Jonathan Swift

On the Day of Judgment by Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift’s acerbic poem ‘On the Day of Judgment’ is about a speaker’s vision of the judgment day with Jove or Jupiter giving his final ruling on humankind’s offenses.

On the Day of Judgment by Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift wrote ‘On the Day of Judgment’ around 1731, and it was first printed in a letter by Lord Chesterfield in the year 1752. Formerly titled ‘The Day of Judgment,’ is a bitter poem about the manifold follies of humankind, with a special emphasis on the corruption of religious sects. Swift, in his well-known satiric vein, points out the failings of humans. He talks about having a vision of the day of judgment where not God but the Roman god of thunder and skies, Jove decides whether the dead are eligible to enter heaven or not.

On the Day of Judgment
Jonathan Swift

With a whirl of thought oppress’d,
I sunk from reverie to rest.
A horrid vision seized my head,
I saw the graves give up their dead!
Jove, arm’d with terrors, bursts the skies,
And thunder roars and lightning flies!
Amazed, confused, its fate unknown,
The world stands trembling at his throne!
While each pale sinner hangs his head,
Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said:
‘Offending race of human kind,
By nature, reason, learning, blind;
You who, through frailty, stepp’d aside;
And you, who never fell from pride:
You who in different sects have shamm’d,
And come to see each other damn’d;
(So some folks told you, but they knew
No more of Jove’s designs than you;)
—The world’s mad business now is o’er,
And I resent these pranks no more.
—I to such blockheads set my wit!
I damn such fools!—Go, go, you’re bit.’


Summary

‘On the Day of Judgment’ by Jonathan Swift describes what will happen to the dead on the day of Jove’s final judgment.

The poem begins with a speaker describing the vision he had one day about judgment day. After tumultuous mental unrest, he went to sleep. Then he had a horrid vision of the god of thunder and skies, Jove. The dead rose up from their graves when the thunder roared, and the lighting flew across the sky. Jove sat on his throne, and the dead souls thronged the place. With utter resentment, he declared that humankind was blind by nature, reason, and learning. They were too proud of their achievements. Besides, different religious sects tried to falsify the truth and always damned one another. This is why Jove damned the entire human race to suffer in hell, as he was fed up with their nonsensical deeds.

Theme

In ‘On the Day of Judgment,’ Swift utilizes the themes of spiritual blindness, the sinfulness of humankind, the corruption of religion, and the falsification of truth. These themes are beautifully ingrained in the dream vision the speaker had. In his vision, he saw the fury of the Roman god of gods, Jove. He was utterly disgusted by humankind’s manifold follies and immoral acts. Therefore, he damned them to suffer in hell. In Jove’s description of humankind, readers can find references to the corruption of religion, humankind’s spiritual and intellectual blindness, and their sinfulness.

Structure and Form

In ‘On the Day of Judgment,’ Swift uses the rhyming couplet form. It means a pair of lines end with the same rhyme. For instance, the first two lines end with the rhyming pair “opprese’d” and “rest.” This AABB scheme is followed throughout the poem. There are a total of 22 lines (11 rhyming couplets) that are grouped into a single stanza. Regarding the meter, the poem is composed in iambic tetrameter. Each line consists of four iambs or iambic feet; for example, “A hor/-rid vi/-sion seized/ my head.” Besides, the poem is written as a dream vision.

Literary Devices

Swift makes use of the following literary devices in ‘On the Day of Judgment.’

  • Metaphor: The poem begins with a metaphor, “whirl of thought.” Swift compares the recurring chain of thoughts to a whirl of waves. In the second line, the speaker metaphorically describes the act of sleeping to sinking.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of initial consonant sounds in neighboring words can be found in “reverie to rest,” “graves give,” “their dead,” “hung his head,” etc.
  • Rhetorical Exclamation: Swift uses rhetorical exclamation to add emotional emphasis to the scenes his speaker watched in his vision. For instance, he describes the dead rising from their graves as “I saw the graves give up their dead!”
  • Personification: In “I saw the graves gave up their dead,” Swift personifies the “graves” by investing them with the ability to give up. The “thunder” and “lightning” are described with personal metaphors: “And thunder roars and lightning flies!”


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-6

With a whirl of thought oppress’d,

I sunk from reverie to rest.

A horrid vision seized my head,

I saw the graves give up their dead!

Jove, arm’d with terrors, bursts the skies,

And thunder roars and lightning flies!

