Analysis

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Johnathan Swift's "A Description of a City Shower" (1710) is a satire on the physical and moral condition of Swift's contemporary London. In this poem, Swift uses the forms of both pastoral and epic poetry to describe the unpleasant circumstances of an urban flood. Swift is known for using a formal structure and mode of discourse to describe a low or unrefined subject matter. In addition, Swift is mocking the political circumstances of London wherein the Whigs and Tories were at constant loggerheads.

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The poet begins by describing the conditions of the city in anticipation of the flood (claiming that animals behave differently and people suffer physical signs). Swift describes the imminent storm as a "sable cloud athwart the welkin" only to continue the description with a simile likening the rain to the vomit of a drunkard. Swift's simile's moreover take the form of epic similes (extended and highly developed similes that are several lines in length). He also likens there rain to the water from a mop that a lady uses in cleaning.

A final simile that bears special resemblance to epic similes is that the poet's comparison of the people hearing the rain fall on their shelter to the Greeks imprisoned inside the Trojan horse when the spear of Laocoön struck it. Here again, Swift uses classical forms to describe an unpleasant situation.

Swift is very concerned with the dirt and grime ("dung, guts, and blood") that the flood causes to surface. In highlighting this, Swift suggests that these features were there the entire time, but brought to public view by the rain.

Finally, Swift (who himself exhibited both Whig and Tory sensibilities throughout his lifetime), remarks that both Whigs and Tories seek shelter (while also making a pun on saving their "wigs"). Swift had spent several years prior to the publication of this poem writing for a publication called The Examiner in which he promoted Tory politics of Queen Anne. Swift was sufficiently circumspect not to espouse any particular political view in his poem, but rather he suggests the futility of political differences.

The Poem

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Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” is a sixty-three-line poem written in thirty-one of the end-rhymed iambic pentameter couplets still known as “heroic couplets,” with the final line of iambic hexameter creating a closing triplet. (The heroic couplet was the most popular verse form of Swift’s day and takes its name from its frequent use in English translations of classical epic—or, as it was then termed, “heroic”—poetry.) Swift’s title is somewhat ironically misleading: Although he certainly provides a vivid enough description of a turbulent rain shower rolling through the streets of early eighteenth century London, the poem’s central concern is with the city’s inhabitants who are caught by Swift in a series of comic vignettes as they scurry to avoid the impending “flood.”

At the time of the poem’s initial publication, London was the center of English commerce and culture as well as Europe’s leading trade center—a bustling, rapidly expanding metropolis that progressive Englishmen could regard with great pride. (“When a man is tired of London,” wrote Samuel Johnson, a leading eighteenth century man of letters, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”) The Great Fire of 1666 had destroyed huge stretches of the city, and much of the newly rebuilt London, including the Christopher Wren-designed St. Paul’s Cathedral, struck resident Londoners and visitors alike as a dazzling achievement.

However, if the lofty prospect of Wren’s cathedral could dazzle a viewer, only a slight shift in perspective—downward, to eye or ground level—was likely to elicit an entirely different set of responses. Swift’s London, like any great city, was a...

(The entire section contains 1568 words.)

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