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Swift — ‘On The Day of Judgement’ Poem + Analysis

This poem was never intended to be published; in some senses we could say that Swift felt more free to express his own highly critical opinion of the general public and the negative way that humans treat each other for the sake of their beliefs and culture. There’s a huge irony in that those who were so judgemental of others in life find themselves judged equally harshly in death, and they are all excluded from heaven because of their lack of tolerance and compassion. Though he was writing in response to religious tensions in the 1700s, we could say that the sentiment of the poem still applies to the way in which wars and conflicts break out in the world today.

This analysis is tailored towards CIE A Level students, but it’s useful for anyone studying the poem at any level (GCSE and above). It will particularly suit the following exam boards: CIE / Cambridge, AQA, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, CCEA, OCR.


Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full CIE A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

For more general help with English and essay writing, see our full list of courses here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses


The Day of Judgement

With a whirl of thought oppress’d,

I sunk from reverie to rest.

An horrid vision seized my head;

I saw the graves give up their dead!

Jove, arm’d with terrors, bursts the skies,

And thunder roars and lightning flies!

Amaz’d, confus’d, its fate unknown,

The world stands trembling at his throne!

While each pale sinner hung his head,

Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said:

“Offending race of human kind,

By nature, reason, learning, blind;

You who, through frailty, stepp’d aside;

And you, who never fell — through pride:

You who in different sects were shamm’d,

And come to see each other damn’d;

(So some folk told you, but they knew

No more of Jove’s designs than you;)

— The world’s mad business now is o’er,

And I resent these pranks no more.

— I to such blockheads set my wit!

I damn such fools! — Go, go, you’re bit.”

Jonathan Swift

VOCABULARY

Whirl — a swirling, circling movement

Oppress’d — (oppressed), forced down into submission, made weaker by something

Vision — a dream or view in the imagination that reveals hopes, fears or prophecies

Jove — Jupiterthe Roman god of sky and thunder (known as Zeus in Greek Myth)

Arm’d with terrors — to be armed is to carry weapons, this phrase suggests that ‘terrors’ — terrifying things — are the weapons that Jove carries

Sinner — a person who commits crimes against their God or religion

Offending — causing offence or upset

Reason — the mind’s ability to use logic to figure things out

Frailty — weakness

Sects — groups of people who have the same religious beliefs

Shamm’d — presented with or convinced of false truths (kind of like ‘scammed’)

O’er — over

Blockheads — idiots

Go on, you’re bit — an 18th century slang phrase meaning ‘get out of here, you’ve been tricked and deceived’

STORY/SUMMARY

With his head beaten down by a swirling thought, the speaker sunk down from his dreaming to rest. His mind was overtaken by a horrid vision: He saw dead people emerging from graves. Jove burst open the skies, and he was ready to wage war on earth, armed with terrors, causing thunder and lightning to break forth. The world stands and watches, trembling — people are in shock and don’t know what to expect. Each sinner turns pale and bows their head down in shame, while Jove looks at them all and says “You, the offending race of humans, you’re blinded by your natures, your logic, your education, because of weakness you stepped aside, and you were also always consumed by pride. You were all tricked by your different religious groups, and you’ve all come out on this day of judgement to see everyone else be damned to hell as you thought you were right and they were all wrong. (So somebody told you, but they didn’t know any better about who the real God was and his plans than you). The world’s madness is over and I no longer will put up with the pranks of humans. I am setting my mind against you all — I damn all you fools to hell — get out of here, you were all tricked.’

SPEAKER/VOICE

The speaker uses first person narration and recounts a vision or epiphany that suddenly comes to him at a point of weariness and exhaustion — he sees the world ending, yet instead of the Christian God coming out of the clouds and taking the good Christians to heaven, Jove — the Greek / Roman God appears and laughs at all the humans, saying that for all their fighting and squabbling between religions and ‘sects’ (e.g. Protestants vs Catholics), in fact all of them were wrong and he is the true God. He’s had enough of their stupidity, and damns them all to hell. In some ways we may view this poem as frightening or depressing, as it suggests that people’s core beliefs and their life’s work might be for nothing, however it is more likely that we should interpret the poem as highly satirical in tone — mocking and joking rather than overly serious. In the 18th Century, British people were all Christian and though there was debate about which ‘sect’ to be part of, they almost universally believed in the same monotheistic god. Therefore, the poem is intended to surprise and amuse rather than strike fear in its readers.

LANGUAGE

Rhotic consonants — ‘from reverie to rest.’ — the repeated ‘r’ sounds create a consonance which emphasise the sense of dizzying exhaustion created by the whirling thoughts of the speaker

Semantic field of horror — ‘horrid visions’ ‘terrors’ ‘thunder roars’ ‘lightning flies’ — an apocalyptic tone is created through the use of horrific imagery that helps readers of the poem to viscerally imagine what judgement day will feel like.

Parallelism — ‘Amaz’d, confus’d,’ — the repeated contractions in this grammatical structure of adjectives that describes people’s reactions to the appearance of Jove shows that they are oscillation between fear and wonder -they are experiencing a sublime moment that is both awesome and terrifying.

Asyndeton — ‘By nature, reason, learning, blind;’ — the use of asyndetic listing here creates an intense list of excuses that humans typically use when trying to justify their intelligence, and their beliefs. Jove explains that they have been led astray because their beliefs were all based on flawed or incomplete mental processes — they could not fully understand the world because their cognitive abilities were not good enough, so everything they believed so strongly and fought so hard to defend has turned out to be untrue.

