JONATHAN SWIFT AND THE STAGE OF THE WORLD:
A STUDY OF SWIFT'S POETRY,
WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE POEMS ABOUT WOMEN.
JOAN ELIZABETH METCALFE
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I wish to thank Professor Aubrey Williams for directing my disser-
tation; Professors Robert H. Bowers and Douglas Bonneville for serving
on my committee; and Professors T. Walter Herbert and Melvyn New for
participating in my final examination.
I wish also to record my gratitude to friends and family for their
help and encouragement.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS ................................................. ii
ABSTRACT ......................................................... iv
I. INTRODUCTION ................................................ 1
Notes ........................................ 20
II. THE PERFORMANCE OF WOMEN
Chapter 1. Inadequacies .................................... 24
Notes ........................................ 46
Chapter 2. Men's Share of the Blame ........................ 49
Notes ........................................ 73
Chapter 3. The Ideal ....................................... 76
Notes ........................................ 88
III. THE PERFORMANCE OF SWIFT
Chapter 4. Tutor and Courtier .............................. 89
Notes ........................................ 108
Chapter 5. Courtier and Tutor .............................. 110
Notes ........................................ 127
Chapter 6. Courtier, Lover and Poet ........................ 129
Notes ........................................ 149
IV. DRAMATIC DEVICES, FORMS, AND IMAGERY
Chapter 7. The Dean Observed ......... ................... ... 151
Notes ........................................ 167
Chapter 8. The First Person ................................ 169
Notes ........................................ 180
Chapter 9. Dramatic Imagination and Dramatic Structure:
Scene and Play .................................. 182
Notes ........................................ 213
Chapter 10. Further Echoes of a Tradition ................... 216
Notes ........................................ 231
APPENDIX ......................................................... 234
WORKS CITED ...................................................... 242
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............................................. 246
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
JONATHAN SWIFT AND THE STAGE OF THE WORLD:
A STUDY OF SWIFT'S POETRY
WITH PARTICULAR REFERENCE TO THE POEMS ABOUT WOMEN.
Joan Elizabeth Metcalfe
Chairman: Aubrey Williams
Major Department: English
Jonathan Swift possessed dramatic powers which, perhaps because of
his beliefs about the theatre of his own time, perhaps because of-his
calling as churchman and moralist, perhaps because of his temperament,
were never fulfilled in the writing of plays. In the poems, many of which
have plots (a prerequisite for dramatisation), and all of which are short
enough to sustain the dramatic mode successfully (for it cannot work long
outside its natural milieu), Swift's dramatic skill found fullest ex-
pression. Alienated from the contemporary theatre, he was, however,
imbued with the notion of an older and greater drama, the drama on the
stage of the world, directed by God Himself. In the world-stage figure
and the related figure of the Chain of Being, the orthodox Christian world
view held by Swift had for centuries found its liveliest expression. When
Swift writes about basic personal relationships, he reveals most clearly
his orthodox concept of the duties of human beings to one another and to
God. It is with such relationships and duties that he is concerned when
he writes about women, for woman in his time had little part in public
life. Drama-like in form, concerned with fundamentals in content, the
poems about women demonstrate most strikingly the harmony between Swift's
literary techniques and orthodox beliefs.
Swift shows concern at woman's inadequacy in performing the human
role. He does not excuse the trivial-mindedness of leisured woman, but
he recognizes her handicaps: she is uneducated, or worse, miseducated.
Women's plight is partly the result of men's failure to remember the place
of Man in the Chain of Being. Impiously disregarding the humanity of
women, men treat them as goddesses to be worshipped or beasts to be used.
Women who rise above their disadvantages, however, are characterized by
the reasonableness that to an orthodox Chridtian is the essence of human
In these poems, Swift also reveals his concept of his own roles on
the world-stage, all variations of his basic human role as moralist. To
women, he is primarily tutor, effecting his purposes by teasing or
flattery. We see him also as courtier, asserting and defending his own
prestige in the world, and as lover and poet. The reader of the poems is
put into the position of a member of an audience, assessing the characters
entirely by what he sees and hears, whether Swift's characters, including
himself, are presented in the first person or the third.
Many poems are playlike in structure, consisting of single scenes,
or sequences having the shape of a full-length play. The most significant
dramatic shape we find is that of "encompassing actions," which according
to Thomas B. Stroup's Microcosmos (Lexington: University of Kentucky
Press, 1965),may be derived directly from the concept of the world as a
stage, and the related concepts of man and the stage itself as microcosms
of that world, all directed by God, the Tester and Teacher.
In the dramatic poetry about human relationships, echoes of the
morality play (the psychomachia put into literally theatrical form), and
imagery derived from the world-stage concept, provide further evidence of
the connection between Swift's world view and the dramatic mode in which
he writes of it.
In the poetry of Jonathan Swift, master of indirection, we are
confronted by a paradox. We find much of it difficult because it seems
too easy. Often the first reading of a poem leaves us with two apparently
inconsistent impressions: we are in no doubt about the essential lightness
of the poem, but at the same time we are aware that in it a significant
statement has been made (although we may not yet be able to say exactly
what that statement is).1 The problem lies partly in our own preconcep-
tions about lightness and about poetry, but in so far as it is implicit
in the poem itself, I believe, it is one of the results of Swift's use of
dramatic technique. When we approach such a poem as if it were a play, we
may find that the elusive significance becomes clear and that the appar-
ently disparate elements are brought into harmony. It seems to me that
the dominant mode of Swift's poetry is dramatic, and that this predilection
for dramatisation is intimately connected with his world view as an ortho-
dox Christian. In both his attitudes and his poetic practices he appears
to be deeply imbued with the notion of the world as a stage, one of the
figures by which orthodox Christians had for centuries expressed their be-
lief about a Providentially ordered universe. The association between
Swift's dramatic approach and his concept of the Christian's position and
duty can be seen with particular clearness in the poems, and perhaps most
clearly of all in the poems in which he writes about women.
Swift's ability to dramatise realises itself most completely in his
poetry. To begin with, many of his poems have plots, and it is self-
evident that a plot, however simple, is the necessary groundwork for a
dramatisation. In some of the poems we are considering, he uses drama-
tised episodes simply to illustrate the points he is expounding. But in
many others he presents his topic entirely by means of dramatised action,
establishing his characters in a situation, letting them speak and act for
themselves and leaving the reader to deduce--with little or no more help--
the principle exemplified in the action. Furthermore, all the poems
except one are short. A writer with dramatic gifts normally finds the
most complete expression of his talent in writing a play. If he uses the
dramatic mode in writing a non-dramatic work, the result is likely to be
playlike in the greatest number of respects if it is short; the mode, out
of its natural setting, can be sustained for only so long.2 Although
Swift uses dramatic techniques elsewhere in his writings, it is in the
material of the poems that he finds the ideal material for dramatisation:
simple plots that can be presented briefly.3
The poems are set apart from Swift's other writings in another impor-
tant respect. In them alone, if we except obviously personal writings
such as the correspondence and the Journal to Stella, do we come into ap-
parently direct contact with Swift the man. In some of the poems he writes
in his own character, and in some he appears to do so. Perhaps more im-
portant, in the poetry he presents us with a self-portrait, in the exter-
nalised character thAt he refers to most frequently as "the Dean." "The
Dean" most often represents the Swift that he supposes other people to see,
not Swift's own view of himself (which, however, we can often deduce by
other means). Nevertheless, the presence in the poems of a character
bearing Swift's name or title does much to account for our impression of
his close personal involvement in the affairs of which he writes. It is
in the poems about women, which include many of his most striking drama-
tisations, that we most frequently encounter "the Dean."
But in by no means all of the poems about women does "the Dean" ap-
pear. The group includes not only the poems in which Swift writes of
particular women, his personal acquaintances and friends, but also those
such as "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," in which he presents his
thoughts about the relationships of men and women through the stories of
All the poems in the group, however, are personal in another sense.
In them, Swift is examining human relationships at the most simple or
basic personal level; that is, for the most part he is writing about one
to one relationships. Whether he writes of real women and men or of fic-
titious representatives of the sexes, moreover, his primary concern is
with the fundamental realities of the human condition, and the fundamental
relationships and duties of human beings to one another and to God. To
the Augustan'humanists, the human being is by definition-a moralist. In
Paul Fussell's words, his "primary obligation is the strenuous determin-
ation of moral questions."5 Furthermore, humanity is the one thing that
all people have in common. Whatever else we are--if we may adapt the words
of Swift's great fellow-humanist6--"we are perpetually men and women."
When Swift the man writes about women, or about women in their relation-
ships with other men, he writes about the very phenomenon that the world-
stage metaphor and the metaphors related to it were evolved to explain and
correct: the behavior of individual human beings7 in a divinely governed
So far we have been concentrating upon the seriousness that from the
beginning may be sensed in the poems. We have said nothing of the rich-
ness, vitality and exuberance of the wit and humour that pervade them.
But Swift's ability to amuse and delight is part and parcel of his
seriousness, and if we ignore the integrally important humour of the poems
we cannot fully understand that seriousness. But because we shall have
little occasion for repeating his witticisms, and, more fortunately, even
less for the humourless task of dissecting his humour, we shall for long
periods take the laughter-provoking aspects of the poems for granted, and
our remarks may seem as inappropriately solemn as some of Swift's have
seemed to others inappropriately light.
When we feel that it is necessary to make such preliminary statements,
we reveal a state of mind that itself calls for comment. The dichotomy
between humour and seriousness is at least in some respects a modern
phenomenon, the origin of which is of central importance to our discussion.
Modern man so frequently feels the need to spell out the difference between
seriousness and solemnity (in the sense of humourlessness, pomposity and
sententiousness) largely as a result, it seems to me, of the intellectual
and religious revolution of the seventeenth century.
The discoveries and the new methods of the Renaissance scientists led
gradually but inexorably to the undermining of belief in revealed religion,
and eventually to the undermining of belief in any religion at all. In
the opinion of one modern religious man, still believing in "the primacy
of the 'truths' of religious experience," the process, beginning with "the
undue elevation of empirical 'truth', and an attribution to it of a
special privilege to represent reality," came about in the first place
largely because the "methods and ... abstractions [of the early scientists]
were mistaken for philosophies."9 By the end of the seventeenth century,
two developments from such ill-begotten philosophies were clearly recog-
nisable to orthodox Christians as a threat to religion itself. Hobbesian
materialism was obviously but one step away from atheism. The danger of
deism was more insidious. The deist asserted that God had created and
would eventually judge the world, but that having created the natural laws
by which the universe operates (and which men could discover by obser-
vation), he needed to take no further part in its operation. Thus the
deist denied both the operation of Providence and the necessity for reve-
lation in religion.10 Once people cease to believe that revelation is
necessary and begin to believe that reason is all that man needs to com-
prehend, ultimately, all the mysteries of God's creation, they are well on
their way to taking themselves seriously in a way that orthodox Christians
With the shift of emphasis from belief in man's continual and perpe-
tual dependence upon God for his well-being to belief in his ability to
work out his salvation independently and by means of his human endowments,
religious humility was apt to decline, and to be replaced by an exagger-
ated sense of purely moral responsibility that, without the check of hu-
mility, led to a preoccupation with "noble sentiments" and eventually to a
disinclination to dwell on the ludicrous aspects of humanity. Indeed if a
man puts all or most of his trust in his own powers, he may well be actual-
ly afraid to think too much about his inadequacies, even light-heartedly.
It is chiefly here, I think, that the distrust of humorous treatment of
serious matters begins.
It is natural that "lightness" should have become most suspect of all
in serious poetry. From earliest times the poet had been considered the
most powerful of men, to be revered as a prophet or feared as a dangerous
madman, inspired or possessed, and in either case the channel for more
than human power. Despite the weakening of belief in the supernatural
power from which the poet's strength had been supposed to come, the poet's
nimbus of authority remained. When the orthodox Christian attitude had
lost its place as the dominant element in the climate of opinion and had
been replaced by the kind of "moral seriousness" we have just been dis-
cussing, it was hardly surprising that serious poetry became the last
place in which humour seemed appropriate. This attitude to poetry, in
the ascendant throughout the nineteenth century,11 is still to a large ex-
tent with us, and it is one that we need to put aside when we read the
poetry of Swift, not least because it was fostered by the very trends
that Swift deplored.
The attitude was well established in Swift's own time, together with
the theological trends that gave rise to it and that Swift attacked in his
poetry12 and elsewhere. It coloured the thought of even the Christian
humanist Johnson, and probably has much to do with his failure to under-
stand his fellow-humanist and contemporary. "In the Poetical Works of
Dr. Swift," he tells us,
there is not much upon which the critic can exercise his
powers. They are often humorous, almost always light, and
have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easi-
ness and gaiety. . To divide this Collection into
classes, and shew how some pieces are gross, and some are
trifling, would be to tell the reader what he knows already,
and to find faults of which the author could not be ignorant,
who certainly wrote often not to his judgment but his humour.13
Johnson is no doubt right about such compositions as the riddles and the
pun-filled verses Swift exchanged with Thomas Sheridan and other friends,
in which he is obviously writing "to his humour." But in taking it for
granted that a humorous composition can have no depth to be explored by
the critic (who must, by his own definition of man, be a moralist), that
everything that appears light is light, and that "trifles" are contemp-
tible, Johnson exhibits a set of attitudes to lightness14 far removed from
Swift's own attitude, and for that matter, from the attitudes of some of
the friends with whom Swift first shared his "trifles."15
Alexander Pope's comment is perhaps the best known. At the end of
his imitation of Horace's Sixth Epistle of the First Book, he writes:
If, after all, we must with Wilmot own,
The Cordial Drop of Life is Love alone,
And Swift cry wisely, "Vive la Bagatelle!"
The Man that loves and laughs, must sure do well. (124-127)16
Whereas Pope suggests (surely without irony) only that Swift's attitude
is wise, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, comments specifically upon
the place of-"la Bagatelle" in Swift's writings. In a letter to Swift on
July 28, 1721, he recognizes one function of the trifle in Swift's method:
"Yr bagatelle leads to something better, as fiddlers flourish carelessly
before they play a fine air."17 In a letter of January, 1722, he recog-
nises the trifle as itself a vehicle for seriousness:
I long to see yr. travels, for take it as you will, I
do not retract what I said, and will undertake to find, in
two pages of yr Bagatelles, more good sence, useful knowledge,
and true Religion, than you can show me in the works of nine-
teen in twenty of the profound Divines and Philosophers of the
The slight sententiousness of the comment, as well as the fact that he
finds it necessary to make it, may remind us,that Bolingbroke himself was
not an orthodox Christian. We wonder too, of course, what Swift had said
to prompt the comment, though we may imagine it was merely a polite dis-
claimer of the compliments of the earlier letter. And we note that
Bolingbroke had not yet seen Gulliver's Travels at the time when he in-
cluded it among Swift's "Bagatelles."
Swift gives his own view clearly enough, despite the confusion of
syntax, in his letter to John Gay of March 28, 1728, and the connotation
he gives to "trifle" seems especially significant when we note that he is
writing about the works of other people as well as about his own. "The
Beggars Opera hath knockt down Gulliver," he tells Gay, "I hope to see
Popes Dulness knock down the Beggars Opera, but not till it hath fully
done its Jobb."19 Having alluded to the report given by Gay (in the
letter to which this is a reply) that The Beggar's Opera has already
earned him between seven and eight hundred pounds, he goes on to suggest
that if Gay were prudent he "could never fail of writing two or three
such trifles every year to expose vice and make people laugh with inno-
cency does more public service than all the Ministers of State from Adam
To Swift himself, then, actually describing works of serious moral
intention as "trifles", there can have been no paradox in considering
"trifles" important. In "Epistle to a Lady," he claims that unpretentious
mockery is the very essence of his own satiric method. Certainly it is a
way in which he gives relief to his own feelings, an outlet for his own
moral indignation: "Like the ever-laughing Sage,/ In a Jest I spend my
Rage" (167-168); but it is also the characteristic means by which he
makes his contribution as a reformer, by which he fulfils his own peculiar
function in the world. In the attack on villains, let others "apply
Alecto's Whip" (179). His part is to "Strip their Bums" (178). "If I
can but fill my Hitch," he says, "I attempt no higher Pitch" (171-172).
It is hardly necessary to remark that on occasion Swift did not hesitate
to use the whip himself, and indeed, even within this poem he is, appar-
ently, inconsistent. He eschews the grand manner of writing that goes
against his naturall Vein" (136) on the grounds that "Still to lash, and
lashing Smile,/ Ill befits a lofty Stile" (139-140). It would obviously
be rash to take all the great ironist says at its face value. But
"Epistle to a Lady" leaves us no room to doubt that to Swift seriousness
and soberness in his own work, far from seeming natural companions, fre-
quently seemed natural enemies.
Such an obviously satirical "trifle", however, does not baffle the
reader at first sight, even if he discovers greater depth in it at subse-
quent readings. When we turn to one of the trifles that do at first
baffle us, we may find that there is more to our problem than the inherited
distrust of lightness in serious matters. Swift's method as well as his
manner may catch us by surprise. A first encounter with "Baucis and
Philemon," for example, may leave an unwary reader with a vague feeling of
dissatisfaction with his comprehension of the poem. As soon as he reads
more thoughtfully, he discovers that this earthy burlesque of the tale
from Ovid's Metamorphoses is not merely a burlesque but is itself a meta-
morphosis of the pagan moral myth into a Christian one.21 Ovid has ex-
alted virtuous human behaviour and has demonstrated that the gods require
it and reward it. Swift makes not only Baucis and Philemon, but also the
"saints"22 who in his poem take the place of Jupiter and Mercury, basi-
cally good but drastically flawed human beings, and thus he invites us to
honour goodness but never to lose sight of the facts of human imperfection.
And the good humour of his presentation of these imperfect human beings,
his rich appreciation of the humour of their encounters and reactions,
prompts us to respond to them in a similar spirit; love for our fellows,
we are reminded, should not depend upon our.being able to admire them. If
the reader did not appreciate the metamorphosis of the myth in the first
place, it may be that, not expecting it, he missed the clues that in
retrospect are clear. Noticing first, perhaps, merely that some of the
usual pointers have been withheld, the careful reader must eventually come
to the realisation that except occasionally in his use of adjectives,23 at
no point has Swift made an unequivocal or explicit statement of his
attitude toward the characters and their behaviour. Instead, setting up
the situation by narrative, he lets his characters act and speak for
themselves. If we can deduce his own attitude at all, it is only because
it is he who has transformed the characters and selected their activities
in the first place. Presumably it is at this stage that his benevolence
has been transmitted to us. Our final impression of the characters comes
almost entirely from what he has made it possible for us to see and hear
for ourselves. If we at first failed to understand, in short, it was
largely because we did not expect to have to understand in this way: we
did not expect a dramatisation.24
Throughout his work, prose and poetry, Swift shows a consistent
dislike for the theatre of his time, to which he refers and alludes fre-
quently. In his Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reforma-
tion of Manners25 (1709) he actually makes a formal attack upon it. In
the whole canon, only two or three times does he have anything favourable
to-say of it26 or of those connected with it. But although he saw the
contemporary theatre as at best trivial and at worst immoral and irreli-
gious, and although nearly all his allusions to it are derogatory, his
stage imagery seems nevertheless to have had a particular value for him,
and this is because most of it is related to a theatre to which he could
take no exception, the theatre of the world, presided over by God Himself.
