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By the time we reach the first half of the 1710s, Swift had become – briefly – a key propagandist for the government. Taking gentle Horace as his model, Swift freely adopted a disparate range of prose and verse, including that of his rival, Richard Steele. In this period Swift deftly experimented with a number of classical sources, often in startling but wholly effective ways. ‘A Description of a City Shower’ and ‘A Description of the Morning’ revisit Virgil by way of Dryden and Donne, among other improbable bedfellows. Like many poets before him, Swift explicitly turned to Ovid (and his chief English imitator, Dryden) when writing ‘Baucis and Philemon’, a raucously mundane British variation on the story made famous in Metamorphoses. Description poetry, irreverent odes and epistles, fantastical fables, repurposed songs, fake prophecies and even a premature elegy: in his mid-career verse Swift covered a wide range of mixed-up genres, many of which had (to his mind) become corrupted by modern poets and commentators, as well as writers in all sorts of other lines of work, from shamming astrologers to political pamphleteers.
Chiefly focusing on Swift’s Cowleyan odes and epistles of the 1690s, this chapter demonstrates the author’s early rejection of conventional imitation in favour of a spontaneous form of appropriative writing. Railing against the accumulated habits of his seventeenth-century forebears, Swift repeatedly reveals in the early poems his own thwarted attempts to reinvent poetry for an unheroic age. Temporarily discarding the panegyric mode at the end of the decade, Swift found a new metafictional style that challenged the very medium of poetry. How can we adequately describe whispering or smells? If a table-book could talk would it have anything valuable to say? What would the petition of a barely literate waiting woman sound like? What happens if an overconfident member of your circle finishes one of your unfinishable ballads?
This chapter examines some of the Market Hill poems, which Swift wrote during bouts of intense creativity while in semi-retirement in the north of Ireland in the late 1720s. A subseries of poems written to, and in the guise of, the author’s hosts explicitly turn away from such famous works as Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ or Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ by moving inward: whereas the ideal poem in this mode celebrates a grand home as the material manifestation of the owner’s impeccable qualities, Swift instead voices the hostess as a trainee vexer, the host as a cruel dullard, the staff as aggravated upstarts, and even himself, in the character of an unwelcome if noteworthy houseguest. The gentrified British pastoral gives away to Irish realism. The satirical panegyrical ode has become a vehicle of self-critique. In markedly different ways, whether risibly or aggressively, the Market Hill poems deal with the Dean’s uncertain legacy as a Hibernian Patriot, a hard-worn but easily dashed image. This chapter ends with an examination of a shortlived but excessive verse war conducted with a rival cleric poet from Dublin who sought to tarnish Swift’s reputation.
After his return to Ireland, Swift mixed with brash younger clerics such as Thomas Sheridan and Patrick Delany. Daniel Jackson’s large nose proved to be the unlikely source of profound ekphrastic pieces written by the group. Jovial bagatelles aside, ‘To Mr Delany’ displays a mid-career poet querying his craft. In ‘The Progress of Poetry’ urban hacks and farmer’s geese alike have grown fat and shrill. ‘Advice to the Grub-Street Verse-Writers’ ironically advises how modern hacks might trick a real poet – Pope – into writing original works into the margins of their books. Swift continued to rework British and Irish georgic and pastoral poetry with extraordinary inventiveness in the 1720s, whether in drolly dreary hospitality poems or pseudo-prophecy verses in the voice of St Patrick himself. Swift found new ways to insult his friends, including his hostess Lady Anne Acheson (‘The Journal of a Modern Lady’, ‘Death and Daphne’) and Matthew Pilkington (‘Directions for a Birth-Day Song’), as well as emerging poets for whom he had little taste. Such insults were couched within the unlikely genres with which he engaged, from the Ovidian courtship tale to the royal ode.
Poets are makers, etymologically speaking. In practice, they are also thieves. Over a long career, from the early 1690s to the late 1730s, Jonathan Swift thrived on a creative tension between original poetry-making and the filching of familiar material from the poetic archive. The most extensive study of Swift's verse to appear in more than thirty years, Reading Swift's Poetry offers detailed readings of dozens of major poems, as well as neglected and recently recovered pieces. This book reaffirms Swift's prominence in competing literary traditions as diverse as the pastoral and the political, the metaphysical and the satirical, and demonstrates the persistence of unlikely literary tropes across his multifaceted career. Daniel Cook also considers the audacious ways in which Swift engages with Juvenal's satires, Horace's epistles, Milton's epics, Cowley's odes, and an astonishing array of other canonical and forgotten writers.