Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Swift remains the premier satirist in the English language. (His 1726 prose satire Gulliver’s Travels is arguably the finest satire in any language.) Besides a powerful intelligence and an essential dissatisfaction with the human condition, the satirist must possess an eye keen enough to discern the follies that so often arise from confusing appearance and reality—which is precisely what eighteenth century pastoral poetry routinely did. The facts of eighteenth century rural life were cold and hard. Farmers and rural workers lived lives at the other end of the spectrum from the hazily romantic imaginings of pastoral poetry. Like their lower-class counterparts in the city, they worked long, back-breaking hours, usually for little more than a subsistence wage. No amount of flowery language or elaborate, classical imagery could improve their lot or effectively substitute fantasy for reality.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine a savagely indignant Swift behind “A Description of a City Shower.” The tone, in fact, is much more one of wry amusement than anger, and even the poem’s array of frankly repellent images—from the poet’s filthy coat to the “Drowned Puppies,” decaying fish, and “Dead Cats” of the concluding lines—in the end seem more comically grotesque than offensive.