The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Jonathan Swift was much involved in the launching of his friend Sir Richard Steele’s new literary enterprise, a thrice-weekly paper of familiar essays and news called The Tatler. One of Swift’s contributions was the eighteen-line poem called “A Description of the Morning,” which appeared in the ninth paper on April 30, 1709, only two weeks after the publication debuted. The poem gives a series of photographic impressions of London life, specifically, as Steele remarked, of life in the West End of London.
The poem opens at daybreak, with only a few coaches yet on the scene to carry about their passengers. The first scene is of Betty, a stock name for a female servant, leaving her master’s bed. In an effort to cover up her deed, she goes to her room and ruffles the covers of her own unused bed. Next, three cleaners take the stage for their brief appearances. An apprentice cleans with a half-hearted effort, while Moll skillfully whirls her mop as a prelude to scrubbing the entry stairs. A youth sweeps the “kennel,” or gutter, with a stubby broom (in search of used nails, as a note by Swift explains).
Two workers next demand the reader’s attention, one selling coal—then widely used domestically for cooking and warmth or for cottage industries requiring fire—the other announcing his availability to sweep chimneys. The “shriller notes” of the sweep imply the grim reality that children were forced into this dangerous and debilitating job, often working from dawn to dusk. While bill collectors (“duns”) gather before an aristocrat’s house, another loud voice intrudes. It belongs to another “Moll”: This one may be selling brick dust, used as a scouring powder, or (since Swift calls her “Brickdust Moll”) Swift may have in mind her working-class complexion, scorched by the sun. The name “Moll” has seedy associations. Cutpurse Moll was the name of an infamous seventeenth century pickpocket, and the name in Swift’s day was associated with prostitution.
While the above are all starting their day, another group has just finished their night’s work. Thieves are welcomed back to jail by the “turnkey,” or jail keeper, who has let them out to steal—for his sizable cut of the take. Next, ironically, “watchful bailiffs” assume their posts. The poems closes with schoolboys reluctantly finding their way to school.
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The poem, satiric in manner, has models in the classical satires of Horace and Juvenal and contains echoes of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Swift’s satires tend to be Juvenalian, or biting, but here he tends more to the Horatian, or urbane and gentle, mode. As with all true satires, the poem points to human failings with an eye to correction. The poem was also one of the first English examples of what is variously called the town eclogue, urban pastoral, or ironic pastoral—all designating a poem about the city. In “A Description of the Morning” and its companion piece, “A Description of a City Shower,” which also appeared in The Tatler, Swift introduced something quite out of the norm for Augustan poetry. Steele avowed that Swift “has run into a Way perfectly New” of presenting “the Incidents just as they really appear.” This puts Swift toward the head of a long line of realistic writers.
The poem takes the simple form of a list or series of snapshots. Several deftly drawn characters make cameo appearances, and each actively engages in work which defines both their individual lives and, collectively, the life of the city as seen from the working-class perspective. The upper classes would not even be awake yet in eighteenth century England. C. N. Manlove has noticed that the series of scenes has a general movement from the inside to the outside: from the master’s bedroom to the entry way to the street and finally to the lord’s front gate. Similarly, as the morning broadens into day, the verbs move from the past tense to the present.