The influence of the world-stage metaphor can be seen, I believe, not
only in Swift's imagery, but also in almost every aspect of his dramatic
technique; and the influence of the world view of which it is one of the
most important expressions dominates the thought of the poems that we are
about to consider.
It has often been remarked that in all his thinking Swift was in-
clined to look to the past. As both Ricardo Quintana27 and Phillip
Harth point out, for instance, in the religious satire of A Tale of a Tub,
Swift was (in Harth's words) "flogging many a dead horse."28 In his
attack on the stage, he was making his contribution to Jeremy Collier's
campaign (if indeed that is what he intended to do) more than ten years
after the publication of A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness
of the English Stage, long after the climax of the battle. If we are
right in asserting that he was profoundly influenced by the metaphor of
the world as a stage, in this too he was old-fashioned, according to
Thomas B. Stroup's contention that before the middle of the seventeenth
century the concept was already in decline.29 These examples of his ten-
dency to lag being the thought of his time are perhaps significant indi-
cations of the generally conservative temper of his thinking.
In his religious beliefs, as Harth has so compellingly shown, Swift
was orthodox. In the main stream of Christian tradition, he resisted the
inroads of the deists on the one hand, with their denial of the need for
revelation in religion, and of the fideists on the other, with their faith
in revelation alone. In contrast with both deist and fideist, who agreed
at least in the belief that "reason and supernatural religion were incom-
patible," the main-stream Christian held the view that "reason and reve-
lation together provide the grounds of religion." Indeed, this view, "As
formulated in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas" represents
"the official position of his church. As reformulated at the end of the
sixteenth century by Richard Hooker it became the grounds of religion"
of a great part of the Anglican church.30
If Swift was orthodox (and therefore a traditionalist) in his reli-
gious beliefs, and conservative in most of the rest of his thinking, it is
natural that many of the attitudes he expresses in the poetry reflect the
world view of the early seventeenth century and that he often thinks in
terms of the great metaphors through which that world view, in the ascen-
dant since the early middle ages, had most frequently been made intelli-
All the metaphors with which we are concerned originated centuries
before the advent of Christianity. The idea of the Great Chain of Being
began, as E.M.W. Tillyard tells us, "with Plato's Timaeus, was developed
by Aristotle, was adapted by the Alexandrian Jews ..., was spread by the
Neo-Platonists, and from the Middle Ages till the eighteenth century was
one of those accepted commonplaces, more often hinted at or taken for
granted than set forth." It is possible that the idea is older still, for
later "allegorisers", as Tillyard points out, "interpreted the golden chain
let down by Zeus from Heaven in Homer as this chain of being."31 The idea
of the world as a stage, Stroup tells us, "goes back at least as far as
Democritus." By Shakespeare's time, the figure that had come down "from
the laughing philosopher and the classical satirists on the one side and
the Platonists and Christian Fathers on the other to the Renaissance
humanists and English schoolmasters" had "through wide and varied usage ...
achieved aphoristic place in the language of the learned."32 And the con-
cept of the microcosm, early associated with the world-stage imagery, was
first formulated by Pythagoras.33In the early middle ages, with the great
synthesis of pagan learning and early Christianity, all these metaphors
made their way into the main stream of Christian tradition.
It is a measure of their power to grip the imagination that they are
still in general use, a living part of the language long after the decline
of the world view that once informed them.34 Furthermore, detailed know-
ledge of the elements that originally made them up is still a familiar
part of our intellectual heritage. Everyone knows, for example, that in
its Christianised form, the figure of the Great Chain of Being was, first,
a means of expressing what Lovejoy calls "the principle of plenitude."
The essence of the infinite Creator is to create infinitely, to fill the
universe with a great hierarchy of beings. There can be no gaps in the
chain, each part of which, though unique, partakes of the nature of the
creation immediately above and below it. It is God's love that impels Him
to create. Further, God's love pervades the chain and is the force that
binds it together. But God is also self-sufficient, the Idea of Good
itself. Thus though the goodness of God impels Him to create, and in
the order of His creation every creature has its assigned place which it
is its function to fill, the creature is also impelled perpetually to
aspire so that it may be reunited with God as the Idea of the Good.
The great medieval synthesist St. Thomas Aquinas, the father of so
much in the orthodox traditional concept of Christianity, was also one of
the most influential transmitters and transmuters of the ancient metaphor.
Basil Willey's account of Thomism provides a useful statement of those
aspects of the metaphor that are most important in our consideration of
St. Thomas sees the universe as a hierarchy of creatures
ordered to the attainment of perfection in their several
kinds. All things proceed from God; and God is not only the
ground of their being but also the Supreme Good with which
all seek to be reunited. God created the world that he
might communicate himself more fully; as First Mover . .
he impels all creatures to desire him. . God not only
created, but continuously sustains the world, and governs it.
. To all creatures he has given a 'nature' or 'form' in
virtue of which they are necessitated both to be what they
are, and to seek that which is proper to them. Thus earth,
and heavy bodies, tend downwards; fire and light bodies up-
wards. All motion is a striving to actualise what is as yet
only potential. Though binding Nature thus fast in fate,
God has in a sense left free the human will. The formal
principle of man as such is the rational Soul; and virtue,
for man, is therefore action conformable to reason.
Whereas Nature cannot but conform to unalterable law,
man, through his will, is determined to 'good', yet is
capable, since the Fall, of making erroneous choices
both of ends and means. He is, as it were, less perfect
than the other creatures in virtue of the very gift of
reason which-makes him their superior. Further, his
'form' being his rational soul, he is ordered to the
attainment of no limited perfection like the other
creatures. Nothing short of the Supreme Good, God
Himself, can be his end.35
Thus Aquinas reconciles the essential conflict between the two Platonic
concepts of God, the Idea of the Good and the Idea of Goodness, in his
vision of the divinely ordered universe. As Lovejoy points out, in
Christian teaching, the one concept was bound to give way to the other:
It was the Idea of the Good, not the conception of
a self-transcending and generative Goodness, that deter-
mined the ethical teaching of the Church (at least in
its counsels of perfection) and shaped the assumptions
concerning man's chief end which dominated European
thought down to the Renaissance, and in orthodox theology,
Protestant as well as Catholic, beyond it. The 'way up'
alone was the direction in which man was to look for the
good, even though the God who had from all eternity per-
fectly possessed the good which is the object of man's
quest was held to 4gve found, so to say, his chief good
in the 'way down'.
We shall find that Swift, the orthodox Christian, in his application of
the ideas implicit in the Great Chain of Being, and in his use of the
figure itself, is interested principally in the duty of men and women to
accept "the 'form' in virtue of which they are necessitated both to be
what they are, and to seek that which is proper to them," and to remember
that "the formal principle of man as such is the rational Soul, and vir-
tue, for man, is therefore action conformable to reason." The notion
underlies, for example, his relentless scolding of the women who will not
use their minds, and is associated with his frequent coupling of reason-
ableness (or "good sense") and virtue as the qualities upon which a
man's admiration of a woman should be founded.37 In other examples,
imaginatively aware perhaps (unlike some of his contemporaries) that how-
ever wrongly man chooses, he is hardly capable of destroying God's order,
or of actually leaving his own place in it,38 Swift dwells chiefly on
man's impiety in not willingly conforming to it. Furthermore, he empha-
sises man's sin in elevating or debasing his fellows as much as his sin
in himself behaving as if he were greater or less than man.
Although it was possible to accept the Chain of Being as a statement
of the structure of the creation without believing in Providence, to the
orthodox Christian the idea of God's continued presence in the order is
essential. God did not merely create the hierarchy and its laws and leave
them to operate mechanically. Not only is the hierarchy pervaded and held
together by God's love; as director and judge of the affairs of men, God
is perpetually at work in it. Belief in God's continual and active par-
ticipation in human affairs found even fuller expression for the medieval
and post-medieval Christian in the metaphor of the world as a stage, and
in the image developed from the synthesis of this metaphor with the notion
of man as a microcosm, the image of the stage as in its turn a microcosm
of the world.
The world-stage was conceived, even in pre-Christian times, as a
testing ground for man. God is the author of the drama of human life, and
also the director. Author-like, He creates roles, and director-like He
assigns these roles to individuals and concerns Himself in the performance.
As Providence, He directs the action, guiding events to conclusions that
the actors often have no means of understanding or knowing beforehand. His
purpose as director of the play is twofold. Each man is both an actor and
a spectator. As an actor, he is being tested by God, Who judges him ac-
cordingly to the way he plays his part. As a spectator, he witnesses the
testing of others, and seeing the rewards and punishments meted out by
God for the faithful and faulty playing out of the assigned roles, he has
the chance to learn and to take warning himself from the example of others.
Man's duty to perform his assigned part on the stage of the world, to the
best of his ability, is identical with his duty to be ever mindful of his
place in the great Chain of Being. Both metaphors are expressions of the
relationship of men with their creator, which requires them "both to be
what they are and to seek that which is proper to them."
Attendant upon the concept of the total and comprehensive order of
the universe and the interrelationship of all things was the concept of
correspondences, another of the elements in the Elizabethan world picture
described by Tillyard.40 We may describe this concept briefly because it
is relevant to the present study only in its bearing upon the important
figures that remain to be discussed. The principle of the doctrine of
correspondences is that every creature in each of the hierarchies of which
the great hierarchy is composed has its equivalent in rank in each of the
other hierarchies. For example, the sun in the heavens, fire among the
elements, the diamond among gems, the lion among beasts, the ruler in the
state, the will in man, all correspond to one another as primates in their
classes of creation, and to God in the whole universe.
The last of the elements in the world picture we are considering is
the concept of microcosm and macrocosm. The divinely ordered universe,
figured forth in the pictures of the great stage and the vertically op-
erating hierarchy of the Chain of Being, could also be imagined three-
dimensionally as a series of spheres one within another. Man himself is
a microcosm or little world. His body is a tiny equivalent of the universe
itself, and its parts and faculties correspond to equivalents in both the
great hierarchy and the lesser hierarchies. More important to our present
study, the mind of a man is the little arena in which the conflict between
the forces of good and evil are acted out as they are acted out in the
world outside him. Herein is an essential link with the concept of the
world as a stage. The testing or trial of a man has the macrocosm as its
setting, but the issue of the test is ultimately determined by the psycho-
machia, the drama of the soul that takes place in the microcosm, his mind.
But man himself is not the only microcosm of the world as a stage. The
theatre too is a little world, in which the playwright is the creator,
and in which the conflicts enacted correspond to and are representative of
the conflicts between good and evil in the outer world, the macrocosm
that is God's stage.
In medieval times, three of the elements from this complex of figures
come together in a particularly significant context. In the morality
plays,41 all of which were concerned at some level with man's struggle
for salvation, the figure of the world as a stage, and the figures of both
man and the stage as microcosms of that world unite. The clearest example
in English literature is the earliest of the surviving morality plays, The
Castle of Perseverance.42 A sketch of the stage on which this play was
performed has also survived. The stage consisted of a circular, world-
like arena enclosed by a ditch. At its centre was the castle, the seat of
the Seven Moral Virtues, and set about it were five "skafolds" or towers,
the seats of God, the World, the Flesh, the Devil, and the Seven Deadly
Sins. From these details, and from the action, it is clear that the set-
ting of the first part of the play is the mind of man the microcosm. In
it the protagonist, Mankind, attended by hiq good and bad angels, repre-
ents the "self" of man. We see him beset by the forces of evil, rescued,
lost again, and when the dart of Death has pierced him, repentant. In
the later part of the play, after his death, the setting no longer repre-
sents his mind in which the struggle has taken place. Now his soul is
borne off to Hell (the scaffold of the Devil), and his case is argued
before God by the prosecuting Truth and Righteousness and the defending
Mercy and Peace. His trial is the culmination of the testing that he has
undergone in his life. At last he is led to the throne of God to be
judged, and pardoned.
These, then, are the traditional figurative representations of the
orthodox Christian theology that Swift upheld against what in terms of it
were the heresies of his own day. The concepts and the figures represen-
ting them are so closely interrelated that it is hard to imagine how an
orthodox Christian could keep the great theatrical metaphors out of his
thinking even if he wanted to do so. Although, unlike many of his
Christian dramatist and other contemporaries, Swift was apparently blind
to the fact that the religious function of the drama was still a living
reality in the theatre of his own day, he shows in his poetry that it was
a living if not overtly proclaimed reality to him.
In the chapters that follow, I shall examine first his thoughts
upon the human role in the divinely ordered.universe, by considering what
he writes of the behaviour and treatment of women. Next I shall examine
the revelation of Swift's own position in terms of his roles upon the
stage of the world, considering especially the roles that he apparently
sees as already ordained for him in the divinely directed drama, and his
willing assumption of these roles in his relations with women. Finally,
I shall examine the play-like elements in his presentation of himself and
the women and men of whom he writes. And throughout, I shall point out
the web of interlocking images and allusions that remind us constantly of
the traditional figures through which the beliefs of orthodox Christians
had for so long been expressed.
Notes .on Introduction
1The enigmatic quality of Swift's poetry has impressed many critics.
For a collection of admissions of critical inadequacy, or bafflement,"
see Maurice Johnson, "Swift's Poetry Reconsidered," in English Writers of
the Eighteenth Century, ed. John H. Middendorf (New York and London:
Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 239.
2The dramatic monologues of one of Swift's successors demonstrate
the point. As a dramatisation, Browning's "My Last Duchess" is more suc-
cessful than his "Bishop Blougram's Apology." In following the Bishop's
lengthy argument, our attention is diverted for too long from action to
3The Battle of the Books is the only non-poetic work of Swift (apart,
of course, from Polite Conversation) that can be considered playlike in
its entirety, and it also has a plot and is short.
4The Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 2nd. ed., 3 vols.
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 580-583. In subsequent notes I shall
use the abbreviation "Williams" to refer to this edition, the only one I
have used. Because the pagination is continuous from volume to volume, I
shall give only page numbers and make no reference to volume numbers in my
notes. After quotations, I shall give line references only.
Paul Fussell, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 7.
6"We are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by
chance." Samuel Johnson, "Life of Milton," in Lives of the English Poets,
ed. George Birkbeck Hill (New York: Octagon Books Inc., 1967).
7As few women at this time took part in public or political life, if
we choose to write almost exclusively of the poems about women, we confine
ourselves automatically to poems about personal relationships.
8The attitude to explicit satire has undergone no such dichotomy.
There are no obvious interruptions in the tradition of attacking false
assumptions by means of wit, and the assertion.of the true by implication.
At the present stage of our discussion we are concerned with the place of
humour in the direct assertion of values.
9Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (London: Chatto and
Windus, 1934), p. 23.
10The "reasonableness" of such theologians as John Toland blinded both
them and their followers to the fact that their reasoning was removing
most of the grounds for believing in the existence of God at all.
11The humourlessness was not universal, of course. Byron and Browning
immediately come to mind as notable exceptions.
12In "Toland's Invitation to Dismal," for example, and in parts of
"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift."
lives of the English Poets, III, 65-66.
14Of the view of Swift's "gross[ness]" as nothing but a "fault" and
the indulgence of an ill-considered whim we shall have more to say in
15Unfortunately for Swift, however, his earliest biographers were
afflicted by the new earnestness. It was his further misfortune that their
way of thinking prevailed for so long and that some of the opinions they
recorded were accepted unchallenged for almost two hundred years. Here is
a particularly revealing extract from Remarks on the Life and Writings of
Dr. Jonathan Swift, by John Boyle, Fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, the 2nd
edition (London: A. Miller, 1752), p. 41:
But what shall be said for his love of trifles, and
his want of delicacy and decorum? Errors [that] . are
without a parallel. I hope they will ever remain so. The
first of them arose merely from his love of flattery . .:
the second, proceeded from the misanthropy of his disposition,
which induced him peevishly to debase mankind, and even to
ridicule human nature itself.
Although Patrick Delany defended Swift on many counts in his Observations
upon Lord Orrery's Remarks (London: W. Reeve and A. Linde, 1754), he ex-
pressed even more strongly and repeatedly than Orrery his disapproval of
"that detestable maxim, 'vive la bagatelle!'" (pp. 120-121). See also
pp. 82-83 and pp. 142-143). At last, indeed, he goes so far as to suggest
that the eventual deterioration of Swift's mind was a "divine chastisement
upon him," the gradual taking away of "those talents, which being bestowed
for the noblest purposes, were too often employed, or, to speak more pro-
perly, abused, to the meanest" (pp. 150-151).
16Alexander Pope, Imitations of Horace with An Epistle to Dr.
Arbuthnot and The Epilogue to the Satires, ed. John Butt, 2nd ed., cor-
rected, The Twickenham Edition of the Works of Alexander Pope, Vol. 4
(London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953),
17The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols.
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-1965), II, 400. In subsequent notes this
work will be referred to as "Correspondence".
18Correspondence, II, 415-416. We are reminded of Erasmus's remark
that "literary jests may have serious implications, and . a reader
with a keen nose may get more from a skilful trifle than from a solemn and
stately argument" (In Praise of Folly, trans. Leonard F. Dean, New York,
1952, p. 38). This passage is quoted by Jae Num Lee in Swift and Scato-
logical Satire (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971).
19The underlining is mine.
20Correspondence, III, 278.
21The tradition of "Christianising" Ovid was, of course, an old one.
According to Eric Rothstein, Swift "inverts" it in this poem, with mock-
heroic effect. See "Jonathan Swift as Jupiter: 'Baucis and Philemon,'"
in The Augustan Milieu: Essays Presented to Louis A. Landa, ed. Henry
Knight Miller, Eric Rothstein and G.S. Rousseau (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1970), pp. 225-231.
22Rothstein notes that "Saints" is "a name that would remind English-
men either of Puritan fanatics or of Catholic impostors" (p. 214).
23Philemon is "a poor old honest Yeman," for example.
24Aspects of Swift's use of dramatic method have been discussed by a
number of critics. See, for example D.J. Dooley, "Image and Point of View
in Swift," Papers in Language and Literature, 6 (1970), 125-135; C.J.
Horne, "'From a Fable form a Truth': A Consideration of the Fable in
Swift's Poetry," in Studies in the Eighteenth Century, ed. R.F. Brissenden
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), pp. 196-197: Ronald Paulson,
"Swift, Stella and Permanence," ELH, 27 (1960), 313-314; George Mayhew,
"Some Dramatizations of Swift's Polite Conversation (1738)," PQ, 44 (1965),
51-72; Frederik N. Smith, "Dramatic Elements in Swift's Journal to Stella,"
Eighteenth Century Studies, 1, 1968, 332-351; James L. Tyne, S.J., "Vanessa
and the Houyhnhnms: AReading of 'Cadenus and Vanessa,'" SEL, 2 (1971), 519.
25The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, 14 vols.
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1936-68). In subsequent notes this work will be re-
ferred to as "Davis".
26We have already cited his comment on The Beggar's Opera (1728).
See page 7 above. For a brief account of evidence of his attitude to the
contemporary theatre, see Appendix.
27Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (London and
New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. 68.
28Phillip Harth, Swift and Anglican Rationalism (Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 153.
29Thomas B. Stroup, Microcosmos (Lexington: University of Kentucky
Press, 1965), passim.
