Poetry: Swift – Advice to the Grub Street Verse-writers

Ye poets ragged and forlorn,
Down from your garrets haste;
Ye rhymers, dead as soon as born,
Not yet consign’d to paste;

I know a trick to make you thrive;
O, ’tis a quaint device:
Your still-born poems shall revive,
And scorn to wrap up spice.

Get all your verses printed fair,
Then let them well be dried;
And Curll must have a special care
To leave the margin wide.

Lend these to paper-sparing Pope;
And when he sets to write,
No letter with an envelope
Could give him more delight.

When Pope has fill’d the margins round,
Why then recall your loan;
Sell them to Curll for fifty pound,
And swear they are your own.

A few friends and I are reading through Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, so I wondered, did he write any poetry? And as with Hemmingway, I wasn’t disappointed. It is amusing to me (and somewhat unfortunate) the number of authors I consider to have only written in a particular genre or form. I, of all people, shouldn’t think that way, but I suppose it was how I was introduced to their works. And such it was with Swift when I stumbled upon this entertaining piece of poetry.

While a good work in and of itself, this poem is satire, a jab at a group of people written in a curious manner behind backhanded compliments and contemporary context. But that context is not what first drew me to this piece. Instead, I just found it funny. He pokes fun at writers without a heart for their work with half-born rhymes. He gives these “writers” Very Clever advice to plagiarize, which is what they are doing anyway. He pokes fun at his friend who was a bit cheap and used any paper he had to write, often to his detriment. But mostly, he criticizes those who’d defame for cash and those that would sell for notoriety.

And this is truly the meaning behind the poem, the aim of the satire. Grubb Street was a place where there were many unskilled writers. Now the phrase is used to describe poo writers and literary hacks. This Curll regularly took advantage of these unscrupulous writers and was known for publishing plagiarized works and scandalous letters. Among these publications included writings belonging to Swift’s friend, Pope, who had just landed in some hot water and which may have prompted this publication. Such events are much more amusing in hindsight, and perhaps a little in the moment considering Swift’s friendly jabs.

So this poem makes me laugh as a baby poet, and it makes me laugh as a casual observer of this fight between writers like Pope and Swift with Curll and his providers. It’s sort of like laughing at a modern political cartoon. It’s funny, and it’s purposeful. It’s true, and it’s often a little petty. So laugh and enjoy Swift’s clever turn of phrase; enjoy satire in a new form. And perhaps consider twice before you read and Very True Account of a famous person conveniently in print.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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