Explain what the term “satire” means and find three examples that support the idea that "A Description of a City Shower" by Jonathan Swift is satirical.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Jonathan Swift wrote a  clever poem entitled “A Description of a City Shower” which describes the behavior of ordinary people in reaction to a change in the weather. 

Satire is a type of literature that emphasizes the sins, abuses, and foibles of human nature and holds these weaknesses up for ridicule.  Sarcasm and irony are employed to expose these aspects of human nature.  

This poem satirically examines what changes in behavior people undergo during a storm. The storm is a metaphor for how people behave in a crisis. It is obvious that the poet has a pessimistic attitude toward humanity via his belief the lack of cooperation only subsides as long as there is a down pouring rain. The storm can make strange bedfellows when people need each other to survive.

Swift begins by pointing out ways that a person can foretell the coming of a change in the weather.

A cat changes its behavior and stops its play

The kitchen sink will have a worse smell than usual

The corns of a person’s feet will ache

The decayed tooth will hurt more

1st example of satire

The city shower becomes a pounding rain. A shed is located and a variety of people begin to assemble under it. As in today’s politics, sometimes the differences must be set aside; and man must treat another as an equal and not as an enemy.

Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.

Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs

Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.

Apparently, the Tory party in England’s parliament has won some kind of political victory. On this day, the rain becomes an equalizer when both men fight to keep their wigs on their heads and dry as well.

2nd example

Most large cities of the world at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries fought the sanitary conditions caused by overcrowding and lack of sewers and plumbing. Of course, this is why there were constant plagues and bouts of dysentery. 

Swift’s description certainly turns the stomach when he makes the point that the downpour regurgitates all of the horrific things that people have thrown in the streets and gutters. From the dead animals to the entrails left by the butchers, the point is well taken that the city planners need to improve sanitary conditions in London.

Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,

Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,

Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

3rd example

The poet compares the noblemen and workers in London to the Iliad and the “Trojan horse.” Referring to the class system, the poet equates the Greek soldiers as the noblemen who ride in the fancy carriages; the Trojans are the English workers who carry the chairs of the Lords on their shoulders. Lying inside the Trojan horse are the bullies—the Greeks.

Swift uses the Greeks symbolically. They are waiting to jump out of the horse and kill the unaware Trojans. Both the Greeks and the Trojans are fearful of the outcome of the fight. The Greeks tremble inside the belly of the horse; but the Trojans try to stay strong. The poet blurs the caste system to show that all men have the same fears and doubts. Rather than pay the chairmen for their hard work, the noblemen would rather kill them.

Throughout the poem, Swift shows the connections people make in trying to avoid the storm. When the rain is over, then everything returns to the way it was before the change in the weather.

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