Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Beautiful (?) Young Nymph...

From our historical knowledge, we know that women were perceived in the 18th century as barely more than objects for men; their beauty was their most admirable quality, therefore, this aspect is most emphasized in literature. However, after reading Jonathan Swift's poem "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," I think it is safe to say that Swift's intention is to question the value of women's beauty, at the very least. Of course, the initial irony of the poem presents itself in the title: the woman depicted is obviously anything but "beautiful" or "young", at least according to Swift's description. Swift literally peels the woman's appearance back, layer-by-layer, until all that is left is a vile image of an unattractive woman.
My first reaction upon reading this poem was a disgust. The imagery and descriptions were repulsive ("running sores", "flabby"), and I felt that Swift was commentating on the material and superficiality of the women of the time. However, after rereading the poem, I came to realize that Swift's commentary is arguably one on the degradation that society imposed upon women. Through all the falsity of appearance, a woman essentially became an artificial being - perhaps beautiful in outward appearance, but "broken" internally.
My reasoning comes from the conclusion stanza of the poem, specifically lines 68-72. Swift describes Corinna as an accumulation of "scattered parts", repeatedly and painfully torn apart and reassembled. In this sense, Swift's commentary on women's appearance becomes apparent.

1 comment:

  1. See my comment to Sarah's "Witching Hour" post, but I'm also interested in your sense of the poem's comment on her internal state. The dream sequence in lines 41-56 seems both to reflect this state, but also to shift the poem into something akin to a realist mode: she is arrested, whipped, transported as a felon (a common 18th century punishment), and end with her recognition of her society's legal and moral corruption (we all know what she pays the priests and ministers with). Does Swift thereby give Corinna a power to expose her society for what it is, even as she is herself pulled apart and stripped of the glue that holds her body together?