‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ by Jonathan Swift is a thirty-two line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines follow a simple and consistent pattern of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.
In regards to meter, there is not one particular pattern that lasts throughout the poem. The majority of the lines are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that the lines contain four sets of two beats, or syllables. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. There are a number of occasions when this changes through and more syllables are added or the emphasis changes. There is a general unity to the text and the few changes to the meter support the unexpected content.
Context and Historical Details
Before beginning this piece it is important to know something about the type of Swift’s writing. Part of what one should take note of is in the title, this is a “satirical” poem. That means that the text makes use of humour, irony and exaggeration to criticize someone or something. In this case, considering the rest of the title, it is definitely someone. This someone has died, and the text of the poem is meant to be an “elegy” or brief poetic statement about their life.
The person to whom the title refers is John Churchill. He as the first Duke of Marlborough and died in 1722. It is clear from the text that Swift did not see this man as deserving of a genuine elegy. He used the poem to make fun of the man’s accomplishments and make his disdain for Churchill known.
Summary of A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General
‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ by Jonathan Swift ironically describes the life and death of a dishonourable, recently deceased, duke.
The poem begins with the speaker feigning surprise and grief over the death of John Churchill, a duke. He died in his bed, without glory. A fact that does not really surprise the speaker. The speaker goes on to admit his true feelings about this person. He states that it was certainly time for the man to die. He had used up his place in the world, and burnt his candle down to the snuff.
He’s dead now, but still people are feeling the weight of his stink in their lives. There are no mourners at his funeral, nor are any hearts “pierced” by his loss. The speaker acknowledges that friends of the Duke might want to mention the honours and hearts he gained while still alive. These are worthless now though, they’ve gone to the ground just like the “general.”
In the last lines the speaker makes a sweeping statement to all those listening who have been subjugated by the upper classes. He makes clear that they will die, just like “you” will and those who are most deserving of hate, will be forgotten. All their ill-gotten gains will be lost to time.
Although the full poem is quoted below, you can read the poem here at Poetry Foundation too.
Analysis of A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General
Lines 1- 6
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:
The poem begins with the speaker falsely mourning, through a series of exclamatory statements, over the death of John Churchill. He feigns shock over the man’s death and passes judgement on him through the phrase “Of old age too, in in his bed!” He acts as if he is surprised to hear this news, but its the exact opposite. Of course, Swift is saying, this person would die in their bed, they were no hero out on the battlefield fighting. He was not a “mighty warrior.”
The death of Churchill is spoken of as “inglorious” and this may be the case but it is no more than he deserved, in Swift’s eyes. The next lines inform the reader that the “last loud trump must wake” the man up now. These noises will, as line eight states, make him wish he’d slept “a little longer.”
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.
Swift does not believe this man deserves rest. If he could, he would wake him. In the next lines of ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General ‘ the speaker draws attention to how old Churchill was when he died by asking if he “indeed” could be “so old / A by the newspapers we’re told?” Again, this fake surprise is meant to amuse the reader but at the same time make one reconsider their own opinion of this person.
The next lines state that “Threescore,” or forty years, is “pretty high.” Although this is not actually a very old age, the speaker adds that it was “time in conscience he should die.” It was Churchill’s time to pass on, not because he was ill or old, but because he “cumbered” the world “long enough.” He was nothing but a burden to the earth, weighing down the planet and its people. The last line of this section expresses the speaker’s belief that Churchill’s life, in the form of a candle, was burnt own “to the snuff.” There was nothing left for him, nor did the planet have any more patience to deal with him.
The fact that the Churchill had burnt his life down “to the snuff” is part of the reason why, the speaker states, people think “He left behind so great a stink.” The man is gone, but people are still dealing with what he did while alive.
Lines 17- 24
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.
In the next lines of ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ the speaker describes the funeral held for Churchill. It was the perfect depiction of how the general public felt about the man. There was no widow there sighing nor were their “orphan’s tears.” No one cried, no one’s heart was “pierced” by the loss even though the “hearse” is progressed right in front of the speaker and his listener/s.
The poem begins its conclusion at line twenty-one. Here, the speaker acknowledges what Churchill’s friends might say about his life. They could contest the negative opinion painted by Swift and mention the “honours” the man had “in his day.” These “honours” are the hearts of the people. When he was alive he possessed some kind of dedicative audience. In the friend’s opinion, there was enough crying “before he died,” therefore the lack of crying after is not notable.
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.
In the last eight lines of the poem the speaker stops describing the man’s life and the impact of his immediate death. He addresses the public at large, asking that everyone pay attention and see the truth of pride.
One should learn “by this rebuke” that nothing comes of the life of a Duke. Their station does not make them worthy of one’s praise or tears, especially Churchill. He got all his honours through backwards, and dishonest means. Now, after he has died, all those things he worked so hard to achieve are “Turned to that dirt.” He is back where he “sprung,” just as everyone else will be.