30See Harth, pp. 21-23.
31E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto
and Windus, 1943), p. 26. For a full account of "The Genesis of the Idea,"
see Arthur 0. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1936), Chapter II.
32Stroup, pp. 13-14. For a detailed account of the early history of
the figure, see the chapter from which these quotations are taken, and
also Jean Jacquot, "'Le Thbetre du Monde de Shakespeare a Cald6ron,"
Revue de Litterature Comparde XXXI (Juillet-Septembre, 1957), 341-72, to
which Stroup refers us.
33Stroup, p. 44.
341n Swift's day, no doubt, it was already foolish to assume that a
man was an orthodox Christian simply because he used the imagery derived
from orthodox Christianity. We are concerned, rather, with the converse
of the proposition. As an orthodox Christian, Swift turned with parti-
cular ease to the traditional images, for they still meant something to
him. And as Harth suggests, we can "recognize and assess" the author's
originality in "putting conventional material to new uses" only when we
are "aware of that complex of ideas, assumptions, and attitudes which
[he] owes to his predecessors and contemporaries" (p. 1).
35Willey, pp. 13-14.
36Lovejoy, p. 84.
For an interesting discussion of Swift's notion of the admirable
in women, and of the relationship of reason, passion, and love, see Peter
Ohlin, "'Cadenus and Vanessa': Reason and Passion," SEL, 4 (1964), 485-
496. Ohlin concludes: "In the end, Swift's concept of love is simply
that Christian selfless love which is a reflection of the divine love of
God for mankind" (496).
38See Lovejoy, pp. 202-203.
39See Stroup's references to the appearance of the notion in Epic-
tetus, Plato and Plotinus, for example (pp. 9-11).
4Tillyard, chapters 6 and 7.
41See also Stroup's comments upon the Mystery plays (pp. 35-36).
Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, ed. Joseph Quincey Adams (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924), pp. 265-287.
THE PERFORMANCE OF WOMEN
In his attitude to women as in other matters, Swift appears to have
been remarkably consistent. Turning straight from the earliest poem in
which he writes of women, "Verses wrote in a Lady's Ivory Table-Book"
(1698)1 to the latest, "Epistle to a Lady" (1733),2 we find the same pre-
occupation: the trivial-mindedness of women who are capable of putting
their brains to better use. Here is one manifestation of Swift's concern
for the failure of men and women to remember the place they occupy in the
divinely created and maintained order of the universe. Man has no more
business to behave as if he were sub-human than he has to aspire to god-
like status. His task is to use his distinguishing attributes of reason
and the power of choice to the best of his ability, and thus to co-operate
with his maker. In a passage near the beginning of "Cadenus and Vanessa,"
Swift describes the situation that arises when women fail to live up to
their responsibilities as human beings. In the words of Counsel for the
Shepherds, whom the Nymphs have charged with responsibility for the dete-
rioration of love and marriage, women have ceased to feel the "fire
celestial, chaste, refin'd/ Conceiv'd and kindled in the mind"3 (29-30).
Instead, they "only know the gross Desire" (35) and, guided by caprice and
folly, become infatuated with
A Dog, a Parrot, or an Ape,
Or some worse Brute in human Shape,
The few soft Moments they can spare,
From Visits to receive and pay,
From Scandal, Politicks, and Play,
From Fans and Flounces, and Brocades,
From Equipage and Park-Parades,
From all the thousand Female Toys,
From every Trifle that employs
The out or inside of their Heads,
Between their Toylets and their Beds. (39-50)
Women ought to fix their affections on men, their own kind, not on brutes,
and not on so-called men who have sunk below their places in the scale of
being, Counsel implies. But clearly, his words suggest, right order has
been disrupted; sound values have been lost, and the vacuum they have left
has been filled with a host of trivialities. Throughout the poems, Swift
comes back again and again to the worthlessness of such preoccupations in
themselves, and to the gravity of the disorder their existence implies,
however amusingly they are presented.
The dress with which women are preoccupied is sometimes ludicrous in
itself: the hoop, for example, invites ridicule. In "The Progress of
Marriage," Swift pictures the ill-matched Dean and his wife in her coach:
"Her Hoop is hoist above his Nose,/ His odious Gown would soil her Cloaths."
(79-80) But this picture suggests not only the ridiculousness of the hoop
but also the failure of both the lady and her husband to remember their
places in the scale of being and to treat each other as fellow human
beings. She despises her meek and doting husband, and cares more about the
appearance of her clothes than about the comfort of a fellow mortal. The
comical hoop is the objective correlative of the lady's lack of a proper
sense of proportion.4
Not all fashions are foolish, but to Swift disproportionate concern
about dress is generally worse than foolish.5 In "Cadenus and Vanessa,"
the "glitt'ring Dames" who visit Vanessa "early, out of pure Good-will,/
To see the Girl in Deshabille" (364-367) are malicious and immodest as well
as empty-headed as they "railly" her dress:
That Gown was made for Old Queen Bess,
Dear Madam, Let me set your Head:
Don't you intend to put on Red?
A Pettycoat without a Hoop!
Sure, you are not asham'd to stoop;
With handsome Garters at your Knees,
No matter what a Fellow sees. (397-403)
"Discoursing with important Face,/ On Ribbons, Fans,and Gloves and Lace,"
showing Vanessa "Patterns just from India brought," and "gravely" asking
her opinion, "Whether the Red or Green were best,/ And what they cost?",
they have already shown their incongruously serious attitude to dress.6
To the protagonist of "The Journal of a Modern Lady," too, the inspection
of the merchants' silks and laces is "Business of Importance" (90).7 Even
Baucis is led astray. The transformation of her humble apparel into "Good
Pinners edg'd with Colberteen" and "Black Sattin, Flounc'd with Lace" goes
immediately to her head and she becomes proud and pretentious: "Plain
Goodywould no longer down,/ 'Twas Madam, in her Grogram Gown." (139-144)
Swift's dress-obsessed woman sacrifices other concerns and duties to
her obsession. The woman of Ireland, in refusing to resist the fashions
of London and to set their own fashions by weaving home-produced wool, de-
monstrated their inability to see beyond their own immediate concerns or
their selfish unwillingness to act upon what they saw and to do their part
to succour the Irish economy. In "An Excellent New Song on a Seditious
Pamphlet . Written in the Year 1720,"8 Swift's Irish shopkeepers complain:
Our Wlves they grow sullen
At wearing of Woollen,
And all we poor Shopkeepers must our Horns pull in.
Then we'll buy English Silks, for our Wivesand our Daughters,
In Spight of his Deanship and Journeyman Waters. (14-18)
Lady Acheson uses the thoughts of dress and cards as screens by which she
can shut out thoughts of mortality. In "To Janus on New Year's Day,"
Swift has her exclaim:
By the D--n though gravely told,
New Years help to make me old;
Yet I find, a New-Years Lace
Burnishes an old Year's Face.
Give me Velvet and Quadrille
I'll have Youth and Beauty still. (25-30)
In "The Revolution at Market-Hill," jeu d'esprit though it is, seriousness
underlies Swift's warning to Lady Acheson that her obsession with dress
makes her vulnerable. The poem was written when Swift was thinking of
building a house near the Achesons'. He imagines himself and another
neighbour, Henry Leslie, rising up in rebellion against Sir Arthur, the
liege-lord to whom they must pay homage and rent. Lady Anne will defend
"the Fort" with spirit, but no matter how formidable she is she will be
defeated, by means of a stratagem. The "revolutionaries" will have their
accomplice, her maid, put before her a pair of embroidered high-heeled
shoes, "So well contriv'd her Toes to pinch,/ She'll not have Pow'r to
stir an Inch" -- or to prevent Hannah from opening the gate to the be-
siegers. In the tone of the analogy with which Swift closes the episode,
the underlying gravity comes to the surface:
Sly Hunters thus, in Borneo's Isle,
To catch a Monkey by a Wile;
The mimick Animal amuse;
They place before him Gloves and Shoes;
Which when the Brute puts awkward on,
All his Agility is gone;
In vain to frisk or climb he tries;
The Huntsmen seize the grinning Prize. (75-82)
No woman acting her part as it should be acted would have so much in common
with "a Mimick Animal," a "Brute," a "grinning Prize," nor would she be so
vulnerable. The huntsmen, sly, wily, ready to seize the prey that is so
clearly no match for them, are sinister figures, and put us in mind of
more dangerous adversaries than the Dean and his friends.
Swift often associates the passion for clothes with time wasting.
Nothing so clearly suggests the serious spiritual disorder of the barren-
minded woman as the timing of her day's activities. Her whole day is idle,
devoted entirely to time-wasting, yet all day long, from rising to retiring,
she is late. For the bride in "The Progress of Marriage," the daily round
of board and bed begins several hours later than her husband's and remains
out of step with it at every point all day and every day. Her "weighty
Morning Business" is to "ramble . to the Shops/ To cheapen Tea, and
Talk with Fops," or to call "a Councel of her Maids/ And tradesmen, to
compare Brocades" (51-54). The Modern Lady, too, spends with "the Folks
with Silks and Lace" much of the interval between awakening at noon ("Some
Authors say not quite so soon") and dressing for dinner, which is clearly
a formidable task:
This Business of Importance o'er,
And Madam almost dress'd by Four;
The Footman in his usual Phrase,
Comes up with, "Madam, Dinner stays;
She answers in her usual Style,
'The Cook must keep it back a while;
'I never can have Time to Dress,
'No Woman breathing takes up less;
'I'm hurry'd so, it makes me sick,
'I wish the Dinner at Old Nick." (90-99)
The repetition of "usual" emphasizes the fact that this disordered state
is chronic. "The Lady's Dressing-Room," one of Swift's most masterly
analyses of what is out of joint in the attitude of men and women to each
other and to their place in the universe, opens with perhaps the strongest
statement of all about the mortal woman, elevated by her admirers, and by
her own vanity, to the status of goddess, who spends five precious hours
each day merely in dressing:
Five Hours, (and who can do it less in?)
By haughty Celia spent in Dressing;
The Goddess from her Chamber issues,
Array'd in Lace, Brocades and Tissues. (1-4)
"And who can do it less in?" is simultaneously an ironic comment and a
comparatively straightforward one. Celia spends too much time on dressing;
but it is barely enough for what she is trying to do--to aspire beyond her
human rank and make herself look like a goddess.
Apart from dress, the major preoccupation of Swift's trivial-minded
women is "Play", and for many the love of cards is an addiction. After
sitting up all night at quadrille, and losing, the Modern Lady forswears
cards, but her protestations to her maid, whether they represent serious
resolves or mere social poses, come to nothing:
"But, was it not confounded hard?
"Well, if I ever touch a Card:
"Four Mattadores, and lose Codilll
"Depend upon't, I never will.
"But run to Tom, and bid him fix
"The Ladies here to Night by Six." (59-55)
She pawns her silver, at 100% interest; when she is dunned for the gambling
debt incurred the previous night, she pays her creditor with "those ten
Pistoles/ My Husband left to pay for Coals" (66-67). Other women try to
recoup their gaming losses by speculations in the South Sea Company.9 But
worse evils than financial disaster attend the addiction. Envy,-hatred
and malice accompany it, and honesty takes second place to it. In "The
Furniture of a Woman's Mind," Swift describes the woman "Improving hourly
in her Skill,/ To cheat and wrangle at Quadrille" (25-26). In "Death and
Daphne," he has Daphne wondering whether even in the afterlife Chloe is "a
Sharper still,/ As great as ever, at Quadrille?" (77-78). Cheating is so
universal that none of the card-players is really disturbed by it. In
"The Journal of a Modern Lady," the ladies accuse and counter-accuse one
While thus they rail, and scold, and storm,
It passes but for common Form;
Most conscious that they all speak true,
And give each other but their Due;
It never interrupts the Game,
Or makes 'em sensible of Shame. (270-275)
Part of the trouble is the absence of all proportion and order from
the addiction-ridden life. To her passion the Modern Lady has sacrificed
everything, from the family housekeeping money to her own moral credit.
The addict's system of values becomes so distorted that even the most
forcible reminder of mortality touches neither her mind nor her heart:
My female Friends, whose tender Hearts
Have better learned to act their Parts.
Receive the News in doleful Dumps,
"The Dean is dead, (and what is Trumps?)
"The Lord have Mercy on his Soul.
"(Ladies I'll venture for the Vole.)" (225-230)10
But this absence of proportion and order is itself symptomatic of a more
basic disorder. If women remembered their fundamental duty as human
beings "to be what they are and to seek that which is proper to them,"
that is, to behave in accordance with their -"formal principle . the
rational soul,"11 they would be in harmony with the order of the Great
Chain of Being, and their lives would reflect that order. It is a primary
human duty to cultivate the mind, the uniquely human heritage. But card-
playing drives out more serious matters, and so Lady Acheson's women
visitors cannot understand why she attempts to study: "How could she sit
the live-long Day," they ask, "Yet never ask us once to play?"12 In "The
Hardship put upon Ladies," Swift suggests that the obsession with card-
playing has done more than merely distort woman's values-it has completely
inverted them. He can make his point by simple antiphrastic irony:
Poor Ladies! though their Bus'ness be to play,
'Tis hard they must be busy Night and Day:
Why should they want the Privilege of Men,
And take some small Diversions now and then?
Had Women been the Makers of our Laws;
(And why they were not, I can see no Cause;)
The Men should slave at Cards from Morn to Night;
And Female Pleasures be to read and write.
The total trivial-mindedness of the card-end-dress-obsessed woman,
then, is not a venial sin. It is the evidence that she is neglecting to-
tally what should be her chief business in life, perhaps even denying her
very reason for existence. It is no wonder that in the chaos of her life
she seems to have so little control over the spending of time, for her
purposes are not co-ordinated with the purposes of God. The Modern Lady's
time has been out of joint from the moment of her-awakening, when
loit'ring o'er her Tea and Cream,
She enters on her usual Theme;
Her last Night's ill Success repeats,
Calls Lady Spade a hundred Cheats;
Through ev'ry Game pursues her Tale,
Like Hunters o'er their Evening Ale. (70-79)
Ironically, it is only in the early hours of the morning when the card
fever has reached its height that she shows any awareness of the value of
time, and then it is a sadly disordered sense of value that she displays:
The Time too precious now to waste,
And Supper gobbled up in haste,
Again a-fresh to Cards they run. (276-278)
At the card table, the obsessed lady
Ever with some new Fancy struck,
Tries twenty Charms to mend her Luck.
"This Morning when the Parson came,
"I said I should not win a Game.
"This odious Chair how came I stuck in't,
"I think I never had good Luck in't,
"I'm so uneasy in my Stays,
"Your Fan, a Moment, if you please.
"SlI.tad further (lrJ, or get you goie,
"I always lose when you look on." (236-245)
Petulant and irrational, she is a self-made prisoner in a mesh of super-
stitions. Everything about her is at variance with her proper role. Not
even attempting to be reasonable, she has no stability. Her physical dis-
comfort at the card table reflects her deeper malaise. In the brief
periods unfilled by cards, talk of dress, scandal-mongering and the rest
of her totally unproductive and actually harmful activities, she succumbs
to hypochondria: when she wakes, she "of Head-ach, and the Spleen complains."
In the interval between the departure of visitors and the arrival of the
card-players, she is neurotically terrified by the thought that they may
not come, and again is overcome by sickness:
Now all alone poor Madam sits,
In Vapours and Hysterick Fits:
"Past Six, and not a living Soul!
"I might by this have won a Vole."
A dreadful Interval of Spleen!
How shall we pass the Time between?
"Here Betty, let me take my Drops,
"And feel my Pulse, I know it stops:
"This Head of mine, Lord, how it Swims!
"And such a Pain in all my Limbs!" (198-209)
The guests arrive, and, "Her Spleen and Fits recovered quite,/ Our Madam
can sit up all Night." (198-217) She may well have felt ill: her irregu-
lar hours, and her alternate loitering and rushing at meal times, would
have been enough by themselves to upset her physical well-being. But the
basic cause is deeper: spiritually and psychologically she is mortally
In most of the manifestations of trivial-mindedness that Swift ob-
serves, it is difficult to distinguish between symptoms and causes. Ex-
cessive interest in dress, cards, and the rest of the "thousand female
Toys" causes a woman to neglect her duty. But if her scheme of values were
sound to begin with, her interest in trivia would never become excessive.
The possession of a sound scheme of values, however, is the product of in-
tellectual as well as moral influences. The trivial-minded woman is not
entirely to blame for her wretched state. Although Swift does not exoner-
ate her, he does recognize how severely she is handicapped by both lack of
education and miseducation.13 Her mind is barren, because it has been left
uncultivated. Nothing useful has been planted, and only weeds flourish.
Even if her intentions are good, she is ill-equipped for seeking virtue
in the pecularly human way, by "action conformable to reason."
The most obvious manifestation of her ignorance is her inability to
spell, pronounce, and use words correctly. In "Verses wrote in a Lady's
Ivory Table-book," the implications are that the lady is, at least poten-
tially, much superior to the coxcomb who writes in the table-book,14 but
her spelling is no better: "Here in Beau-spelling (tru tel deth)/ There
in her own (far an el breth)." (9-10) In "A Panegyrick on the Dean,"
Lady Acheson's "Neighbours who come here to dine,/ Admire to hear her
speak so fine" (135-136), and the ladies comment later: "She's grown so
nice, and so penurious,/ With Socratus and Epicurius" (143-144). Her
prowess is the result of Swift's instruction:
Poor I, a Savage bred and born,
By you instructed ev'ry Morn,
Already have improved so well,
That I have almost learn't to spell. (131-134)
Women also betray, especially in their speech, a lack of mental
discipline with which a better education might have provided them. Writing
as Mrs. Harris (who, according to the fable of Swift's poem, has lost her
carefully hoarded savings, her only dowry), the poet reproduces the lo-
quacity of an ignorant if understandably agitated woman, pouring forth
all the circumstances of the occasion, relevant and irrelevant.1 The
tedious Mrs. Percival, in "The Journal," also enjoys total recall, and ex-
hibits an ignorant woman's inability to select wisely from her recollections
and adapt her conversation to her audience--"Female Pedant"16 though she is.
Shews all her Secrets of House keeping,
For Candles, how she trucks her Driping;
Was forc'd to send three Miles for Yest,
To brew her Ale, and raise her Paste:
Tells ev'ry thing that you can think of,
How she cur'd Charley of the Chincough;
What gave her Brats and Pigs the Meazles,
And how her Doves were kill'd by Weezles:
How Jowler howl'd, and what a fright
She had with Dreams the other Night. (85-96)
Mrs. Harris's speech is larded with expletives: she calls upon her Maker as
freely and as inappropriately as Mistress Quickly:
Now you must know, because my Trunk has a very bad Lock,
Therefore all the Money, I have, which, God knows, is a very small
I keep in a Pocket ty'd about my Middle, next my Smock.
So when I went to put up my Purse, as God would have it, my Smock
And, instead of putting it into my Pocket, down it slipt:
Then the Bell rung, and I went down to put my Lady to Bed,
And, God knows, I thought my Money was as safe as my Maidenhead.
