Jonathan Swift Poems
Retrenching morality vs. Poetic Imagination
Jonathan Swift played the misanthrope; that is, such was his thorough enjoyment in moralising those practices he perceived to be symptomatic of the rancid condition of human nature, that this vehemence became as much a part of his poetry as the derision itself. In many of his poems, Swift combined elusive irony and the parody of Juvenalian satire with scabrous detail, the cumulative effect being a poetry clearly fascinated at some level with the objects of its poetic and satirical scorn. Yet, in ‘The Lords of Limit’, Geoffrey Hill seems to create a lucid dichotomy between Swift as the ‘moralist’ and Swift as the ‘artist’, and although Hill admits Swift in his poetry ‘to be at once resistant and reciprocal’ to human corruption, he seems to be reluctant to acknowledge Swift’s ability to hold in tension both his contempt and his stylistic indulgence in the detail of that which he despises. The overtones of self-righteousness present in ‘retrenching’ and ‘stand at guard’ seem to imply Hill’s surprise that Swift can focus on the objects of his satire at such an intense level. However, in examining the so-called ‘Scatological’ poems, it is possible to deduce that this palpable fascination (and perhaps even a strange delight) noticeable in Swift’s description of all things sordid is in fact an essential component of his pontifical disdain.As the work of an apparently devout churchman, Swift’s invective generally attacks the corruption he discerns in the contemporary political and social realms, as well as deriding such ‘individual’ sins as pride and sexual perversion. And it is on this fornication and general idealisation of sex (and in particular, sex with beautiful women) that his criticism came to rest in A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed, The Lady’s Dressing Room, and Strephon and Chloe. In these poems, Swift’s close associations of sex with sordidness (particularly excretion) seem to imply not only that fornication is sinful, but also that sex itself is condemnable simply by its uncleanliness. In addition, it is possible to argue that Swift’s connection between the women in his poems and the corruption of sex highlights femininity as the cause of depravity and idealisation, not as something praiseworthy or desirable. The depiction of a prostitute de-cosmeticising herself in A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed, presumably after a night of business, is gruesomely precise in its detail:Now, picking out a crystal eye,She wipes it clean, and lays it by’ (ll. 11-12)In his meticulous attention to detail, it is almost as if Swift himself is ‘picking’ apart the idealised image of the beauty of woman. Indeed, Swift’s use of numerous manual verbs and adverbs – ‘Pulls off’, ‘Dexterously’, ‘Untwists’ and ‘Unlaces’ – not only vividly describes the scene as Corinna disrobes, but also serves as a metaphor of Swift’s poetic process as well. It is not only Corinna deconstructing herself physically, but Swift himself is demolishing the picture of feminine beauty. His iconoclasm becomes increasingly dramatic in its parallels:And then between two blankets creeps.With pains of love tormented lies;Or if she chance to close her eyes,Of Bridewell and the compter dreams,And feels the lash, and faintly screams (ll. 38-42)The poem becomes increasingly more interior, and thus so does the parallelism in Swift’s metaphor. As the woman slips into bed, the most intimate of spaces, not only has the mask been removed, but the reader is now able to peer right into her mind – into what she ‘dreams’ and ‘feels’. Mirroring this, Swift’s undressing of the perfect image of womanhood also becomes even more subversive as he implicates the church in supporting the lady’s trade.Swift’s use of defilement as a means to destroy all idealisation of the human body and of sex also appears in The Lady’s Dressing Room, another anatomising poem. His biting invective approach takes on a form of parody, as Strephon steals in to look at what he expects to be beauty, and instead is confronted with an ‘inventory’ of ‘litter’. Parodying the routine of conventional love poetry – a man’s infatuation with a woman, and his subsequent wooing and winning of her – it is possible to argue that Swift also employs a mock-heroic style, off-set by his light wit and playful octosyllabic measure, to enhance his satirical treatment of blinded lovers. He incorporates classical references such as Epimethus lifting up the lid of Pandora’s box (although in this case not to let out all the evils of the world, but instead to inhale the vapours