STRUCTURE / FORM

Dramatic monologue — the poem’s form is a dramatic monologue, a speech that a speaker delivers to no one in particular. However, halfway through the poem there is a volta, a turning point where the speaker’s voice subsides and through dialogue (indicated by speech marks) the voice of Jove himself takes over.

Caesura — ‘An horrid vision seized my head;/I saw the graves give up their dead!’ — the use of a semicolon here creates a caesura — a dramatic pause in the narrative as the speaker gets to one of the most frightening visual images of the poem, underscored by the guttural ‘g’ and plosive ‘d’ sounds to emphasise the feeling of horror.

Rhyming couplets — the use of rhyming couplets unrelentingly throughout the poem creates a kind of claustrophobic feeling to the lines, that are always ringing out (perhaps in imitation of the bell which is supposed to toll on Judgement Day)

Iambic tetrameter — The poem uses iambic tetrameter — four feet of rising syllables (unstressed-stressed) per line. This creates a conversational feeling to the poem, as if it is taking place between a speaker and addressee. However, the opening line uses trochees instead of iambs, making it a falling metre, and so we kind of tumble into the imagery of the poem and are also a little disjointed or disoriented, in a similar way to the shocked spectators of Judgement Day.

CONTEXT

This poem was sent in a letter from Lord Chesterfield to Voltaire (a famous French writer), dated 27th August, 1752, in which he says it had never been printed but he can confirm that it is an original Swift poem as he has the typed version.

Judgement Day — monotheistic Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) all believe in a final day of judgement, the last day on earth where all living souls are finally judged and either ascend to heaven or go to hell. There are, however, many minor differences of opinion between these religions — and also within the different sects of each religion — about exactly what will happen on this day. Some believe that living and dead will be judged, others that only the living, others that only non-believers will experience the destruction, and so on. There is also a concept existing from medieval times onwards that there will be a crack of doom — a large thunderclap that signifies the beginning of judgement day. Swift uses this idea in the poem when suggesting that Jove, the god of thunder, will be the one to appear. He also seems to feel that all religions and sects are broadly right, and so there is no point in his mind arguing and fighting over the specific details.

Pride — one of the seven deadly sins in Christian religion, Swift and his readers would have considered an awful act against God to think too much of themselves. Swift makes the point in the poem that being so sure of your own religious beliefs being right and others being wrong is in itself a kind of pride, as it leads to feelings such as arrogance and superiority. In the face of Jove in the poem, the humans are left with a humbling experience as they all realise that their versions were inaccurate.

Religious sects — Swift was heavily interested in politics, society and religion, so much of his poetry (if not all of it) explores these themes in detail. He was a member of the Anglican (English Protestant) church, and disliked Catholicism, fearing that it may become more popular in society as it once had been and that Britain may instate a Catholic monarch. He did also write an essay called ‘Thoughts on Religion’ in which he outlines a softer and more inclusive approach to different religious beliefs: “Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private.” This was written in response to a fear that religious tensions within the country would lead to an outbreak of civil war or a period of political turmoil.

Satire (genre) — the poem uses dark humour to satirise the way in which people are so sure of themselves about religion, and so sure that their particular version of their religion is the true version whereas others are all wrong. It implies that Swift feels a belief in God and a willingness to be a good, kind person on earth is far more important than a person’s belief system. It’s also an interesting, philosophical and humorous thought experiment he presents: what if the end of the world came and it turned out that everybody’s religion had been wrong? Though this would certainly have been interpreted as offensive by those who do have strong beliefs in their religion — both at the time of writing and in the present day — the underlying message behind it is one of tolerance and acceptance, despite having strong opinions or beliefs we should always be open to the viewpoints of others and not oppose ourselves against them, as this leads to narrow-mindedness and hatred.

ATTITUDES

Hell is a state of mind, rather than a physical place — many spiritually enlightened religious people consider ‘Hell’ to be less of a physical location that people are sent to after death, and more a state of suffering or turmoil that is produced by being outside of the light and presence of God. In this sense, the poem is satirising the fact that humans have created a hell for themselves on earth, by being impious (unfaithful) or fixating on their battles between different religious factions rather than working on their own inner spirituality. Jove at the end of the poem just leaves the humans on Earth, saying he is done with them and their foolishness, and so on Judgement Day hell is arguably revealed to just be an extension of what we experience every day without any hope of heaven or enlightenment.

Quarrelling between religions or sects is foolish — The poem is intended to be ironic rather than serious, and so it explores a situational irony whereby the God who turns out to be in power just so happens to be one that nobody believes in any more. It also seems that this god doesn’t in particular dislike the fact that nobody worships him, instead he just feels that humans are too stupid and selfish to deserve salvation — this misanthropic attitude leads to them all being damned, because none of them are kind or intelligent enough to be worthy of heaven. He condemns the entire species, the ‘offending race of human kind’.

Humans experience the world imperfectly — thought history, philosophers and religious preachers alike have always sought to remind us that our powers of reasoning and logic, which we use so much to decode and understand the world, are always limited and flawed — there are limitations to what the human mind can learn, feel or process. In the poem, it is for this reason that Jove condemns the humans — he expresses with disdain the idea that we rely too strongly on our ‘nature, reason, learning’ — our natural abilities, our capacity to use logic, and our education can only take us so far, and for him this creates a kind of imperfection that humans can never transcend. Though this is the voice of Jove in the poem, we can also interpret this to be the opinion of Swift himself.

THEMES

  • Afterlife
  • Religion / Spirituality
  • Judgement
  • Human Nature
  • Death
  • Life’s purpose
  • Misanthropy
  • War / Conflict

Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full CIE A Level Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/cie-a-level-poetry-anthology

For more general help with English and essay writing, see our full list of courses here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/courses

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