Saturday, June 13, 2015

`Sloth, Dirt, and Theft Around Her Wait'

The stickers show up unexpectedly, on the arm of a rocking chair or slapped on the back of the boxed OED. Red, blue and yellow, they plot our too-frequent moves across the country -- from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to Houston in 2004, Houston to Seattle in 2008, and back to Houston in 2012. Moving companies are sticker-happy, fearing loss of household goods. The numbers on each sticker correspond to the items listed on handwritten inventories made by the movers as they empty your house. Jonathan Swift’s friend Thomas Sheridan (1687-1738)made such a list in “A True And Faithful Inventory Of The Goods belonging to Dr. Swift, Vicar Of Lara Cor; upon lending his House to the Bishop of Meath, until his own was built,” written in 1724 at his friend’s urging. Swift liked Sheridan’s poem so much he included it in a volume of his own poems:

“An Oaken, broken, Elbow-Chair;
A Cawdle-Cup without an Ear;
A batter’d, shatter’d Ash Bedstead;
A Box of Deal, without a Lid;
A Pair of Tongs, but out of Joint;
A Back-Sword Poker, without Point;
A Pot that’s crack’d a-cross, around,
With an old knotted Garter bound;
An Iron Lock, without a Key;
A Wig, with hanging, grown quite grey;
A Curtain, worn to Half a Stripe;
A Pair of Bellows, without Pipe;
A Dish, which might good Meat afford once;
An Ovid, and an old Concordance;
A Bottle Bottom, Wooden Platter
One is for Meal, and one for Water;
There likewise is a Copper Skillet,
Which runs as fast out as you fill it;
A Candlestick, Snuff dish, and Save-all,
And thus his Household Goods you have all.
These, to your Lordship, as a Friend,
’Till you have built, I freely lend:
They’ll serve your Lordship for a Shift;
Why not as well as Doctor Swift?”

Nothing exotic here – in fact, it’s the inventory’s dreariness that makes it interesting, amusing and a little sad, as catalogs of objects often are. Footnotes are in order. “Cawdle-Cup” is more often spelled “caudle cup.” Caudle is a warm beverage made, says the OED, of “thin gruel, mixed with wine or ale, sweetened and spiced, given chiefly to sick people, esp. women in childbed.” A few years after Sheridan and Swift, Fielding in Jonathan Wild refers to “a Pint silver Caudle Cup, the Gift of her Grandmother.” “Deal” is a profligate word in English. Sheridan/Swift, I think, refers in “a Box of Deal” to “a plank or board of pine or fir-wood.” A “Back-Sword” has a single edge.

With Swift, nothing is simple or merely one thing. Most of the items on Sheridan’s list are broken and little more than trash. Does the poem represent a generous invitation or a nose-thumbing of contempt? It’s more complicated than that. Leo Damrosch in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (2013) notes that Sheridan’s verse was a response to a poem Swift had written after staying at Quilca, Sheridan’s country house in County Cavan. Here is Swift’s “To Quilca, a Country House not in Good Repair”:

“Let me thy Properties explain,
A rotten Cabin, dropping Rain;
Chimnies with Scorn rejecting Smoak;
Stools, Tables, Chairs, and Bed-steds broke:
Here Elements have lost their Uses,
Air ripens not, nor Earth produces:
In vain we make poor Sheelah toil,
Fire will not roast, nor Water boil.
Thro’ all the Vallies, Hills, and Plains,
The Goddess Want in Triumph reigns;
And her chief Officers of State,
Sloth, Dirt, and Theft around her wait.”

Whether guest or host, Swift remains reliably himself.


Subbuteo said...

Exactly! And there's CH Sisson cavilling about whether there's such a thing as human personality.

test-test-test said...

By happenstance I went immediately from these inventories to Yeats's "The Circus Animals' Desertion," wherein Part III:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.