of Celia’s excrement!), and also seems to parody epic poets. ‘Those secrets of the hoary deep’ (ll. 98) imitates and inverts Milton’s ‘dark/Illimitable ocean without bound’ (Paradise Lost, II, 890-91), and he also compares Celia to Venus, who arose from the sea:Should I the queen of love refuse,Because she rose from stinking ooze? (ll. 131-32)The burlesque of Milton’s ocean reduced to a chamber pot, and the ocean out of which the Goddess Venus came presented as a pot of ‘stinking ooze’ undermines the traditional consideration of such heroic spectacles, just as Swift subverts traditional idealisation of love and women. However, one of the most significant and effective ways Swift channels our attention towards the deception of beauty and sex is that we see the entire episode through the eyes of Strephon, sneaking into Celia’s chamber, and experience with him the enumeration of disgusting articles. ‘Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair’ (ll. 24) increase in intense repugnance as the line continues, and the combination of the triple phrasing, the repetitive ‘be’ and ‘and’ and the onomatopoeic rhyming in ‘Begummed, bemattered, and beslimed;/ With dirt, and sweat, and ear-wax grimed’ (ll. 45-6) almost itself mimics the way the offending substances attach themselves to the grubby towels. The plosive ‘For here she spits, and here she spews’ (ll. 42) emphasises the shock of both Strephon and (the moralistic Swift hopes) the reader, to discover the un-romanticised truth about women, just as when ‘Corinna wakes. A dreadful sight!’ (A Beautiful Young Nymph, ll. 57). Here the only creatures waiting to greet her, far removed from the romance of a handsome male, are vermin and fleas intent on undoing her further! Once again, the juxtaposition of the presumed hope of sexual intercourse and the grotesque reality not only destroys all idealisation of the female body, but also seems to destroy eroticism itself, Swift seeing them as almost synonymous. It is not the one who ‘shits’ who is mocked, but the one who in his naivety could not believe the reality – a reality that as it eclipses any hint of sexual romance for the characters, also further wrecks any illusions of erotic impulse the reader might hold dear.Just as he does with these two poems, Swift uses Strephon and Chloe to expose the idealistic notions of Petrarchan love, and frustrated love and courtship don new intensity and significance as bodily realities are posited as the complete negation of the conventions of classical romance. The poem’s structure is similar to that of a traditional courtly love poem, with the glorification of the woman, the marriage, and the eventual consummation (after the woman’s necessary resistance). However, from the very beginning, Swift subverts this form, skillfully parodying it, at first elusively and then more outrageously. Although he describes Chloe as ‘faultless’, he subtly undermines this by describing many of the disgusting things that she is not: No humours gross, or frowzy streams,No noisome whiffs, or sweaty streams (ll. 11-12)Enlightening the reader that ‘Her armpits would not stain her gown’ (ll. 22) and that she was never to be found ‘Squat on her hams, to make maid’s water’ (ll. 18) actually draws attention to quite repulsive spectacles, and immediately prompts us to imagine exactly the opposite – that Chloe does in fact partake in such activities! Traditionally, medieval and romantic poets attempting to sum up a woman’s beauty might write around the subject, making use of simile and metaphor, rather than laconically highlighting a negative image! In addition, the copious classical references give the impression of a classical courtly romance, making ‘Ye gods, what sound is this?/ Can Chloe, heavenly Chloe piss?’ (ll. 177-9) all the more railing. The humorous notion that his bride’s consumption of a great deal too much tea and pudding at the wedding party has ruined any hopes the groom has of consummating the marriage strikes the reader as exemplary fabliau, with Chloe’s urination propelling the poem’s descent into bathos. Surprisingly however, Swift then begins to present this outlandish situation in just the idealised manner of the beginning of the poem, as the two ‘learn to call a spade, a spade’ (ll. 204). Medieval romance is passed over, as signified by the traditionally medieval personifications of Decency, Beauty, Desire, etc. dissolving. And so Swift sets up another, more unique and clever example of idealisation, only to overturn this illusion with what seems to be his belief of the correctly balanced view of women – that they should be ‘decent’, though