Today, I’m going to be talking about Jonathan Swift’s poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room”. I hope that I’m not the only person who has a difficult relationship with Swift’s writing. As a writer, I recognize that he’s really good at writing, probably to a level I will never be, but at the same time I find myself disagreeing with the point he is trying to make. Look, I read Gulliver’s Travels and, while an excellent piece of satire, was kind of a lousy novel. However, I think this poem is worth at least a little bit of my time.
To sum up, some guy named Strephon (not a spelling mistake) sneaks into this woman’s, Celia’s, room and, boy, is he surprised by what he finds there. Turns out she’s a bit of a slob–like, me too, Celia, I’m just really good at hitting it in drawers–and about half the poem is a description about how horrific her chamber pot is (I particularly like the quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost comparing it to gazing down into Hell). Pretty safe to say that, after his little exploration, Strephon isn’t seeing Celia as a goddess anymore.
This poem is about playing with this perfect image that women tended to have in literature at the time it was written. They were perfect to the point of hyperbole in most cases. Swift wants to show that women can be just as flawed as everybody else (yay, equality, I guess?). That being said, there are two specific parts I want to spend some time with, the first line and the last two lines:
Five hours (and who can do it in less?)
From the very beginning, there is something off, something other than the conventional, and that’s because Swift is playing with the syntax here (syntax is just a fancy linguistics term that means sentence structure). It also invites a kind of playfulness to the poem that tells the reader this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.
Such order from confusion sprung,
Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.
These two final lines parallel each other in a couple of ways. One is through the words being used: order/confusion, tulips/dung. It encapsulates what Strephon is feeling towards Celia now that he has seen this side of her–that there’s this whole other personality that he was unaware of. The second set of parallels is how the words are ordered (which I think it brilliant): “confusion sprung” is noun followed by verb, but “raised from dung” is verb followed by noun… I’m just going to give that a second to sink in. Swift has made the way he orders the words parallel each other just to get his point across. I don’t know about you but I would never have thought of that with my writing.
Overall, I think this is a poem worth reading if you like that sort of thing. It’s humorous and expertly written, and I think there are more than a few things being said about gender expectations at the time. Three stars out of five–though I did like it I think I still have some antagonism towards Swift that I might never get over, but that might just be me.