Poetry Analysis: Essay Two [22 out of 25, 2000/2001]


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1a.) Read Jonathan Swift’s poem A Satirical Elegy On The Death of a Late Famous General, page 14 WJEC Anthology. Comment in detail on how Swift writes about the general, and the points he tries to make about society in the poem.

{Essay CONTENTS: Form – point of view – derogatory rhyming couplets; Mockery of general; Dismissive rhetorical question; Belittling use of parenthetic clause commas; Incredulous tone – choice of verb; Metaphor for life of general; Choice of adjective; Swift’s negative view of authority figures in society; Imperative mood – declarative mood – hyperbole – unworthy figures in positions of power in society; Swift’s antipathy towards generals; Disrespectful modifier; ‘Fitting’ return to dirt; Jump to section two.}

Swift chooses a traditional funeral song format to question the virtues of the general, and pour doubt upon his worth. It is written from the point of view of somebody present at the funeral (as demonstrated when the individual commands the generals to “Come hither, and behold your fate!”; they seem to be standing over the dead body of the general). The satirical content of the piece is highlighted by Swift’s choice of poetic form: whereas elegies are normally sombre, melancholy, mournful affairs, Swift has opted for a pacy poem with eight syllables per line (octosyllabic) to lift the mood into one of almost joyous celebration. The use of rhyming couplets is emphasised through this form, with the rhymes usually implying something derogatory about the general, “dead/bed, old/told” etc. It is a very structured piece, which provides a parallel with the military structure the general would have become accustomed to. An example of this structure is shown through the use of tetrameter (four iambic feet) in every line.[^]

Swift mocks the general at every opportunity. In saying that he died, “Of old age too, and in his bed!”, Swift implies that he died a ‘soft’ death – not how a “mighty warrior” would “fall”.[^]

A rhetorical question is used to jauntily exclaim that he has gone, with the wording, “so inglorious, after all”, suggesting that he wasn’t anybody to be respected or unduly missed.[^]

The use of familiar language within the parenthetic clause commas is another way of belittling the general’s achievements. “Well, since he’s gone,… And, trust me,…”, are two examples where everyday language is used to refer to a supposedly honorary member of society, underlining the repressed, true feelings of the population at large.[^]

Another rhetorical question (a continuation of the earlier interrogative mood) is asked to begin an extended idea that he had outlived his allotted lifespan, “…could he be indeed so old/ As by newspapers we’re told?”, to further question his integrity. The incredulous tone of the inquiry implies that if he were a worthy warrior he would surely have died before he reached, “Threescore”. “‘Twas time in conscience he should die!”, is Swift’s way of saying the general knew that he ought to be dead by now – all his soldiers are dead, with him feeling like (and, Swift implies, being) a fraud. The choice of verb, “cumber’d”, shows that the world had carried this general; he had burdened this world.[^]

There is a metaphor for the life of the general in, “He burnt his candle to the snuff”; he lived as long as he could, by fair means or foul (also hinting at a cowardly nature).[^]

The choice of, “stink”, as the adjective of what he left the world, is particularly harsh and insulting. It also continues the metaphor of burning his candle to the snuff.[^]

Nobody mourns the death of the general, “Nor widows’ sighs, nor orphans’ tears”; there is little respect for him – it appears that everybody thinks that it is, indeed, about time for him to pass on. The friends say, “He had those honours in his day”, meaning that people did care about him enough to cry (and also using a phrase associated with the military lexical set). Swift quickly follows this statement up with, “True to his profit and his pride,/ He made them weep before he died”. Underlying meanings of this couplet are abundant: he was only interested in himself, and if the people did cry it was because of him, not for him. Thus, people in positions of power were prone to abusing it; their orders were obeyed, but they, as individuals, gained little or no private respect.[^]

An imperative command- followed by a declarative (and degrading) statement- addresses all the generals, “Come hither all ye empty things!/ Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings!” The archaism of ‘ye’ is used for hyperbolic effect, increasing the dramatic impact of the ’empty things’ vocative. Swift hints strongly that they were chosen by the kings because of name or contacts, not because of their substance; they were only empowered because of the unjust military system present in society.[^]

