A Description of a City Shower

by Jonathan Swift

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Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Urban Experience 

One of the key themes in the poem pertains to the fact that this is a description of rain not in the country, but in a big city, a melting pot of different sorts of people. The urban experience brings together people from all walks of life—this includes a wider variety of inhabitants than the more spread out, farm-focused country might. Swift’s narrator, however, does not completely approve of the shift into urban life. In fact, the poem describes the hassle and filth associated with living in the city. The rain itself is a pain. It forces people to scurry for shelter or they are at risk of staining their clothes with the mud that is produced. Not only is it an inconvenience in a populated city: it also stirs up filth. Whether comically exaggerated or not, the sewers overflow, and waste runs through the streets. While the city of London is full of exciting places to be, or interesting people to meet, it also implies a denser population with a grittier underside compared to rural pastures. 

Rain as a Universalizing Experience

For Swift’s speaker, what is most interesting about the rain storm is that it is experienced by everybody equally—the rain is a sort of universal leveler, with all humans seeking the same thing: shelter from this storm. When the storm happens, it brings together people from all walks of life, eradicating, for a brief period, their differences. Words like "joined" and "confluence" emphasize this theme: unity in the city comes from an unlikely source, as the rainstorm makes it evident that people who think they have nothing in common do, indeed, share many fundamentally human qualities. Swift illustrates this particularly with a joke about Tories and Whigs—members of two competing political parties in England at the time of writing—gathering beneath the same shelter in order to preserve their "wigs." Their political differences are, at this moment, less important to them than the natural instinct to hide from the downpour. Likewise, other people of "various fortunes" find themselves behaving in the same way and brushing shoulders with people from outside of their usual social circle because the rain is rushing through "all parts." Rain does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, but drums down upon everyone equally. Acts of God or nature are the ultimate leveler.

The Cost of Modernity

In large part, Swift's poem is intended to be comical, but it also seems to be making an overarching point about the cost of modernity. While we as humans tend to focus on the differences separating certain groups—differences that are exacerbated by urban, industrialized living—nature does not observe any of this. As England developed, and the European world more generally, the shift to urban living became the “modern” trend. Championing modernism over rural living has a cost. Is this the increased filth or presence of disease with a denser population? Or, is it the interface with so many varied people the issue? Either way, Swift broaches the conversation for the audience to consider the impact of modernization.

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