Time to pour isopropyl on the wound. In other words, to read Jonathan Swift for the sting and the cleansing effect. There are times when he is my favorite poet, yet for much of the last three centuries he was judged not a poet at all: “It may be that Swift’s verse has been for so long the victim of its own bad reputation that even his admirers feel some sort of ritual obligation to discredit the work.” That’s Charles Martin in his contribution to Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem (Middlebury College Press, 1996). Martin, a fine poet and translator of Catullus, takes on Swift’s “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” The nymph is Corinna, a prostitute who returns home after a john-less evening on the job. Corinna is not what she seems: “Then, seated on a three-legged chair, / Takes off her artificial hair,” and proceeds to dismantle the rest of her virtual self until
“With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.”
Swift’s irony is nuanced. Corinna’s plight has nothing to do with misogyny, at least not on Swift’s part. His portrait of Corinna is compassionate, not a moralistic cartoon. Martin notes that Swift’s poem remains unacceptable in what passes for polite, enlightened society even today:
“It goes against the contemporary grain in a number of important ways, not the least of which is the fact of its metrical virtuosity . . . this is a poem written in the vernacular of an uncommonly erudite poet. And while ours is an age that gives lip service to the notion that a poem can be written about any subject at all, the contents of the magazines that publish poetry these days suggest that we are most comfortable with poems of sensibility that explore chiefly the question of what, if anything, is going on in the poet’s own head.”
A situation that has only grown direr in twenty-two years. Swift never writes about himself, not in the banal sense. That’s part of the reason why his poems are so austerely potent. He commands attention by writing about social realities we all recognize, and by doing so in language that is admirably transparent but not conventionally poetic. There’s nothing ornamental – or confessional, or therapeutic -- about his best poems. They are not pretty. Martin rightly commends Swift’s “display of heartless virtuosity and gusto.” There’s no sentimentality, no whore with a heart of gold. The poem is “meant to be unsettling, meant to move the reader from the comfortable assurance of moral and aesthetic certainties.” Your average idiot can write a poem condemning or celebrating prostitution. Swift takes on something more complicated and interesting. In Corinna’s dreams, halfway through the poems, he brings in respectable society. Bridewell and Comptor are debtor’s prisons, and Swift even works in an oblique reference to the New World slave trade. Martin notes that only in the poem’s final lines, when Corinna is reassembling herself the morning after, does Swift “break the frame of authorial separation”:
“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 gath’ring up herself again?
The bashful muse will never bear
In such a scene to interfere.
Corinna in the morning dizened,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.”
No neat denouement. The reader cannot congratulate himself on his cleverness or compassion. Swift won’t let us.