Unpoetic Poetry

Jonathan Swift, the English satirist best known for works such as Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, also produced a large body of poetry which, like his better known works, aims to elucidate the filth and folly, the self-deception and pretense which seems inherent in all of humanity. His poetic works, such as A Description of the Morning, A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed, and The Lady’s Dressing Room function quite well as satire and accomplish their intent, poking fun at humanity within the form of highly regular neo-classical verse. In a certain sense, though, Swift’s poetry may be interpreted as rather “unpoetic”, especially when read in light of other, more traditional poetry. The subjects upon which Swift focuses, and the methods by which he disorients the reader in order to lend satirical weight to his take on these subjects, are highly non-traditional, often abandoning the idealistic images of beauty one finds in so much poetry. Furthermore, through this method, Swift often seems to be lampooning poetry itself just as much as the conditions of humanity which he describes. Swift’s poetry could be perhaps rescued from the charge “unpoetic” were his realism an effort to find beauty within a realistic depiction of the often unpleasant, raw, sensory experience of the human condition. This, however, is not the case. Swift’s aim is not to find or depict beauty, but rather to mock the fact that some notion of beauty could exist when one is faced with the real conditions of human existence.

            As has been said, the form of Swift’s poetry, like other neo-classical works, is highly regular. His poem, A Description of the Morning, for example, is written in heroic couplet, while A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed and The Lady’s Dressing Room are written in couplets of iambic tetrameter. These particular forms certainly contribute to the satirical tone of many of Swift’s poems, besides achieving certain other effects within their respective poems which shall be examined in due course. Iambic tetrameter, for example, was a verse form primarily used in light comic verse, and lends a similar feel to Swift’s treatment of rather grave and disgusting topics, such as the filth produced by human bodies or the lengths to which an old whore goes to hide her numerous physical defects. It is worth noting, however, that the form and structure of Swift’s poetry is extremely traditional and poetic, and that it is only within the realm of content which the charge “unpoetic” is leveled. This being said, it is of course partially the fact that Swift places his content within such formal verse forms which contributes to his poetry’s unpoetic feel.

            The feeling of disorientation engendered in the reader by a first reading of one of Swift’s poems is a prime example of the manifestation (in an emotional response) of their unpoetic qualities. This disorientation is directly illustrated by the disconnect which exists between the titles of Swift’s poems and their subject matter. Upon reading a title such as “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed – Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex,” the reader may well expect a love poem of classical imagery (as hinted at by the term “nymph”) extolling the virtues of womanhood, perhaps with shades of a Petrarchan figure as narrator, watching his beloved from afar during an intimate or private moment. This illusion is partially dispelled by the first two lines of the poem (though the true extent of the disparity between content and title does not become apparent until later). The “beautiful young nymph” is immediately revealed to be “Corinna, pride of Drury Lane, / For whom no shepherd sighs in vain.” The “beautiful young nymph” must not be so beautiful after all if no shepherd sighs for her. Still, one might believe Swift is preparing for some noble poem which will praise other virtues above beauty or express love for some sort of Platonic essence of womanhood as such, expressed in an individual, regardless of its particular defects in that individual. One would be mistaken. Within three or four more lines, we discover that Corinna is a prostitute, and then, in fulfillment of the title’s promise, she begins going to bed. In this part of the poem, one discovers precisely how unlovely she is. She “takes off her artificial hair” and all of the reader’s expectations are shattered. As it turns out, Corinna has a glass eye, eyebrows made of mouse fur, false teeth, and running sores. Her problems get progressively worse until Swift simply stops trying to describe them. The poem makes no attempt to express any feeling for her or extol any of her virtues. In the end, the poem is simply a description of how disgusting certain human beings can be, the lengths to which such a person will go to hide their unsavory physical nature, and the ritualistic nature of such physical care. Furthermore, Swift implies through this that all of the rituals of beauty and hygiene in society are on an equal footing with Corinna’s; all such beautification rituals merely serve to mask the real physical nature of human bodies, which would be completely intolerable in society were it not for such rituals.

            This disparity between implied content and actual content in the poem is the perfect illustration of the charge “unpoetic”. The reader’s initial expectations serve to show what “poetic” would be. The reason such expectations exist in the reader’s mind is because poetry from Swift’s era has a specific range of topics upon which poets traditionally focused. A bald, eyeless, ugly, reeking whore is not among these traditional objects of poetic attention.

            Two such disparities exist within Swift’s poem: the disparity between implied physical content and actual physical content and the disparity between implied treatment and actual treatment. As has been mentioned, the reader believes he is about to read a poem about a beautiful nymph, and winds up reading a poem about a downtrodden whore. Besides this, though, Swift implies he is going to be singing praises of his subject, whatever or whoever she may be. Not once does he directly praise her (though a reader might infer that he finds Corinna’s stubborn, resolute conduct in the face of her terrible, sad existence). Instead, he merely provides a raw, sensory description of her condition. Even this would be admissible as traditionally poetic if Swift attempted to draw some positive conclusion from it, such as interpreting Corinna’s plight as a prime example of suffering being beautiful. But he does not. The poem serves only to directly present her plight, and, in fact, use her plight as a criticism of humanity in general.

            The poem The Lady’s Dressing Room provides a similar example. Again the reader is lead to expect something along the lines of a depiction of a gentlewoman in a private setting. Again the reader is disappointed. In the poem, Celia’s lover Strephon enters her dressing room surreptitiously and finds her soiled, sweaty, stinking garments, dirty towels, and excrement. Following this, he is unable to bear the company of women because he has realized that all of their beauty is merely a mask for their physical filthiness.

            Again, the subject matter of the poem and Swift’s treatment of it are at odds with prevailing poetic tendencies. Where else in the formal poetry of high society could one find lines such as “Thus finishing his grand Survey, / Disgusted Strephon stole away / Repeating in his amorous Fits, / Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”?

            Swift’s poem A Description of the Morning similarly fails to be a beautiful description of the morning. Instead, it focuses on the activity of a variety of low-class individuals in the morning. All of the characters in the poem do a rather bad job of the activities in which they are engaged. Thus we find that “Moll had whirl’d her Mop with dext’rous Airs, / Prepar’d to Scrub the Entry and the Stairs…The Turnkey now his Flock returning sees / Duly let out a Nights to steal for Fees…and School-Boys lag…” The poem is written in the habitual present tense, indicating that these actions happen repeatedly. Swift’s use of heroic couplet in this poem is particularly interesting, however, because of the picture it allows him to paint. By assigning each individual character their own couplet, unlinked with other couplets, Swift implies that all of these characters are alienated from one another. Despite this, it is from the sum of their individual, habitual actions that the society of the observed city arises. This implies both that existence, even within society, is lonely, and that society, as based upon ineffective actions, is itself inefficient. This creative use of heroic couplet shows this poem’s literary merit. Nevertheless, again Swift’s odd treatment of an odd subject makes the poem unique and non-traditional.

            All of this being said, the question of whether or not Swift’s poetry is unpoetic still remains. Swift’s ironic, satirical titles indicate an awareness on his part of the disparity between his poetry and what poetry is expected to be. Swift certainly abandons traditional idealistic images of beauty, but he does this in the interest of satire. His intent simply differs from the intent of traditional poetry. Swift’s poetry, therefore, is unpoetic from the standpoint of traditional poetry. It does, however, contain its own literary merit, both as satire and as poetry as a medium of social criticism.