“Come hither and behold your fate!”, suggests that all the generals will end up in a similar vein, with nobody respecting- or caring for- them. The poem moves towards an imperative emphasis in the final few lines to highlight the strength of Swift’s feelings (of antipathy and resentment) with which he regards the generals.[^]

The choice of the ‘honours’ adjective modifier, “ill-got”, undermines the general’s recognition and achievement. “flung” is a careless, throwaway-without-a-care verb, again demonstrating a lack of respect for the general.[^]

The final line of the elegy is the one that underlines the general’s lack of peer respect, “Turn’d to that dirt from whence he sprung”. His life has gone full circle: he was born in the dirt, and now he returns to it – the best place for him, Swift feels.[^]

1.b) Look at one other poem in which the writer attempts to make a comment about society. Showing awareness of the context, analyse the literary and linguistic techniques used to communicate ideas in the poem.

{Essay CONTENTS: Nothing lasts forever; Form – moral of poem; Rhyme scheme – elision – enjambment; Sterile landscape; Negative descriptions of Ozymandias’ features; Sibilance; Ozymandias’ God complex – juxtaposition – bathos; Alliteration; Conclusion.}[^]

In ‘Ozymandias’, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the point that nothing– not even the ‘highest’ and most powerful members of society- lasts forever is strongly conveyed. The message appears to be that all members of society ought to be treated- and should think of themselves- as equals. In this case, one man has attempted to rise above what he obviously perceived as the mediocrity of ordinary, everyday life…[^]

…Employing a loose sonnet form, Ozymandias paints a picture of an arrogant king, who thought that- by having a mere mortal sculpt an image of him- he would remain all-powerful till the end of time. The moral is related by a passive, non-judgemental person retelling a story that, “a traveller from an antique land”, once told them.[^]

The poem is written with an irregular rhyme scheme and five iambic feet per line. To keep up the form of five iambic feet per line, elision is necessary in the first line (“traveller” counting as two syllables). Enjambment is used to aid the flow of the poem, and also underline its story-like form, “I met a traveller from an antique land (/) Who said…”[^]

A sterile portrayal of the landscape is painted, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert.” The fact that the “shattered visage” is “half sunk” is something that will be used for ironic effect later in the poem.[^]

The sculptor is congratulated for his accurate capture of Ozymandias’ superior, siege-mentality characteristics: “frown…wrinkled lip…sneer of cold command”. The fact that the sculptures are described as, “lifeless things”, suggests a scathing view of Ozymandias’ idea that he could live forever through the image of these “Half sunk” replicas.[^]

The repetition of ‘s’ sounds is a deliberate use of sibilance to effect the smooth flow of the poem, “…sunk, a shattered visage lies…”[^]

The words on the pedestal, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!”, is a fruitful source of linguistic features. The archaism of, “ye”, lends dignity, religion and respect to the message. The arrogance, and God-like perception Ozymandias has of himself is captured perfectly within the two lines. It later becomes obvious that ‘despair’ has a double-meaning: it refers to the kings who should admire his work, and also to the tragic way his memorial turned out. There is a definite employment of juxtaposition, and bathos swiftly follows, as it is reported that, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away”; Ozymandias’ dream of being immortalized is looking decidedly unimpressive, deflated, and in stark contrast to what he hoped it would be like. The use of, “colossal”, is to conjure up connotations of the seven wonders of the world (similar to what Ozymandias thought he would become). This increases the impact of the bathos Shelley uses.[^]

“The lone and level sands stretch far away”, has a distant, dying sound to it, with the impact further highlighted through the alliterative stress that falls on lone” and “level”.[^]

All in all, Peter Shelley appears to be making the point that it doesn’t matter how ‘big’ you think you are, we will all end up the same in the end…[^]

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Forty-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, learning programming languages, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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Posted in AS Level English [A1]

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