Masterpiece Monday: Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift at the Deanery of St. Patrick's...

Swift at the Deanery of St. Patrick's...how fitting! (Image via Wikipedia)

Well, tomorrow is Doomsday for me, since I will be taking the first part of my comprehensive exam. I already told you last week to beware the Ides of March–the day of the last part of my exam, no less!–but another important day is coming soon: St. Patrick’s Day!

I thought I would celebrate the Irish holiday early for Masterpiece Monday by discussing my favorite Irish writer, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Swift is most famous for Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” but his family lineage is also famous: he’s related to John Dryden and William Shakespeare himself!

I read “A Modest Proposal” in high school–which should be mandatory, by the way, because it is a delightfully witty yet serious satire on the British avoidance of Irish overpopulation and poverty. However, I wanted to talk today about a hilarious poem he wrote, called “The Lady’s Dressing Room.”

Published in 1732, the poem is about a man named Strephon who sneaks into his lover Celia’s dressing room while she’s away, only to find it completely filthy and gross. As he finds sweaty towels and dirty combs, he realizes that Celia is not the goddess he thought she was. He even compares opening her smelly cabinet to unleashing Pandora’s Box.

Swift got a lot of criticism for his vulgar descriptions, which you can read for yourself here. But the best stanza is when Strephon has to accept that Celia is just a normal, flawed human being like the rest of us:

Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

Naturally, this poem offended women because it placed them in the unfair position of either perfect angel or disgusting vermin, rather than represent them fairly and accurately. One such woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wrote an equally raunchy poem in response, called “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a poem called ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room,'” which can be read in full here.

In her poem, Montagu explains that Swift wrote “The Lady’s Dressing Room” after a sexually disappointing affair with a prostitute. Because he feels cheated, he exclaims:

“I’ll so describe your dressing room
The very Irish shall not come.”
She answered short, “I’m glad you’ll write.
You’ll furnish paper when I shite.”

Most stand-up comics can’t make jokes like these! So if you enjoy literary wit and Irish jokes, celebrate St. Paddy’s Day by reading these two outrageous poems. I’ll be busy studying my butt off, so you probably won’t hear from me the rest of the week, but let me know what you think of them!

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