Summary of ‘A Letter of Advice to Young Poet’ by Jonathan Swift

Updated July 2, 2022

Possibly, “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” by Jonathan Swift is one of the best classical satire aiming to uplift the standard of poetry. Through this ironical essay, Swift intends to impart some scholarly bits to the poetasters of his time. In fact, Jonathan was one of the greatest literary figures of The Age of Pope within 18th century. And, no other major English writer seems so charged with the spirit of satire as Swift. His entire work is satirical in tone and biting in essence.

Jonathan’s other essays such as “A Meditation Upon a Broomstick”, “A Letter to the Whole people of Ireland” are also highly satirical in tone. Even his complete books such as “A Tale of a Tub”, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “The Battle of Books” and “A Modest Proposal” are the brilliant pieces of satire. Moreover, Swift’s satires cover various aspects of human life. His satire is not to show his wit but to expose the folly of men and society. Of course, ultimate aim of his works were to correct the follies of society.

Summary of “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”

“A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” is one of the best ironical essays by Swift. In this essay, Swift presents for us the tricks by which scribblers invoking the aid of the Muses. The contents of this essay can be understood better if the title is modified a bit. In fact, the modern title of this essay would be:

How to write Like Homer and Milton by Working Ten Minutes a Day. No Education Necessary. Send for Our Free Booklet of Easy Rules.

Swift discusses some of the commercial battles waged continuously in Grub Street in his time. He intends to impart some scholarly bits to the poetasters of his time. First of all, he confesses the narrowness of his skill during the childhood and then intends to impart some valuable suggestions which he has gathered through observations and experience.

Swift’s first suggestion to a young poet who has adopted English poetry as his profession and business, is regarding the diminutive tool” i.e. the pen. He suggests the poets how to hold the pen. He says:

…(it) reclines its head on the thumb of the right hand, sustains the foremost finger upon its breast and is itself supported by the second.

Then he suggests the poets not have any serious thought about God and religion. He, however, suggests the poet to have a sound and thorough knowledge of scriptures. This will enable them to borrow materials from the scriptures which are a rich source of literary pursuits. Swift’s vehemence against religion can be seen in the following lines:

Religion, like a single drop of malt-liquor in claret, will muddy and discompose the brightest poetical genius.

Swift’s another interesting suggestion to a young poet is that he should study some standard authors of antiquity. They can borrow the sentiments, the form, the ideas, in other words, almost everything from these writers. He says that that the richest pert of their books can be found towards the end, same as the best flesh in a lobster can be found in its tail. Swift emphasizes that the young poet must go for rhyme. HE says:

“Verse without rhyme is a body without a soul, or a bell without a clapper”.

Further in the letter, Swift suggests that a poet must put on his worst clothes while writing a poem because this will inspire his skills in verse making. He should begin his career by writing libel, lampoon, or satire. There should also be a market where everything necessary in this regard should be easily available. There should be:

“An abundance of pens, ink, and paper, and every other circumstances to provoke wit.

Jonathan Swift suggests that every state must have a Muse House on the pattern of play house. Such a Muse house will provide a proper platform to the upcoming poets where they can exchange their wits; discuss the probable subjects of their verses etc. In this way, Swift says, the town will not be littered with the filth of poetry. He closes the letter with an apology for writing an unusually long letter.

How Does The Swift’s Letter of Advice Look Like?

The letter advising young poets is quite lengthy and might appear difficult understanding. I would be pleased to post the first few lines and the last para of the conclusion so that you can get a slight idea about the satirical writing style of the great Swift.

AS I have always professed a friendship for you, and have therefore been more inquisitive into your conduct and studies than is usually agreeable to young men, so I must own I am not a little pleased to find, by your last account, that you have entirely bent your thoughts to English poetry, with design to make it your profession and business.
……….. ……….. ………..
While I have been directing your pen, I should not forget to govern my own, which has already exceeded the bounds of a letter. I must therefore take my leave abruptly, and desire you, without farther ceremony, to believe that I am, Sir,
Your most humble servant.”

Note: Complete letter is here

“A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” in Conclusion

You can appreciate the satirical essay, “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” as a specimen of Jonathan Swift’s typical writing style. His compulsion behind writing this essay can be gauged through the bitterness poured in the letter. Of course, a modern reader may find the long and winding sentences in this satirical work a bit difficult to comprehend.

However, I am sure that you can surely get a hang of bitterness brimming out of the expressions. Deep contempt that Jonathan had for the inferior poetry creation is apparent all through “the letter of advice”. His inner urge calling for justice to poetry seems bashing the generation of young poets.

An Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift had many faces a satirist, an author, an essayist, a political pamphleteer, a poet, and and Anglican cleric. To John Ruskin, he was one of three best influencers. Similarly, for George Orwell he was most admirable writers. “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” on the whole, is one of the best specimens of ironical essays in the history of English Literature.

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