Last Updated on November 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509
Jonathan Swift uses the commonplace occurrence of a brief rain to illustrate the various elements of London’s urban scene in “A Description of a City Shower.” Instead of showing how the rain pleasantly refreshes the air, Swift emphasizes the filth in the streets which must be washed away and the dank mud that results. Swift, of Anglo-Irish descent, published this piece in 1710.
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The speaker begins by telling us how different people (and cats) predict that a shower is coming. A cat stops chasing her tail to seek shelter. The narrator warns the reader to take precautions, such as taking a cab home and not lingering over one’s wine at dinner. People seem to be able to predict these showers, especially if they are paying attention. These observers may feel it in their bones, the horned corns on their feet, their “old aches,” and raging hollow teeth. Such embodied experiences are signs that the poem's titular rain will be coming. Women begin to pull their laundry in from off the clothesline. The speaker compares the dark, billowing clouds to bellies swollen from drinking liquor. This excess must be expelled, hence the rain.
One problem the speaker mentions is the wind, which, along with the first drops, blows wet dust around like a maid flinging her mop, “but not so clean.” The wind stirs both rain and dust, making it difficult to determine which is which. The poet goes looking for an escape, as the wet dust will become hard as cement and stain their coat. As it starts to rain harder, the speaker describes the various actions people take, such as ducking into shops, hailing a coach, or crowding into a shed where strangers get acquainted. Even political opponents—Tories and Whigs—have a common purpose: staying dry. With a play on words, Swift's speaker says that both parties will be united to “save their wigs” from the weather. One young man is trapped inside a sedan chair, which the speaker compares to the Trojan horse.
As the shower gains in force, the streets become impassable. The open sewers fill up and run over so that “[f]ilth of all hues and odors” overtakes the streets; its exact origin can be pinpointed by particular “sight and smell.” The speaker lists a number of different streets that they say would have a distinct odor and then provides the point where the run-off would converge. The last three lines graphically portray just how disgusting a scene can result from one shower. The street markets included open-air butchers, from whose stalls “dung, guts, and blood” rushes down the streets. The resulting flood sweeps away dead things and garbage as well. Drowned puppies and dead cats are caught in the flood amidst old food and waste—it is a vividly disgusting image. Everything is drenched in filth and rainwater, making the streets of London palpably repulsive. It is this gross description of the city rather than its charm that seems to prompt the narrator’s poem in the first place.