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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 728 words.)