It is important to realise that we are listening, in each of these effusions,
not to Juliet's nurse or Mistress Quickly, but to Swift's representation of
a gentlewoman.17 The "well-bred" women sound just as unsophisticated in-
tellectually as the footman's wife accused of stealing Mrs. Harris's purse
("The Devil take me, said she, (blessing her self,) if I ever saw't!"),
or as Lady Acheson's maid Hannah when she laments her master's plan to turn
Hamilton's Bawn into a malthouse instead of barracks:
But Madam, I guest there wou'd never come Good,
When I saw him so often with Darby and Wood.
And now my Dream's out: For I was a-dream'd
That I saw a huge Rat: O dear, how I scream'd
After, me thought, I had lost my new Shoes;
And Molly, she said, I should hear some ill News. (47-52)18
They sound almost as chaotic of thought and utterance as Mary the Cook-
Maidl9 who defends her master, Swift, against Sheridan, angry because Swift
has called him a goose: "Which, and I am sure I have been his Servant four
years since October,/ And he never called me worse than Sweet-heart drunk
or sober." (13-14)
Women's lack of judgment, too, may be put down at least partly to
their uneducated state and to their miserable intellectual poverty. Lack-
ing knowledge and untrained in the use of reason, they rely on parrot-
learning and stock responses. "The Furniture of a Woman's Mind" begins:
A Set of Phrases learn't by Rote;
A Passion for a Scarlet-Coat;
When at a Play to laugh, or cry,
Yet cannot tell the Reason why:
Never to hold her Tongue a Minute:
While all she prates has nothing in it.
Whole Hours can with a Coxcomb sit,
And take his Nonsense all for Wit:
Has ev'ry Repartee in Store,
She spoke ten Thousand Times before.
Can ready Compliments supply
On all Occasions, cut and dry. (1-14)
We realise how totally inept the woman is when we are told that "Her Learn-
ing mounts20 to read a Song" (9), and that "half the Words pronouncing
wrong" (10), she cannot perform even this simple task properly. Even in
the search upon which their future and livelihood may depend, women cannot
make reasonable judgments: even in setting "nets for hearts" they work by
parrot-learning, and their "formal arts," such as they are, do them no good.
Their looks are all by method set,
When to be prude, and when coquette:
Yet, wanting skill and pow'r t 1chuse,
Their only pride is to refuse.
A woman is obviously hindered from performing her human role as well as it
could be performed if the best her neglected mind can produce in the way
of thought processes is mechanical and non-rational. Her lack of judgment
appears, too, in her tendency to assess men by appearances, in her suscep-
tibility to the glamour of military uniform or the good looks and assur-
ance of such characters as "Clever Tom Clinch going to be Hanged," to
whom the maids' reaction is "lack-a-day! he's a proper Young Man" (8). In
her own inadequacy, however, she seems actually afraid of the qualities
more worthy of admiration in men. In "To Lord Harley . on his
Marriage," Swift marvels that "a spirit so informed" as Harley's has
prospered in love,
For such is all the sex's flight,
They fly from learning, wit, and light:
They fly, and none can overtake
But some gay coxcomb, or a rake. (19-22)
The distrust a woman feels for the intellectually superior man is stronger
even than her propensity to judge a man by his looks: Pheobus was beauti-
ful: "Yet Daphne never slack'd her pace,/ For wit and learning spoil'd
his face." (26-28)
Female ignorance, muddle-headedness and weakness of judgment are per-
haps nowhere more clearly demonstrated by Swift than in the letter Phillis
leaves for her father when she elopes with John the butler,22 a letter full
of sentimental cliches, ludicrous inconsistencies, lame logic, and the ex-
pression of irrational and second-hand opinions:
To my much honor'd Father; These:
('Tis always done, Romances tell us,
When Daughters run away with Fellows)
Fill'd with the choicest common-places,
By others us'd in the like Cases.
That, long ago a Fortune-teller
Exactly said what now befell her,
And in a Glass had made her see
A serving-Man of low Degree:
It was her Fate; must be forgiven;
For Marriages are made in Heaven:
His Pardon begg'd, but to be plain,
She'd do't if 'twere to do again.
Thank God, 'twas neither Shame nor Sin,
For John was come of honest Kin:
Love never thinks of Rich and Poor,
She'd beg with John from Door to Door:
Forgive her, if it be a Crime,
She'll never do't another Time,
She ne'r before in all her Life
Once disobey'd him, Maid nor Wife.
One Argument she summ'd up all in,
The Thing was done and past recalling:
And therefore hop'd she would recover
His Favor, when his Passion's over.
She valued not what others thought her;
And was--His most obedient Daughter. (46-72)
But Phillis's inept performance owes more to her miseducation than to the
lack of any education at all. Her letter shows that she does read, but
that what she reads does nothing but encourage her moral weakness, giving
her unsound beliefs and providing her with justifications for gratifying
her passion. She derives her notions of what is "always done" from ro-
mances. The idea of eloping with another man, on her wedding morning, as
well as some of "the choicest commonplaces" with which the letter is filled,
probably come from the same source. With her preconceived notions, she has
been fair game for the fortune-hunting John, seeing in him, no doubt, "the
Squire of low Degree," rather than the "Serving-Man;" and guided by her
borrowed belief that "Love never thinks of Rich and Poor," she thinks she
will be content to "beg with John from Door to Door." She may not be
really deceiving herself; but seeking, consciously or otherwise, a pretext
for gratifying her inclincations for John and her desire to be the heroine
of a romantic drama, she finds a precedent in the fiction with which her
head has been filled--a precedent, furthermore, that makes her conduct
seem "respectable" because in terms of the meretricious but high-falutin'
sentiments of romantic fiction, it is "noble". The fine-sounding conven-
tions of romantic love appeal all the more strongly because they absolve
her of responsibility: "It was her fate" to elope with John; in fact,
"long ago a Fortune-teller/ Exactly said what now befell her." From his
fictions we gather that Swift would not allow his female "pupils" any
frivolous reading matter. Vanessa says she dare not read romances.23
"No book for delight," laments Lady Acheson, "Must come in my Sight."24
Perhaps Swift thought that women could not spare any time from their
studies. Because they had so far to go to catch up with men, "la
Bagatelle" was a luxury they could not afford. But perhaps his main object
was to save them from exposure to the miseducating influences that in "The
Progress of Love" he shows to be so harmful.
The perverting influence of bad early training is doubly harmful in
that the false values implanted in youth actually impede the acquisition
of better values when the opportunity for re-education comes. Swift puts
into Lady Acheson's mouth an account of her own history and plight:
Follies, from my Youth instill'd
Have my Soul entirely filled:
In my Head and Heart they center;
Nor will let your Lessons enter.
Bred a Fondling, and an Heiress;
Drest like any Lady May'ress;
Cocker'd by the Servants round,
Was too good to touch the Ground:
Thought the Life of ev'ry Lady
Shou'd be one continued Play-Day:
Balls, and Masquerades, and Shows,
Visits, Plays, and Powder'd Beaux. (31-42)25
Admittedly, Lady Acheson is rationalising: she has just displayed her
readiness to excuse herself and to avoid the struggle to improve:
But it was decreed by Fate- -;
Mr. Dean, You come too late:
Well I know, you can discern,
I am now too old to learn. (27-30)
But whatever Swift's view of her attitude, he has put into her mouth the
statement of a problem he recognizes.
His view that it is education that makes or mars the human being is
perhaps most clearly indicated in his imagery. Vanessa's mind, he implies,
is only the soil; her gifts have been implanted there--and he does not
refer only to her natural intelligence. Pallas
sows within her tender Mind
Seeds long unknown to Womankind,
For manly Bosoms chiefly fit,
The Seeds of Knowledge, Judgment, Wit.
Vanessa, claiming "that Reason was her Guide in Love," tells her tutor
Cadenus that "What he had planted, now was grown." The emotions, too,
are implanted. Venus also planted seeds which have grown and which
Cupid hopes will "improve/ By Time, and ripen into Love."26 In this case,
Swift's image emphasises the self-evident fact that human beings are not
responsible for the existence of their emotions. Our feelings are given
to us. The responsibility for what we do with them is ours, but it does
not come until later. If our beginnings, mental and emotional, are not
within our control, even in their moral inadequacy, Swift implies, women
are victims to the extent that they have been misled by miseducation.
But he does not absolve them completely, because in most cases it is
by a sin they can recognize that they put themselves into the dangers to
which they are so vulnerable: they neglect the admonitions of which no
one living in a Christian country could be ignorant, however sketchy her
formal education and however strong the miseducating forces to which she
was subjected. It is by succumbing to vanity, he suggests, that girls
run into the dangers of the fashionable heresy of deism. It is in order
"To pass for Wits before a Rake" that they "try to learn polite Behaviour,/
By reading Books against their Saviour"27--such books as "Wolston's Tracts,
the twelfth Edition."28 But their poor education has not equipped them
for entering such a dangerous arena. Indeed, as far as the writings of
the deists are concerned, they might be better off completely ignorant.
Barely literate, they are easy victims: "Those Maids of Honour (who can
read)/ Are taught to use them for their Creed."29 Similarly, Swift does
not absolve Phillis. If she had not been determined at all costs to
follow "the devices and desires" of her own heart, she would probably not
have been so quick to learn her dubious lesson from romances. A better
education would have enabled her to write a more competent letter,
perhaps; whether it would have affected her conduct is another matter.
The sardonic tone of the whole poem, and the denouement of the fable,
leave us in no doubt about Swift's judgment of her. Sometimes he is more
explicit. In "A Panegyrick on the Dean," he shows that the ignorance of
Lady Acheson's friends is to some extent wilful:
How enviously the Ladies look,
When they surprise me at my Book!
And, sure as they're alive, at Night;
As soon as gone, will show their Spight. (137-140)
Their envy shows their awareness that it is good to be educated (although
they may not understand why it is good); their malice shows that they are
wilfully rejecting the desirable state, that they are refusing to accept
their proper roles as rational beings. Wilful rejection of what oppor-
tunities they do have for self-improvement characterises Vanessa's compan-
ions, too. Venus, with Pallas's assistance, has created, by education, a
near-perfect woman, worthy to make men admire and women emulate her. In
failing to admire and to emulate, both sexes are actually culpable, as
Swift clearly indicates by the use of "Guilt", and only a little less
clearly by the use of "Spite":
For great Examples are but vain,
Where Ignorance begets Disdain.
Both Sexes, arm'd with Guilt and Spite,
Against Vanessa's Pow'r unite;
To copy her, few Nymphs aspir'd;
Her Virtues fewer Swains admir'd: (436-441)
Yet even here Swift suggests the inadequacy as well as the guilt of the
wrong-headed and wrong-hearted; "So Stars beyond a certain Height/ Give
Mortals neither Heat nor Light." (442-443) He is flattering Vanessa, no
doubt, and no doubt irony is present, too. Vanessa is as mortal as her
non-admirers. Belonging to the same order of creation she is close enough
to them, and they ought not to be impervious to her influence. The fact
remains that her virtues are too far beyond them to help them. Vanessa,
for her part, has remained impervious to their sneers and blandishments.
But only the exceptionally gifted woman is capable of withstanding so
completely the pressures put upon her by other women and men. The cor-
rupted are the greatest corrupters, and the strongest forces of misedu-
cation that beset a woman are the attitudes of the men and women who will
neither recognize nor fulfil their roles as human beings, fallible but
potentially rational, neither gods nor beasts.
In response to the pressures of corrupt custom, corrupt woman re-
sorts to affectation. Obviously it is difficult or impossible for a wo-
man to give much thought to what she is and ought to be if her mind is
taken up with pretending to be what she is not, and it is significant that
Swift hardly ever treats female affectation as merely silly. Even in the
high-spirited comedy of "Mrs. Harris's Petition," he implies that, at
best, affectation is inappropriate: the unfortunate lady, whose dowryless
state is disastrous in view of her economic dependence, weakens her peti-
tion for redress after the loss of her savings when she claims: "'Tis
not that I value the Money three Skips of a Louse;/ But the Thing I stand
upon, is the Credit of the House" (38-39). The poet's impatience with the
false modesty of the Modern Lady explodes as he describes her playing
hostess. Her conventional disparagement of the fare she offers is
"Dinner-Cant", "this paultry Stuff" with which "She sits tormenting every
Guest" (109-110). Such affectation is unworthy. It is also dishonest.
The affected woman's dishonesty takes graver forms. Affectation goes
hand in hand with dissimulation. The lady does as she pleases, and either
imputes her actions to virtue or denies that they give her pleasure. Lady
Jane goes to "the Bath":
Here, all Diversions of the Place
Are proper in my Lady's Case
With which she patiently complyes,
Merely because her Friends advise. (131-134)30
The diversions are not innocent: they range from her wasting "his Money
and her Time," to seekingn] an Heir" in the cross-bath, where, Swift
implies, she does not rely merely on the medicinal properties of the
water. As their irresponsible marriage breaks down, John and Phillis
turn pimp and prostitute; with heavy irony, Swift tells us that Phillis
"broke her marriage Vows/ In Kindness to maintain her Spouse." (89-90)31
Ironically echoing the Modern Lady's words, he tells us that she sits up
all night at cards "though sore against her Will" (40). Similarly, he
echoes Lady Jane, returning home at five in the morning, with a commotion
that wakes her luckless husband:
The Masquerade began at two,
She stole away with much ado,
And shall be chid this afternoon
For leaving company so soon;
She'll say, and she may truly say't,
She can't abide to stay out late (91-98)3
When her husband dies as the result of the life she has led him, "The Widow
goes through all her Forms;/ New Lovers now will come in Swarms" (157-158).
It is this final hypocrisy, perhaps, as well as her treatment of her hus-
band, that prompts the violently angry outburst with which Swift concludes
Oh, may I see her soon dispensing
Her Favors to some broken Ensign
Him let her Marry for his Face,
And only Coat of tarnish't Lace;
To turn her Naked out of Doors,
And spend her Joynture on his Whores:
But for a parting Present leave her
A rooted Pox to last for ever. (159-166)
The most harmful and dishonest form of female affectation, the form
that constitutes the gravest deviation from the proper performance of the
female role, is coquetry, overt and disguised. In a passage from "The
Furniture of a Woman's Mind," serious beneath its humour, we see all the
ingredients of coquetry: the calculation, the hypocrisy, the lack of love
shown in the woman's deliberate manipulation of the man's feelings, and
her cold-blooded exertion of her power over him. Significantly, the pre-
tence of ill-health and weakness is her weapon. Like Horner in Wycherley's
The Country Wife, in spirit she has actually become the inadequate creature
she is pretending to be. "If chance a Mouse creeps in her Sight," she
Can finely counterfeit a Fright;
So, sweetly screams if it comes near her,
She ravishes all Hearts to hear her,
Can dext'rously her Husband teize,
By taking Fits whene'er she please:
By frequent Practice learns the Trick
At proper Seasons to be sick;
Thinks nothing gives one Airs so pretty;
At once creating Love and Pity.
If Molly happens to be careless,
And but neglects to warm her Hair-Lace,
She gets a Cold as sure as Death;
And vows she scarce can fetch her Breath.
Admires how modest Women can
Be so robustious like a Man. (32-48)
It is significant that Stella and Vanessa do not practise such tricks.
Vanessa has been "Instructed from her early Years/ To scorn the Art of
Female Tears" (596-597). And Stella
wonders where the Charm appears
In Florimel's affected Fears:
For Stella never learned the Art,
At proper Times to scream and start;
Nor calls up all the House at Night,
And swears she saw a Thing in White.
Doll never flies to cut her Lace,
Or throw cold Water in her Face,
Because she heard a sudden Drum,
Or found an Earwig in a Plum.33
A nastier because more subtle form of coquetry is prudery. The false
modesty of Phillis, in whom Swift gives us his most fully developed por-
trait of a prude, is at once a revelation of her lasciviousness and the
means she uses to titillate the men of whom she pretends to be afraid:
Desponding Phillis was endu'd
With ev'ry Talent of a Prude,
She trembled when a Man drew near;
If o'er against her you were plac't
She durst not look above your Wast;
She'd rather take you to her Bed
Than let you see her dress her Head;
In Church, secure behind her Fan
She durst behold that Monster, Man:
There practic'd how to place her Head,
And bit her Lips to make them red:
Or on the'Matt devoutly kneeling
Would lift her Eyes up to the Ceeling,
And heave her Bosom unaware
For neighboring Beaux to see it bare. (1-18)
In his use of the appropriately devious device of irony in "devoutly",
"unaware", and the repeated "durst"; and in his use, three times, of
double entendre, Swift emphasises the tortuousness of prudery, the ambigu-
ousness of the prude's behaviour. The prude's world is obviously out
of-Joint. Her behaviour, though comically described, shows her cynical
lack of respect for men, for herself, and for the God-given order of which
she is a part. It is'i final irony that the setting for her performance
is a church.
We have commented upon the consistency of Swift's attitude towards
women as it is revealed in the poetry. In his last poems about men and
women, however, in what he has to say about the unsound attitude associated
with coquetry and prudery, he concentrates upon the shortcomings of men,
not women: his Strephon and Cassinus, for example, are the culpable part-
ners, not his Chloe and Caeia.34 Swift may be hinting that Chloe is
affected when he tells us that "The bashful Nymph no more withstands,/
Because her dear Papa commands."35 On the other hand, there is nothing
else in the poem to suggest that her bashfulness is assumed, that she is a
coquette or a prude, or that she personally is responsible for Strephon's
false ideas about women. It is he who wonders whether "such a Deity" as
Chloe can "endure/ A mortal human Touch impure?" (89-90) It is the effect
of "Twelve Cups of Tea," not prudery, that causes her to repulse him.
Caelia is not even present in the scene set before us in "Cassinus and
Peter": it is Cassinus's attitude to Caelia with which we are presented,
not Caelia's to Cassinus. Cassinus, himself wilfully unkempt and filthy,
has been appropriately punished for his unrealistic attitude to Caelia:
he has gone mad after discovering her "crime"--the involuntary human need
These two poems and several others, including "The Lady's Dressing
Room," "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," and the earlier "Progress
of Beauty" constitute a group of which, it seems to me, the very raison
d'&tre may have been the depth of Swift's concern with the failure of men
and women--particularly of men--to accept the roles of their own and the
opposite sex as human. In considering this group of poems, I believe,
we shall come to the heart of the matter.
NOTES ON CHAPTER I
1"The exact date of composition cannot be fixed. In the Miscellanies
of 1711 it was assigned to 1698. No date is stated in the Miscellanies,
1727. Faulkner gives 1706. Deane Swift, Essay, 1755, p. 127, places it
between 1703 and 1706. It may have been written earlier and revised
about 1706." Williams, p. 60, headnote.
2"This poetical epistle was addressed to Lady Acheson, and must have
been begun during one of Swift's visits to Market-Hill, 1728-30. We may
surmise that, after a beginning, the poem was laid aside, and completed,
with some revision of the earlier part, in 1732-3." Williams, p. 629,
3Commenting upon this line, in "The Echoic Poetry of Jonathan Swift:
Studies in its Meaning," Diss. University of Florida 1968, p. 60, John
Fischer claims that Swift knew there was no such passion, and that the
advocate's description of it as "one which infallibly reduces its devotees
to ashes, is both apt and laughable. Such passion, as the shepherds'
advocate goes on to tell us, is nowhere discoverable in the world but was
once sung by ancient poets." It seems to me that Fischer disregards the
Platonic overtones of this description of love when he suggests that Swift
is equating it with. romantic delusion. See page 89 below.
