The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jonathan Swift was much involved in the launching of his friend Sir Richard Steele’s new literary enterprise, a thrice-weekly paper of familiar essays and news called The Tatler. One of Swift’s contributions was the eighteen-line poem called “A Description of the Morning,” which appeared in the ninth paper on April 30, 1709, only two weeks after the publication debuted. The poem gives a series of photographic impressions of London life, specifically, as Steele remarked, of life in the West End of London.

The poem opens at daybreak, with only a few coaches yet on the scene to carry about their passengers. The first scene is of Betty, a stock name for a female servant, leaving her master’s bed. In an effort to cover up her deed, she goes to her room and ruffles the covers of her own unused bed. Next, three cleaners take the stage for their brief appearances. An apprentice cleans with a half-hearted effort, while Moll skillfully whirls her mop as a prelude to scrubbing the entry stairs. A youth sweeps the “kennel,” or gutter, with a stubby broom (in search of used nails, as a note by Swift explains).

Two workers next demand the reader’s attention, one selling coal—then widely used domestically for cooking and warmth or for cottage industries requiring fire—the other announcing his availability to sweep chimneys. The “shriller notes” of the sweep imply the grim reality that children were forced into this dangerous and debilitating job, often working from dawn to dusk. While bill collectors (“duns”) gather before an aristocrat’s house, another loud voice intrudes. It belongs to another “Moll”: This one may be selling brick dust, used as a scouring powder, or (since Swift calls her “Brickdust Moll”) Swift may have in mind her working-class complexion, scorched by the sun. The name “Moll” has seedy associations. Cutpurse Moll was the name of an infamous seventeenth century pickpocket, and the name in Swift’s day was associated with prostitution.

While the above are all starting their day, another group has just finished their night’s work. Thieves are welcomed back to jail by the “turnkey,” or jail keeper, who has let them out to steal—for his sizable cut of the take. Next, ironically, “watchful bailiffs” assume their posts. The poems closes with schoolboys reluctantly finding their way to school.