The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 491 words.)