Jonathan Swift’s ironically entitled “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” composed in 1731 and puckishly subtitled “Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex,” reflects the relentless, emphatically unromantic, and savagely satirical vision that marks the later years of Swift’s art. This most unpoetic of poems presents the uproarious process by means of which an eighteenth century London prostitute prepares for sleep—a process which involves her divesting herself of those various artifices with which she seeks to disguise both her physical and moral corruption. “Corinna,” Swift’s broad caricature of a Drury Lane bawd, is here portrayed in the privacy of her shabby bedchamber. The poet etches three separate portraits of Corinna: her preparations for bed (lines 1-38), her fitful dreams (lines 39-59), and her waking to personal disaster (lines 58-64). The “I” of a first-person narrator—Swift himself?—then intrudes (lines 65-74) to provide moral commentary on the composition as a whole.
The detailed description of Corinna’s ritualistic undressing is essentially a revelation of the various artful deceptions by means of which she establishes her outward appearance. Indeed, nearly all her dubious charms, it turns out, are factitious: her hair, for example, is a wig; one eye is glass; her eyebrows have been crafted from the skins of mice; the bountiful curves of her figure are supplied by padding and a “Steel-Rib’d Bodice”; and all her teeth are false. More to the point, these deceptive cosmetic devices seek, however imperfectly, to conceal a physical reality that is distinctly repulsive and disgusting; her denuded body is tainted, for example, by “Shankers [cancerous growths], Issues, [and] running Sores”—the results, no doubt, of the “pox” and other venereal diseases, inevitable and disfiguring occupational hazards for this woman of the streets.
These sexually transmitted “pains of love” similarly disturb Corinna’s sleep, and her dreams are dominated by horrific images of what, for her, are very real life possibilities, including the terrifying prospect of debtors’ prison (“the Compter”), corporal punishment, and forced deportation to distant colonies. She dreams as well of other threats that beset her waking life—the clients who abandon her with tavern bills to pay, the police who pursue her, and the bill collectors who shadow her every step. The harlot finds some consolation, however, in dreaming about members of the clergy (denizens of “Religious Clubs”), with whom she enjoys steady, if illicit, business.
Corinna awakens to a real, not imagined, calamity. Overnight, her elaborate disguise has been defiled by household vermin: her glass eye stolen by a rat, her wig infested with her dog’s fleas, and her “Plumpers” soiled by her incontinent cat. Confronting her “mangled Plight,” Corinna strives to reassemble the scattered and polluted parts of her artificial self, observed by a first-person narrator, who, while remarking on her “Anguish, Toil, and Pain,” nonetheless reminds his audience that Corinna is a kind of walking contagion at loose in the city of London.
“A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” is composed of heroic couplets, a series of rhymed line pairs written in iambic tetrameter. This form is very old and common in English, having been introduced into the language in the Middle Ages by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) and adopted widely thereafter, notably by Swift’s cousin John Dryden (1631-1700) and by his celebrated friend Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the device’s absolute master. What is startling and remarkable about Swift’s poem, therefore, is not its form but rather its diction (word choice) and tone (the scathing attitude that Swift brings to his subject matter and that he conveys to his audience).
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language is notable, first, for its overt and premeditated ugliness: Corinna’s physicality is described in a manner calculated to disgust and even nauseate. (Indeed, Swift’s friend Laetitia Pilkington is said to have vomited when she first heard “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” a companion poem to “A Beautiful Young Nymph,” claiming that it had collected “all the dirty ideas in the world in one piece.”) Moreover, the poem’s diction—even when it seems to strive for beauty—unsettles its audience by flying in the face of a long tradition of lyric poetry writing, such as that practiced in the preceding century by the so-called Cavalier poets, such as Thomas Carew (1594 or 1595-1640) and Robert Herrick (1591-1674). In their poems, women are habitually praised for their (perhaps imaginary) charms. In Swift’s poem, conversely, there exists a yawning, deeply ironic discrepancy between occasionally elevated, romanticized language on one hand and a degraded subject matter on the other. For example, when Corinna is referred to as a “lovely Goddess,” or when her sty of an apartment is loftily called “her Bow’r,” Swift intends his audience to understand the satiric gap he has excavated, for comic effect, between words and realities.
All this is an instance of form following function, or of diction following satiric purpose. Swift’s poem is often ugly precisely because, to him, its subject, Corinna, is both morally and physically ugly. It is no accident that the harlot’s appliances are soiled by vermin: The animal imagery that pervades this passage makes an implicit connection between the bestial and the bawdy. The unremitting ugliness of Swift’s language, in other words, perfectly fits his attitude of outright revulsion toward the poem’s protagonist and toward all the human deceptions, vanities, and lusts that she represents.