The Enlightenment was a merging of ideas and activities that took place through the eighteenth century in Western Europe, England, and in the American colonies. Enlightenment thinkers believed that the advances of science and industry heralded social equality and progress. With the economy in favorable climate, opportunity presented itself for the upwardly mobile to change their station in life. People openly expressed criticism of time-honored cultural traditions and institutions. The Church was singled out as impeding the development of human reason. Intellectuals turned from the Church in favor of Deism, a rejection of organized religion in favor of a personal and spiritual faith. As the influence of religious and political leaders weakened, citizens began to speak their minds, debate opposing opinions and make choices for themselves.
During this era, people were no longer content with being told to accept absolutes of both church and state. The idea that every man could think for himself, question and even rebel against prescribed belief became the driving force for philosophers and literature, influencing poets like John Milton, discussed in a previous post, and Jonathon Swift, perhaps most commonly known for his 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels.”
With the success of his essays and novels, Swift’s poetry is often overlooked, unfairly in my opinion. He is remembered for his gifted application of satire throughout all of his written work. The difference between prose and poetry is so indistinct, one must ask at what point does prose become poetry.
Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667 in Dublin, Ireland, the son of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents. His father died a few months before he was born and after his birth, his mother moved to England, leaving her infant son to be raised by his uncle. When he was six years old, Swift began his education at Kilkenny Grammar School and continued this education, graduating from Trinity College in Dublin.
When William of Orange invaded England in 1688, Dublin became embroiled in political turmoil and Trinity College was closed. Swift moved to England where he hoped to gain stature in the Anglican Church. In 1689, he became secretary to the diplomat Sir William Temple. During his tenure, he began to suffer from Meniere’s Disease, a disturbance of the inner ear which produces nausea and vertigo, a condition that physicians were incapable to understand in those days. In 1690, Swift returned to Ireland on advice of his doctors but returned to work with Temple in England a year later and within the year following, received an M. A. degree from Oxford University.
Interestingly enough, during an age when the church and state were paling in influence, Swift felt it very important to be recognized by the church. He was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1695 and continued his petition to the Church of England.
In 1692, Swift published his first poem. Poet John Dryden, a distant relation, read his published poem and is said to have remarked “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.” Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate the poem that fostered such a response even though most of Swift’s work is readily available.
In 1710, his poem “A Description of a City Shower” was published. As you read the text that follows, you will note how language progressed to more closely align with modern word usage than that of the Medieval Period.
A Description of a City-Shower
Careful Observers may foretell the Hour
(By sure Prognosticks) when to dread a Shower;
While Rain depends, the pensive Cat gives o’er
Her Frolicks, and pursues her Tail no more.
Returning Home at Night, you’ll find the Sink
Strike your offended Sense with double Stink.
If you be wise, then go not for to dine,
You’ll spend in Coach-hire more than save in Wine.
A coming Show’r your shooting Corns presage,
Old Aches throb, your hollow Tooth will rage.
Sauntering in Coffee-house is Dulman seen;
He damns the Climate, and complains of Spleen.
Although Jonathan Swift is best known for his “A Tale of a Tub,” “A Modest Proposal,” “The Battle of the Books,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” I will always think of the following poem when I hear his name. It is described as ghastly yet there is something about the vivid satire that makes me snicker each time I read it. This version was edited by Jack Lynch. You may find it beneficial to read the notes below the poem before reading the poem. They clarify some of the terminology to relate the situation to the timeframe.
A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed
Jonathan Swift – 1734
Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane,
For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a batter’d, strolling Toast;
No drunken Rake to pick her up,
No Cellar where on Tick to sup;
Returning at the Midnight Hour;
Four Stories climbing to her Bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legg’d Chair,
Takes off her artificial Hair:
Now, picking out a Crystal Eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her Eye-Brows from a Mouse’s Hyde,
Stuck on with Art on either Side,
Pulls off with Care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a Play-Book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dextrously her Plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow Jaws.
Untwists a Wire; and from her Gums
A Set of Teeth completely comes.
Pulls out the Rags contriv’d to prop
Her flabby Dugs and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely Goddess
Unlaces next her Steel-Rib’d Bodice;
Which by the Operator’s Skill,
Press down the Lumps, the Hollows fill,
Up goes her Hand, and off she slips
The Bolsters that supply her Hips.
With gentlest Touch, she next explores
Her Shankers, Issues, running Sores,
Effects of many a sad Disaster;
And then to each applies a Plaister.
But must, before she goes to Bed,
Rub off the Dawbs of White and Red;
And smooth the Furrows in her Front,
With greasy Paper stuck upon’t.
