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"An Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General"– A Biographical Essay on Jonathan Swift

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift's Early Life

On November 30, 1667, seven months after his father’s death, Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland. Soon after his birth, his mother left him with his father’s family and moved to Leicester, England. In his early childhood, due to his familial misgivings, Swift developed what would later be called “a general hatred of mankind” (Taralunga 129). During Swift’s childhood, many mysteries surrounded his earlier days; most were created as tales by Swift himself. It is hard for scholars to distinguish between truth and fiction.

One such tale tells of Swift being left with his Uncle Godwin. About a year after his birth, a nurse took him from Dublin and brought him back to her town of Whitehaven, England. There, she cultivated his mind to be great; “by the time Swift was three, he was able to read any book in the Bible” (Glendinning). Soon, Swift’s mother learned of his predicament and brought him back to Dublin. Such was a tale Swift would tell to entertain guests. It became hard to differentiate between truth and fiction, but it seems that these childhood stories are what inevitably led Swift to his humorous-witty personality and his satirical style of writing.

Developing Jonathan Swift's Writing Style

Swift’s literary personality first began to surface with his earlier writings. As a boy, he would write on both sides of the paper, sometimes halfway across the page leaving huge margins, and he quite frequently marked out his works by scribbling all around them until they were indecipherable. “When Swift picked up his pen and wrote on these folded folio sheets of paper, he was neither calm nor happy. He was writing badly, uncertainly” (Glendinning). However, later in Swift’s writing, he began to make striking statements in order to show that his opinion could be logically formulated, this became his strong point. Expressing his strong opinions became the true writing style of Jonathan Swift.

Jonathan Swift is described as one of the most prominent Anglo-Irish satirists; he was a political pamphleteer, a poet, and a cleric. Living in the eighteenth-century, his literary works were affected by the neoclassical movement that was spreading across England. Because of this, he often times focused on mankind and the nature of mankind, tradition or lack thereof, and the reasoning of his time.

A Satirical Poem

In his poem, “Elegy on the Death of a late Famous General,” he used his neoclassical humor, wit, and satire, to influence his audience into understanding how the general was seen through his eyes.

Elegy on the Death of the Late Famous General by Jonathan Swift

His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he’s gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He’d wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we’re told?
Threescore, I think, is pretty high;
’Twas time in conscience he should die
This world he cumbered long enough;
He burnt his candle to the snuff;
And that’s the reason, some folks think,
He left behind so great a stink.
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow’s sighs, nor orphan’s tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of his hearse.
But what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honours in his day.
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.

Come hither, all ye empty things,
Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride be taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing’s a Duke;
From all his ill-got honours flung,
Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung.

The Satirical Elegy as Commentary

The elegy is about the famous “General” John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, who died at the age of seventy-two on June 16, 1722. Swift’s satirical obsession led to an elegy of this distinguished man, even though, in Swift’s eyes, he deserved no such praise. Throughout the rest of this essay, I will further explain how the eighteenth-century’s environment affected Swift’s elegy to the general. I will show how, through Swift’s personal life, he gained a great disdain for the famous general. Finally, I will show how Swift’s renowned satirical style of writing fully grasps the elegy in every form possible.

John Churchill

John Churchill

Swift Frustrated With Authority

The time period which a composer grows up in, is extremely valuable when one attempts to understand the style of his or her works. Swift grew up in the eighteenth-century, a time of Neoclassicism, and a time where authors used the grotesque satirical remarks to embarrass their audience and the person being written about. During this period of neoclassicism the general public was subjected to foul odors; they had not yet developed sanitation or forms of deodorant. This factor will affect the way a person lives their life and interprets the world around them.

As previously stated, Swift developed a general hatred of mankind, so when he desired to convey a sentiment of complete revulsion, the olfactory was his likely weapon. “There was something demeaning and embarrassing about bodily odors, a fact eminently suited to a satirist like Swift, who delights in making his readers hang their heads or squirm” (Siebert 25). This satirical imagery is seen in Swift’s elegy when he describes the end of the general’s life. “This world he cumber’d long enough; / He burnt his candle to the snuff; / And that’s the reason, some folks think, / He left behind so great a s - - - k” (15-18). Here, it can be seen that Swift alludes the stink of a put out candle as the death of John Churchill. It seems that at this point in time, the word stink is so repulsive of a word, which not even the satirical Swift can manage to fully write it out.

Swift's Satirical Attacks

Throughout the Neoclassical period, one of the main themes for authors was “great men.” However, the satirical style of this period tends to flip the focus of the “great men” by not giving them praise, but instead revealing their downfalls. “The period may be characterized not only by the decline of the heroic, but also the doubts cast on its heroes” (Ulrich 3).

Swift takes full advantage of this when he states, “His Grace! impossible! what dead! / Of old age, too, and in his bed! / And could that Mighty Warrior fall? / And so inglorious, after all!” (1-4), and “Ye bubbles rais’d by breath of kings! / Who float upon the tide of state” (27-28). Here Swift is mocking the great general on his death bed, simply because it is what Swift does best, and because of his disbelief that such a great general would die in a bed.