4Compare "The Bubble," 91-92, and "A Panegyrick on the Dean," 319-324
5The operative word is "disproportionate". As Tyne reminds us (523),
Swift, in his Letter to a Young Lady, on her Marriage calls female inter-
est in finery a folly but "a necessary folly" (Davis, IX, 91). Tyne con-
tinues: "Many societal ritualisms may appear senseless and foolish, but
actually they have deep roots in the stuff of fallen humanity."
Tyne contends that Vanessa's indignation with them is unrealistic
and an indication of her lack of humanity and her resemblance to the
Woman's incongruously serious attitude to trivialities (and, Swift
implies, the neglect of her proper business) is also the object of his
irony when he describes, in "The Progress of Marriage," Lady Jane's ab-
straction at dinner -- She "minds nothing that is done or said,/ Her
ev'ning Work so fills her Head" (57-58) -- and again when, in "The Journal
of a Modern Lady," he speaks of the disbanding of the Female Club, "Each
twenty visits on her hands" (197). The underlining is mine.
8The "seditious pamphlet" was Swift's "Proposal for the Universal
Use of Irish Manufacture" (Davis, IX, 13-22). Not only did the Irish have
to pay heavy duties on silks imported from England; they were also pro-
hibited from exporting wool.
9See "The Bubble," 91-92.
10"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift."
11ee Basil Willey's account of Thomism, quoted on page 13 above.
12"A Panegyrickon the Dean," 145-146.
13References to the upbringing of women and its results abound in the
prose writings. Swift's thoughts on the subject are set out most fully,
perhaps, in A Letter to a Young Lady, on Her Marriage (Davis, IX, 83-94).
See also Hints: Education of Ladyes (Davis, XII, 307-308), and Of the
Education of Ladies (Davis, IV, 225-228).
14See pages 67-68 below.
15"To Their Excellencies the Lords Justices of Ireland. The Humble
Petition of Frances Harris, who must Starve, and Die a Maid if it mis-
carries." Even the title suggests her loquacity.
16Although "pedant" is an uncomplimentary term, it does suggest edu-
cation of a sort. Swift may be using it ironically, or he may consider
the housewife obsessed with minutiae to be the female equivalent of the
17The position of the real Mrs. Harris in the Berkeley household may
perhaps be judged from "A Ballad on the Game of Traffick."
18"The Grand Question Debated."
19"Mary the Cook-Maids Letter to Dr. Sheridan."
20The underlining is mine.
21"To Lord Harley, since Earl of Oxford, on his Marriage," 55-58.
22"The Progress of Love."
23"Cadenus and Vanessa," 795.
24"My Lady's Lamentation and Complaint Against the Dean," 45-46.
25"Epistle to a Lady."
26"Cadenus and Vanessa," 202-205, 680, and 472-476.
27"Strephon and Chloe," 268, 271-272.
28"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," 281.
29Ibid., 287-288. Swift seems to have been especially impressed by
the follies and shortcomings of Maids of Honour. Delany, writing of Swift's
first visit to Pope at Twickenham, reports: "I also well remember, his
making strange reports of the phraseologies of persons about the court (and
particularly the maids of Honour) at the time of that visit." (Delany,
p. 75). For an account of the joke he and Dr. Arbuthnot played upon the
Maids of Honour, see Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the
Age, II (London: Methuen, 1967), 508-509.
30"The Progress of Marriage."
31"The Progress of Love."
32"The Progress of Marriage."
33"To Stella, Visiting me in my Sickness," 69-78.
34In "Strephon and Chloe" and "Cassinus and Peter."
35"Strephon and Chloe," 43-44.
THE PERFORMANCE OF WOMEN
MEN'S SHARE OF THE BLAME
If Swift was more severe upon men than upon women, it was no doubt
partly because of his awareness of a man's advantages, particularly the
advantage of a greatly superior education. We have already considered his
presentation of the deplorable mixture of ignorance and misinformation
with which most women were equipped to face their responsibilities. In
"Cadenus and Vanessa," he suggests outright that if a woman is to become
the admirable creature she is capable of becoming, she must be given a
man's education. In order to make Vanessa a perfect love object, Venus
has to trick Pallas into mistaking the child for a boy, so that she will
within her tender Mind
Seeds long unknown to Womankind,
For manly Bosoms chiefly fit,
The Seeds of Knowledge, Judgment, Wit (202-205).
Swift goes further: in being educated as well as a boy, Vanessa as a mor-
tal girl is actually unique.1 Pallas
must with Grief reflect,
To see a Mortal Virgin deck'd
With Graces, hitherto unknown
To Female Breasts, except her own; (270-273)
Justice, truth, fortitude, honour, and generosity of heart and hand
were not inborn, either. The infant Vanessa's "Soul was suddenly endu'd"
with these virtues by the goddess who thought she was a boy. Mental and
spiritual development go together. Stella's mental and spiritual attri-
butes, like Vanessa's, are those usually associated with men, and her
gifts, too, came from outside herself.2 In "To Stella, Visiting me in
my Sickness," Swift tells Stella that for her alone Prometheus
Stole The Fire that forms a manly Soul;
Then to compleat it ev'ry way,
He molded it with Female Clay:
To that you owe the nobler Flame.
To this, the Beauty of your Frame. (87-92)
At the beginning of this poem, furthermore, we were told of Pallas's ob-
servation that "Stella's Wit/ Was more than for her Sex was fit."
Although, with their educational advantages, men should be superior
to women and able to help them, many of them display a mental poverty as
bad as the women's. Some of these men, no doubt, are really stupid. The
rest, presumably, are either playing up (or down) to the women, or culti-
vating a fashionable affectation for its own sake: in either case, they
are not fulfilling the roles that their greater opportunities demand of
them. The fops who gather round Vanessa are as little concerned as their
female counterparts with rational talk and behaviour. Swift reproduces
their tattle, and concludes:
Then in soft Voice and Speech absurd,
With Nonsense ev'ry second Word,
With Fustian from exploded Plays,
They celebrate her Beauty's Praise,
Run o'er their Cant of stupid Lies,
And tell the Murders of her Eyes. (328-333)
Later in the poem he speaks of "The common Beau"
Who, tho' he cannot spell, is wise
Enough to read a Lady's Eyes;
And will each accidental Glance
Interpret for a kind Advance. (813-817)
"The common Beau"--Swift sounds as if he were speaking of a species of
butterfly or other subhuman creature. The Modern Lady's husband is a
minor figure in her day's activities; but clearly he is of no help to his
wife, silly himself and actually encouraging silliness in her. As he
listens to the "Dinner-Cant", "You see the Booby Husband sit/ In admir-
ation at her Wit!"(114-115). On another occasion, the way a Captain re-
sponds to "Dinner Cant" shows him to be no more sensible than his hostess:
You're heartily welcome: But as for good Chear,
You come in the very worst Time of the Year;
If I had expected so worthy a Guest:--
Lord! Madaml your Ladyship sure is in jest;
You banter me, Madam, the Kingdom must grant--
You Officers, Captain, are so complaisant.3
The Captain's subsequent conversation does nothing to remove our initial
impression that he is an ass.
If men are too stupid or too wilful to profit from their own advan-
tages, it is no wonder that they are poor judges of women. Before Venus
gives up her attempt to put love back on a rational basis and abandons it
to Cupid, leaving "all below at Six and Sev'n," she claims that she has
been "cheated by the Swains." In response to their complaint "That Women
were not worth the wooing," she has formed ("at Lord knows what Expence")
"a Nymph of Wit and Sense,/ A Model for her Sex designed." But the nymph
has no lovers, and Venus sees that "her Favour was misplac'd;/ The Fellows
had a wretched Taste." She concludes that they are "a senseless, stupid
Race," and that
were she to begin agen,
She'd study to reform the Men;
Or add some Grains of Folly more
To Women than they had before,
To put them on an equal Foot;
And this, or nothing else, wou'd don't 4
Even allowing for the fact that "Cadenus and Vanessa," whatever else it
is, is a complimentary poem, probably designed at least to some extent for
Esther Vanhomrigh's gratification, we have no reason to suppose that Swift
meant us to take these concluding passages at other than their face value:
in spite of their greater opportunities to acquire wisdom, men as a whole
in their dealings with women prove themselves to be "a senseless, stupid
But Swift shows us that men can be worse than merely senseless and
stupid in their attitude to women. The balance that should be maintained
in marriage, for example, with both the man and the woman trying to live
up to the demands of being human, is destroyed by the sins of the partners
as well as the stupidity; and in at least three poems about unsatisfactory
marriages, Swift places the full share of blame on the man's shoulders.
In "A Quiet Life and a Good Name," the virago Nell is the initial offender,
"roar[ing] incessant" at her husband. But he does nothing to restore the
balance. Fatuously he tells his friend:
I suffer this for Peace;
I never quarrell with my Wife,
I bear it for a quiet Life. (14-16)
When she actually hits him, he will not take action because of what people
would say. Swift comments upon his refusal to try to redress the balance:
Can he who makes himself a Slave
Consult his Peace, or Credit save?
Dick found it by his ill Success
His Quiet small, his Credit less;
Nell serv'd him at the usu'll Rate
She stun'd, and than she broke his Pate.
And what he thought the hardest Case,
The Parish jear'd him to his Face: (39-46)
In debasing himself from the status of a partner to that of a possession,
Dick refuses to take on his full responsibilities in the marriage. In
"His Graces's Answer to Jonathan," Swift is, of course, ridiculing Smed-
ley's "An Epistle to his Grace the Duke of GRAFTON, Lord Lieutenant of
Ireland." Smedley has asked:
But where shall SMEDLEY make his Nest,
And lay his wandering Head to Rest?
Where shall he find a decent House,
To treat his Friends, and chear his Spouse? (27-30)
He has told the Duke that "Spouse will think herself quite undone;/ To
trudge to Clogher, from sweet London" (88-89). But Swift does not merely
ridicule the ineptitude of Smedley's appeal for a better living. He sug-
gests, as Robert George5 has pointed out, that Mrs. Smedley would not pine
for the pleasures of Town if Smedley were giving her adequate love and
attention. We should not, perhaps, jump to the conclusion that Swift is
exalting sexuality in the brilliantly ambiguous second part of the poem
(20-54); it could be ironic--impugning Smedley's virility or reflecting
on his uxoriousness. Smedley has previously attacked Swift,6 who could be
retaliating. But Swift does suggest that both male and female discontent
may be connected with the man's neglect of the woman.7 Even in "The Pro-
gress of Marriage," at the end of which Swift expresses his anger at the
wife in such strong terms, he blames the husband clearly enough for having
made such an ill-balanced marriage in the first place. In describing the
foolish figure the husband cuts, Swift is ruthless: on the wedding night,
The Bridegroom dress't, to make a Figure,
Assumes an artificial Vigor;
A flourisht Night-cap on, to grace
His ruddy, wrinkled, smirking Face,
Like the faint red upon a Pippin
Half wither'd by a Winters keeping .(21-26)
Later, at Bath, while his lady disports herself in the cross-bath, "He
keeps his Distance in the Gallery/ Till banisht by some Coxcombs Raillery"
(141-142). Swift comments:
So have I seen within a Pen
Young Ducklings, fostered by a Hen;
But when let out, they run and muddle
As Instinct leads them, in a Puddle;
The sober Hen not born to swim
With mournful Note clocks round the Brim. (145-150)
The husband, in casting himself in such an unsuitable role, Swift implies,
is worse than foolish. Husband and wife might indeed be creatures of dif-
ferent species, for in this marriage there is
No common Ligament that binds
The various Textures of their Minds,
Their Thoughts, and Actions, Hopes, and Fears,
Less corresponding than their Years. (33-36)
The husband "wonders what employs her Brain;/ But never asks, or asks in
vain" (65-66). His attempts to understand her are feeble, for
His Mind is full of other Cares,
And in the sneaking Parsons Airs
Computes, that half a Parish Dues
Will hardly find his Wife in Shoes (67-70).
Then Swift states explicitly what he has already implied: not only has
the old "Swain" done his "Nymph" a gross injustice by marrying her; in
his mistaken attempt to please her he has actually encouraged her coquet-
Canst thou imagine, dull Divine,
'Twill gain her Love to make her fine?
Hath she no other wants beside?
You raise Desire as well as Pride,
Enticing Coxcombs to adore,
And teach her to despise thee more. (71-76)
Man's biggest contribution to the situation in which women are so
deplorably inadequate and wrong-headed in the interpretation of their
roles is the apparent inconsistency of his attitude to women: his "double
standard." As it is generally used, the term refers to a man's assumption
of the right to have it both ways, to be promiscuous himself and at the
same time to expect fidelity from his wife. We use it to refer to the
dichotomy that makes the man's code possible, the dichotomy in his own
attitude to women which leads him to accept, or actively to make, two
roles for them, one sub-human and one super-human. In debasing or exal-
ting women, he puts himself out of harmony with the Divine order. He de-
nies to woman her proper place in the Chain of Being, and thus abandons
his own. As a human being he is capable of acting reasonably, and thus
of recognizing the humanity of others.
Swift's comments upon prostitution are all the more telling for being
indirect. Most powerfully, he describes in detail the ravages of venereal
disease (and its treatment) upon the prostitute. In both "The Progress of
Beauty" and "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,'8 he emphasises the
horrors of the woman's dissolution by describing meticuously the steps she
takes to hide it. He intensifies the horror still further by adopting an
almost flippant tone. Because Swift speaks through a persona, the heart-
less manner does not hide his compassion9 but, by contrast, reveals it all
the more powerfully. Celia, of "The Progress of Beauty," awakes and for
four hours repairs her make-up -- and the already wasted flesh beneath.
"She ventures now to lift the Sash,/ The Window is her proper Sphear" --
and the poet warns her: "Ah Lovely Nymph be not too rash,/ Nor let the
Beaux approach too near" (65-68). Only in the dark, or through the window
of a sedan chair can she still appear "wondrous fair." Her future is still
But, Art no longer can prevayl
When the Materialls all are gone,
The best Mechanick Hand must fayl
Where Nothing's left to work upon. (77-80)
When Mercury her Tresses mows
To think of Oyl and Soot, is vain,
No Painting can restore a Nose,
Nor will her Teeth return again.
Two Balls of Glass may serve for Eyes,
White Lead can plaister up a Cleft,
But these alas, are poor Supplyes
If neither Cheeks, nor Lips be left. (109-116)
Then comes the shocking conclusion, with its unspoken comment on the con-
cept of love held by the men the ironic persona represents:
Ye Pow'rs who over Love preside,
Since mortal Beautyes drop so soon,
If you would have us well supply'd,
Send us new Nymphs with each new Moon. (117-120)
Beauties are perishable, expendable, objects to be "supplied" for the use
of men who will destroy thirteen of them in a year: they are degraded as
low as the rank of inanimate objects in the scale of being. "The Beauti-
ful Young Nymph" Corinna's dismantling of herself before going to bed is
even more completely described. The poet does not venture to write about
The Nymph, tho' in this mangled Plight,
Must ev'ry Morn her Limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her Arts
To recollect the scattered Parts?
Or shew the Anguish, Toil, and Pain,
Of gathering 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. (65-74)
Her physical dissolution is not the only hardship Corinna suffers. Her
trade is no longer enough to support her adequately: there is "No drunken
rake to pick her up,/ No cellar where on Tick to sup." After "Returning
at the Midnight Hour" and climbing "Four Stories . to her Bow'r" (5-8);
she goes to bed hungry. She cannot even find refuge in sleep. The pains
of her disease keep her awake, and if she sleeps at all, she has night-
mares about her all too probable future. She is hag-ridden on the one
hand by visions of "Watchmen, Constables and Duns," of Bridewell and t Ee.
terrifying punishment she will receive at the hands of the law: she
feels the Lash, and faintly screams
Or to Jamaica seems transported,
Alone, and by no Planter courted. (41, 45-46)
On the other hand, she is beset by fears of the dangers against which the
law gives her no protection because she is outside the law: she imagines
her plight when "by a faithless Bully drawn,/ At some Hedge-Tavern [she]
lies in Pawn." And she has a horrifying vision of how she will practise
her profession when only the worst of beats remains open to her: she
near Fleet-Ditch's oozy Brinks,
Surrounded with a Hundred Stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lye,
And snap some Cully passing by (41-51).
In what seems to be an aside, Swift closes his description of Corinna's
dream by drawing our attention to a most flagrant example of a double
standard: from the watchmen, constables and duns, Corinna
meets with frequent Rubs;
But, never from Religious Clubs;
Whose Favour she is sure to find,
Because she pays 'em all in Kind. (52-55)
The implied indictment of the men who heartlessly use women without
regard for their humanity is compounded still further: even as he dwells
upon the physical horrors of the prostitute's state, Swift writes of her
as if she were a goddess, and in doing so, he echoes the appalling con-
fusion of values that the men exhibit. Even in the most callous and bes-
tial dealings with women, such men pay lip service to the conventions of
woman-worship, the blasphemy against Divine order that seems to be at the
opposite extreme: "Corinna, Pride of Drury-Lane,/ For whom no Shepherd
sighs in vain" (1-2), is "the lovely Goddess," "the Nymph." In "The Pro-
gress of Beauty," the irony is still more pointed: the comparison be-
tween the goddess Diana and the mortal Celia, between the moon that Diana
represents and poor "rotting Celia," is not only sustained throughout the
poem, it is its organizing device. Celia's worshipper typifies the sin
at the root of the double standard:
To see her from her Pillow rise
All reeking in a cloudy Steam,
Crackt Lips, foul Teeth, and gummy Eyes,
Poor Strephon, how would he blaspheme! (13-16)
Committing the real blasphemy of debasing another human being and
simultaneously making her an object of worship, Strephon, if he saw
things as they really are, would think only in terms of false blasphemy
against her supposed divinity. The Strephon of "The Lady's Dressing-Room"
does see things as they really are when he "looks behind the scene" (133).
We have no evidence that Celia is a prostitute or that he has or has not
debased her. Otherwise his blasphemy is exactly like that of his name-
sake in "The Progress of Beauty." He
Her Ointments, Daubs, and Paints and Creams,
Her Washes, Slops, and every Clout,
With which he makes so foul a Rout. (137-140)
Bad poets help to perpetuate the wicked myth. In "To STELLA, Who Col-
lected and Transcribed his POEMS," Swift writes of
the Goddesses enrolled
In Curll's Collections, new and old,
Whose Scoundrel Fathers would not know'em,
If they should meet'em in a Poem. (49-52)
Anyone seeking the "Bow'rs" of "those Nymphs divine" would be disillusioned.
He would find, for example, "The charming Silvia beating Flax,/ Her
Shoulders mark'd with bloody Tracks" (45-46), "and radiant Iris in the
Swift never lets us forget the mortality of these "Goddesses". His
description of the physical dissolution of Celia and Corinna makesit ob-
vious enough, but he goes still further. Corinna, with her padding and
her false hair, eyebrows, teeth and eye is not only pitiable; she is a
ghastly and horrifying figure of fun. Swift, through his persona, is
echoing the heartlessness and inhumanity of mankind in the tone he adopts.
