Category Archives: Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, In Which Gulliver is a Prophet

In Lagado: “We next went to the school of languages, where three professors sat in consultation upon improving that of their own country.

The first project was to shorten discourse by cutting polysyllables into one, and leaving out verbs and participles, because in reality all things imaginable are but nouns.

The other project was a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health as well as brevity.  For it is plain that every word we speak is in some degree a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and consequently contributes to the shortening of our lives.  An expedient was therefore offered, that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on.”

And how did Gulliver aka Swift know that more than two-hundred years later, I would be packing useless words on my back, hauling them about with me to unpack here and there for conversation pieces–or stories.  My back aches with words, or the lack of them.  It’s time to unpack.  The New Year calls for it.

I will therefore unpack my words for a few days, live up the New Year with my beautiful family–drink wine and listen to accordions.  I will make no plans or promises, except I will pray and give my load of bagged words over to God.

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Battle of the Sexes: Lady Mary’s Piquant Reply

I’m in a mood for humor, after a late night and an early morning.  Last night we went to see Enter the Haggis, a Celtic rock band from Canada.  As I’ve mentioned before, much of my life revolves around Irish dancing, and last night was no different.  The band had invited the local Irish dancers to perform on stage during the concert, so that’s where my daughters were: on stage dancing a few numbers with a great band.  It was fun, but we are all exhausted this morning.  This whole lack of sleep thing doesn’t really suit me.  It’s how I live my life, though.  And all of this has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of my post.

If you recall, last week I posted part of Jonathan Swift’s The Lady’s Dressing Room.  It is a gross, yet funny poem mocking lovers’ illusions and pastorals and vain women.  Swift is known for penning gross poetry that deals with subjects such as excrement.  Many of his political essays are not only gross, but shocking.  For example, his Modest Proposal suggests that the Irish solve their problems of poverty and hunger by selling their own children for food.

What you may not realize when you think about the author of Gulliver’s Travels is his career as a clergyman.  When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote her poem, The Reasons That Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room*, she held his position firmly in mind.  She might as well have titled her poem Why Would a Clergyman Write Such Filth?  For that, she has the Doctor (Swift) visiting a prostitute, and then demanding his money back from her because he can’t . . . well, you know, finish the dirty deed.  I will post the last stanza, which is a conversation between Dr. Swift and the prostitute, because it is not only funny, but biting in its tone.

The nymph grown furious roared, “By God!
The blame lies all in sixty odd,”
And scornful pointing the door
Cried, “Fumbler, see my face no more.”
“With all my heart I’ll go away,
But nothing done, I’ll nothing pay.
Give back the money.”–“How,” cried she,
“Would you palm such a cheat on me!
For poor four pound to roar and bellow,
Why sure you want some new Prunella?”
“I’ll be revenged, you saucy quean”
(Replies the disappointed Dean),
“I’ll so describe your dressing room
The very Irish shall not come.”
She answered short, “I’m glad you’ll write,
You’ll furnish paper when I shite.” (ll 74-89)

My guess is that Lady Mary didn’t like Dr. Swift all that much, nor did she appreciate his satire.

*Taken from pgs. 2588-2590 of the Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (2000)      

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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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