Susan Siferd

Comparison of Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room" and Pope's "Rape of the Lock"

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In these poems, Swift and Pope satirize female vanity, but in tone, language, and form, the works diverge greatly. Pope wrote "Rape of the Lock" expressly at the request of his friend, John Caryll, in an effort to make peace between real-life lovers. The incident of the lock of hair was factual; Pope's intention was to dilute with humor the ill feelings aroused by the affair. He was, in fact, putting a minor incident into perspective, and to this end, chose a mock-heroic form, composing the poem as a "take-off" epic poetry, particularly the work of Milton. He is inviting the individuals involved to laugh at themselves, to see how emotion had inflated their response to what was really an event of no consequence. For the reader, the incident becomes a statement about human folly, a lesson on female vanity, and a satire of the rituals of courtship. Perhaps Pope also intended to comment on the meaningless lives of the upper classes. The poem was published in 1712 and again in 1714; probably the satire is more biting in the later version than in the one presented to Miss Fermor. Pope could hardly have hope to soothe the lady's wounded pride by pointing out her vanity and empty-headedness.

The circumstances which provoked Swift to write "The Lady's Dressing Room" are to me unknown. The poem doesn't even appear in The Norton Anthology of English Literature , the Bible of my undergraduate years, nor is it mentioned in the biographical sketch of Swift which that book contains. Swift was somewhat of a misanthrope, and did not accept the view that human nature is essentially good:

To the 'philanthropic' flattery that sentimentalism and Deistic rationalism were paying to human nature, Swift opposed a more ancient and plausible view: that human nature is deeply and permanently flawed, and that we can do nothing with or for the human race until we recognize its moral and intellectual limitations. ( Norton 1978)
In his poetry, Swift revealed human imperfection, and cosmetic vanity was one evil he chose to attack. In this particular poem, he really rubs our nose in it.

Is the vulgarity of his humor more shocking to us than it would have been to his contemporaries? Or is it so striking to us because it is missing from almost all of the other poetry we read in college courses? "Bathroom humor" isn't exactly absent from 20th century popular culture, after all. The reader can't pretend to being ignorant that such humor exists and is enjoyed by a certain audience. Swift's style is deliberately "unpoetic" in diction and crude in humor, perhaps because he wished to force his readers to confront what he saw as the truth about our humanity: "he hated 'that animal called man' in general, and offered a new definition of the species as not animal rationale, but as merely animal rationis capax (an animal capable of reason)" (Norton 1978). Nevertheless, the effect of Swift's bawdiness is to make him seem crude -- and angry. His style reflects on him as a man, so that the intensity of his social criticism is somewhat undermined. The reader wants to say that of course Celia shits, but so does Strephon -- and so does Swift. What of it? Pope seems to be more in control of tone in "Rape" than Swift is in "The Lady's Dressing Room." His style does not deflect his satiric arrows from their true target.

In keeping with his choice of mock-heroic form, Pope employs a "high-toned" poetic diction and the stately iambic pentameter of dignified epics like "Paradise Lost." And of course, Pope's mastery of the heroic couplet, and the balanced, measured rhythms of his lines, lend an even greater air of solemnity. To achieve this effect, he inverts the syntax of ordinary speech, as in these lines: "Her lively looks a spritely mind disclose" (ii, 9), ""Favors to none, to all she smiles extends" (II, 11), and "Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike" (ii, 13). The effect of this inversion is to add rhetoric weight to the end of the line; the sentence feels particularly "complete."

At the same time, the reader is always aware that the poem is a joke. Pope comes right out and says so. For example, one epic tradition is to open with a statement of purpose and an invocation to the Muse. Pope states his purpose as being to sing of the "dire offense" that springs from "amorous causes" and the "mighty contests" that rise from "trivial things" (1-2) -- hardly the lofty and weighty subjects of epic poetry -- and names his Muse "Caryll" (3) for his friend John Caryll, the relative of the young lord who stole the lock of hair from Arabella Fermor -- not the proper sort of Muse for epic poetry. By way of mythological spirits hovering over earthly concerns, Pope gives us sylphs that are really the spirits of young women like Belinda. Milton's Adam had the angel Raphael looking out for him; Belinda has Ariel, one of the "light militia of the lower sky" (42). He jokingly raises Belinda to the exalted stature proper to epic heroines by addressing her as "Fairest of mortals, thou distinguished care/ Of thousands bright inhabitants of air" (27-28) and exorts her: "thy own importance know" (35); but because Belinda is really only a "gentle belle" (8), a pampered and privileged young woman, capable of mere "infant thought" (29), the effect is humorous.

