1 June 2021 Susannah

Jonathan Swift & A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed

Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) is best remembered today for his Gulliver’s Travels, but he was a caustic poet as well as novelist. This poem, A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed, is a bit devastating, but also funny.

A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed by Jonathan Swift

Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a battered, strolling toast;
No drunken rake to pick her up,
No cellar where on tick to sup;
Returning at the midnight hour;
Four stories climbing to her bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legged chair,
Takes off her artificial hair:
Now, picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eye-brows from a mouse’s hide,
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a play-book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dexterously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws.
Untwists a wire; and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes.
Pulls out the rags contrived to prop
Her flabby dugs and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely goddess
Unlaces next her steel-ribbed bodice;
Which by the operator’s skill,
Press down the lumps, the hollows fill,
Up goes her hand, and off she slips
The bolsters that supply her hips.
With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.
But must, before she goes to bed,
Rub off the dawbs of white and red;
And smooth the furrows in her front
With greasy paper stuck upon’t.
She takes a bolus ere she sleeps;
And then between two blankets creeps.
With pains of love tormented lies;
Or if she chance to close her eyes,
Of Bridewell and the Compter dreams,
And feels the lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless bully drawn,
At some hedge-tavern lies in pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported,
Alone, and by no planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy brinks,
Surrounded with a hundred stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lie,
And snap some cully passing by;
Or, struck with fear, her fancy runs
On watchmen, constables and duns,
From whom she meets with frequent rubs;
But, never from religious clubs;
Whose favor she is sure to find,
Because she pays ’em all in kind.
Corinna wakes. A dreadful sight!
Behold the ruins of the night!
A wicked rat her plaster stole,
Half eat, and dragged it to his hole.
The crystal eye, alas, was missed;
And puss had on her plumpers pissed.
A pigeon picked her issue-peas;
And Shock her tresses filled with fleas.
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.

The poem was published in 1731 and was roguishly subtitled “Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex”. With unflinching and remorseless honesty, Swift depicts for us an 18th century prostitute undressing before sleep.

We see Corinna’s preparations, then her fitful dreams, and finally her waking. In the last lines, the poet himself intrudes and offers moral commentary upon the whole. Swift shows us how deceptive appearance can be (all Corinna’s charms are fake), how the bodies of such women are ruined by venereal disease, shows that many of her customers are clergymen, and tells how the debtor’s prison looms as an all too likely reality in her dreams. She wakes to find a rat has stolen her glass eye, the cat has soiled her ‘plumpers’ and her wig has been infested with fleas. She must try and reassemble the scattered parts of her artificial self, and go back to ‘work’.

Cosmetic surgery, lip and breast enhancement, and photographic manipulation, are very much a part of our modern world, but perhaps the 18th century had its own equivalent of these artifices?

The poem is written in heroic couplets, and the form acts as an ironic commentary on the very ‘unheroic’ subject with which it deals.

You can listen to a few different versions of the poem here:

What do you think of this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with respect to the Right Hon-ble. Lady Archer, by Thomas Rowlandson, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60859394
Body image credit- Jonathan Swift portrait by Charles Jervas, 1710, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6612316

Comments (19)

  1. Kristina

    Hi Susannah, I found this a very sad poem not the least bit funny, because the poor woman was destroyed as a result of having to do the job she did. She was only applying the artificial embellishments to keep on doing what she needed to do, to keep on working.

    Regards
    Kristina

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, the humour is of the grim sort! She has been destroyed by her customers and prostitution is the only way she can keep herself fed. Women have not had it easy over the centuries.

    • Kay

      Jonathan Swift a man of talent but no empathy for his fellow human being, this poem is very sad, not amusing at all.
      Kay

      • Susannah Fullerton

        I am sorry you didn’t like it. However, I think Swift was a man of great empathy – he gave much of his salary to charity, wrote about many public causes, and preached sermons that moved people to good works.

  2. Margy

    I love that this poem is almost 300 years old and we could easily make substitutes for the standards that parts of today’s society feel are needed for perfection. It would also be interesting if Swift had written a male equivalent as that looks like a mighty fine wig he’s wearing in that picture. I know calf inserts were popular for men at a time in society. Thanks for including the poem in your newsletter. Margy

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think so much of this poem is relevant to today. Young women who look beautiful go and get botox and face lifts and think it improves them.
      Yes, it would be fascinating to get the male equivalent. Men were usually shaven under their wigs – it reduced lice – but they had real problems if caught in the rain as the hair powder was made from flour and could turn into a horrid ‘cake’ of flour in their wigs. Umbrellas were first used by men rather than women for that reason.

  3. Louise

    I enjoyed the poem. I appreciated the humour and the sadness. It made me think that sometimes if you don’t laugh and see the absurdity you will completely succumb to the sadness

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is a real mix of grim humour and also tragedy. The lives of women over the centuries have often been so hard!

  4. Jennifer Gray

    Oh I just feel so sorry for the life of poor Corinna. 😢

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is a terrible life for her. There must have been so many women who lived lives like that.

  5. Susannah Fullerton

    Clergy come into it with the mention of ‘religious clubs’ and we hear that she pays its members “in kind”. Hope that helps.

  6. Kay

    Thank you Susannah for your reply I was not aware of Swift’s philanthropy, Cheers Kay

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I hope you enjoy my future choices of poems more than you enjoyed this one.

  7. Jan Woodford

    Thank you for the challenge of a poem that was not all flowers and mists. A tiny window on life lived in a sort of desperation and not necessarily that far removed from present-day types of compromises just to keep on existing. Behind the satiric humor, a deeper education of life for the survival and appreciation that Corinna was able to make use of artifices to improve her appearance as required.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am glad you liked my choice of poem. I think it is a memorable one, and in so many ways still relevant to today when young women feel they need to have botox and face lifts etc in order to look the way society expects them to look.

  8. Angela

    Hi Susannah,
    I love the poem, and the accompanying illustration is perfect! If writers only wrote nice things about people the literary world would be a very dull place indeed. Realistic social commentary in literature has always played a role in influencing the improvement of people’s lives. Long may that continue.
    Angela

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, poems can sometimes be disturbing and confronting, and they should be. Irony and satire can open people’s eyes to things, and that is what Swift is doing here. He makes the poem tragically funny, but he makes us aware of the tragedy of that woman’s life, an how she has been used and bused by society.

  9. Peter Hutton

    Sad but true for that time. Now days the same thing goes on except we have botox and all those other things that are used. The mouse hair was very common not only among people such as Corinna but even further up the class system.
    I liked the poem, unfortunately satire these days falls foul of the political correctness that seems to rule our life.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I believe false eyebrows were often made from mouse hair. They could find enough of that in Australia with the current mouse plague! I agree about political correctness – we need to just enjoy literature as being of its time and not try to impose modern standards of morality on it.

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