In making Corinna's plight seem actually ludicrous, he is exposing the
enormity of the offence men have committed against her, the offence of
pretending to regard as more than human a mortal creature in whom the
natural processes of decay have been accelerated by their less than human
treatment of her. But he is also emphasising with hammer Blows the in-
escapable mortality of all human beings, and the folly as well as the
blasphemy of deifying such fragile and perishable creatures. It is as
a goddess, not a woman, that Corinna is grimly laughable. Swift drives
home still harder his lesson about the true nature and status of poor
Corinna. Even at the bottom of the pit, she has no security from further
disaster, and ludicrous disaster at that:
CONINNA 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---st.
A Pigeon pick'd her Issue-Peas;
And Shock her Tresses fill'd with Fleas. (57-64)
Flatterers and would-be seducers of women, from the days of Ovid and
no doubt before, have addressed women, in verse at least, as goddesses
and assumed the attitudes of worshippers, and the ploy has been generally
recognized for what it is. Real confusion begins, however, when the wor-
ship becomes genuine, when the lover's aim ceases to be simple seduction
and he begins to devote and divert to a human object the adoration that,
for a Christian, properly belongs to his Maker. It is significant that
medieval churchmen attacked courtly love not because it was immoral, but
because it was a religion -- a rival religion to Christianity.10 There
is evidence in the poems that in his attitude to woman-worship as in
other matters Swift was in the main stream of traditional orthodox be-
lief. He expatiates most fully on the delusions of the lover who cherishes
the belief that his beloved is more than mortal in "Strephon and Chloe,"
"The Lady's Dressing-Room," and "Cassinus and Peter."
In the hyperbole-packed description of Chloe at the beginning of
"Strephon and Chloe," Swift establishes firmly her goddess-like status in
the eyes of her suitors: "So beautiful a Nymph appears/ But once in Twenty
Thousand Years." (3-4) She is "faultless". Her beauty "Confest her of no
mortal Race" (8). Because she is scrupulously clean, her body seems "taint-
less," and because she is never seen
to pluck a Rose,
You'd swear, that so divine a Creature
Felt no Necessities of Nature (14, 19-20).
Referring so specifically to feet and armpits, to the "noisome Whiffs and
Sweaty Streams," that Chloe keeps free from, Swift is startling us into
remembering the facts of human physiology so that we are in no danger of
forgetting that it is only Chloe's fastidiousness about personal hygiene
that prevents her mortal nature from being obvious. Strephon is not a
seducer, and he does not merely pretend to think her a goddess; he seeks
to marry her, and when he has succeeded, he contemplates his wedding-night
with religious awe, "For, as he view'd his Person round,/ Meer mortal
flesh was all he found" (75-76). What if, in spite of his washing to
keep himself sweet, he should sweat,
While she a Goddess dy'd in Grain
Was unsusceptible of Stain:
And Venus-like, her fragrant Skin
Exhal'd Ambrosia from within (85-88)?
If "such a Deity" can after all "endure/ A mortal human Touch impure"
(89-90), can the mortal lover survive the embrace? Strephon remembers
That, once he heard a School-boy tell,
How Semele of mortal Race,
By Thunder dy'd in Jove's Embrace;
And what if daring Strephon dies
By Lightning shot from Chloe's Eyes? (106-110)
Strephon is soon to be disillusioned. The Strephon of "The Lady's
Dressing-Room" is disillusioned when he explores the dressing-room of
his "Goddess" who "from her Chamber issues,/ Array'd in Lace, Brocades
and Tissues" (3-4). Cassinus has been the most deeply deluded worshipper,
if we are to judge by the violence of his reactions when he is disabused.
He never claims in so many words to have thought of Caelia as a goddess;
but the whole point of the poem is that he has done so, impiously and
Cassinus has broken the first commandment, and his punishment is
madness, first indicated by the filthy disarray, so much worse than the
conventionally disordered appearance of the lovelorn, in which we see him
at the beginning of the poem. It becomes clear that his madness is pun-
ishment for guilt when it takes the form of a vision of the hell that
awaits him. "And there --" he exclaims, "behold Alecto stand,/ A Whip of
Scorpions in her Hand." He sees Charon beckoning, and Medusa and her
serpents advancing upon him. "Begone; unhand me, hellish Fry," he cries;
"Avaunt--Ye cannot say 'twas I." (81-88) The echo of Macbeth in the last
line suggests that this is the madness of a guilty man. In Macbeth's
case, the crime he said the ghost of Banquo could not saddle him with
was in fact a crime Macbeth had committed. Cassinus's guilt and madness
are indicated yet more clearly by the reference to the Fury Alecto. We
are reminded that it was the special function of the Furies or Eumenides
to punish the guilty; in hell, by unceasing flagellation, on earth by the
stings of conscience and by actual madness if they ventured into the
temple of the Eumenides--holy .ground.
But Cassinus has also failed to love his neighbour as himself. He
has sinned not only against his Creator but also against a fellow occu-
pant of his rank in the scale of being; and of this sin his madness is
at once a punishment and a result. This becomes clear when we examine
his dialogue with Peter concerning Caelia's "crime". Cassinus "at last,
with Grief opprest,/ Cry'd 'Caelia!' thrice, and sigh'd the rest." (39-40)
Peter at once prepares to hear the worst--that Caelia is dead. Cassinus's
answer, "How happy I, were that the worst?/ But I was fated to be curs'd"
(43-44), shows us that his grief is for himself. Caelia is merely an
instrument used by fate to curse him; he would rather she died than that
he should suffer at her hands. Thus we see at the outset that his feeling
for her is not love at all, and that he regards her as an object rather
than a person. In the ensuing dialogue, this impression is confirmed. But
at the same time, bewilderingly, we find that Cassinus has arrived through
his very selfishness at an attitude to Caelia that sounds remarkably like
Christian love. He shows that he would not be turned from her by her
moral shortcomings, and that he would regard as unimportant her loss of
beauty and even her death. His concern is centred, apparently, in her
immortal soul, for the cause of his distress is that "Caelia has contriv'd
to blast/ Those Beauties that might ever last" (53-54). Nevertheless, the
concern is entirely selfish. "Imagination" cannot "guess",
Nor Eloquence Divine express,
How that ungrateful charming Maid,
My purest Passion has betray'd.
Conceive the most invenom'd Dart,
To pierce an injur'd Lover's Heart. (55-60)
She is "ungrateful", a sorceress ("charming"); he is injuredd"; she "has
betray'd." His passion is "purest", and even god-inspired eloquence could
not express the evil she has done. But when Peter suggests that Caelia's
offence was to love someone else (the barber's boy, Cassinus's social and
probably intellectual inferior), Cassinus, it seems, displays Christian
magnanimity and willingness to respect Caelia as a person:
Friend Peter, this I could excuse;
For, ev'ry Nymph has Leave to chuse
Nor, have I Reason to complain:
She loves a more deserving Swain. (63-66)
Now he refers yet again to her offence, this time in even stronger lan-
guage; the deed is a crime, universally shocking and committed by no other
woman in the world. The crime has utterly crushed him; he is in un-
Christian despair, and about to die. Only in someone deranged, surely,
could such inconsistent attitudes exist simultaneously.
When at last we learn that the circumstance worse than Caelia's
death, dishonour, disfigurement, or falling in love with someone worthier
is simply her having to excrete like the rest of humanity, we realise
that Cassinus's wilful holding of inconsistent attitudes may have led
directly to the disintegration of his mind; the contradictory forces may
have pulled it apart: he has persisted in regarding her as both super-
human and sub-human, instead of accepting the truth that she is human.
He could accept unscathed the ugly moral facts: Caelia could be a whore;
he could accept the accompanying ugly physical facts; she could be sy-
philitic; he could accept some of the ugly physical facts by which human-
ity is limited regardless of guilt or innocence: unavoidable death, and
the ravages of unavoidable smallpox. The "Beauties that might ever last"
are, to Cassinus, untouched by any of these uglinesses, but utterly de-
stroyed by the ugliness of the human need to excrete. The wheel has come
full circle: Cassinus has equated immortality of soul with un-mortality
of bodily function.
What is at the same time insane and mortally sinful in Cassinus is
his inability to consider having to excrete in the same light as being
subject to smallpox and having to die. Of these three manifestations
of mortality, only the need to excrete is entirely lacking in dignity.11
Death or disfigurement can be tragic; excretion cannot. Cassinus has
accepted Caelia as mortal, and as morally evil or flawed: yet he has
insisted upon putting her in the place of God as an object of worship.
He does not love her -- he has used her to minister to his own needs; not
loving her, he cannot accept her when she does the one thing that cannot
be elevated, that keeps her on his own level. And his madness is not
only his punishment and the consequence of his crime but also a mani-
festation of the chaos that prevails when man tries to put woman out of
her proper place in the scale of being.
Although every woman-worshipper does not lose his reason, when he is
forced to see that his worship is misplaced, instead of achieving a rea-
sonable equilibrium he is apt to swing to the opposite extreme in his
attitude. Strephon is so disgusted by what he has seen and smelt in
Celia's dressing-room that he can never again look at a woman without
His foul Imagination links
Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks:
And, if unsav'ry Odours fly,
Conceives a Lady standing by:
All Women. his Description fits,
And both Idea's jump like Wits:
By vicious Fancy coupled fast,
And still appearing in Contrast. (121-128)12
The disillusionment of Chloe's Strephon is less painful, but it, too, is
associated with a violent change of attitude and with the loss of love.
When Chloe stops being the fastidious girl who "plucks a Rose" only when
alone, Strephon, emboldened by finding her "As mortal as himself at least"
(186) does not recoil in horror--he follows her example. The immediate
result is that
The little Cupids hov'ring round,
(As Pictures prove) with Garlands crowned,
Abasht at what they saw and heard,
Flew off, nor evermore appeared.
Adieu to ravishing Delights,
High Raptures, and romantic Flights;
To Goddesses so heav'nly sweet,
Expiring Shepherds at their Feet;
To silver Meads, and shady Bow'rs,
Drest up with Amaranthine Flow'rs. (193-202)
Strephon loses his romantic illusions without being immediately revolted.
Instead, Swift suggests, he descends with Chloe to the animal level:
How great a Change! how quickly made!
They learn to call a Spade, a Spade.
They soon from all Constraint are freed;
Can see each other do their Need.
And, by the beastly way of Thinking,
Find great Society in Stinking. (203-210)
Strephon's love cannot survive such a descent: eventually Chloe's abandon-
ment of "decency" will kill it, "For fine Ideas vanish fast,/ While all
the gross and filthy last" (233-234). The poet tells Strephon that if
before he had married her he had seen his bride "on House of Ease," he
would never have found . from Experience . too late,/ His God-
dess grown a filthy Mate," for, exactly like the other Strephon, he would
for ever afterwards have associated everything about her with the privy,
"And, spight of Chloe's Charm divine,/ Your Heart had been as whole as
The mistake of the Strephons was in fixing their affections on the
ephemeral, the girl's apparent physical perfection, and regarding it as
divine, immortal and to be worshipped. Had they asked themselves:
What House, when its Materials crumble,
Must not inevitably tumble?
What Edifice can long endure,
Rais'd on a Basis unsecure? (297-300)
they might have had more realistic ideas, not only about youth and beauty,
but also about all things purely physical. They might have plunged about
less wildly had they thought in terms of the give and take of a relation-
ship with another human being, not a "goddess". If they had had no
illusions in the first place, they would not have had to suffer disillus-
ionment, and they might have found the balanced and lasting love of which
truly human beings are capable:
On Sense and Wit your Passion found,
By Decency cemented round:
Let Prudence with Good Nature strive,
To keep Esteem and Love alive.
Then come old Age whene'er it will,
Your Friendship shall continue still:
And thus a mutual gentle Fire,
Shall never but with Life expire. (307-314)
But although ideally man is animal rationale, most of the time he is mere-
ly rations capax.13
The chaos associated with man's forgetting the boundaries of the hu-
man sphere manifests itself throughout his system of values. We have al-
ready considered the appalling confusion of Cassinus about "those beauties
that might ever last,"14 and of two of the Strephons about blasphemy.15
Swift suggests the values of Chloe's worshippers (described with comic
exaggeration as "all Men") by reducing their behaviour and possessions,
appropriately, to a rag-bag of nouns and verbals of apparently similar
significance and equal importance:
Think what a Case all Men are now in,
What ogling, sighing, toasting, vowing!
What powder'd Wigs! What Flames and Darts!
What Hampers full of bleeding Hearts!
What Sword-knots! What Poetic Strains!
What Billet-doux, and clouded Cains! (33-38)
To those beaux, Swift suggests, the fashionable appurtenances are just as
important as the "love" they are professing. The chaos is often charac-
terised by excessive concern about externals, as we have seen in the
cases of the Strephons and Cassinus, and in the cases of women who respond
to such concern in men--or play upon it--by giving excessive attention to
dress and cosmetics. When a woman's inordinate interest in her appearance
goes with a lack of personal fastidiousness, as in the case of Celia in
"The Lady's Dressing-Room," the confusion is compounded: even according
to her own dubious standards, her priorities are in a wild disorder,
reflected in the physical disorder of her dressing-room. Another ele-
ment in the confusion is the actual rejection, by the "senseless, stupid
Race," of what Swift presents as truly valuable in women: the "Wit and
Sense" that the men fear because it puts them to shame. Chaos here
gives way to a more obviously evil form of disorder: a direct inversion
of values. Debasing themselves before the foolish creatures they pro-
fess to worship, men fly from the women who are really their superiors
and do not hide the fact: a Vanessa16 has no suitors.
In the earliest of the poems we are considering, "Verses wrote in
a Lady's Ivory Table-Book," Swift presents an interlocking pattern of
inverted values, appropriately, by means of paradox and antithesis. The
beau who puts this far from perfect lady on a pedestal is nevertheless
her inferior in fact as well as in the atittude he assumes. But she
loses stature in giving him the chance to treat her as better than she
is. The lady's heart may, like the table-book, be
Scrawl'd o'er with Trifles thus, and quite
As hard, as sensless, and as light:
Expos'd to every Coxcomb's Eyes,
But hid with Caution from the Wise (3-6);
but what she writes is at least unpretentious: "A new Receit for Paint,"
"A safe way to use Perfume," and an account of expenditure for "an el
breth," shoes, and "half a Yard of Lace." In contrast, the beau's
entries are characterized by all the unrealistic, romantic extravagance
of expression and attitude that we have observed in the later poems:
"Dear Charming Sainc-tru tel deth---lovely Nymph pronounce my doom---
Madam, I Dye without your Grace." She is not a saint, not a divinity with
the power of granting or withholding grace: she is an ignorant, empty-
headed girl. But as a human being she merits Swift's reproof for leaving
the table-book out:
For every peeping Fop to Jear.
To think that your Brains Issue is
Expos'd to th' Excrement of his,
In power of Spittle and a Clout
When e're he please to blot it out;
And then to heighten the Disgrace
Clap his own Nonsence in the place. (18-24)
As in the later poems, the mention of excrement emphasises the mortality
of human beings; and the contrasting entries in the table-book serve as
objective correlative of the underlying antitheses. The beau's high-
flown sentiments are "Excrement"; the girl's commonplaces are the honest
issue of her vapid but down-to-earth brain. In balancing the apparent
against the real value of the sentiments, and the sentiments against the
commonplaces, Swift shows that trivial-minded though the girl is, she is
the beau's superior; it is unfitting that she gives him the chance to
erase her comments with the literal excrement of his spittle.
To direct our attention to the root cause of disorder attendant upon
the deification of women, Swift uses two main devices: mock-heroics, to
undercut the human pretentiousness inherent in such deification; and scat-
ology, to emphasise the mortality that makes such pretentiousness absurd.
By mock-heroics Swift ensures at the outset of "A Beautiful Young
Nymph" that we see Corinna as she is, simultaneously giving her glamour
and taking it away by describing her in terms of pastoral idyll even as he
tells us unequivocally that she is a prostitute. And in doing so, of
course, he strikes directly at the double standard: "Corinna, Pride of
Drury Lane/ For whom no Shepherd sighs in vain . ." (1-2). Similarly,
he sustains the ironic attitude and undercuts the illusion-based hopes of
human bride and groom by mock-heroic description of marriage rites. The
wedding of Strephon and Chloe, for example, was attended by Hymen, Venus
and "Her infant Loves with purple Wings," Apollo and the Muses, the Graces,
Mercury, Hebe, Mars, and Juno. (47-66) The occasion, graced by so many
divinities, seems to be of epic importance.17 But Swift suggests the
earthy human reality, both by his inclusion of sparrows18 in Venus's train,
and by informal diction-"Squire Apollo," "Dame Juno," "To make the Matter
sure."19 In the description of the wedding in "The Progress of Marriage,"
Swift is more explicit in making the contrast between the imaginary world
of epic personages and the real world of sober middle-aged groom and
flighty young bride. Ominously, Venus, the Graces, and the Muses all re-
fused their invitations, Juno came no further than "the Porch/ With far-
thing Candle for a Torch," Iris "held her Train,/ The faded Bow distilling
Rain," and although Hebe came, she "showed no more than half her Face."
By a twist of the device of mock-heroics, Swift has suggested the whole
sad story that will probably ensue: the husband's inadequacy, the wife's
tears, and the disastrous results of the steps she will take to remedy her
Not only does Swift use the trappings of epic in such long set-
pieces as these but also, less obtrusively, he uses mock-heroics in his
diction. His earthily expressed advice to the parents of'brides that they
should keep their daughters from "guzzling Beer," drinking tea in the
evening, and eating "what causes Wind," reaches a nicely calculated climax
in the sonorous and sublime-sounding lines: "Carminative and Diuretick,/
Will damp all Passion Sympathetick."20 In countless examples, Swift shows
himself the master of the perfectly-placed earthy word in a passage of
preponderantly mannered and formal language.21 A little later in the same
poem he writes:
Say, fair ones, must I make a Pause?.
Or freely tell the secret Cause.
Twelve Cups of Tea, (with Grief I speak)
Had now constrain'd the Nymph to leak. (161-164)
It is not surprising that mock-heroics and scatology so often go hand in
hand in the poetry, for it is hard to imagine a more forceful way of em-
phasising the mortal weakness of the human beings who have been elevated
to godlike status by their fellows.
Swift makes such contrasts when writing about the grand manner as
well as when using it. In "An Answer to a scandalous Poem, wherein the
Author most audaciously presumes to cast an Indignity upon their High-
nesses the Clouds, by comparing them to a Woman," Swift, in the character
of "Dermot 0-Nephely, Chief Cap of Howth," reproves the poets who ridi-
culously exalt women; and, characteristically, he puts woman in her true
placeby a paradoxical twist of mock-heroic treatment: clouds, though
inferior to women in the scale of being, have roles that women cannot
perform. By exalting the status of the clouds, and dwelling on the mor-
tal limitations of the woman, Swift comments indirectly as well as di-
rectly on the folly and error of the poets:
'Tis sung, where-ever Celia treads,
The Vi'lets ope their Purple Heads;
The Roses blow, the Cowslip springs;
'Tis sung, but we know better Things.
'Tis true; a Woman on her Mettle,
Will often p--ss upon a Nettle;
But, though we own, she makes it wetter,
The Nettle never thrives the better;
While we, by soft prolifick Show'rs,
Can ev'ry Spring produce you Flow'rs. (143-152)
"Gods like us," claims Dermot 0-Nephely, are not offended or demeaned by
the hyperbole of poets, however. The clouds remember that "Each Drab has
been compared to Venus" (157-160). We note in passing that yet once more
a serious thought is contained in a jeu d'esprit.
