Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Witching Hour and Transformation (?)

I was struck by our conversation in class about the work of "The Rape of the Lock" in turning the body into something monstrous -- in its work in distorting it and turning it into something artificial (something away from the vision of Adam and Eve in "Paradise Lost"). This work is even more forceful in the next set of poems, particularly in Swift's "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed." Quite apart from making me not want to put on make-up this morning, the interplay between the natural and the artificial in this poem is illuminating, as it questions and complicates both sides of the divide. Swift describes the process of transformation at the moment of the witching hour, but the before and after images that the reader is given are not, perhaps, what one would expect. Corinna's body is certainly grotesque in its natural state, with "hollow jaws," "flabby dugs," "the lumps," "her shankers, issues, running sores." The suggestion of her made-up state, however, is really no more appetizing, consisting of descriptions of the "artificial," and eye that must be wiped clean, false eyebrows made of mouse. The reader is left, then, to wonder in what state Swift sees her as more natural, as his description of the process of decomposition leaves nothing of the beautiful.

It is this process of decomposition on a living body that make Swift's language all the more grotesque. Hinting at an unholy assemblage throughout the poem with words like "operator," "Plaister," and "poison'd," Swift concludes the poem with the image of a woman literally recollecting bits of her body, attempting to reassemble them. The only space for beauty in the poem is in the ironic terms in which Swift couches Corinna, transporting her into the tales of romance and gentleness as suggested by the title, Corinna's place as a "muse" in "her Bow'r." While these terms cement the irony and perverse humor Swift sees in Corinna's situation, there also seems to be a hint of melancholy, derived from the distance between her reality in the body and Swift's imagining of what might be.

1 comment:

  1. I think this quite right Sarah--and I'd push even farther to ask if melancholy ever falls over into empathy--does Swift's narrator pity Corinna in her "mangled Plight" (65)? It is suggestive that he returns to the pastoral label Nymph in the final stanza, and refuses to actually describe her toil and pain, substituting rhetorical questions for the dominant grotesque images of the earlier stanzas. Is this empathy? If so, why end with vomit and poison? Are the final lines a retraction of sentiment?