Friday, 22 April 2011


“A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” by Jonathan Swift


Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane,
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent-Garden boast
So bright a batter'd strolling toast!
No drunken rake to pick her up,
No cellar where on tick to sup;
Returning at the midnight hour,
Four stories climbing to her bower;
Then, seated on a three-legg'd chair,
Takes off her artificial hair;
Now picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eyebrows from a mouse's hide
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays 'em,
Then in a play-book smoothly lays 'em.
Now dext'rously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws,
Untwists a wire, and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes;
Pulls out the rags contrived to prop
Her flabby dugs, and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely goddess
Unlaces next her steel-ribb'd bodice,
Which, by the operator's skill,
Press down the lumps, the hollows fill.
Up goes her hand, and off she slips
The bolsters that supply her hips;
With gentlest touch she next explores
Her chancres, issues, running sores;
Effects of many a sad disaster,
And then to each applies a plaster:
But must, before she goes to bed,
Rub off the daubs of white and red,
And smooth the furrows in her front
With greasy paper stuck upon't.
She takes a bolus ere she sleeps;
And then between two blankets creeps.
With pains of love tormented lies;
Or, if she chance to close her eyes,
Of Bridewell[1] and the Compter[1] dreams,
And feels the lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless bully drawn,
At some hedge-tavern lies in pawn;
Or to Jamaica[2] seems transported
Alone, and by no planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-ditch's[3] oozy brinks,
Surrounded with a hundred stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lie,
And snap some cully passing by;
Or, struck with fear, her fancy runs
On watchmen, constables, and duns,
From whom she meets with frequent rubs;
But never from religious clubs;
Whose favour she is sure to find,
Because she pays them all in kind.

Corinna wakes. A dreadful sight!
Behold the ruins of the night!
A wicked rat her plaster stole,
Half eat, and dragg'd it to his hole.
The crystal eye, alas! was miss'd;
And puss had on her plumpers p--st,
A pigeon pick'd her issue-pease:
And Shock her tresses fill'd with fleas.

The nymph, though in this mangled plight
Must ev'ry morn her limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her arts
To re-collect the scatter'd parts?
Or show the anguish, toil, and pain,
Of gath'ring up herself again?
The bashful Muse will never bear
In such a scene to interfere.
Corinna, in the morning dizen'd,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison'd.

Yes, it’s funny, it’s meant to be. Yes, it’s nasty, spiteful, horrible -- it’s meant to be those things too. Jonathan Swift’s ironically entitled “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” composed in 1731 and sarcastically subtitled “Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex,” reflects the relentless, emphatically unromantic, and savagely satirical vision that marks the later years of Swift’s art. This most unpoetic of poems presents the uproarious process by means of which an eighteenth century London prostitute prepares for sleep -- a process which involves her divesting herself of those various artifices with which she seeks to disguise both her physical and moral character.

Swift’s cruel deconstruction of woman is painful. And if we look at the beauty industry today, nothing has really changed. We’ve just got a lot more sophisticated; we’re so much better at deception. We’ve got airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, more ways to remove hair than you’d think possible. And there are convincing ways to add hair too. Those wonderful hair extensions; they come in every shade you desire. There are lotions and potions that Swift’s, Corrina, pride of Drury Lane, could only dream of.

But we still have Corrina; we see her physical manifestation daily, in the media. The celebrity who has gone too far; her bee stung mouth, making her look as if she has been beaten up, rather than enhanced. And those women who decide to increase their cup size by just a few more inches. Their mutilated breasts have become udders. There are men and women, whose glow in the dark teeth are bordering on the scary.

“A young woman is seen returning home after a night out, and removing her dress, breast-lifting pads, hair extensions, false eyelashes, and a dental plate. The narrator advises that bleeding gums are one of the first signs of gum disease, which is a leading cause of tooth loss. As the woman reveals a missing tooth, she concludes that Corsodyl mouthwash is clinically proven to treat gum disease.”


This is the narrative of a TV ad running here in the UK at the moment. But it could have been based on Jonathan Swift’s satirical poem.

But Swift was one of the many writers who championed the art of satire. Here, he parodies Donne's "On His Mistress Going To Bed". Swift wanted to show the reader "the other side of the coin" and to allow poetry to illustrate everyday occurrence. More than just a parody of the pastoral style, he points out the artificiality of the world around us and challenges the reader to look below the surface.

Here is John Donne’s poem, written in 1669.

Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labor, I in labor lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th' eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown, going off, such beauteous state reveals,
as when from flowry meads th' hill's shadow steals.
Off with that wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven's angels used to be
Received by men; thou, Angel, bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite:
Those set our hairs on end, but these our flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views,
That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife, show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first; why than,
what needst thou have more covering than a man?

 John Donne’s poem is intensely erotic; he is demonstrating a new explicitness about sexual desire and experience. Throughout Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed, Donne's presumably male speaker tries to coax his mistress into bed. Donne's speaker fervently describes undressing and caressing his mistress; a poetic striptease. At the end, the speaker reveals that he is fully unclothed; however, it is unclear whether or not the mistress is undressing throughout the poem, or if she has remained clothed and the speaker is merely describing what her disrobing might be like.

The poem begins with the speaker calling to the mistress, encouraging her to come to bed. The speaker then goes on to talk about how he cannot be content until he engages in some sexual activity with the mistress. Several lines are then dedicated to the actual undressing of the mistress, piece by piece. The speaker makes several comparisons in relation to her clothing. For example, he compares her girdle to astronomical elements in the heavens. Their bed is compared to a "hallowed temple", and the speaker's physical exploration of the woman's body is compared to the exploration and subsequent settlement of the America's. While the mistress removes her clothes the speaker speaks of how beautiful her body is. He explains how he gets great pleasure in seeing the naked female body. In the conclusion of the poem instead of the speaker reiterating his remarks about the mistress's beauty, he speaks of embarking on a sexual adventure and sexual satisfaction. 

Throughout the poem, Donne has incorporated words or lines that could be perceived in more than one way. These double meanings add a hint of mystery to the poem. In line 2, he does not use labour to just mean work, but to work sexually. He makes many mentions and comparisons to heaven and things that are out of this world. This in a way alludes to the fact that he feels that this woman, or mistress, that he has lusted over, described, and conquered is out of this world. To him, she is like a heaven that he has discovered here on earth.

But back to Swift’s poem. It’s not enough to argue that we must read Swift’s poem in the context of its time. As far as I can see, we’ve always “enhanced” ourselves. Both men and women. It just depends which part of our bodies we want to draw attention to.

Eyes, lips, breasts, tight jeans, baggy jeans. I sprained both ankles in the same day staggering along in those 1970’s platform shoes. The desire for long, long legs. It’s dangerous trying to be beautiful and cool.

Corrina, pride of Drury Lane, is alive and well. She is everywhere. In every city, and small town that you can think of.

1 comment:

  1. satire helps a clever wanderer