A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed Analysis

Jonathan Swift

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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).

The poem’s 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...

(The entire section is 413 words.)