not idealised. In the stanza extending from lines 271 – 282, Swift’s multiple half rhymes wrench the verse just as the poet tugs at the reader’s preconceptions of femininity, meanwhile implying that women and sex will never fulfill expectations:Why will you make yourself a bubbleTo build on sand with hay and stubble? (ll. 305-6) Swift seems to target his derision not merely at fornication, for Strephon and Chloe are already married, but, more widely, at the idealisation of and perhaps obsession with sex in general. However, not only does ‘No object Strephon’s eye escape[s]’ (ll. 47), but the readers eye also scrutinises each rancid object Swift manicures into his verse. Nevertheless, it is not only Strephon and the reader’s eyes that are drawn to the fascinatingly detailed unraveling of the narrative, but, as Nokes observes, ‘Swift takes a forensic delight in lifting the silk petticoats to expose what lies beneath’. It is this ‘delight’ present in Swift’s visual elaboration that prompts critics such as Geoffrey Hill to raise doubts about the true morality of Swift; that despite Swift’s deliberate Juvenalian invective, his poetry was somehow able to ‘break free’ from the retrenched moralistic attitude of its self-deceived author.It is certainly true that Swift has a sensitive awareness of the human condition. In A Beautiful Young Nymph, as the real Corinna is revealed, the bodily details already examined may reveal some sort of morbid fascination also reflected in the few more gentle, traditionally feminine details. The ‘gentlest touch’ and resounding repetition of ‘smooth’ throughout both this poem and The Lady’s Dressing Room, may serve to indicate a special intensity of feeling and interest in lady herself, but these are kept firmly restrained by the skipping metre and playful parody. In addition, the terse dryness of tone of the abrupt final line – ‘Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poisoned’ – seem to expel any sense that the writer is becoming too interested, with the semi-colon acting creating an almost chiastic effect, once again reinforcing the sort of ‘cautionary-tale’ tone of moralising.Indeed, the sort of antithetical parallelism noticeable in Swift’s apparent contemplation of the promise of sin and comparison with the reality is also present in the Bible as a device to advance and reinforce argument, and it is certainly possible that Swift is drawing on the same method. Solomon also teaches against adultery in Proverbs 5, verse 3, at first proffering it as something desirable, but then creating an admonishment out of the same structure:3 For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: 4 But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two edged sword. If Swift does use antithetical parallelism as a device to moralise, he is poetically describing the temptation of the promise of sex, just as Solomon does in verse three, but then painting a stark metaphorical picture of the reality, as in verse four. Hill’s terms seem to imply a pious self-righteousness in Swift’s writing that is not in control of his poetry, but this presumes that Swift does not include himself within the scope of his satires, when in fact ‘While struggling to convince humankind of their own animality, he pleased guilty to the common vices of the species’. If Swift is actually moralising himself as well as his reader, he is therefore not an archetypal self-righteous moralist at all. In his bathos, Swift indicates his involvement in the poetry, that he too lies prone to erotic temptation, and he too can feel the humiliation of the disillusioned male, and yet whilst satirising himself Swift stays in complete control of his verse.It could be argued that it is not only possible for a writer to react poetically with delight to a principle he despises, but for the poem to be meaningful, it is necessary. If there were no attraction in fornication and no temptation to obsess over it whilst idealising and objectifying women, then there would be no cause to write poetry disdaining such sins. Whilst the automatic assumption might be that because Swift spends so much time poetically imagining the sordid reality, and seeming to delight in the details of it, he must really be struggling to repress an inner longing to succumb to exactly the vices towards which he aims his abhorrence (which, in his scepticism, Hill seems to imply), it is quite possible that Swift was in fact expressing a refreshing Christian honesty that despite appreciating the holy and righteous way of life, he was still aware of his fallen, tempted state – he was still aware of his need for grace.
