A Description of the Morning

by Jonathan Swift

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Themes and Meanings

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“A Description of the Morning” has much in common with Swift’s other work in both prose and poetry. Swift loves detail, especially detail that exposes human weakness and gives no quarter to vanity, as in his descriptions of the human body and bodily functions in Gulliver’s Travels. No direct commentary is needed; the facts are made to speak for themselves. Similarly, Swift here makes no explicit comment on the morality or quality of working-class London. Yet taken together, the scenes give the impression of a city that is a noisy, dirty place. It is populated by people who at best are reluctant to work or learn and at worst are deceptive, manipulative, and immoral.

Swift, the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, is ever fulfilling the preacher’s role in pointing up the weakness in human nature and the resultant failings in human behavior. Master and servant alike are involved in sexual sin, which they take pains to keep hidden, while further immorality is suggested by the twice-used stock name for a prostitute, Moll. The moral and social order is shown to be in an advanced state of decay, as those charged with maintaining law and order use their power to rob the very people they are charged with protecting—all for personal gain.

Lesser lapses fill in the gaps. The young apprentice scrimps by with the mere appearance of cleanliness, and schoolboys dawdle, reluctant to take advantage of their educational privilege. Even more subtle is the suggestion of class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. The conveyances out at daybreak are “hackney” coaches, which means they are for hire or rent. The rich would have their own. The bill collectors gathering before the gate are dependent on “his Lordship,” and men and women ignominiously bawl through the streets in search of customers. Such detail as the “broomy stumps,” suggesting worn-out equipment, points to the Spartan condition of the youth’s life as he looks for recyclable nails.

Swift does not force this kind of judgment from his readers; the narrative voice never obtrudes. He also makes no effort to tie the descriptions together by a narrative thread or any other device. The images bump against one another with all the randomness typical of the street. Yet, with all its apparent indirection, the poem gives a subtle critique of human nature. With its realism so concretely realized, the pettiness, nastiness, and seaminess of urban London become undeniable. The satiric touch is lighter than usual for Swift, who often pushes the filth under readers’ noses. For example, he spares them images of the chamber pot, routinely dumped into the street in his day. Such understatement allows the reader to draw conclusions personally, but they are made nearly inevitable: Such pervasive shortcomings must point to elemental flaws in human character, which, as Swift is always suggesting, need radical moral solutions.

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