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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 bubble
To 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.
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