‘Careful observers may foretell the hour(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.’
‘A Description of a City Shower’Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
Familiar to many as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was in fact a writer of many and various talents. It might be his tiny Lilliputian people that has secured him a place in popular culture, but in the realm of eighteenth-century literature Swift is an absolute giant. A member of the Scriblerus Club, he was friends with some of the most influential writers and politicians of the early eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope, Dr. John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and the Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley (who effectively headed Queen Anne’s government for a time).
In this poem, Swift seems to be in one of his merrier moods. Originally published in a periodical journal by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, The Tatler (1709-1711), this is a poem about one of the simplest and most ordinary occurrences: a shower of rain in town. It starts in a delightfully gloomy manner: ‘Careful observers may foretell the hour / (By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower’. It’s so deliciously melodramatic, with its heightened sense of ‘dread’. Then Swift details these ‘prognostics’, such as ‘the pensive cat’ who, with that innate sense animals seem to have of changes in the weather, has stopped playing and probably found somewhere cosy and sheltered to sit. The ‘sink’ that is next alluded to refers to the local cesspool, which possibly smells stronger because of the increased humidity in the air. Then comes the warning: ‘If you be wise, then go not far to dine; / You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine’. This assumes of course that the most obvious reason for the reader to eat out is to dine at his friends’ expense; the threatening rain would negate this benefit because the mercenary diner would then have to pay to hire a coach home afterwards. Next come more traditional signs of changing air pressure as ‘Old aches throb’. The ‘Dulman’ seen sauntering in the coffeehouse is simply an instance of the splendid practise of naming a character after their character-type: ‘Dulman’ is exactly what he sounds like.
The second section of the poem brings the approaching rain a step closer, as the personified ‘South’ comes sweeping in ‘with dabbled wings’. It’s just typical Swift that after this beautiful image he brings the whole thing crashing back to earth again with the much less attractive image of the ‘sable cloud’ as a drunkard ‘That swilled more liquor than it could contain’ and yes, you guessed it, ‘gives it up again’. Fortunately, we can hurry on swiftly (pun absolutely intended) to the image of the maid who ‘whips her linen from the rope’ as the rain finally arrives. At the moment, it is only a slight shower, ‘Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean / Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean’. Here ‘quean’ also refers to a maid, here flicking dirt from a mop onto a passerby. Gritty realism continues as Swift describes the ‘dust’ and dirt from the street getting muddled with the rain. Relating this in terms of a conflict, this dust ‘aided by the wind, fought still for life’ until ‘’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust’. The hapless passerby is simply caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘dust and rain at once his coat invade’. The practical effect of this is to ruin his only coat by leaving dirty stains.
And now we really get to the rainstorm, ‘Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down’. No place for understatement here, as the idea of the rain ‘Threatening with deluge this devoted town’ creates an impression of a downpour of Biblical proportions. The humour is maximised by positioning this grandiose image just before the description of the ‘daggled females’ rushing into shops to hide from the rain (as they ‘Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy’). The ‘Templar spruce’ mentioned next is a similarly grand way of referring to a law student who, ‘while ev’ry spout’s abroach’ with rain water, lingers indoors, only ‘seem[ig] to call a coach’. This series of wet-weather vignettes is continued with the depiction of a ‘sempstress’ hurrying along beneath the cover of an umbrella. Elsewhere the rain serves to dissolve social boundaries as ‘various kinds, by various fortunes led, / Commence acquaintance underneath a shed’. Here, members of the two opposing political parties of the time, Tories and Whigs, have ‘join[ed] to save their wigs’, the obvious satire being that, when both are threatened with the destruction of their fashionable gear in the rain, they are content to ‘Forget their feuds’ and share the shelter. The ‘chair’ in which the ‘beau’ (fashion-conscious young man) sits is a Sedan chair, quite literally boxed in on every side and carried by two chairmen. Inside, the beau can hear the ‘frightful din’ of the rain on the leather roof of his vehicle, and ‘he trembles from within’. Once more, Swift splices the everyday with the epic, as he likens the chair-men to the Trojans, carrying the wooden horse loaded with Greek soldiers into Troy at the end of the Trojan War.
In the last section, Swift builds rapidly to the climax. The ‘kennels’ alluded to are not dog houses, but open gutters running down the street and which are now overloaded with rainwater. Like most gutters, they are also the lowest level of the street to which all the rubbish has descended: the ‘trophies’ which are carried along in the water. With grim fascination, Swift almost admiringly notes how the ‘Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell / What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell’. It’s gritty, unpleasant reading, designed to make the reader wince after having laughed at the scurrying gentry in the previous section. The sense of unity that was cultivated there is here compounded, as various locations are listed to convey the course of the ‘torrent’, including Smithfield, Snow Hill ridge and Holborn Bridge. I’m not a native Londoner, but I imagine these locations would probably mean something to those who are (not that I’m casting any aspersions upon the condition of the gutters in any of these places which, I am sure, has been vastly improved since the early 1700s). The final three lines delineate the precise nature of the rubbish that is being swept along and ‘come tumbling down the flood’. Apologies to dog and cat lovers: this poem is not for the faint-hearted. In a version of the poem published in 1735 a note was added stating that ‘These three last lines were intended against that licentious manner of modern poets, in making three rhymes together, which they call triplets.[…] They were the mere effect of haste, idleness and want of money; and have been wholly avoided by the best poets, since these verses were written’. Perhaps, then, we can forgive Swift these last few lines, if it was in fact a satire against inartistic poetry rather than a frankly indulgent exploration of eighteenth-century garbage.
Distasteful imagery aside, there’s an immediacy to this poem that is simply magic. For rather than narrating an epic tale or a mythological story, Swift takes an everyday occurrence and transforms it into something special purely through the way in which he describes it. Pure genius!
You can find a copy of this poem:
(Free copy of the poem online!!)
Information from this edition was also used in the composition of the above blogpost.)
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(This looks new and very exciting!! Still seems to be a work in progress, but very much worth a look!! Go on, you know you want to…)