Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope mastered satire as a primary means of poetic communication. Swift's "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" is essentially his self-written obituary. With candid self-insight, Swift admits his flaws, his jealousies, his insecurities, and his egotisms. His characteristic tongue in cheek style belies the weight of the subject matter; he knew his death was immanent and at the most basic level wanted to pen something that displayed how he hoped to be remembered. Swift's friend Alexander Pope did not copy. However, Pope's "Epistle to Arbuthnot" is the obituary of his dear friend John Arbuthnot, who also happened to be a friend of Swift's. The "Epistle to Arbuthnot" is similar in tone and style to "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." Both poems are brash, humorous, sarcastic, and brutally honest. Although morbid in theme, the poems serve distinct literary functions. Pope and Swift mock death while they are still alive, and they do so fearlessly and with the same lack of compunction the authors reveal with the rest of their literary canon.
Mocking death is the final frontier for both Swift and Pope. After taking jabs at social and political issues throughout their careers, Swift and Pope tackle a more existential issue: mortality. Here, Swift and Pope confront their own deaths with aplomb. As Pope writes about the death of his friend, he does so with the understanding that it is his own mortality that he contemplates. For instance, lines 302 and 303 of "Epistle to Arbuthnot" provide an example of how Pope writes himself into his friend's eulogy: "Make satire a lampoon, and fiction, lie / A lash like mine no honest man shall dread." His roast of his friend is as much a reflection of his own temperament as Swift's self-eulogy.
The motivations for writing an autobiographical obituary and an obituary of a friend include the willingness, desire, and need to satirize one of the heaviest matters in the human experience: death. For artists or creative types like Swift and Pope, death entails the need to reassess one's legacy. In doing so, Swift and Pope reach the climax of their work. Their reassessment becomes something that is far from self-indulgent, even as they write about themselves.
Therefore, there are also deeply personal reasons for penning their respective morbid poems. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," Swift makes fun of his egotistical motivations, his need to be remembered and appreciated. "What Poet would not grieve to see, / His Brethren write as well as he? / ?But rather than they should excel, / He'd wish his Rivals all in Hell." He makes fun of the insecurities that plague writers and artists. Like all others concerned about their legacy, Swift writes about "ambition," "envy," and "pride," in overt and joyous displays of honesty. Likewise, Pope probes questions like "Why did I write? what sin to me unknown / Dipp'd me in ink, my parents', or my own? / As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame," (lines 125-127).
Pope mentions Swift, and Swift mentions Pope, indicating that their respective motivations for writing poems about death certainly hinge on their deep and lasting friendships. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," Swift mentions his friend Pope with sheer adoration: "In Pope, I cannot read a Line, / But with a Sigh, I wish it mine: / When he can in one Couplet fix? / More Sense than I can do in Six." Just as Pope eulogizes his friend and by doing so, says a lot about himself; here, Swift eulogizes himself and by doing so says a lot about his friend. He admits his kindhearted feelings of jealousy, due to his admiration of Pope's "Wit." Therefore, Swift's "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" is in part undertaken to let his friends know how he really feels about them. Both poets use the opportunity write extensively about how they feel about their friends, their contemporaries, and their critics. They write about how they feel, how they perceive themselves, and how they wish they were perceived. "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" and "Epistle to Arbuthnot" are poems that encapsulate writing careers, and permit the poets to have control over how they are remembered.
Satire is crucial for both Pope and Swift. Without humor, the euologies would become soggy and bogged down by sentimentality. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," the poet never seems like he regrets anything; he mocks himself as strongly as he mocks others. The same is true for Alexander Pope in "Epistle to Arbuthnot." The epistle is primarily a tribute to Arbuthnot. Teasing his friend, Pope takes even greater stabs at himself. Although it takes the form of a comedic roast at times, the poem is an unabashed display of admiration and respect.
Motivations for compiling and publishing poems like these also includes honoring the tight circle of friends that Pope and Swift belonged to. The importance of friendship within the Enlightenment literary circles becomes clear, as Swift also mentions Arbuthnot in his "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." These men shared political rants and genuinely wanted to use the power of the pen to raise awareness about prevailing social concerns. Swift writes, "Arbuthnot is no more my Friend, / Who dares to Irony pretend; / Which I was born to introduce, / Refin'd it first, and shew'd its Use." Pope even goes so far as to use Arbuthnot's eulogy as a way to draw attention to himself. For instance, Pope compares himself to Homer: "And when I die, be sure you let me know / Great Homer died three thousand years ago," (line 123). Ironically, their understanding of their own power never becomes arrogance. They understand their egotism, and in this acknowledgement, egotism becomes elevated and distilled into confident intelligence and wisdom.
As good friends are won't to do, Pope and Swift tease each other stealthily. Although neither intends to write about the other in these two poems, they both do weave in references to the other. Swift, for example, mocks his relationship with Arbuthnot and Pope when stating, "Poor Pope will grieve a Month; and Gay -- A Week; and Arbuthnott a Day.," (lines 207, 208). The gentle teasing is touching, given how Swift admits, "I'm sorry; but we all must dye," (line 212). It is remarkable how candidly the two poets deal with death: both their own and that of their loved ones. Death is a fearsome event, because it challenges the poets to reflect on how well they have lived their lives. They ponder their legacies and the legacies of their loved ones. They also do so without any religious references, indicating their genuine appreciation for Enlightenment thought and the spirit of reason.
Pope's "Epistle to Arbuthnot," is dedicated almost exclusively to the doctor, who the poet calls "Friend to my life!" (line 27). However, Pope does weave in and out of the primary subject matter. He veers away to provide rhetorical context and existential probing of issues related to life, death, mortality, and friendship. Pope uses the chance to poke fun of himself, just as Swift does in his obituary. For example, Pope writes, "And curses wit, and poetry, and Pope." His rhythm and diction are sharp. Furthermore, Pope portrays himself as being a rather unlikeable character, so that he can allow his friend to shine. His self-effacing motif creates a compelling poem. Swift also capitalizes on his penchant for satire in "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift."
Pope's epistle was "written by piecemeal many years, and which I have now made haste to put together: wherein the question is stated, what were and are my Motives of writing, the objections to them and my answers,"…