Subject Material

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General

Published: 21.11.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was a master of irony and satire. He was a Protestant minister in Dublin and witnessed how the English colonialists treated the Irish population, particularly the Catholics. He wanted to alert the public about pompous and self-important aristocrats and politicians whose practice brought misery on the common people. His most famous work is Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where he gives Gulliver (and himself) the opportunity to describe the English society to a stranger who becomes both surprised and appalled by Gulliver’s account.
Satire and irony are difficult literary devices, as the writer runs the risk of being misunderstood. So in the following poem, Swift reveals his satirical agenda already in the title, to make it clear that this “elegy” is not to be taken seriously. But if the elegy is unserious, Swift’s point is certainly not. An elegy is usually a sort of obituary to commemorate the deceased in a praising manner. But in Swift’s elegant satirical style, the late general is given a most unflattering posthumous reputation.



 

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General

His Grace! Impossible. what, dead!
Of old age too, and in is 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;
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 stink.
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widows’ sighs, nor orphans’ 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 his 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 rais’d by breath of kings!
Who float upon the tide of state;
Come hither, and behold your fate!
Let pride be taught you 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.

 

A Closer Look at the Poem

  • Point out some satirical and ironical elements in the poem.
  • What is the irony in the fact that widows and orphans did not weep or follow him to the grave? (“Hearse” is the vehicle carrying the coffin at a funeral.)
  • How does Swift comment on the General’s age? How old was he?
  • Why is it mentioned that the General died in his bed?
  • What does it mean that “he burnt his candle to the snuff” – and what was the effect?
  • What may be implied in the lines “The last loud trump must wake him now” and “He’d wish to sleep a little longer”?
  • Why do you think Swift already in the title announces that this elegy is a satire and not an authentic obituary?
  • What do you think is Swift’s intention with this text?
  • What is the difference between irony and satire?
  • Follow the links below and read more about Jonathan Swift and his satirical writing, and about satire as a literary method.

Jonathan Swift and Gulliver's Travels 

Satire - Definition and Approach