Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"The Lady's Room"

As I read Swift's rather perverse poem, "The Lady's Room," i could not help but think of the boy/girl cootie craze of elementary school. Strephon, who is completely charmed by a woman named Celia, decides to raid her personal space. When he does this, he learns that she is not as "sweet and cleanly" as she looked outside the perimeters of her room (line 18). As he rummages through her things, he is disgusted to find her dirty belongings:

"The various Combs for various Uses, [20]
Fill'd up with Dirt so closely fixt,
No Brush could force a way betwixt.
A Paste of Composition rare,
Sweat, Dandriff, Powder, Lead and Hair;
A Forehead Cloth with Oyl upon't [25]
To smooth the Wrinkles on her Front;
Here Allum Flower to stop the Steams,
Exhal'd from sour unsavoury Streams."

Swift uses the materiality of this culture to alienate women from men, in this case Strephon from Celia like were kids in kindergarten going through the cootie stage. Although this poem is very sexist at times, it highlights the social climateof the culture at the time: Men were not supposed to understand the long and extreme procedures women were subject to in order to aesthetically please society. It is almost like Celia is not supposed to be human; someone who does not experience the same bodily functions men do. She is an artifact that should never age or change in condition. Like in Pope's Cantos, Swift is fascinated by the emphasis of materiality abnd the pervesion of the mind and a kind of beauty. Strephon has to invade Celia's private space to learn that women were a construction of things that enhanced their beauty. In fact, women, at the time, were objectified to satisfy social standards about appearances. Unfortunately, Celia, like many women, is reveered as merely an object.


  1. The presence of the gaze in this poem is particularly striking. Through his act of voyeurism, Strephon confirms (as you say) Celia's role as an object of the gaze. And yet, this relationship breaks down as the trappings of material society are placed upon Celia, a process by which one might think that his relationship might be fortified. The presence of this materiality, then, seems to serve as a blind between the gaze of the man and the body of the woman, creating the distance of which you write. The preponderance of the language of dirt and uncleanliness might suggest that it is this aspect of her acts of getting ready that alienates her from him, but it seems to be, as you suggest, more couched in the very appearance of these material trappings.

  2. The materialism and physical focus of this poem lends well to our discussions of how women and their practices were critiqued in satires like Swift's. We've mentioned in the past how women's bodies as a subject took on a particular significance in this time period, and this grotesque, brutally honest and unpleasant descriptions of the aristocratic subject could not more starkly contrast with the idyllic pastoral tradition Swift invokes. The pastoral strucure and formalities make the aritificial nature of Celia and the "Nymph"'s beauties seem all the more repulsive and contrived. By examining a woman's body so closely and exaggerating the flaws, Swift manages to make a poignant comment on a hypocritcal culture that idealizes the pastoral yet forces women to contrive their beauty.