A particularly telling example of the use of scatology and mock-
heroics to demolish a misplaced fondness for the grand manner occurs in
"A Panegyrick on the Dean," written in 1730 during Swift's last visit to
Market Hill. About the same time, that is during one of the three visits
Swift made to Market Hill between 1728 and 1730, he began a poem addressed
to his hostess: "An Epistle to a Lady, who desired the Author to make
Verses on Her, in the Heroick Stile." In this poem, he rejects "the lofty
Stile" as unsuitable for his purpose. It seems probable that in "A Pane-
gyrick" he still has in mind Lady Acheson's hankerings to be immortalised
by verses in the grand manner. Speaking in the character of the lady, he
ends a catalogue of the Dean's activities and achievements at Market Hill
with a mock-heroic description of the building of privies, an improvement
for which it appears Swift was responsible. Addressing the goddess
Cloacine, he continues:
Yet, when your lofty Domes I praise,
I sigh to think of antient Days.
Permit me then to raise my Style,
And sweetly moralize a while. (225-228)
There follows a ninety-line passage about human excrement and the origin
and history of privies, all in the high-flown style promised in the intro-
ductory lines, and embellished with such machinery of the Christian epic
as the Deadly Sins.22 The very length of the passage, which at first
sight seems disproportionate, is perhaps part of the mock-heroic treatment
of the theme. At last it ends:
But, stop ambitious Muse, in time;
Nor dwell on Subjects too sublime.
In vain on lofty Heels I tread,
Aspiring to exalt my Head:
With Hoop expanded wide and light,
In vain I tempt too high a Flight. (319-324)
It is clear from other verses about Lady Acheson that, in Swift's opinion,
she did not aspire enough in the things that mattered:23 he makes her
sound as if she would have been glad to relax instead of trying to im-
prove her mind, as Swift was constantly hounding her to do. As we have
already noticed, he seems also to have thought that she cared too much
about fine clothes, as well as the "fine" style in complimentary verses.
In "A Panegyrick on the Dean," Swift brings together her weaknesses, and
teaches her a lesson. Undercutting the grand style by using it to write
of the least grand of human functions, he is not merely teaching Lady
Acheson better taste in style; he is reminding her that creatures who
excrete have no business trying to exalt themselves to god-like status.
In other terms, man is effectively reminded of his right relationship
with God when he is reminded of his excretions.24
In the lines immediately following the passage we have just con-
sidered, Lady Acheson recalls the dream in which, in sharply contrasting
language, Phoebus reminded her of her proper business:
Go shake your Cream,
Be humbly minded; know your Post;
Sweeten your Tea, and watch your Toast.
Thee best befits a lowly Style. (325-328)
Having enumerated her domestic duties in similar fashion, Phoebus con-
cludes: "Be these thy Arts; nor higher Aim/ Than what befits a rural
Dame." (341-342) On this occasion, although Swift at the climax of his
lesson is tempering it with teasing, he does not weaken the contrasts he
has made by any mention of the less lowly roles that, according to what
he says elsewhere, he thinks she ought to undertake.
NOTES ON CHAPTER 2
IThe most obvious purpose of the exaggeration is to heighten the
compliment to Esther Vanhomrigh.
2See pages 38-39 above.
3"The Grand Question Debated," 121-127. It is immaterial that we
are receiving the Captain's words at third-hand.
4"Cadenus and Vanessa," 859-877.
5paper delivered at a seminar on Swift's poetry, conducted at the
University of Florida by Professor Aubrey Williams in the Fall Quarter,
6He was responsible for, among other things, "the famous verses
(Gulliveriana. p. 77; Nichols's Supplement, 1779; Scott, Memoirs, p. 176 n.)
said to have been affixed to the door of St. Patrick's Cathedral, at the
time of Swift's installation as Dean." Williams, p. 360, n.
7Professor Aubrey Williams has pointed out to me that in Laputa men
neglect their wives with similar results. See Gulliver's Travels, III,
Chapter 2 (Davis, XI, 165-166).
8See John Aden's excellent article, "Corinna and the Sterner Muse of
Swift," ELN, 4 (1966), 23-31, which includes a review of previous criti-
cism of the poem.
It is for more fortunate women, too, that Swift reserves his cen-
sures. He does not weaken our pity for his prostitutes by mentioning
their failings. (Admittedly, they could hardly afford the follies and
affectations of the Modern Lady.) There is even, perhaps, a suggestion
of gallantry about Corinna, in spite of the irony of Swift's description:
"Never did Covent Garden boast/ So bright a battered, strolling Toast."
(3-4) But note Aden's comments on these lines (Aden, 25). Delany's
account of Swift's regular "walking" among the Dublin poor, in which "he
literally followed the example of his blessed Saviour, and 'went about
doing good'," suggests that his compassion for the Corinnas took practical
form. He bought from the sellers of tape, gingerbread and so on, and in
the case of those "whose saleables were of another nature, he added
something to their store: with strict charges of industry and honesty"
(Delany, pp. 130-134 and 260-261).
10As C.S. Lewis points out, in The Allegory of Love (London: Oxford
University Press, H. Milford, 1936), p. 14, "according to the medieval
view passionate love itself was wicked," whether in or out of marriage.
For a full account of the incompatibility of Christianity and the religion
of courtly love, see Alexander J. Denomy, The Heresy of Courtly Love (New
York: the Declan X. McMullen Company, Inc., 1947).
11Donald Greene, in his essay "On Swift's 'Scatological' Poems,"
Sewanee Review, 75 (1967), 672-689, draws our attention to the basic
sin underlying Cassinus's attitude: "While one side of his divided mind
is perfectly content with fetor and squalor, the other entertains an
inflated 'image' of himself, drawn from his readings in romantic poetry,
which nothing less than a completely ethereal Caelia will suffice. It
is this preposterous arrogance, the blind enslavement to an ego-boosting
illusion -- products of the human sin of pride -- that Swift, a perfectly
orthodox Christian moralist, discerns and condemns here as in so many
other places." (Greene, 676)
12Greene points out the similarity between Strephon's sin and Cas-
sinus's. "Strephon .., is the victim of his 'foul Imagination' and
'vicious Fancy,' which in the first place demanded for his inflated ego
a superhuman partner, then deluded itself that in Celia he had obtained
the paragon he felt himself entitled to, and now, when his fantasy world
collapses, makes him see in every woman only her excretory functions . .
This is madness; this is obsession; this is 'the excremental vision,' which
makes a fetish of the routine, trivial, and harmless fact of human excre-
tion; and this is what the poem pillories." (Greene, 677)
13"1 have got materials towards a treatis proving the falsity of that
Definition animal rationale; and to shew it should be only rationis capax."
Swift to Pope, Sept. 29, 1725. (Correspondence, III, 103)
14See above, pages 62-63.
15See above, pages 57-58.
If Tyne is right, however, Vanessa herself is at fault. Noting
"the common-sense realism" of Swift in accepting the foibles of human na-
ture and seeing their necessity, he thinks that Vanessa is above herself,
and with "her extravagant expectations of what human nature is capable
of," is "as much a butt of Swift's comic ridicule as the Strephons of the
anti-romantic poems or the Gulliver of the fourth book of the Travels"
(Tyne, 519). In contrast, Ohlin argues that Vanessa, before her passion
for Cadenus disturbs her judgment, "conforms perfectly to Swift's under-
standing of what is admirable in a woman," and is the embodiment of the
ideal set fourth in A Letter to a Young Lady, on Her Marriage (Ohlin,
1Greene suggests that here we have "the cliches of Grub Street," and
that "perhaps Swift is making the point that it is emphatically not a
Christian marriage" (Greene, 681).
18Sparrows are traditionally lecherous, and here actually "treading".
They are also the commonest of birds and the least grand in appearance.
1Cf. Maurice Johnson, The Sin of Wit (Syracuse: Syracuse University
Press, 1950), p. 110. Johnson quotes the lines ". . Pigeons billing,
Sparrows treading,/ Fair Emblems of a fruitful Wedding" (51-52), and "The
Rites performed, the Parson paid,/ In State returned the grand Parade"
(67-68), and comments: "Here the humorous joining of formal and colloquial
serves as the motif for the whole poem: this is Strephon's story of how he
idealized his bride as a deity only to discover her a human animal like
him, his poetic dream becoming as much a down-to-earth reality as the
shameless sparrows and the fees for the parson."
20Maurice Johnson also notes the effect of these lines. See The Sin
of Wit, pp. 111-112.
21See especially the final line of "Cassinus and Peter." For other
examples of the perfectly placed word, note "worship" in the last line of
the birthday poem for Stella, 1719, and "senseless" in line 141 of "The
Journal of a Modern Lady."
2Cf. Spenser, The Faerie Queene, I,i,4. Swift claims that it was
because of the effects of gluttony that privies had to be invented. Al-
though he is saying something about gluttony here, and although he may
have the morality play as well as the Christian epic in mind, it seems to
me that the main purpose of his introducing Gluttony personified is pro-
23See below, pages 77-78.
For this reason, it seems to me unnecessary to seek biographical
or psychological causes for Swift's comparatively extensive use of scat-
ology, which so patently has a theological function. The theory that in
writing of the excremental Swift was fulfilling a serious moral purpose
is far from new, although it has not always been in fashion. Of "The
Lady's Dressing Room" Orrery notes (albeit grudgingly) that the best way
to defend the poem "is to suppose, that the author exhibited his CELIA in
the most hideous colours he could find, lest she might be mistaken as a
goddess, when she was only a mortal" (p. 79). Although Delany's first
reaction to the scatological poems was unmitigated disgust, his second
thoughts were "that they are the prescriptions of an able physician who
had, in truth, the health of his patients at heart" (p. 178). Recent
variations on the theme are numerous. In Swift and Scatological Satire
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), Jae Num Lee states
the central fact: "Since pride stems from man's exaggerated view of his
own importance and superiority, scatology is one of the most effective
devices for shattering man's hubris." (p. 45) He comments later, "the
more heartily we can laugh by means of scatological humor, the more
completely we accept ourselves as mortal beings. For such a purpose, a
true humanist does not shy away from scatology. On the contrary, he is
almost obligated to use it" (p. 122). See also the works by Aden, Greene
and Maurice Johnson that we have already cited, and also Herbert Davis,
"A Modest Defence of 'The Lady's Dressing Room,'" in Restoration and
Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Carroll Camden (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 39-48: E. San Juan Jr., The Anti-Poetry of
Jonathan Swift," Pq, 44 (1965), 387-396; Reid B. Sinclair, "'What the
World Calls Obscene': Swift's 'Ugly' Verse and the Satiric Tradition."
Dissertation Abstracts, 26 (1966), 1028-1029 (Vanderbilt University).
THE PERFORMANCE OF WOMEN
We can, of course, deduce a great deal about Swift's idea of how a
woman's part should be played from his presentation of a woman's failure
to fill her station adequately. Indeed, "The Journal of a Modern Lady,"
devoted entirely to the satirical analysis of the out-of-joint way of
life, may be seen as a demonstration by contrast of the ideal from which
the Modern Lady deviates.
Sometimes, when Swift writes in praise of a particular woman, he
suggests some of her admirable qualities by referring explicitly to the
absence of their opposites. In his poem "To Mrs. Biddy Floyd," for ex-
ample, he tells us that Cupid found in her "Truth, Innocence, Good Nature,
Look serene," and continues: "From which Ingredients, First the dext'rous
Boy/ Pickt the Demure, the Aukward, and the Coy." The Graces gave her
Breeding, and Wit, and Air, and decent Pride;
These Venus cleans'd from ev'ry spurious Grain
Of Nice, Coquet, Affected, Pert, and Vain (4-10).
In "An Epistle to a Lady," he suggests Lady Acheson's virtues in a similar
indirect way, by putting into her mouth a speech of self-defencel in the
form of a series of rhetorical questions. She asks, for example,
Am I spightful, proud, unjust?
Did I ever break my Trust?
Which, of all our modern Dames
Censures less, or less defames?
In Good Manners, am I faulty?
Can you call me rude, or haughty? (65-70)
But Swift also speaks much more directly of woman's particular vir-
tues and skills. "The First of April: A Poem Inscrib'd to Mrs. E.C." is
Swift's tribute to a woman playing to perfection her role as wife and
mother. The "God of Wit and Joke" plays an April Fool trick on the Muses,
sending them to take charge of the Cope children:
They peep'd, and saw a Lady there
Pinning on Coifs and combing Hair;
Soft'ning with Songs to Son or Daughter,
The persecution of cold Water.
Still pleas'd with the good-natur'd Noise,
And harmless Frolicks of her Boys;
Equal to all in Care and Love,
Which all deserve and all improve. (29-36)
Continuing to watch the lady busily and wholeheartedly caring fo her-hus-..
band, her family and her home, the goddesses realise that they cannot im-
prove upon her performance and are disconcerted:
"This House don't want, nor will it hold us.
"We govern here where she presides
"With Virtue, Prudence, Wit besides;
"A Wife as good as Heart cou'd wish one,
"What need we open our Commission,
"There's no occasion here for us,
"Can we do more thfn what she does." (46-52)
By invention of -a fable peopled with pagan deities, Swift has been able
without danger of blasphemy to pay Mrs. Cope the compliment of suggesting
that even beings from a higher place in the scale of being could not ful-
fil the human role better than she fulfils it.
We note, however, that Mrs. Cope fulfils her traditional role of wife
and mother "with Virtue, Prudence, Wit besides." In "An Epistle to a
Lady," Swift's Lady Acheson says to him:
You wou'd teach me to be wise; ---
Truth and Honour how to prize;
How to shine in Conversation,
And, with Credit fill my Station:
How to relish Notions high;
How to live, and how to die. (21-26)2
"With credit" to "fill [her] station," she must be more than a good wife
and mother, more than a good hostess perfectly attentive to the physical
needs of her guests, "clear" of look and "smooth" of "stile". Swift
Tho' you lead a blameless Life,
Are an humble, prudent Wife;
Answer all domestic Ends,
What is this to us your Friends? (99-102)
Her friends "expect Employment better." Swift admonishes her: "You must
learn, if you would gain us,/ With good sense to entertain us." (112-114)
Friendship is essentially a relationship between equals, and Swift expects
his friend and partner in the human rank to which both belong to make the
intellectual effort required to bring her to his own level. Swift's
coupling of virtue with wit (good sense, or purposeful use of the mind)
as attributes of the admirable woman reminds us, of course, of the other
side of his coin: that however strong the forces working against woman
and the proper use of her intelligence, she is not excused from the moral
responsibility of trying to use it. It reminds us also that to the ortho-
dox Christian the practice of virtue and the attempt to be reasonable are
inseparable activities. In the Thomist tradition,3 the distinguishing
characteristic of virtuous behavior is its accordance with the distin-
guishing faculty of human beings, the ability to reason.
But the ideal advocated by any human being, however firmly his prin-
ciples are grounded in a widely accepted religious and moral code, must
to some extent fall short of universality: it is inevitably coloured by
personal taste, which in turn is intimately related to personal need.
The ideal of behaviour that Swift advocates to his women friends is
coloured by his own personality. Furthermore, consideration of what he
regards as ideal cannot be separated from consideration of what he loves.
Of his own characteristics, two seem to be of special significance in this
connection, the intelligence and the fastidiousness that demand correspon-
ding intelligence and fastidiousness in the women he loves or befriends.
When for most women natural intelligence was denied its full scope
because of inferior education, an intellectual man must have had diffi-
culty in finding an intellectually compatible woman. Stella, with her
combination of a woman's body and a man's mind, was an exception, and so
was Vanessa, in her possession, through education, of the mental calibre
usually found only in men.5 Swift comments upon the dearth of intellec-
tually adequate girls (again coupling wit with virtue) in "To Lord Harley,
since Earl of Oxford, on his Marriage." Swift claims to have thought "A
Spirit so informed" as Harley's "Could never prosper in amours" (8-9),
and to have asked:
Then where . shall Harley find
A virgin of superior mind,
With wit and virtue to discover,
And pay the merit of her Lover? (33-56)
"Ca'ndish," like Vanessa, however, was "Born to retrieve her sex's fame,"
and also like Vanessa, she was helped by Pallas, who
with celestial light
Had purify'd her mortal sight;
Shew'd her the Virtues all combined,
Fresh blooming, in young Harley's mind. (49-52)
In this poem, the writer of complimentary verse is at his most complimen-
tary. Nevertheless, Swift's comments suggest that the problem of Harley
and others like him is greater than it at first seemed. Unless the man
of informed spirit finds a woman of similar endowments, he cannot find-a.
mate at all, for only a woman of informed spirit can recognize his worth.
For Swift, in inspiring and keeping love, a woman's wit and virtue are
far more important, apparently, than mere physical beauty. He does pay
tribute to honest, natural, unaffected beauty, in "An Apology to the
Lady C-R-T"; in a graceful compliment, he compares Lady Carteret's beauty
Roses of richest Dye, that shone
With native Lustre like her own;
Beauty that needs no Aid of Art,
Thro' ev'ry Sense to reach the Heart. (113-116)
But he has told us in the opening line of the poem that she is "wise as
well as fair."
If Swift appears to rate wit in women more highly than most men do,
it may be that he elevates a quality to which he responds in the objects
of his affection into a desideratum for all women, and that his respon-
siveness to wit in others is prompted by his own wit. In his exalting of
"decency" in the relationship of man and woman, he shows perhaps even more
clearly his own predilections. And in the ideal of decency that he pre-
sents, he is perhaps on the least sure ground morally, for his own extreme
fastidiousness leads him into the very danger he expounds so eloquently,
the danger of not accepting the humanity of man. Here we have a paradox,
for in enabling him to use scatology with such devastating effectiveness,
fastidiousness has provided him with his chief weapon against that danger.
Without acute sensibility and a deep capacity for disgust he could not
have brought the inescapable facts of mortality into such perfectly
placed juxtaposition and vivid contrast with the facts of human presump-
tuousness. But when he speaks forcefully as a divine and a moralist, he
rarely shows squeamishness. There is nothing squeamish about his humour,
either, which belongs to a long tradition in which, underlying the scat-
ological and sexual joke there is a strong sense of the contrast between
mortal and divine.
Most civilised people, conditioned to cleanliness, would share much
of his fastidiousness: Celia, for example, is disgusting by any civilised
standards. She may be mortal, she may excrete; but she could at least
wash the excretions away from her person, her clothes, and her combs and
towels -- she could at least be clean.6 But in "Strephon and Chloe," for
example, he exhibits an abnormal degree of fastidiousness and an unreal-
istic attitude. After having made the point that Chloe is mortal and
Strephon is wrong in looking on her as a goddess,- he goes further. First
he suggests, as we have noted, that the lovers descend below human level,
"to the beastly way of thinking," finding "great society in stinking."