The stakes in this mock-heroic epic are Belinda's maidenhood, and the convention of the epic warning comes by way of Ariel's reading of bad omens: "Late as I ranged the crystal wilds of air,/ In the clear mirror of thy ruling star/ I saw, alas! some dread event impend/ . . . Beware of all, but most beware of Man!" (105-114). Belinda's performance of her toilette, assisted by Betty, her "inferior priestess" (127), is described as the arming of the epic hero: "Now awful Beauty put on all its arms" (138), and the images evoked in Pope's description of the various creams and perfumes on Belinda's vanity invests them with a value and exoticism they don't deserve: "Unnumbered treasures," "glittering spoil," "India's glowing gems," "all Arabia breathes from yonder box," "The tortoise here and elephant unite" (129-135) By means of hyperbole, Pope manages to reveal the true worthlessness of these substances.

Coombes advocates the use of concrete, Saxonate words over abstract, Latinate ones in poetry, and offers numerous examples from 18th century poetry of how the effect of abstraction is to show a lack of emotional engagement and possibly even a physical distance between the poet and his subject. Yet Coombes defends Miltonian "poetic diction," such as Pope employs in "Rape," as sometimes being the most proper and natural style for a particular poet to use. Certainly such a style is well-suited to "The Rape of the Lock," exactly because it does strike the reader as "too much," as "too high" for the subject matter. "Not with more glories, in the ethereal plain,/ The sun first rises o'er the purpled main,/ Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams/ Launched on the bosom of the silver Thames" (ii, 1-4). The use of such "high falutin'" rhetoric to describe a young lady on her way to Hampton Court to play cards is witty and hilarious. Further, it allows the reader a sense of satisfaction to be "in" on the joke. Besides, Pope balances such abstract, Miltonian description with concrete images as well. He explains, for instance, that such female vanities as a "love of ombre" survive after death (56), certainly a specific, concrete image, and shows us "lapdogs giv[ing] themselves the rousing shake" (15).

Particularly effective is when Pope combines the abstract with the concrete in a single couplet, as in such lines as "Think what an equipage thou hast in air,/ And view with scorn two pages and a chair" (45-46), or when he combines Miltonian style with upper class English slang, as in "If to her share some female errors fall,/ Look on her face, and you'll forget 'em all" (ii, 17-18).

Iambic pentameter and poetic diction would not serve Swift's purposes in "The Lady's Dressing Room." He has no intention of redeeming Celia with even a mock-heroic tone. (Interestingly, it can be argued that ultimately, the tone of Swift's poem is "darker" than that of Pope"s, despite the fact that by reason of the meter, it should be the other way around.) Swift's poem is written in iambic tetrameter, an even number of metric feet per line; this lends a greater sense of "completion" or of "balance" to each line (according to Barbara Drake, in Writing Poetry , the text my students are reading in English 266). The reader stops at the end of every line, rather than moving on in the way we read heroic couplets, or pausing at a caesura in the middle of a line, as we do when reading Pope Thus the end rhyme of successive lines in Swift's poem is stressed, and the comic tone of the poem is heightened. Some lines deviate from the iambic and end in a feminine rhyme: "The goddess from her chamber issues,/ Arrayed in lace, brocades and tissues" (3-4), for example, and "But oh! it turned poor Strephon's bowels,/ When he beheld and smelled the towels" (43-44). Feminine rhyme isn't necessarily associated with comic effect, although triple rhyme is (Holman and Harmon 408). Nevertheless, in Swift's poem, the rhyme scheme certainly underscores the humor. It also lends itself to the bawdy humor Swift favors here.

Unlike Pope's imagery, which tends to be more abstract, Swift's is concrete to the point of being graphic. Most of "the Lady's Dressing Room" is a description of Celia's vanity, and Swift's imagery is quite concrete, and certainly as inventive as Pope's. Just as Pope uses hyperbole to invest Belinda's creams and perfumes with qualities of the rare and the exotic, so Swift uses hyperbole -- but to give the contents of Celia's "gallypots" a quality of horror.

"Some filled with washes, some with paste,/ Some with pomatum, paints and slops,/ And ointments good for scabby chops" (34-36). The sheer awfulness of this description may be unparalleled in literature, with the possible exception of the weird sisters' cauldron in Macbeth. Not only do Celia's cosmetics demonstrate her vanity, her artifice and hypocrisy, but they suggest her underlying ugliness, both physical and spiritual. Celia, Swift tells us, not only has "scabby chops" but hairs growing low on her forehead, suggesting a simian appearance (37), bristles on her chin (38), and worms in her nose (64). Celia uses puppy water as a wash (31) and has unfeelingly used her pet dog Tripsy's hide to make a pair of gloves (29).

