(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Defenestration of Prague is a complex interweaving of various perspectives and commentaries on the nature of being female in a world of patriarchal institutions. Primarily the poem is about the life and times of Hester (or Esther) Johnson (1680-1728), an Englishwoman who became the mistress of Jonathan Swift (1668-1745), the Irish satirical poet and Anglican bishop. Hester, or Stella, as she was known to Swift, remained Swift’s mistress and housekeeper throughout her adult life. Their relationship was kept a careful secret over the years, which is part of what the poem explores.

The poem is divided into many separate units of discourse, each varying its mode of articulation as the subjects of women and gender oppression are scrutinized. The poem has a wide range of formal strategies, from loose-knit fragments of memory and historic allusion to the fully fleshed lyrics of “Speeches at the Barriers,” which develop certain of the basic themes of the poem, to the dramatic episodes of the second part of the poem, “The Liberties.”

Though a narrative in the general sense of a story, the poem also experiments in telling a tale from multiple points of view anchored in the poet’s own personal examination of female suppression. Hence, the story is told by a narrator who is herself anxiously engaged in the process by which even the terms to be used are sifted for their meanings, their historical and etymological content. What serves as evidence is a composite of widely scattered forms of personal...

(The entire section is 620 words.)