Critical Analysis Of A Poem By Jonathan Swift English Literature Essay


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In 'Verses Written in a Lady's Ivory Table-Book', Swift is reading a lady's ivory tables and is unimpressed with the shallowness of it. Creating a persona to satirise the writings within it, and the lady herself, he gives the table-book its own voice as the poem begins with an imperative, setting up the tone of the work: 'Peruse my leaves through every part, / And think thou seest my owner's heart,'. This immediately shows us that the book plays no active part as it wishes to distance itself from the 'trifles' written on its leaves, and presents itself merely as a facilitator for the lovers to convey their messages to the lady. The tone of the poem is quite sneering as the use of words such as 'scrawled', 'senseless' and 'fool' convey a feeling of superiority as it seems that the author and the table-book feel that this practice is rather foolish. By emphasising the fact that the tables are easily erasable as rival fops 'blot out' the writings of previous lovers 'when e'er he please' the fragility of love and courting is shown. Moreover as he can 'clap his own nonsense in the place' it shows that the book does not contain genuine emotions and thoughts, but rather whimsical and foolish sentiments possessing little value. Swift ridicules the young lovers further by drawing attention to their 'beau-spelling', satirising their spelling of 'tru tel deth', and by doing so again trying to show that they have put little thought and effort into these phrases and are writing purely for superficial reasons.

To reiterate the idea that she is being used by the men for her body Swift includes this vapid phrase as one of the trifles within the book: '(Madam, I die without your grace)'. It is a clear exaggeration from the suitor, suggesting that he will die without her presence and affections, and by doing so trying to win them. However this remark seems very fleeting and hints that he wishes to gain merely her physical affections, thereby reinforcing the earlier use of the word 'exposed'. The lines 'Who that had wit would place it here, / For every peeping fob to jeer?', also convey this lack of sincerity as men who genuinely cared for her would not write their true feelings down for all to see, but would wish to gain a proper place in her heart and tell her privately. It seems the lovers who have written verses in this book have only done so in order to look good in front of, and compete with, other men.

Finally we are left with the poem purporting the fact that the book's ivory leaves are going to remain, whilst sentiments and writings contained in it are effortlessly removed and replaced. The fop whose fitting description of 'He's a gold pencil tipped with lead' represents the whole of humanity, who may seem of great worth and golden, but are in fact merely lead-tipped objects as they and their emotions are not immortal, and are likely to be substituted and forgotten, just as the scrawled trifles are simply obliterated with the help of 'spittle and a clout'. We are shown the subjectivity of relationships that are unquestionably going to be put under strain, and so are not as durable as the object, the table-book. The last six lines of the poem show that the book has actually made the lady and her 'beau' into objects themselves, as the men are straining to hold their part in 'such a book and such a heart', and the lady is reducing herself to an object by exposing herself to these men and allowing them to 'peruse' her.

To conclude, we can see that this witty poem is a clear satire on the trifling practice of courting by means of a table-book, and by using the book as a means of conveying this the satire is heightened because even this inanimate object wishes to remove itself from the trivialities within. The rigid and precise language that Swift employs is in stark contrast to that of the relaxed and loose verses within the book, underscoring the superficiality and transient nature of love, and also perhaps intended to highlight the trivial nature of a woman's heart as she is seemingly impressed by such meaningless words.

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