace: a Roman poet famous for writing odes. Aristotle: a famous Greek philosopher. Rymer: Thomas Rymer, an archaeologist and critic. Dennis: John Dennis, a critic. Bossu: a French critic. Dryden: John Dryden (1631-1700), an English poet, playwright, and critic. Shilling: a former British coin and monetary unit.
¶But, if you think this trade too base,
(Which seldom is the dunce’s case)
Put on the critic’s brow, and sit
At Will’s, the puny judge of wit.
A nod, a shrug, a scornful smile,
With caution used, may serve a while.
Proceed no further in your part,
Before you learn the terms of art;
For you can never be too far gone
In all our modern critics’ jargon:
Then talk with more authentic face
Of unities, in time and place:
Get scraps of Horace from your friends,
And have them at your fingers’ ends;
Learn Aristotle’s rules by rote,
And at all hazards boldly quote;
Judicious Rymer oft review,
Wise Dennis, and profound Bossu.
Read all the prefaces of Dryden,
For these our critics much confide in;
Though merely writ at first for filling,
To raise the volume’s price a shilling.
You can find the rest of Swift’s poem in the book The Poems of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Volume 1, at Project Gutenberg.