Epistemology and Explicitation in a Selection of the Prose and Poetry of Jonathan Swift
I want to outline in this essay some of the ways in which Swift’s texts – in particular the shorter prose works and the poetry concerned with the female body – take up and make explicit contradictory philosophical positions. Much time and critical effort has been spent attempting to trace some unifying philosophical thread through the maze created by these and other of Swift’s writings, when such a thread may be elusive to the point of vanishing altogether.1 It seems possible that one cause of this critical need to establish consistency in Swift is the influence of Postmodernist thought, which tends to cause a conditioned response to eighteenth century literary works in which the instinctive move is to look for that which totalizes, compartmentalizes, reveals a master narrative or supplies a clearly defined linear teleology. If, however, this kind of pre-imagined consistency proves unavailable, the critic is left with the notion of a multi-vocal, polychromatic Swift which should not, perhaps, be so surprising as there seems nothing alien to the intellectual trends of early-eighteenth century England in Swift’s assumption of positions that appear radically opposed to one another. Periods of transition necessarily involve the existence of contradictory positions in constellation often within the work of a single writer or thinker. Even Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest of all icons of Enlightenment rationality, can be represented in such a way: “Newton was a Janus figure, emblematic of the new, rationalist, scientific and secular future, yet also using his mathematical skills for abstruse astrological and biblical calculations.” (Corfield, 11).Clearly any attempt to attribute a definitive philosophical position to Swift is fraught with difficulty.2 Not only must the reader attempt to penetrate multiple levels of irony at a micro-level, but at a macro-level the fact that Swift was an Anglican clergyman complicates any philosophical interpretation. The origins of the debates on this issue are contemporaneous with the publication of the texts themselves (William Wotton’s observations, for example), and criticism up to the end of the nineteenth century continued, predominately, to insist on an irreligious Swift an approach that survived into the twentieth century: “no defence of Swift’s fundamental religious orthodoxy can stand the test of such writings. He is a sceptical humanist who again and again tilts at Christian belief”. (Wilson Knight, on “The Tale of a Tub”,124). This strain of criticism has been long overtaken, however, by the notion that throughout Swift’s texts there is an obvious tendency towards a defense of, and apology for, the Anglican Church: for Swift “the world can only be properly interpreted in a context of moral truth enforced by divine authority”. (Williams, 137). Or: “That Swift inherited, and loyally struggled for, a traditional Anglican solution…can be seen demonstrably in his life.” (Hall, 43).As an illustration of the complications attending any study of Swift, it would be possible to make the case that the time has now arrived for an analysis that seeks to resurrect Swift as “a sceptical humanist”. Such an approach put here in a very reductive form might begin from the position that critics baffled by the heterogeneous nature and multiplicity of works like “The Tale of a Tub” have a tendency to return to the sermons, and the other works of Swift-the-churchman, and finding there only Anglican orthodoxy proclaim Swift a pillar of the church. The fact remains, however, that the richness, variety, and multiplicity of meanings contained in works like Gulliver’s Travels or “The Tale of a Tub” continue to indicate, at the very least, a lack of absolute conviction in the teachings of the Anglican Church. Such arguments begin to uncover the potential complexities and paradoxes in which an analysis of Swift’s writings can enmesh the critic seeking to “smoak out” (Norton, 446) a biographically consistent interpretation, and are precisely the kind of hermeneutics I wish to avoid. Attempts, therefore, to ascertain what Swift “actually thought” are set aside here; what matters for my purposes in this essay is the philosophical positions Swift’s texts assume and the resulting explicitation and unraveling of complex epistemological positions.An example of such a position, easily overlooked in Swift, is empiricism used nearly always in the texts in juxtaposition with epistemologies antagonistic to it. The fable of the bee and the spider in “The Battel of the Books” offers a particularly strong instance, in which the text uses an empirical epistemology to attack individual human reason: 3Whether is the nobler Being of the two, That which by a lazy Contemplation of four Inches round; by an over-weening Pride, which feeding and engendering on it self, turns all into Excrement and Venom; producing nothing at last, but Fly-bane and a Cobweb: Or That, which, by an universal Range, with long Search, much Study, true Judgment, and Distinction of Things, brings home Honey and Wax. (Norton, 383).Or, in a similar vein, concerned only for that which is within, the