A Description of a City Shower

by Jonathan Swift

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Johnathan Swift's "A Description of a City Shower" 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.

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). He likens the rain to the water from a mop that a lady uses in cleaning. 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. These are both rather vulgar descriptions that evoke aversion, yet Swift writes tactfully. Pastoral poetry typically evokes an emotional, personal response to the world, most often the natural world. Swift twists this idea by focusing on the physical or material experience of the rain. It is dirty, inconvenient, and certainly not romantic like a rainstorm might be in the country. Swift's similes moreover take the form of epic similes: extended and highly developed similes that are several lines in length. 

A final simile that bears special resemblance to epic similes is 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. He brings a satirical elegance and weight to a situation that seems relatively mundane.

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. This may be extended to include the “underbelly” of an urban location like London: there is more that meets the eye, and there are certainly grittier aspects of a growing population. Swift then describes the actual items brought to the surface in the midst of the flood. Dead cats and dogs are swept along with food scraps and sewer waste. Here, Swift brings to mind the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” The term originally came into use in seventeenth-century England. It actually refers to exactly what Swift’s poem depicts: animals would, unfortunately, drown and get pulled up through the streets in the downpour. This disturbing image was evidently so common that the phrase was widely circulated. 

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.

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