18th C Poetry for Poetry Thursday: The Battle of the Sexes

For some reason, the eighteenth century was a fun time for the battle between the sexes. Those of a poetic or satirical disposition enjoyed battling in verse. Jonathan Swift wrote his poem, The Lady’s Dressing Room in 1732, engendering many indignant responses from female poets. The poem begins thus*:

Five hours (and who can do it less in?)
By haughty Celia spent in dressing,
The goddess from her chamber issues,
Arrayed in lace, brocade, and tissues.
Strephon, who found the room was void,
And Betty otherwise employed,
Stole in, and took a strict survey
Of all the litter as it lay;
Whereof, to make the matter clear,
And inventory follows here. (ll 1-10)

Strephon is–or was–Celia’s lover. What he witnesses from the five-hour dressing session I’ll leave you to imagine in large part; if you’re thinking dirty clothes strewn about and make-up jars and brushes strewn hither and yon, then you’re thinking along the right lines. You also must remember that the dressing room was much like a bathroom, except that there were no flushing toilets in those days. So it is only right that the poem culminates in these glorious lines:

Thus finishing his grand survey,
The swain disgusted slunk away,
Repeating in his amorous fits,
“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”

But Vengeance, goddess never sleeping,
Soon punished Strephon for his peeping.
His foul imagination links
Each dame he sees with all her stinks,
And, if unsavory odors fly,
Conceives a lady standing by. (ll 115-124)

Swift was such a funny man, and to be honest, it wasn’t solely the woman who was his object of scorn, here. Who was the greater fool? Was it the woman for putting on a display, or the man for being fooled by it?

Next week I’ll post a lady’s response to Swift’s gross tetrametrical couplets. I mean, really, an intelligent woman might well ask, would Dr. Swift bother to write over 140 lines describing the filth in a lady’s dressing room?

*From The Lady’s Dressing Room, pgs. 2585-2588, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (C 2000)


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