Poet's Choice

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By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Poetry is a quick art. It does not plod through needless explanations, and often it takes pleasure in covering a lot of ground rapidly -- or, in doing several things at once. Jonathan Swift, in the 18th century, wrote poems that were sad as well as funny, generous as well as judgmental, calm as well as satirical.

He had the amusing idea of writing a poem ostensibly about his own death, after the fact, observing the behavior of his friends and enemies. The poem is all the funnier and more imaginative because Swift uses his death as an occasion to write about all sorts of things. The 484 lines of the poem touch on politics, religion, writing, manners: a wide-ranging editorial, naming names. Apparently, he intended the work to be published only after his actual death, though in fact it appeared in his lifetime. Here is a sample from "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D." (The initials stand for Dean of Saint Patrick's, Dublin):

"For poetry, he's past his prime;

He takes an hour to find a rhyme;

His fire is out, his wit decayed,

His fancy sunk, his Muse a jade.

I'd have him throw away his pen--

But there's no talking to some men."

And then their tenderness appears

By adding largely to my years:

"He's older than he would be reckoned,

And well remembers Charles the Second.


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