Lack of Heroic Figures

In reflection, it often seems that Swift is saddened by the time period he has grown up in; he wishes to be a writer in the time of great heroes, but now he must write about a general who was notorious for his unwise moves and sending all but himself into battle. As is said, the general is "but a bubble bestowed by the king, floating upon the state, only to collect his earnings." As one focuses on the meaning and reasoning behind Swift’s poems, it becomes clear of the lack of heroic characters he is given to write about when compared to previous great warriors. Not only does one feel pity for the general, but also a minute sense of pity for Swift.

A Biographical Analysis of Jonathan Swift

As we start to see eye-to-eye with Swift, understanding the reasoning behind his madness, we see that Swift was limited to his background and the time period in which he lived. For example, Swift originally learned of war through his time as a cleric, and his involvement in English politics. In 1694, Swift became an ordained priest, after which, to his dismay, he was granted the position of Deanery, and was first introduced to the “environs of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, which were particularly nasty and smelly, and in all of Ireland sanitary conditions during Swift's days were repulsive almost beyond imagination” (Siebert 25). Due to his misfortunate position as a Dean, granted by Queen Anne, he felt as though he was “like a rat in a hole,” and moved on towards politics.

He began his political career as a pamphleteer on the side of the Tories. He did this for two reasons: the first being his disgust for the Whigs during the War of the Spanish Succession, and the second his repulsion to the Duke of Marlborough. While in politics, Swift “describes his involvement in English politics as a propagandist for the Tory government” (Lock). It is here that Swift’s eyes are opened to the general degradation, corruption, and pollution of his time. He realizes that men in power tend to make foolish choices while abusing their power. As for the public, he begins his disdain for them as he sees their materialistic obsessions with the world.

His satirical approach to literature becomes concrete as he condemns politics’ fickleness; in particular, he relates the “Duke as a byword for pride, corruption and acquisitiveness, the supreme embodiment of Whig dirty-dealing” (Gerrard 80). He expresses the Duke of Marlborough’s pride as vanity, something to be ashamed of, stating in his elegy:

“Come hither, and behold your fate.

Let pride be taught by this rebuke,

How very mean a thing’s a Duke;

From all his ill-got honours flung,

Turn’d to that dirt from whence he sprung. (28-32).

Here, Swift describes the great General in the most simplistic form of vulgar language possible: dirt. “Dirt expresses Swift's personal disgust, but it contains a broader meaning in its allusion to ‘dust.’ Dust is the end of all things mortal. The principles of devaluation and decay are laws of the universe” (Fisher 349).

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

Final Remarks on Swift's Satire

Finally, coupled with Swift’s imaginative use of satire, and his great disdain for the human race, it would appear as though no more harm can be done by his poem. Through the somber lines of Swift’s elegy, he makes his final satirical remark. It seems that Swift grasps from within himself when he states, “Behold his funeral appears, / Nor widow’s sighs, nor orphan’s tears” (17-18).

The life of the eighteenth-century was ridden with death. Swift feels the full impact of these lines, because at one point, he too was an orphan. However, he holds no mercy for the Duke. After reflecting on the emotional episodes of his own past, Swift gives his last bash to the self-centered general. He mocks him to a point that would most definitely make an orphan cry.

The realization that no one attending the funeral had sorrow in their hearts is either a great indication of how the General lived, or an even further indication of the satirical work that was Swift. In life, Swift spat at the General’s feet, disgusted with the morals he held and with what he did with his power. It seems no surprise that upon the General’s death, Swift, in his satirical madness, would tell the world exactly how his death took place. It has been scorned by many, applauded by few. However, in either instance, the message was relayed successfully. “Swift’s Satirical Elegy has been variously labeled ‘unchivalrous,’ ‘ungenerous,’ even ‘as vicious as it was unnecessary’” (Real 26). The cruelty of this elegy seems inhuman, yet this was the standard for satirical poets in the eighteenth-century.

In conclusion, an obvious understatement shows that Swift shows no lament over the famous General’s death. By understanding the concepts of the neoclassical eighteenth-century, the reader is better able to grasp why such brutality is attributed to the General’s elegy. Also, by glancing at the time period and background of Jonathan Swift, one can better understand his reasoning not only for his affairs with religion and politics, but how both religion and politics shaped his view of the world and the people who encompassed it.

In the end, Swift has proven himself as a master of satire. His no-holds-bars attitude was exactly what one would expect from someone living in such a filthy era of time. Swift needs to apology, and he shall give none. Forever lasting in the hearts and minds of many, Jonathan Swift paved the road for many writers to come, expressing that true emotion is what is really needed in the world, and not the materialistic greed that many people held then, and hold today.


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JourneyHolm (author) on July 31, 2017:

Thanks for checking it out, Debangee!

DEBANGEE MANDAL from India on July 31, 2017:

Thank you Luke for sharing this informative article . It is very well written.