Thursday, June 21, 2018

`Easiness and Gaiety'

In no other writer are the qualities of genius and nasty little boy so inextricably joined as in Jonathan Swift. His mastery of prose remained unrivalled in English until the arrival of Evelyn Waugh, and his verse, still insufficiently appreciated, might almost have been written with modern sensibilities in mind. In his “Life of Swift,” Dr. Johnson devotes a mere two paragraphs to the poems and concludes, rather limply, that they are “often humorous, almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend such compositions, easiness and gaiety.” Let’s qualify that: Swift’s verse is formally perfect and usually funny, though in Swift’s hands humor can unexpectedly shade into savagery and disgust. Take the best-known couplets in his best-known poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” written in 1732:

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

Swift’s masterpiece of scatology was instantly popular and soon printed as a pamphlet and reprinted in newspapers in England and Ireland. While reading in The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men (eds. Katherine McAlpine and Gail White, Story Line Press, 1997), I discovered “The Gentleman’s Study, In Answer to The Lady’s Dressing-Room,” a poetic retort to Swift published soon after the original, written in tetrameter couplets. The editors note: “It is interesting that an 18th-century woman was able to match (perhaps even outdo) Swift in scatological bad taste. Though the author’s identity is still unknown, there has been no evidence to suggest that the poem was not written by a woman.” Swift and the anonymous author run neck and neck in the race to revulsion:    

“For there some stocks [necktie] lay on the ground,
One side was yellow, t’ other brown;
And velvet breeches (on her word),
The inside all bedaubed with t—d,
And just before, I'll not desist
To let you know they were be-pissed:
Four different stinks lay there together,
Which were sweat, turd, and piss, and leather.”

And that’s even before Strephon returns to his room, literally stinking drunk. The narrator conceals herself behind a screen, and the show begins:

“Then, in a moment, all the room
Did with the smell of ulcer fume,
And would have lasted very long,
Had not sour belches smelled as strong,
Which from her nose did soon depart,
When overcome with stink of fart,
And after, then came thick upon it
The odious, nauseous one of vomit,
That pourèd out from mouth and nose
Both on his bed, and floor, and clothes;
Nor was it lessened e’er a bit,
Nor overcome, by stink of s–t,
Which, in the pot and round about
The brim and sides, he squirted out;
But when poor Tom pulled off his shoes,
There was a greater stink of toes,
And sure, a nasty, loathsome smell
Must come from feet as black as hell.”

One hopes the author was female, not in the spirit of affirmative action or gender parity but because it’s instructive to be reminded that men have no monopoly on foul-mouthed wit. In “A Brief and Inadequate History of Female Comic Poets,” Mike Juster makes a suggestion that had already occurred to me:

“The seamless insertion of two Latin lines suggests that, if the poem was indeed the work of a woman, it had to have been one of the limited number of female poets highly trained in Latin who wrote light verse. One has to wonder whether this poem, suspiciously published first in the Dean’s hometown of Dublin, is another example of Swift both having fun and raising his literary profile by anonymously attacking himself.”

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