spider is represented as “furnisht with a Native Stock within my self. This large Castle (to shew my Improvements in the Mathematicks) is all built with my own Hands, and the Materials extracted altogether out of my own person.” (Norton, 383). And, perhaps most barbed of all, the spider is portrayed as “wisely gathering Causes from Events, (for they knew each other by Sight)”. (Norton, 382). Similarly the textually privileged “ancient”, Aesop, is given the empirical position: “was ever any thing so Modern as the Spider in his Air, his turns, and his Paradoxes?”, “nothing but Dirt spun out of your own Entrails (the guts of Modern Brains)”, and, “whatever we have got, has been by infinite Labor, and search, and ranging thro’ every Corner of Nature”. (Norton, 384). The text uses a sophisticated empirical position to challenge individual human reason with apparent disregard for empiricism’s potential to undermine metaphysics generally. By appearing to embrace an essentially empirical epistemology it is at least arguable that “The Battel of the Books” opens a space for further critiques along lines philosophically similar to its own. The unraveling of previously implicit positions thus becomes a real possibility.There are, of course, differing opinions on the philosophical positioning in “The Battel of the Books”. An example is the view of Warren Montag who seeks to isolate the reasons why thinkers like Hobbes, Gassendi, and, most notably, Descartes,4 should be targets for Swift. Montag, in reflecting on the fable of the bee and the spider, argues that “Swift believed that the community of learning with its archive of eternally valid works was prior to the individual. The community and its generality and commonality was a bulwark against the peculiar weaknesses of an individual thinker.” (57). Evidently, on these grounds, the Swift posited by Montag could not tolerate a thinker like Descartes who sought to demolish these pillars of knowledge and begin anew. For Montag, Swift’s antagonism towards the spider’s valorization of innate reason is a result of Swift’s insistence on dismissing an epistemology that is produced by the individual alone; an epistemology that fails to offer due recognition to the accretions of a centuries-old communality of knowledge. Clearly this leads to a dichotomy in the fable of the bee and the spider, as empiricism is an epistemology that defines itself by its refusal of a prori knowledge and that refers, always, for its sources of knowledge to the senses and experience of the individual; the notion of a transcendent and “eternally valid work” is diametrically opposed to such a position. If we accept both Montag’s point concerning the communality of knowledge (detached, of course, from Swift the person) and mine, concerning empiricism, there emerges an unresolvable philosophical paradox in Swift’s use of the fable. Such paradoxes demand, and have received, explicitation. Whether or not it was simply convenient for Swift to expose innate reason to the strictures of empiricism, and to make, simultaneously, the point concerning the communality of knowledge is hard to establish. What is certain, however, is that the effect has been to stimulate vigorous debate. Unresolvable contradictions within the same critique lead to potentially endless reverberations of meaning and interpretation.Another area of Swift’s texts in which empiricism is particularly evident is in the poems that discuss the bodies and bodily functions of women: “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed”, “Strephon and Chloe” and “Cassinus and Peter”. Here the texts expose the idealistic notions of Petrarchan love poetry to truth claims available from sense impressions. Shit (empirical truth), for example, is brought into direct opposition to the flawless woman (glorification of an empirically insupportable idea). It is not she who shits who is mocked, but he who cannot face the empirical realities of shitting. Bodily realities are posited as the antithesis of the standard, and highly abstracted, figurations of the classic romance: the odours of “sour, unsavoury, streams” (“The Lady’s Dressing Room”, Norton, 536), the sight of “handkerchiefs…All varnished o’er with Snuff and Snot” (536) and Caelia’s shit, (“Cassinus and Peter”, Norton, 550) are set against “Pigeons billing”, “Hymen with a flaming torch” and “infant Loves with purple wings”. (“Strephon and Chloe”, Norton, 541). The truth of the admonition to Strephon that “fine Ideas vanish fast,/While all the gross and filthy last” (Norton, 545) is inescapable within the context of the poem. The poetry takes the satire on “romantic-Platonic love” (Norman. O. Brown, Norton, 617) a stage further in its presentation of the itemization and separation of the clothing and the bodily residues of the female as the empirical analogue of the idealizing central metaphor of the blazon, which dismembers the love object behind an obscuring screen of spirituality. Everything that is presented as spiritual in Petrarchan love poetry has its true foundations in the material argue the poems: “Such Order from Confusion sprung,/Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung.” (“The Lady’s Dressing Room”, Norton, 538).Interestingly, however, this