Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Jonathan Swift and Lady Montagu: an 18th Century Literary Smackdown

By Jamelah Earle on Wednesday, April 11, 2007 07:29 pm


Published in 1732, Jonathan Swift's poem, "The Lady's Dressing Room" (full text) follows a man, Strephon, as he goes through the unoccupied room of a woman named Celia (which means that he's an 18th century medicine-cabinet-snoop) and discovers that, though lovely in public, in private she's pretty much a disgusting pig:

And first a dirty smock appeared,
Beneath the arm-pits well besmeared.
Strephon, the rogue, displayed it wide
And turned it round on every side.
On such a point few words are best,
And Strephon bids us guess the rest;
And swears how damnably the men lie
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.
Now listen while he next produces
The various combs for various uses,
Filled up with dirt so closely fixt,
No brush could force a way betwixt.
A paste of composition rare,
Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair;
A forehead cloth with oil upon't
To smooth the wrinkles on her front.

And he's just getting warmed up. The poem continues and gets increasingly disgusting and ridiculous (worms in Celia's nose, anyone?), until finally Strephon discovers Celia's chamber pot and can take no more of the horror, exclaiming, "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" (Gasp!)

Swift winds things up with a charmingly sexist stanza:

I pity wretched Strephon blind
To all the charms of female kind.
Should I the Queen of Love refuse
Because she rose from stinking ooze?
To him that looks behind the scene
Satira's but some pocky queen.
When Celia in her glory shows,
If Strephon would but stop his nose
(Who now so impiously blasphemes
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams,
Her washes, slops, and every clout
With which he makes so foul a rout),
He soon would learn to think like me
And bless his ravished sight to see
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung."

I suppose this goes to show you that making fun of how long it takes women to get ready (Swift writes at the beginning of his poem that it takes Celia five hours) has been hilarious for centuries. Among other things. While Jonathan Swift's satirical writing has survived as long as it has because he's considered a master of the style, I can't stop myself from thinking that "The Lady's Dressing Room" is one of the most boyish, immature things I've ever read, thanks to the fascination with the disgusting and the "girls are gross" thesis.

It makes sense that people would be offended by "The Lady's Dressing Room" and in 1734, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu published a response, titled "The Reasons that Induced Dr S to write a Poem call'd the Lady's Dressing room". (full text) Lady Mary takes Swift to task for his poem. She fights dirty, but considering the vitriolic nastiness of Swift, it seems called for. (Yes, it was published two years later; this wasn't an era of instantaneous blogging, after all.) In her response, Lady Mary -- who is an admired writer in her own right (mostly known for her letters, but for other work as well) -- creates a backstory that explains why Swift was angry enough to write "The Lady's Dressing Room." In it, the poet pays for some, ahem, female companionship, and the results are disastrous (antiquated weird spellings are native to the text):

The Reverend Lover with surprize
Peeps in her Bubbys, and her Eyes,
And kisses both, and trys -- and trys.
The Evening in this Hellish Play,
Beside his Guineas thrown away,
Provok'd the Priest to that degree
he swore, the Fault is not in me."

Too bad he didn't have any Viagra, huh? It continues:

Your damn'd Close stool so near my Nose,
Your Dirty Smock, and Stinking Toes
Would make a Hercules as tame
As any Beau that you can name.
The nymph grown Furious roar'd by God
The blame lyes all in Sixty odd [Swift's age]
And scornfull pointing to the door
Cry'd, Fumbler see my Face no more."

Ouch.

Swift asks for his money back, she refuses:

[What if your Verses have not sold,
Must therefore I return your Gold?
Perhaps your have no better Luck in
The Knack of Rhyming than of --
I won't give back one single Crown,
To wash your Band, or turn your Gown.]
I'll be reveng'd you saucy Quean
(Replys the disapointed Dean)
I'll so describe your dressing room
The very Irish shall not come.
She answer'd short, I'm glad you'l write,
You'l furnish paper when I shite."

Perhaps you thought all writing from centuries ago was dry, sterile and dull? It could be exactly the opposite. In this era and the Early Modern period that came before, it was common to find this type of call-and-response in writing: someone would put out some opinionated piece and someone else would write a response calling it (and also perhaps the writer) stupid. In a way, it reminds me a lot of the internet, right down to the petty flame wars that happen on message boards and in blog comments, but in the case of this stuff, despite any lack of taking-the-high-road maturity, it is still considered to be of literary merit and as such, has survived for hundreds of years. Maybe to withstand the test of time we should do all of our complaining in rhyme.

7 Responses to "Jonathan Swift and Lady Montagu: an 18th Century Literary Smackdown"

by firecracker on

That's CRAZY!Yet totally fascinating and sort of funny. Too bad that most flame wars and blog volleys aren't this entertaining or well-composed. It would be interesting to study other examples of this in literature to compare.

by jamelah on

Well I can think of a few more. They're not this funny, however.

by firecracker on

Well you can't really beat poop jokes, now can you?

by Billectric on

That's great!So funny!I never knew those 18th Century poets were so wild. This is good, educational material.I bet a lot of people were distracted from this post by the Vonnegut news. I just got around to reading it, myself. I bet Vonnegut was familiar with it, though.

by Billectric on

Now, THAT'S a hell of a thing, FC.Somebody should compile more of these literary jousts and write an article about it. Or a book.

by firecracker on

I nominate Jamelah. You can do the artwork, Bill.

by Billectric on

I 2nd that notion. But not the part about me doing the artwork. I was thinking more along the lines of putting it all on Jamelah.