Friday, March 03, 2006

Derek Mahon on Swift's poetry

in the Guardian; it's a good little essay (only I disagree with him about "Cadenus and Vanessa"), excerpted from his introduction for a new edition of Swift's poems. Last week I reread Gulliver's Travels, it's for the chapter I'm writing for the book on breeding (the chapter's about the idea of perfectibility, Swift to Godwin, with digressions on horse-breeding and cultural versus genetic perfectibility); Swift really is the most amazing writer, there's no one else like him. (Well, Burke, a little.)

Here's a link for one of my favorite Swift poems, "The Lady's Dressing Room" (edited by Jack Lynch); I've pasted in some lines below (the inventory of what Strephon finds in Chloe's dressing room).

And first a dirty Smock appear'd,
Beneath the Arm-pits well besmear'd.
Strephon, the Rogue, display'd it wide,
And turn'd it round on every Side.
On such a Point few Words are best,
And Strephon bids us guess the rest;
But swears how damnably the Men lie,
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.
Now listen while he next produces,
The various Combs for various Uses,
Fill'd up with Dirt so closely fixt,
No Brush could force a way betwixt.
A Paste of Composition rare,
Sweat, Dandriff, Powder, Lead and Hair;
A Forehead Cloth with Oyl upon't
To smooth the Wrinkles on her Front;
Here Allum Flower to stop the Steams,
Exhal'd from sour unsavoury Streams,
There Night-gloves made of Tripsy's Hide,
Bequeath'd by Tripsy when she dy'd,
With Puppy Water, Beauty's Help
Distill'd from Tripsy's darling Whelp;
Here Gallypots and Vials plac'd,
Some fill'd with washes, some with Paste,
Some with Pomatum, Paints and Slops,
And Ointments good for scabby Chops.
Hard by a filthy Bason stands,
Fowl'd with the Scouring of her Hands;
The Bason takes whatever comes
The Scrapings of her Teeth and Gums,
A nasty Compound of all Hues,
For here she spits, and here she spues.
But oh! it turn'd poor Strephon's Bowels,
When he beheld and smelt the Towels,
Begumm'd, bematter'd, and beslim'd
With Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear-Wax grim'd.
No Object Strephon's Eye escapes,
Here Pettycoats in frowzy Heaps;
Nor be the Handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish'd o'er with Snuff and Snot.
The Stockings, why shou'd I expose,
Stain'd with the Marks of stinking Toes;
Or greasy Coifs and Pinners reeking,
Which Celia slept at least a Week in?
A Pair of Tweezers next he found
To pluck her Brows in Arches round,
Or Hairs that sink the Forehead low,
Or on her Chin like Bristles grow.

The Virtues we must not let pass,
Of Celia's magnifying Glass.
When frighted Strephon cast his Eye on't
It shew'd the Visage of a Gyant.
A Glass that can to Sight disclose,
The smallest Worm in Celia's Nose,
And faithfully direct her Nail
To squeeze it out from Head to Tail;
For catch it nicely by the Head,
It must come out alive or dead.

Why Strephon will you tell the rest?
And must you needs describe the Chest?
That careless Wench! no Creature warn her
To move it out from yonder Corner;
But leave it standing full in Sight
For you to exercise your Spight.
In vain, the Workman shew'd his Wit
With Rings and Hinges counterfeit
To make it seem in this Disguise,
A Cabinet to vulgar Eyes;
For Strephon ventur'd to look in,
Resolv'd to go thro' thick and thin;
He lifts the Lid, there needs no more,
He smelt it all the Time before.
As from within Pandora's Box,
When Epimetheus op'd the Locks,
A sudden universal Crew
Of humane Evils upwards flew;
He still was comforted to find
That Hope at last remain'd behind;
So Strephon lifting up the Lid,
To view what in the Chest was hid.
The Vapours flew from out the Vent,
But Strephon cautious never meant
The Bottom of the Pan to grope,
And fowl his Hands in Search of Hope.
O never may such vile Machine
Be once in Celia's Chamber seen!
O may she better learn to keep
"Those Secrets of the hoary deep!"

1 comment: