Monday, July 13, 2015

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General - 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 thing,
Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride by 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.

Jonathan Swift certainly pulled no punches here.  The famous satirist held little love for the military of his day, and in this mock elegy, does so with humor.  The first few lines are shocked exclamations.  What's that?!  And old person died!?  How could it be!  I like how he pretty immediately moves on from his mock concern to, "Well, since he's gone" and just goes on with it.  "'Twas time in conscience he should die / This world he cumbered long enough" is an excellent line.  The warring general is not missed by Swift.  When his candle snuffed out, it made an awful stink.  It's almost like a celebrity roast, and even though he's ostensibly talking about the deceased, you can't help but smirk.

Swift points out that typically when one dies, there are crying widows and orphans: those left behind by the death of a loved one.  For this general?  None.  In his lifetime though, he left, "true to his profit" (profession) a great number of weeping children and orphans behind: the victims of those he killed in war.  No one mourns his death and he caused immense heartbreak.

In the last stanza, Swift directly addresses other generals, "bubbles raised by breath of kings."  People who are hollow shells, raised by someone's power other than their own, "who float upon the tide of state."  The dead general's funeral procession is their lesson:  "Let pride be taught by this rebuke, / How very mean a thing's a Duke."  Mean here means low, lowly.  No matter what "ill-got" honours this general attained, he now is "turned to that dirt from whence he sprung."  No matter how exulted in life, he's just dirt now, and good riddance, one thinks Swift would have added.  Swift's humor is biting and pointed: critical of oppressive power structures, especially in a time when the common person had none of their own.  None but words, at least.

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