How Jonathan Swift coined ‘sæva indignatio’.


Jonathan Swift’s grave, marked by a simple brass plaque on the floor at the west end of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is adjacent to that of his great friend in life, Stella (Esther Johnson – 1681-1728):

plaques marking the graves of Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson in St Patrick_s Cathedral, Dublin

plaques marking the graves of Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson



Latin sæva indignatio, meaning savage indignation, expresses a feeling of contemptuous rage at human folly. For instance, in No splashing about in Diana’s multimillion-pound paddling pool, published in The Spectator (London) of 31st July 2004, Paul Johnson wrote:

I have often complained about the shortage of fountains in London. […]
Hence when I heard that vast sums were to be spent on a fountain in Hyde Park to commemorate Diana, Princess of Wales, my old heart leapt. I might have guessed it would disappoint. What we have been given is a complicated (I am tempted to say pretentious) paddling pool. […] I notice that the Queen, who was obliged to declare it open or running (shut down as soon as her back was turned) and to say what a marvellous idea it was, chose to wear an outfit of stupendous purple, as if perhaps to express the saeva indignatio of her true feelings.

This expression is from the Latin epitaph which the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) composed for himself. Its words first appeared in his will, signed on 3rd May 1740:

Hic depositum est Corpus
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit.
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem.

Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go, traveller, and imitate, if you can, this strong defender, to the utmost of his powers, of liberty.

The marble inscription in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, reproduces the text of the will. “Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris A.D. 1745. Anno Ætatis 78º.” means “He died on the 19th day of October 1745 at the age of 78.”:

Jonathan Swift's epitaph in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin


The Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote his version of Swift’s epitaph, which he had called “the greatest epitaph in history”. It appeared in his 1933 collection The Winding Stair and Other Poems:

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

In Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats (Barnes & Noble Books, Savage, Maryland, 1990), Brian Arkins explains:

Yeats has gone as far as possible in compressing the original: the detail of Swift’s Christian name, academic qualifications, position in the Church, date of death, and age are omitted completely, the result being a laconic epigram in the Greek manner. But Yeats has made further changes. The most notable of these is in the opening line where the humdrum ‘here is place the body of Jonathan Swift’ is replaced by the much more exotic ‘Swift has sailed into his rest’, with reference to the Neoplatonic idea of souls returning over the sea of generation to paradise. The next clause ‘Savage indignation there / Cannot lacerate his breast’ succinctly and accurately captures the original Latin, although the ‘here’ of St Patrick’s Cathedral is replaced by the far more emphatic ‘there’ of paradise. Yeats’s fourth line sticks to the Latin, except for the substitution of the more vigorous ‘dare’ for ‘can’, but his fifth line adds to the ‘traveller’ of the Latin the completely original concept that this traveller is ‘world-besotted’, a man who has tussled to his cost with life and for whom Swift will be an example to follow. Due to this crucial addition, Yeats’s final assertion about Swift, which pares down the Latin to the absolute minimum, gains much greater force: ‘he / Served human liberty’ because he too tussled with life and strove consistently for freedom.

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