She takes a Bolus e’er she sleeps;
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;
Or, by a faithless Bully drawn,
At some Hedge-Tavern lies in Pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported,
Alone, and by no Planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy Brinks,
Surrounded with a Hundred Stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lye,
And snap some Cully passing by;
Or, struck with Fear, her Fancy runs
On Watchmen, Constables and Duns,
From whom she meets with frequent Rubs;
But, never from Religious Clubs;
Whose Favour she is sure to find,
Because she pays ’em all in Kind.
Corinna wakes. A dreadful Sight!
Behold the Ruins of the Night!
A wicked Rat her Plaister stole,
Half eat, and dragg’d it to his Hole.
The Crystal Eye, alas, was miss’t;
And Puss had on her Plumpers p—-t.
A Pigeon pick’d her Issue-Peas;
And Shock her Tresses fill’d with Fleas.
The Nymph, tho’ in this mangled Plight,
Must ev’ry Morn her Limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her Arts
To recollect the scatter’d Parts?
Or shew the Anguish, Toil, and Pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again?
The bashful Muse will never bear
In such a Scene to interfere.
Corinna in the Morning dizen’d,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.
Here are Mr. Lynch’s notes to clarify the content.
1. Drury Lane was a fashionable area of London, often frequented by prostitutes.
2. Toast, “A celebrated woman whose health is often drunk”
3. Rake, “A loose, disorderly, vicious, wild, gay, thoughtless fellow; a man addicted to pleasure”
4. Tick, “credit.”
5. Plumper, “Something worn in the mouth to swell out the cheeks” .
6. Dug, “A pap; a nipple; a teat: spoken of beasts, or in malice or contempt of human beings” .
7. Bodice, “Stays; a waistcoat quilted with whalebone, worn by women” .
8. Shankers, Issues, and running Sores, presumably from venereal disease. Shankers, “chancres.”
9. Front, “forehead.”
10. Bolus, “A form of medicine in which the ingredients are made up into a soft mass, larger than pills, to be swallowed at once” .
11. Bridewell, a woman’s prison. Compter, prisons controlled by sheriffs.
12. Transported can suggest either that she goes to Jamaica in her imagination, or that she has been sent to work in the New World as punishment for a crime.
13. “—Et longam incomitata videtur/Ire viam—” (Swift’s note): “She seemed to be going on a long journey alone” (from Virgil’s Aeneid, 4.467-68).
14. Cully, “A man deceived or imposed upon; as, by sharpers or a strumpet” .
15. Fancy, “Imagination; the power by which the mind forms to itself images and representations of things, persons, or scenes of being” .
16. Dun, “A clamorous, importunate, troublesome creditor” .
17. Rub, “Collision; hindrance; obstruction” .
18. Issue-peas, pieces of ivy root rolled up and inserted into open wounds to keep them running.
19. Shock, a common name for a lapdog (as in Belinda’s lapdog in Pope’s Rape of the Lock).
20. Dizen, “To dress; to deck; to rig out. A low word” .
Swift’s sarcastic wit is on full display throughout this poem, a clear demonstration that beauty is only skin deep and not all that you witness is true.
In 1714, Swift, along with Alexander Pope, John Gay, Thomas Parnell, and John Arbuthnot formed the 18th-century British literary club known as the Scriblerus Club. The club’s purpose was to ridicule pretentious erudition and scholarly jargon through the person of a fictitious literary hack, Martinus Scriblerus. The name Martinus was taken from John Dryden’s comic character Sir Martin Mar-all, whose name was synonymous with absurd error. Scriblerus was a reference to scribler, the contemporary term of contempt for a talentless writer.
In the same year, Queen Anne died and George I took the throne. With his accession, the Tories fell from power and Swift’s hopes for preferment by the Church of England came to an end. He returned to Ireland “to die,” as he said, “like a poisoned rat in a hole.” In 1720 he began work upon Gulliver’s Travels, intended, as he says in a letter to Alexander Pope, “to vex the world, not to divert it.” His novel poses the question of whether physical power or moral righteousness should be the governing factor in social life and although modern day versions could pass as a child’s story, the original book contained biting satire and symbolism.
By 1735, Swift’s Meniere’s Disease became more acute, resulting in debilitating periods of dizziness and nausea. At the same time, his memory began to deteriorate. During 1738, he slipped into premature senility and suffered a paralytic stroke. At the time of his death on October 19, 1745, Jonathan Swift was considered to be completely mad. The following is Yeats’ poetic version (a very loose translation of the original text) of the Latin epitaph which Swift composed for himself:
Swift sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights and this behind-the-scenes glimpse of the giant who dreamed up Lilliputians. As always, there is much about the spotlit poet that I did not address. I hope that I have sparked enough interest in his work as a poet and satirist that you delve into his story and learn more about what fueled this man and his writings.