Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

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...

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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.

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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

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 place of dramatic contrasts. Much of the landscape was admittedly new, but parts of the old city remained, replete with dark, claustrophobic streets and badly overcrowded tenements in which poverty and disease were the rule. Plumbing was primitive if not nonexistent, making waste disposal an enormous and constant problem. (The poem’s final three lines, which might strike a modern reader as purposefully disgusting, are exaggerated only in a technical sense; many a Londoner no doubt witnessed worse.) Even in London’s better areas, open drains (“Kennels”) ran down the sides of dirt streets; in the early morning, when the contents of morning chamber pots were routinely tossed out of second-floor windows, pedestrians were well-advised to keep to the inside of the sidewalks. This London—the London seen by the “needy Poet” caught in the “Dust and Rain” of the street—is the London of Swift’s poem. It is a city packed with perfectly ordinary people, all of them—like Susan taking down her clothes from the clothesline and the foppish young law student (the “Templer spruce”) waiting for a break in the rain—doing perfectly ordinary things. Yet the poem’s language—ornate, elevated, and rich with classical allusions—suggests that this seemingly everyday event is anything but ordinary.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728

The time during which Swift lived and wrote has often been termed the neoclassical age because the period witnessed a sweeping revival of classical literature. The works of Greek and Roman writers were studied, praised, and frequently imitated, and most educated English readers of Swift’s day would have been familiar with the poetic genres of the ancient world. One very popular and often imitated classical genre was pastoral poetry (from pastor, the Latin word for shepherd), which celebrated rural life and often contrasted the (supposedly) simple, unspoiled life of herdsmen and farmers with the hectic, corrupt, and overly civilized life of city dwellers.

While Swift had no objections to the pastoral poems of such classical writers as the great Roman poet Vergil, he had little patience with the shallowness and artificiality of much eighteenth century pastoral poetry, which used highly ornate language to describe the lives of its rural subjects in lavish, unrealistic detail. For Swift, this not only made for bad poetry but also made for poetry that was aesthetically dishonest and morally irresponsible. (The primary purpose of art, according to neoclassical literary theory, was to provide moral instruction, and moral instruction could hardly proceed from what was essentially a lie.) To demonstrate how empty pastoral poetry had become as a form in the hands of most eighteenth century imitators, Swift and several of his contemporaries wrote a number of poems such as “A Description of a City Shower” that employ the elevated language and classical allusions of pastoral poetry to describe seemingly ordinary scenes of urban life. This form (of which John Gay’s 1714 The Shepherd’s Week is an outstanding example) lies somewhere between satire and parody and is known as “mock pastoral.” The results of such compoundings of realism with romance vary in complexity, but the most obvious common effect is an ironic—and intentionally comic, if dark—sense of incongruity created by the discrepancy between the poem’s “high” language and its “low” subject matter.

In “A Description of a City Shower,” the incongruity first arises from the degree of seriousness assigned to an event as commonplace as a rain shower. In addition to the grandiose language found in the poem’s first twelve lines, the scene seems charged with a nearly epic sense of anticipation. Prophecies and oracles often play important roles in both classical epics and tragedies, and here Swift provides a bevy of signs and omens (“Prognosticks”)—from the behavior of the “pensive Cat” to various physical aches and pains—that seem to portend something much grander and more ominous than a simple shower. It is in the poem’s second verse paragraph, however, that Swift’s design becomes strikingly clear. Word choice, allusion, and imagery combine to create the comic incongruity characteristic of the mock pastoral form. The personified south wind rises in the sky (“the Welkin”) on “dabbled [dirty] Wings” and brings with it a dark cloud heavy with rain. While Swift’s comparison of the rain cloud to a “Drunkard” that, having “swill’d more Liquor than it could contain,” is preparing to give “it up again” may strike modern readers as rather crude, it would hardly have offended the eighteenth century sensibility, which would have delighted in Swift’s clever spin on the extended simile so typical of epic poetry.

As the rain begins in earnest, the language of the third and fourth verse paragraphs continues to stress the ironic gap between classical literature and everyday behavior, even going so far as to suggest that the coming “deluge” will rival the biblical flood of Noah. As Londoners dart about in search of shelter, old enmities are forgotten. “Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs” (members of opposing political parties) put aside their differences “and join to save their Wigs.” In the poem’s most elaborate “epic” simile, a “Beau” (a young man-about-town) who is nervously waiting out the rain within a sedan chair is compared to the Greeks hiding within the Trojan Horse, bringing to mind Aeneas’s account of the fall of Troy in book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). The final image of the “huge Confluent” coursing uncontrollably through London seems nearly apocalyptic, threatening to engulf the entire city—until one realizes that the distance between Smithfield market and Holborn bridge is little more than a stone’s throw.

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