In the long passage that follows, he goes further still. Not only does
he expect the lovers, living together in intimacy, to conceal their na-
tural functions entirely from each other: he suggests that the desire that
is part of love cannot survive unless this strict decency is maintained:
Fair Decency, celestial Maid,
Descend from Heav'n to Beauty's Aid;
Though Beauty may beget Desire,
'Tis thou must fan the Lover's Fire;
For, Beauty, like supreme Dominion,
Is best supported by Opinion;
If Decency brings no Supplies,
Opinion falls, and Beauty dies. (219-226)
He has not been talking about a girl's "letting herself go" in appearance
and cleanliness after marriage, but about her not hiding the simple needs
of bladder and bowel from her husband, when he warns
that Women must be decent;
And, from the Spouse each Blemish hide
More than from all the world beside (252-254).
It is, perhaps, indicative of his phobia that he refers to a natural,
healthy function as a blemish. The comment that follows, it seems to me,
shows a lack of understanding:
Unjustly all our Nymphs complain,
Their Empire holds so short a Reign;
Is after Marriage lost so soon,
It hardly holds the Honey-moon:
For, if they keep not what they caught,
It is entirely their own Fault.
They take Possession of the Crown,
And then throw all their Weapons down. (255-262)
There seems no reason to suppose that at this point Swift is speaking
through a persona.7 If he is indeed speaking with his own voice, in this
passage he betrays, perhaps, a surprising failure to recognize that love,
as opposed to romantic infatuation, is transcendent at all levels, in-
cluding the earthiest. A parent is not easily revolted by an infant, and
lovers are not easily revolted by each other. Moreover, he does not, ap-
parently, recognize that the unselfconscious behaviour of a Chloe may
demonstrate the absence of constraint from her relationship rather than
an undue lack of restraint in her:
No Maid at Court is less asham'd
Howe'er for selling Bargains fam'd,
Than she, to name her Parts behind,
Or when a-bed, to let out Wind. (215-218)
In short, he seems to be falling into the trap about which he has given
so many warnings: his extreme fastidiousness has betrayed him into shrin-
king from full acceptance of the whole humanity of man and woman in the
relationship of marriage.
Although it is no part of our purpose here to attempt a psychological
study of Swift, we cannot help wondering about the two respects in which
his ideal woman seems to be an ideal for him rather than for all men, and
about the possible connection between them. Perhaps his insistence on the
mental and moral qualifies of his women friends is the greater because he
has channelled all his energies into admiration of these qualities, his
physical responses having been inhibited at least to some extent by his
perhaps abnormal fastidiousness.
But this is perhaps a minor point, and we in turn fall into the trap
of failing to accept Swift's human individuality if we make too much of
it.8 The poems to Stella, which we shall discuss in a later chapter,
leave us in no doubt of his capacity for deep love, in face of which his
possible limitations seem trivial. Furthermore, though his personal
idiosyncracies may colour his perception, except in such a rare instance
as the one we have just discussed, they do not distort it. At the end of
"Strephon and Chloe," Swift's recipe for lasting love between human beings,
mortal in body and immortal in soul, suggests the ideal performance of the
human role by both the man and the woman, and few people, one imagines,
would take exception to it unless they knew of the special implications
of "Decency" to Swift:
On Sense and Wit your Passion found,
By Decency cemented round;
Let Prudence with Good Nature strive,
To keep Esteem and Love alive,
Then come old Age whene'er it will,
Your Friendship shall continue still:
And thus a mutual gentle Fire,
Shall never but with Life expire. (307-314)
The love that lasts is the love aroused by the virtue of the beloved,
for everything excepttvirtue is subject to the changes of mortality. In
"To Stella, Who Collected and Transcribed his Poems," Swift comments:
Now should my Praises owe their Truth
To Beauty, Dress, or Paint, or Youth,
What Stoicks call without our Power,
They could not be insur'd an Hour;
'Twere grafting on an annual Stock,
That must our Expectation mock,
And making one luxuriant Shoot
Die the next Year for want of Root:
Before I could my Verses bring,
Perhaps you're quite another Thing. (61-70)
When Maevius "drain'd his Skull/ To celebrate some Suburb Trull," and
Had gone through all the Common-Places
Worn out by Wits who rhyme on Faces;
Before he could his Poem close,
The lovely Nymph had lost her Nose. (75-78)
Making the association, by his selection of this example, between moral
disorder, the praisers of beauty, and the women praised, Swift gives
greater force to his praise of Stella: "Your Virtues safely I commend,/
They on no Accidents depend;" and by the ironic contrast implied in
"Virtues" and "Accidents", he also completes his indictment of the val-
ues of Maevius and his trull.
Love founded on virtue is characterized by its balance, its whole-
ness, its reflection of the harmony and completeness of God's design, and
God, indeed, is its source. At the beginning of "Cadenus and Vanessa,"
Swift defines the love of which "antient Poets sing": it is
A Fire celestial, chaste, refin'd,
Conceiv'd and kindled in the Mind,
Which having found an equal Flame,
Unites, and both become the same,
In different Breasts together burn,
Together both to Ashes turn. (29-34)9
But it is at the end of the first of his "Verses to Vanessa" that Swift
makes perhaps his most telling comment upon love founded on virtue:
The strongest Reason will submit
To Virtue, --Honor, Sense, and Wit.
To such a Nymph the Wise and Good
Cannot be faithless if they wou'd:
For Vices all have different Ends,
But Virtue still to Virtue tends. (7-12)
In this passage, we discover the full significance of "Virtue" as Swift
the orthodox Christian uses the word: Virtue is the embodiment of God
Himself. The word denotes the God of goodness, permeating the whole chain
of creation and manifesting Himself in His creatures; and it also denotes
the Idea of the Good, towards which all the manifestations must gravitate
and with which all must be united, as the waters of a river are united
with those of the sea. The rest follows. Reason in the lover must sub-
mit to Virtue in the beloved, for Virtue in human beings is by definition
reasonable, characterized by "Honor, Sense, and Wit." Virtue is the very
principle that keeps the order in a state of equilibrium, and the lovers
of the virtue manifested in virtuous women, putting themselves in harmony
with that order, are enabled at once to participate in it and be sustained
by it. All else is chaos, "For Vices all have different Ends." But
"Virtue still to Virtue tends."
In concluding our discussion of Swift's concept of woman's role, we
must comment upon the importance of the three women who have figured so
largely in it. The poems about Stella, Vanessa, and Lady Acheson are im-
portant not only because of their number or length, but also because in
his relationships with these women, as he records them, he so frequently
assumes the role of tutor. Although discussion of Swift's tutorial role
belongs to the next chapter, at this point it is relevant to mention one
aspect of it. Not only does he offer guidance'to his women friends: he
also voices a tutor's approval and praise of the qualities he finds al-
ready developed in his pupils. Furthermore, he rarely seems to forget
his wider audience, the women who may learn from their examples. Lady
Acheson was a disappointing pupil. Swift's portraits of Stella and Van-
essa, however, may be considered as in some respects models for their sex
Most of the poetry about Stella and Vanessa was made public by Swift
himself, to a limited group of friends by private circulation, and to an
unrestricted audience by publication in his lifetime. Most of the poems
to Stella, for example, appeared in the last volume of the Pope-Swift
Miscellanies, in 1727. "Cadenus and Vanessa," certainly, may have become
public in the first place against his intentions, but he accepted and made
the best of the fait accompli. He wrote to Knightley Chetwode from
London on 17 April, 1726, "I am very indifferent what is done with it,
for printing cannot make it more common than it is."10 As Williams points
out, it was actually at the time he was writing this letter that "the poem
found its way into print" (p. 685), and shortly afterwards, Swift himself
included it in the Miscellanies of 1727. What he says of Stella and
Vanessa in the published poems, then, may be taken as part of the instruc-
tion that as a teacher he made it his business to impart to all women and
men who would read it.
Indeed, he tells us in so many words that, in embodying the virtues,
Stella and Vanessa embody an ideal for all women to emulate. In the fable
of "Cadenus and Vanessa," Vanessa is literally "A Model for her Sex
designed" (866). She is modest, intelligent, wise, and above all an apt
Her Knowledge with her Fancy grew;
She hourly press'd for something new;
Ideas came into her Mind
So fast, his Lessons lagg'd behind. (554-557)
In her dealings with others, she fills admirably her place in the order to
which she belongs. Not only does she regard with "distain" and "rage" the
false values of the trivial and vicious-minded;
With pleasing Arts she could reduce
Mens Talents to their proper Use;
And with Address each Genius held
To that wherein it most excell'd;
Thus making others Wisdom known,
Cou'd please them, and improve her own. (448-453)
We are reminded that "Virtue still to Virtue tends."
Swift tells us most explicitly that Stella, too, is a model to be
emulated, in "To Stella, Visiting me in my Sickness." In the opening
lines of the poem he takes up and adapts the conceit he used in "Cadenus
Pallas observing Stella's Wit
Was more than for her Sex was fit;
And that her Beauty, soon or late,
Might breed Confusion in the State,
In high Concern for human Kind,
Fixt Honour in her Infant Mind. (1-6)
His definition of honour is significant:
It answers Faith in Things divine.
As natural Life the Body warms,
And, Scholars teach, the Soul informs;
So Honour animates the Whole,
And is the Spirit of the Soul.
Those numerous Virtues which the Tribe
Of tedious Moralists describe,
And by such various Titles call,
True Honour comprehends them all. (10-18) --
Yet again we are reminded of the wholeness of virtue, of the harmony of
the divine order to which the virtuous human being conforms and of which
he partakes. And of the honour that comprehends all the virtues, Swift
says, "Let Stella's fair Example preach/ A Lesson she alone can teach"
(33-34). Not only is Stella a model for those who would understand their
duty to God; she is a model for those who would understand their duty to
their fellow men. In the relationship of friendship, the perfect balance
between two human beings in their place in the divine order, she is "Beet
Pattern of true Friends" (117). It is no matter for wonder that the
woman held up by a Christian poet for emulation should be one who lives
by the two great commandments of the Sermon on the Mount.
NOTES ON CHAPTER 3
Parts of the speech are ironic, perhaps. See pages 202-203 below.
2"Epistle to a Lady."
3Professor Robert H. Bowers has drawn my attention to "the Francis-
can emphasis on will power to activate the reasonable."
4This problem, as Professor Aubrey Williams has reminded me, was "a
basic preoccupation of Restoration comedy." Millamant was a match (in
both senses) for Mirabell, Angelica for Valentine.
5As Fischer points out, in her correspondence Esther Vanhomrigh has
left ample evidence of her high intelligence. He quotes her letter to
Swift (Correspondence, II, 362-363), which concludes: "Therefore don't
flatter yourself that separation will ever change my sentiments, for I
find myself unquiet in the midst of silence, and my heart is at once
pierced with sorrow and love." He comments, "But passion so well worded
as this argues for a cool head as well as for a warm heart, and particu-
larly the carefully constructed final sentence of this passage persuades
me that Esther understood the use of the blunt as well as the sharp end
of her stylus." (Fischer, "The Echoic Poetry of Jonathan Swift," p. 49.
See also p. 69, n. 11.)
6"The Lady's Dressing Room."
Greene takes a different view. He thinks that the advice about
decency (219-292) is ironic and that what he later calls the "excessive
sensibility, or rather egotism" of Strephon is being derided. (Greene,
pp. 679-683) The theory is plausible, but breaks down, I think, when we
try to find the point at which the speaker's point of view changes. The
final reference to decency (308) is clearly not ironic.
8Comments by Kathleen Williams, at the beginning of her Jonathan
Swift and the Age of Compromise (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press,
1958), serve as a timely warning against trying to force Swift "into a
consistency which properly belongs only to the creatures of our imagin-
ation" (1). She also observes that "Swift's writings, like most of our
greatest literature, make much use of subconscious material, and great
writers, though probably no more odd than the rest of us, leave more
evidence of their oddity to posterity than most people would disclose out-
side the analyst's consulting room." (3)
Cf. page 23 above, n. 37.
10Correspondence, III, 305-306.
THE PERFORMANCE OF SWIFT
TUTOR AND COURTIER
On the stage of the world, Swift's roles as he apparently saw them
were all variants of his main human role as moralist. In his own eyes,
perhaps, the most important of these secondary roles was political, and
it was not only ambition that made him wish passionately for advancement.
He seems to have believed that by virtue of his great and God-given talents
he was eminently fitted to hold the high office in which those gifts could
find their fullest scope and expression. There is evidence, throughout
all but the earliest works, of his deep disappointment at never having
risen to high place in England, and of his conviction that his most
glorious years were those in which he came nearest to achieving his am-
bition, the last four years of Queen Anne, the administration of Robert
Harley, Earl of Oxford. In the poems about women, most of which are
concerned with private relationships rather than public, most of our
glimpses of Swift the politician are incidental. In "An Epistle to a
Lady," however, we see him in the role of political poet. His hopes for
advancement in England long dead, but his political commitment and concern
undiminished, his role must be that of satirist. In his dealings with
scoundrels in power, he claims (as in his dealings with Lady Acheson,
whom he addresses), his "Method of Reforming,/ Is by laughing, not by
storming" (229-230). In some of the earlier poems, we see him acting, if
not as a politician, at least as a diplomat in his address to ladies of
influential background. But in his personal relationships with women,
the role of Swift the moralist was most often that of tutor.1 Conscious
as he was that men, with their greater advantages, must inevitably be-the..,
pattern-setters, he readily assumed the duties of teaching his women friends
how to live in harmony with right order: they could too easily, he saw,
adapt themselves to the patterns set by the deviants -- the beaux and the
exalters and debasers of women. Sometimes he taught by laughter, and
sometimes he used the methods of a courtier. On the stage of the world as
we see it through the poems, we also see Swift in the role of lover. He
is lover and moralist simultaneously; for him, love must be founded on
"wit and virtue."
Distinct from the roles he lived are those he deliberately adopted
for poetic purposes--or refrained from adopting. Swift the man took it
upon himself to instruct his young women friends; but in "Cadenus and
Vanessa," he casts himself explicitly and literally in the part of tutor.
Consistently in the poems to Stella he reveals himself as a lover; but
hardly ever does he adopt the stance of a lover. For the most part, any
attempt to distinguish the assumed roles from the natural proves futile,
however. Although we can, obviously, separate from the rest the poems in
which he tells us in so many words that he is undertaking a role, it is
impossible to say, when such specific statements are wanting, whether he
is assuming a character or persona or simply revealing an already existing
aspect of himself.2 Furthermore, when he does make such statements, we
cannot always tell to what degree they are metaphorical: if he directed
Esther Vanhomrigh's reading, how far, we wonder, did that fact in itself
make him literally her tutor? The attempt to make such distinctions,
however, does serve-a purpose. In revealing the virtual impossibility of
the task, it reinforces our argument, suggesting that because Swift sees
life as a drama, whatever he says of his function in life sounds like the
description of a role, whether he has been deliberately assuming such a
role, or merely writing literally about life as, to his eyes, it is. For
him, the world stage imagery apparently has metaphorical and literal truth.
In a later chapter we shall be examining the devices Swift uses in pre-
senting himself as a character in the drama; but in our discussion of the
roles themselves, we shall be concerned with his world view, his habitual
patterns of perception, not merely with a device.
Although there is little to be added to what we have already said
about the lessons that Swift the tutor gives, much remains to be said
about his teaching methods. In each relationship, naturally, they are
different, adapted to the circumstances and to the needs of the woman he
teaches. He believed, apparently, that he could teach Lady Acheson best
by laughter. According to "An Epistle to a Lady," in which he writes as
laughing satirist, he also believed that it was for teaching by laughter
that his own talents best fitted him. The "Heroick Strain" is not for
him. "From the Planet of my Birth," he claims, "I encounter Vice with
Mirth" (141-142). He believes, like Horace, that "Ridicule has greater
pow'r/ To reform the World, than Sour," and that people, like horses, are
guided better by "Switches . than Cudgels":
Bastings heavy, dry, obtuse
Only Dulness can produce.
While a little gentle Jerking
Sets the Spirits all a working. (199-206)
Nettling Lady Acheson "with Raillery," setting her "thoughts upon their
Mettle," he tells her,
Gives Imagination Scope,
Never lets your Mind elope:
Drives out Brangling, and Contention,
Brings in Reason and Invention. (211-216)
Laughing at his pupil's faults, he suggests, is far more beneficial to
her than quoting "Texts from Plutarch's Morals," or producing from Sol-
omon "Maxims teaching Wisdom's Use" (233-238). His raillery may make her
smart, briefly; but he must be delighted when he finds
the tingling Pain,
Entring warm your frigid Brain
Make you able upon Sight,
To decide of Wrong and Right?
Talk with Sense, whatever you please on,
Learn to relish Truth and Reason. (267-272)
We have noticed several examples of Swift's attempts to teach Lady
Acheson by teasing (in "Revolution at Market-Hill," for example). We
notice also, however, that he was often unsuccessful as a tutor to her.
The most obvious evidence of his failure is found in "To Daphne," in which
he describes vividly and dramatically his struggles with a recalcitrant
pupil. She is perverse, vexing him on purpose, inviting his contempt.
Describing her pleasure in frustrating him, he uses "delight" three times
in forty-six'lines. She loves to argue, is always wrong, but never admits
it; "with cavils combats reason" (12); is dogmatic; never listens; is most
opinionated about the things of which she knows least, and silliest and
most peevish about the things of which she knows most; she is angriest
"when she knows she's most to blame." She smiles as she resists. If she
ever improves, he asserts, it will be for spite: her would-be-reformer
must "advise her wrong;/ And reprove her when she's right" (37-38),
contriving "Into contradiction [to] warm her" (33). But second thoughts
suggest that even this plan will fail, for she is too cunning. She pre-
Nature holds her forth two mirrors,
One for truth, and one for errors:
That looks hideous, fierce, and frightful;
This is flatt'ring, and delightful;
That she throws away as foul;
Sits by this, to dress her soul. (43-48)
In "Twelve Articles," generally regarded as a sequel to "Daphne" or part
of it,3 he speaks even more specifically about the shortcomings of his
pupil,and in doing so he reveals as much about the tutor as about his
charge. It seems that in his dealings with Lady Acheson he could not
always act in accordance with his belief, born of experience, that teach-
ing is better effected by teasing than by anger, although he claims in
"Epistle to a Lady," to have found "by Experiment," that "Scolding moves
[her] less than Merriment," and that his vain storming and raging "but
stupify [her] Brain" (208-210). The picture of Lady Acheson that emerges,
particularly from "Twelve Articles," suggests that perhaps she was not as
intelligent as he thought or wished she was, and that he expected too
much of her. She evidently stumbled as she read aloud. She was not
convinced by reason, she stuck to paradoxes, was inattentive, said absurd
things, became angry as she argued wrong. She failed to understand his
jokes, but pretended she understood them and resented his explanation of
them. She did not appreciate his writings. She was forgetful, and fret-
ful when he played tutor. She blundered on and on as he "thundered" at
her. She showed "poverty of spirit,/ And in dress placed] all her merit."
She gave herself "ten thousand airs," with what seems to an observer an
almost pathetic failure to see their futility to move her stern preceptor.
She rejected his advice, which, apparently, he gave unasked. His attitude
towards her may to some extent be explained, however, by the circumstances
in which he played tutor to her.
During Swift's visit to England in 1726, he received news of the
serious deterioration of Stella's health. In a letter to John Worrall on
July 15, his distress bursts the bounds of his usual reticence, and he
reveals the almost panic-stricken horror which overwhelms him at the an-
ticipation of her death and impels him to fly from it. He asks Worrall,