is not the whole story. The couplet: “His foul Imagination links/Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks” (“The Lady’s Dressing Room”, Norton, 538) suggests a suspicion of nave empiricism. As does the advice to Strephon: “On Sense and Wit your Passion found,/By Decency cemented round”, since, “Beauty scarce endures a Day” (Norton, 547). The text insists that there is much beyond the realm of sense impressions. It becomes possible, therefore, to ask from which sense impression might an idea like “decency” or “sense” arise? Or, what is to prevent the sense impression “stink” from being applied, by the individual subjected to it, to every example of the thing that originally stank? Indeed, this could be read as a challenge to even the sophisticated empiricism of Locke: “Let anyone examine his own thoughts, and thoroughly search into his understanding, and then let him tell me, whether all the original ideas he has there, are any other than that of objects of his senses; or of the operations of his mind, considered as objects of his reflection”. (35). It is not impossible to see how a particular interpretation of a passage such as this from Locke might support the view of empirical epistemology as inadequate.5 So, within the same selection of poetry, and occasionally within the same poem, there emerges both a resistance to empiricism and the employment of that same empiricism to expose the falsity of other epistemological positions in this case the kind of airy idealism of Petrarchan love poetry. Exposing traditional poetic forms and tropes to empiricism brings two categories previously hermetically sealed from one another into close proximity, allowing each to contaminate the other, facilitating the process of explicitation.Of all Swift’s texts, however, “The Tale of a Tub” takes up the most profoundly anti-empirical stance:He that can with Epicurus content his Ideas with the Films and images that fly off upon his Senses from the Superficies of things; Such a Man truly wise, creams off Nature, leaving the Sower and the Dregs, for Philosophy and Reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined Point of felicity, called, the Possession of being well deceived; The Serene Peaceful State of being a Fool among Knaves. (Norton, 352).The ambivalence or incoherence of the narrator is dazzling, however: “and then comes Reason officiously, with Tools for cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate, that they are not of the same consistence quite thro’. Now, I take all this to be the last Degree of perverting Nature; one of whose Eternal Laws it is, to put her best Furniture forward.” (352). Two potentially antagonistic philosophical positions are juxtaposed in such a way that neither can emerge the victor. Such techniques in “The Tale of a Tub” have the effect of magnifying the visibility of both positions and forcing debate: “Many of Swift’s contemporaries saw clearly, as William Wotton did, that Swift’s satire returns against itself and demolishes the very position from which the attack was launched.. Swift had succeeded precisely in making visible and palpable what the age had only been able to contemplate negatively.” (Montag, 92). The snowballing momentum of the explicitation process is, perhaps, exemplified best in Wotton’s responses to “The Tale of a Tub” and Swift’s incorporation of them into the later version of his satire. Whether Wotton is right or wrong about Swift’s text being anti-Christian, a space is opened by both authors in which the debate can continue, further exposing what is implicit in Anglican thought to explicitation. In the assumption of the various philosophical and, particularly, epistemological positions I have begun to outline, Swift’s texts are entirely in tune with an age of radical change and flux. The writing is engaged in an enterprize of explicitation that is highly volatile and potentially fatal to entenched positions including establishment Anglicanism. By opening these implicit positions to scrutiny the texts invite the kind of explicitation which allows the very establishment monotheism that many would argue Swift seeks to defend to crack and begin to disintegrate, thus hastening the progress of secularization that becomes an irresistible, if gradual, phenomenon in this period.Notes1 Warren Montag points out that a continuing tendency in Swift criticism is to identify Swift with a firm philosophical/political position and, particularly, to establish “whether he was a Lockean liberal… (Ehrenpreis, Irvin. Swift: The Man, his Works and the Age. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.142; Downie, J. A. “Swift’s Politics.” Proceedings of the First Munster Symposium on Jonathan Swift. Ed. J. Hermann and Heinz. J. Vienken. Munich: Fink, 1985), or a Tory authoritarian who saw society as an organic hierarchy (Lock, F.P. Swift’s Tory Politics. London: Duckworth,1983; Kramnick, Isaac. Bolingbroke and his Circle. