I am writing these words a few days after the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift, so it’s particularly appropriate to celebrate with his own elegy. His friends bemoan how he lost his poetic power, and he is really older than he admits to be, because he remembers well Charles II (who died when Swift was 18, so they are actually correct). “He hardly drinks a pint of wine,/And that, I doubt, is no good sign.” All these laments lead to the self-congratulatory “It is not yet so bad with us.” When he gets worse, they are actually more pleased than if he got better, because it is confirmation of their opinions and thus a sign of their sagacity. But those of them who suffer from the same ailments as Swift, are going to keep on sending him messages inquiring how he slept, how he feels and what his diet is, and of course those are going to be the most sorry around his death bed.
The forecasts of his friends are going to eventually come true sooner or later, and Swift is going to die. The first response is going to be the inquiry who his heir is and a shock when they learn he bequeathed everything for charity. What has the public ever done for him, they will ask, and doesn’t he have anybody of his own flesh and blood, a more deserving candidate? The hack writers will start to produce elegies in his memory, criticising him and praising the Drapier, the persona which Swift assumed to write his famous political pamphlets. The doctors are going to claim that if he had followed their advice, he would have lived twenty years more. The news finally are going to reach London. Countess of Suffolk (the King George II’s mistress, and in reality Swift’s friend) is going to run laughing to tell the Queen. The Queen will say “let him rot/I’m glad the medals were forgot”, because she promised him some medals when she was still Princess of Wales. “But now, as consort of the King/You know, ’tis quite a different thing.” Queen Caroline died two years before this poem was printed and Swift must have borne a grudge against her about these medals since he didn’t remove that fragment. Or maybe in 1739 he was not capable of revising it anymore. At the morning meeting in Sir Robert Walpole’s home Chartres (Francis Charteris, a well-known rake, is going to bring the news with a sneer. Walpole (Swift’s political enemy) is going to be very sorry… that it’s him, not Bolingbroke or Pulteney who died. He’d even rather see Swift a bishop (and Swift felt acutely that the post he ended up with , the Dean of St Patrick’s, was below his expectations.)