The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 494 words.)