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968).” (1).2 It is notoriously difficult to be certain of what Swift read. As William LeFanu notes:It is easier to define what books Swift owned than what he read. We know from the excellent indexes in Williams’s edition of Swift’s “Correspondence” and by Irvin Ehrenpreis for Herbert Davis’s edition of the “Prose Works” that more than a hundred authors were named or quoted by Swift. Some of these, the combatants in “The Battle of the Books” for instance, were perhaps exemplary names rather than familiar reading, yet he certainly read many books which he never possessed. It has long been noticed that he had no edition of Shakespeare, yet could quote appositely from nine or ten of the plays. (3).Evidently, however, Swift had access to books other than his own. Sir William Temple’s collection at Moor Park would be one example.3 The texts of Swift’s sermons, particularly “On the Trinity”, document a deep mistrust of human reason:If they can pick out any one single Article in the Christian Religion which appears not agreeable to their own corrupted Reason, or to the Arguments of those bad People, who follow the Trade of seducing others, they presently conclude, that the Truth of the whole Gospel must sink along with that one Article. (Davis, 9:159).The text emphasizes the dubious nature of human reason, warns of the dangers inherent in reasoning from the particular to the general and posits scripture as the only “real” truth. The text offers yet more positions on reason to be considered alongside the fable of the bee and the spider and the animal rationale/rationis capax (Norton, 585) opposition of Gulliver’s Travels.4 Montag insists on a unified philosophical position in Swift. This consists of the defence of an “Anglican Aristotelian world in which nothing exists without a divinely ordained end”. (87). Gassendi and Hobbes present problems for Swift “because Aristotle’s cosmos…was ruled by first principles and ultimate ends and possessed a design that was prior to it, the Aristotelian system as a totality remained superior…to the Democritical systems associated with the ancient materialists and with Gassendi and Hobbes.” (63). Descartes, however, is threatening to Swift-as-churchman because: “From the theoretical position occupied by Swift…only the pattern of human learning together with the understanding common to all men could support a search for truth, because this alone can correct the infirmities of any given individual. The cogito therefore was no foundation at all but the opening of an abyss.” (59).5 Such a reading might derive its force from the “Anglican rationalist” tradition that saw “reason as a separate source of knowledge, superior to and independent of the senses”. (Harth, 146).Works CitedCorfield, Penelope. J. Rev. of A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727, by Julian Hoppit. Times Literary Supplement 8 Dec. 2000: 11.Davis, Herbert. The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift. 14 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939-68.Greenberg, Robert. A., William. B. Piper, eds. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York: Norton, 1973.Hall, Basil. “‘An Inverted Hypocrite’: Swift the Churchman”. The World of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1968.Harth, Phillip. Swift and Anglican Rationalism: The Religious Background of “A Tale of a Tub”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.Knight, G. Wilson, “Swift and the Symbolism of Irony”. The Burning Oracle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939. 114-30.LeFanu, William. A Catalogue of Books Belonging to Dr. Jonathan Swift. Cambridge: Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 1988.Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Kenneth. P. Winkler. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.Montag, Warren. The Unthinkable Swift: The Spontaneous Philosophy of a Church of England Man. London: Verso, 1994.Williams, Kathleen. Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1958.
The Controversy of “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
“The Lady’s Dressing Room”by Johnathan Swift is a controversial, misogynistic poem written to mock women of this era. Swift wrote this expecting a reaction from women and men, trying to prove to men that women are not as elegant and dainty as they may seem. In this poem, Swift uses Strephon, a main character to spy in Celia’s dressing room expecting it to be elegant however, it is a frightening mess. Swift voices his own opinion about women through the voice of his main character Strephon. Swift wants readers to see the reality of how women really live and refute the beautiful goddess-like image that people think women are like.
There are several prevalent themes in “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, the biggest theme was Appearance vs. Reality. Swift constantly compares the Celia that everyone sees with the Celia that Strephon is now discovering. “But swears how damnably the men lie, / In calling Celia sweet and cleanly” (17-18). This quote is explaining how Strephon talks about and perceives Celia while also calling men liars to prove his point. Swift also shoes Strephon going into Celia’s empty dressing room expecting something much different than what he finds. Swift uses these specific words to show readers what his original view of women, especially Celia, was like. Without this quote it would be hard to get a basis for his thoughts about women.