Like Pope, Swift nevertheless elevates his character to the stature of a goddess, although the rest of the poem effectively strips her of this undeserved title. And in the last stanza, another goddess, Vengeance, punishes Strephon for his "peeping" (119-120). Also like Pope, Swift employs the epic convention of the extended simile. In lines 83-90, he compares Strephon, lifting the lid of Celia's chamber pot , to the mythological character of Epimetheus opening Pandora's box and releasing all human evils. The effect is highly humorous, and had he stopped here, Swift would have been all right. But he couldn't resist carrying this scene beyond the limits of good taste. In lines 99-112 , he draws another extended simile, comparing the process by which cooking meat is "poisoned" by the smoke of the oil it exudes on the cooking fire, to the way Celia's "parts" are tainted by the "excremental smell" of her . . . excrement (What would Kenner say about this as an image? I wonder.).

Although it succeeds as a simile, what kind of a mind would expend the time required to concoct such a conceit? I give Swift credit as a poet for his inventiveness, and grudgingly confess I find his views a change (though not exactly a "refreshing" one) from the tired (and insincere) conceits of Petrarchan love sonnets, but surely his talents deserved better expression than this. The first simile demonstrates his wit and poetic genius; the second reveals how low he can stoop as a man.

In Swift's defense, it must be noted that, although Celia, specifically, and female vanity in general are the principal subjects of the poem and the objects of Swift's ridicule, Strephon isn't exactly a hero, nor does the poet expect us to see him as such. Sneaking around behind both Celia's and the maid's back, snooping and sniffing in places he has no right to be, Strephon reveals himself to be something of a dog, certainly no better than any woman who attempts to seem more fastidious than she really is. Who exactly Strephon is, is unclear. He may be a servant, or perhaps a male suitor who, enamored of Celia, wants to go through her things (perhaps to find a souvenir?) His attitude is clear enough: spiteful (74) and "disgusted" (116), until he leaves her room "repeating in his amorous fits,/ Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" (117-118). Is he exclaiming inanely over this proof of his love's humanity? Or is he planning to "tell all" to anyone who will listen? The character of Strephon adds a farcical element to the poem. Throughout the poem, we are reminded of his presence, his need that will not be denied to poke his nose where it doesn't belong. The description of Celia's "dirty smock," complete with "besmeared armpits" (12), her "filthy basin" "fouled with the scouring of her hands" and "the scrapings of her teeth and gums" (37-40) , and her "snotty" handkerchief (50) and smelly stockings (51) are somehow more awful for the presence of Strephon, and the comedy is heightened by his bungling and his responses, as when he is frightened by his own reflection in the magnifying glass (61-62).

Fully one-third of the poem, lines 69-114, is devoted to describing Celia's chamber pot (more a cabinet than a mere "pot"). It isn't just the fact that Celia has spent five hours dressing (1) that rankles the poet, or the fact that creams and tints applied to the face present an artificial kind of beauty that may yet conceal a spiritual ugliness; but that her efforts have been expended on trying to deny the facts of her flesh: sweat, earwax, spit, oil, body odor, shit. These are the essence of our humanity, Swift seems to insist. And the chamber pot, or cabinet, can be seen as a metaphor for Celia herself, having been fashioned to look like a piece of fine furniture: "With rings and hinges counterfeit/ To make it seem in this disguise/ A cabinet to vulgar eyes" (76-78).

Celia -- and by extension all women -- becomes the brunt of Swift's satire in the last stanza, when Strephon comes to associate all women with any "unsavory odors" (123). Celia becomes "Everywoman," but Strephon is not "Everyman," when Swift speaks in first person at the end of the poem (deus ex machina?) to put matters in perspective. "If Strephon would but stop his nose. . . / He soon would learn to think like me,/ And bless his ravished sight to see/ Such order from confusion sprung,/ Such gaudy tulips raised from dung" (136-144). In their natural state, women are "dung," in their unnatural state, they are "gaudy" tulips. Strephon is punished, and appropriately so, but his bad conduct is merely glossed over. Swift is superior to them both, or so he would have us believe. His satire comes off finally as a reflection of his own obsession with the animal aspects of other people's human nature.

In "The Rape of the Lock" Pope focuses on a particular woman and thus succeeds in creating a convincing portrait that the reader accepts and applies to a general population of young women. Belinda may be superficial and rather empty-headed , possessed of "a sprightly mind . . ./ Quick as her eyes, and as unfixed as those" (9-10), but she is charming and innocent, too. She is the product of her culture, her social class and the times. When Pope says, "Yet graceful ease, and sweetness void of pride,/ Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide" (II, 15-16) the reader knows he's being generous; we've already seen her faults. By contrast, Swift focuses on a particular woman and then makes generalizations which he forces on us. As a result, our minds resist. His attack on Celia seems too mean-spirited to be entirely deserved and his criticism is unrelieved. He gives Celia no redeeming virtues, and so his satire is darker than Pope's is in "The Rape of the Lock." Swift's techniques seem to me to be less effective than Pope's because they reflect poorly on the poet himself, so much so that "The Lady's Dressing Room" seems to undercut Coombe's argument for concrete language and the emotional engagement of the poet.

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