Inhan Jeon

A Valediction Forbidding Laughing: The Outburst of Rage and Despair in Jonathan Swift’s “Epistle to a Lady” and “On Poetry; A Rapsody”


This paper aims to investigate the collapse of the corrective function of satire in Jonathan Swift’s “Epistle to a Lady” and “On Poetry; A Rapsody,” the satires written towards the end of Swift’s satiric career. This paper points out that, even though the corrective function of satire has been advocated by satirists against its opponents and thus a theory of laughing satire has been developed for the enhancement of its corrective function, satirist cannot always laugh in the face of reality. Swift’s “Epistle to a Lady” and “On Poetry; A Rapsody,” this paper contends, is a case in which Swift abandons the corrective function of satire and turn satire into a means of private satisfaction.

In the discussion of “Epistle to a Lady,” this paper points out that the theory of laughing satire is collapsed at the same time as it is established, thus argues that the co-existence of these incompatibles is the very proof for Swift’s growing anguish and doubt about the corrective function of his satire. In the discussion of “On Poetry; A Rapsody,” this paper contends that Swift is articulating the dire situation he is forced into through his presentation of the “old experienced sinner,” who had a right ideal about poetry but was forced to commend “vile encomium” due to the “poetry-scorning age.” If the “Epistle to a Lady” can be understood as a poem in which Swift vent his rage, this paper claims, “On Poetry; A Rapsody” is a poem in which Swift’s despair about the contemporary society is made more explicit.

This paper concludes that the artistic control retained in both poems cannot be regarded as Swift’s control over his emotions. Rather, this paper argues, this control is Swift’s last means of getting private satisfaction from his satires, as the artistic control in both poems can demonstrate what Swift might have been if he had been given the ears of contemporary society.

Key Words
Jonathan Swift, “Epistle to a Lady,” “On Poetry; A Rapsody,” satire, corrective function, rage, despair