the light fantastic

vague ramblings re: early british lit

Friday, November 10, 2006

Swift, "The Lady's Dressing Room"

The first thing that "The Lady's Dressing Room" reminded me of is Shakespeare's sonnet 130, contrasting the ideal female in poems to actual women in life. The goddess on earth figure is dispelled by close observation of her hair or skin or smell, but while Shakesepeare has a more tender note (he does mention a sort of love for his mistress, however 'peculiar' it may be), Swift's protagonist finds the secrets behind Cecila's facade and "his foul imagination links/ Each dame he sees with all her stinks (ln 121)."

I particularily liked the comparison between Cecila's chamberpot and Pandora's box. After releasing all that is foul in the world, Strephon still reaches in to find Hope, and in fact finds distinct evidence that Cecila is human after all. Swift's inventory of her chamber is more than descriptive, showcasing stains and the horrific decor (like the magnifying mirror and the toilet/closet) like displays at a freakshow or haunted house type attraction. So instead of a letdown that the female goddess is just a woman, Swift extends the disappointment to show that the image of feminine perfection is actually the absolute amalgam of stinks and stains.

The reaction to this poem is obviously horror and shock, but the amusement comes in from the reaction of Strephon. The poet says that he ought to think like he does, just viewing the order from confusion and the tulips from the dung, instead of focusing on the memories of Cecila's room and wondering what stinking ooze the lady came from. Instead of acknowledging that beauty takes hard work or noting wit or charm as part of a lady's appeal, Strephon's deeper look (past the initial physical impression) only serves to remind him of snuff and snot covered hankerchiefs. The poet is even worse saying that one should ignore all but the physical appearance, since heaven forbid that the paragon of femininity have any other depth (both fearsome smells and other merits of characteristics).

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