The reason why this theme is so important is because of this Augustan era, so many writers focused on this public voice that Swift clearly displays. Swift wrote this poem with the intentions of people reading it and having a reaction. However, compared to others, Swifts writing is a little more grandiose in style in terms of adjectives. There are a lot of dramatic describing words that emphasize on the satire he is trying to portray. For example, “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” (144), the last line of the poem, is clearly satirical towards women. However, there is another important thing to notice about this quote, the use of letter choices. The letter “G” and the letter “D” make readers emphasize the word gaudy and dung causing that sentence to come out more aggressive than if Swift changed his word choice. Appearance like a tulip, reality, more like feces, which is a dramatic comparison, but Swift is trying to end his poem on a memorable, dramatic, and satirical note.
One way that Swift continues to refute his point is different types of imagery creating a response from his readers. Reading the poem as a whole, there is imagery in every line, however, there are a few that stick out more than others. For example, one of the beginning lines is, “The goddess from her chamber issues, / Arrayed in lace, brocade, and tissues.” (3-4). This choice of wording puts a beautiful image in readers heads, some may even believe that this poem is going to be a positive view of women at this point. However, this is the last line that does not have grotesque imagery about women’s process of trying to look presentable in their eyes. Swift wants to lead by putting one image in your head to start only for him to refute it the rest of the poem.
One example of how Swift refutes the image of women being beautiful is “Nor be the handkerchiefs forgot, / All varnished o’er with snuff and snot.” (49-50). This is imagery it puts a gross image in your head that causes readers to react. Swift wants readers to realize how gross women can actually be. Handkerchiefs are usually thought for women who are crying to use for their tears, in these lines Swift wants people to know that women use them for gross matter and snot. Swift uses this choice of language because these bodily fluids are something that makes everyone react after hearing about or seeing these things. This makes men see a fairly different image of women after realizing the reality of women and their bodily functions.
Swift makes an unappealing olfactory response, “The petticoats and gown perfume, / And waft a stink round every room.” (113-114). This the ultimate imagery line because it creates two different reactions sight and it almost causes readers to smell what is being described. It makes readers cringe at the thought of smelling something so bad and not being able to get away from the smell. As an author writing a piece like this there is nothing more you want than to generate a response especially when you can appeal to more than one sense. This is why Swifts poem created such a controversy because he was causing responses that most poems or writers did not do this well. There is a significance in the words that Swift uses, waft and stink, he could have said “a gust of unappealing smells” which would have caused a much different reaction. Using words like this cause the mental response along with an olfactory one.
Lastly, Swift uses Strephon to voice his own opinions causing Strephon to go through the epiphany that a lot of men do not go through. The way that Swift makes Strephon’s voice so powerful is the short lines set up in iambic pentameter that also lack punctuation. This creates chaos as a reader, you can experience the shock that Strephon is experiencing because of how fast you are discovering all of these gruesome details. For example, The various combs for various uses, Filled up with dirt so closely fixed, No brush could force a way betwixt; A paste of composition rare, Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead, and hair; (Swift 2767)Strephon sees Celia in an entirely different way after going through her dressing room. Listing item after item trying his best to prove his point. The chaos of this epiphany is felt by the readers because of this style. If this poem was to be read out loud it would flow very quickly due to the lack of periods and overuse of commas. This causes the reader to continue reading and rarely stop, especially the list at the end that makes readers just keep reading faster and faster and will continue to flow this way because of the semicolon after this list. It was Swifts main goal to create this response.
Swift not only created a response to the common people but he created a response to women writers, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu wrote a whole poem mocking and responding to Swifts satirical poem towards women. The purpose of any piece of writing is to generate a response which is clearly what Swift did. Montagu was also trying to generate a response but in doing so some may argue that she just made Swift more famous because after people read her piece they, of course, had to read his to understand her motivation for writing “The Reasons That Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room”. There is no hiding that her poem was a direct response to Swifts “The Lady’s Dressing Room”considering the title.
In conclusion, writing is about causing reactions and responses and Swift did nothing but that. Swifts main goal was to teach men the reality of what women are really like and refute the goddess-like images that a majority of men have. He used controversial themes, different types of imagery, and the voice of his character Strephon to create readers to have the same or opposite response that he wanted them to. No matter what response readers felt after reading this, Swift was successful in using public voice to create the response he wanted. Swift used just the right words and punctuation at just the right time to cause all of the readers senses to be triggered. This was a successful way to cause reactions and controversy during the Augustan time.