Jonathan Swift’s poem ‘On the Day of Judgment’ begins directly with the vision the speaker had one day. The speaker was troubled by ill thoughts. He somehow managed to sleep after having a prolonged episode of daydreaming. In his sleep, he had the most terrifying dream that he ever had. The vision literally “seized” or fully occupied his head. It is because he saw the dead rising from their graves. This event somehow gives hints at the main subject of the poem, which is the day of judgment. On this day, the dead rise from their graves, and God judges them by comparing each individual’s virtues and vices.

Interestingly, in the speaker’s vision, it was not God but Jove (the Roman god of gods) sitting on the throne. He was armed with terrors. His anger was reflected in the skies. The thunder roared, and the lighting flew across the sky. This scene aptly describes how Jove felt by a mere look at the mass of dead souls.

Lines 7-12

Amazed, confused, its fate unknown,

The world stands trembling at his throne!

While each pale sinner hangs his head,

Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said:

‘Offending race of human kind,

By nature, reason, learning, blind;

Swift uses metonymy in the line “The world stands trembling at his throne!” The world represents the people or specifically the dead, who rose from their graves. They stood amazed and confused as they were not aware of what would happen to them. Everyone stood in fear at his throne, waiting for the final ruling.

The dead souls present on the day of judgment were all sinners. They looked pale due to Jove’s angry state of mind. Finally, breaking the silence, Jove started delivering his judgment that even shook the heavens. Addressing the throng, Jove said the entire race of humankind and their acts offended him. They were all spiritually blind by birth. Even after having reason and learning, they fail to see the truth. Their eternal blindness was what made Jove grow more resentful.

Lines 13-18

You who, through frailty, stepp’d aside;

And you, who never fell from pride:

You who in different sects have shamm’d,

And come to see each other damn’d;

(So some folks told you, but they knew

No more of Jove’s designs than you;)

In these lines, Swift describes how Jove started to address the dead. He pointed at those who were afraid of his judgment. They stepped aside from the front due to their moral frailty. There were others who were too proud to admit their mistakes. There were some dead people who belonged to different religious sects when they were alive. Their preachers were involved in the act, falsely representing the real truth. They only gathered in front of him to see how others who had diverging beliefs were judged.

Using an aside, Swift describes what Jove thought in his mind. According to Jove, those who tried to dictate God’s designs knew too little about his actual intentions. They were as ignorant as their followers.

Lines 19-22

—The world’s mad business now is o’er,

And I resent these pranks no more.

—I to such blockheads set my wit!

I damn such fools!—Go, go, you’re bit.’

In the last two couplets of ‘On the Day of Judgment,’ Swift includes the final decision of Jove. The human acts on earth are described as a “mad business.” It is because Jove could not understand what they actually tried to prove or do while alive. He referred to their farcical deeds as “pranks,” nothing else. Furthermore, addressing the human race as “blockheads” he delivered his judgment. He damned all the “fools” present in front of him to suffer eternally in hell. His utter frustration and disgust are reflected by the repetition used in his final remark: “Go, go, you’re bit.”

FAQs

What is ‘On the Day of Judgment’ by Jonathan Swift about?

‘On the Day of Judgment’ by Jonathan Swift is a satiric piece on the manifold follies and immorality of humankind. This poem is about a vision of the judgment day the speaker had one day after a period of mental unrest. In the dream, Jove, the Roman god of sky and thunder damned the entire humankind to eternally suffer in hell.

When was ‘On the Day of Judgment’ by Jonathan Swift written?

‘On the Day of Judgment’ was written somehow around 1731 when Swift was in his sixties. The poem was originally printed in a letter by Lord Chesterfield written on August 27, 1752.

What type of poem is ‘On the Day of Judgment’?

‘On the Day of Judgment’ is written in the form of a dream vision. The text consists of 11 rhyming couplets, and it is composed entirely in iambic tetrameter. Swift uses the first-person point of view in order to narrate the dream he had about the day of judgment.

What is the tone of ‘On the Day of Judgment’?

From the very beginning of the poem, it appears that the speaker is troubled in his thoughts. This is reflected in his tone. His overall tone or attitude to the subject is ironic, resentful, and terror-struck.


Similar Poetry

The following list contains a number of poems that tap on the themes present in Swift’s ‘On the Day of Judgment.’ You can also read more interesting poems by Jonathan Swift.

You can also explore these best-known poems about God, the Almighty.

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On the Day of Judgment by Jonathan Swift
Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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