EESE 4/2000

"Such a Vision of the Street as the Street Hardly Understands":
Jonathan Swift, T. S. Eliot, and the Anti-Pastoral

Carlton Clark (Texas Woman's University)

The following four poems, one by Jonathan Swift and three by T. S. Eliot, are all poems of morning in the city. I use the term "anti-pastoral" in the title of this paper to draw attention to the urban settings and themes of these poems and to suggest that Swift and Eliot were explicitly rejecting the pastoral genre. In Swift's poem, the anti- or mock-pastoral is perhaps most clear in the lines "The Turnkey now his Flock returning sees, / Duly let out at Night to steal for Fees." Here the pastoral shepherd becomes a jailer who releases inmates at night to steal money for bribes. Each of these poems gives us an unromanticized, naturalistic vision of the working- and lower classes in the city, as opposed to the romanticized images of rural folk characteristic of the pastoral genre. In "A Description of Morning," the apprentice is slipshod, the chimney-sweep is shrill, and Brickdust Moll screams through half the street. Far from the harmonious pastoral idyll, we are presented a scene of chaos, noise, and corruption.

I first became interested in the Swift-Eliot comparison when I read Swift's "A Description of Morning" and immediately thought of Eliot's "Preludes." I saw that by weaving the lines of these poems together we might say that Swift's "A Description of the Morning" represents "the thousand sordid images" of which Swift's soul is constituted. Likewise, the image of Betty discomposing her own bed after leaving her master's bed, along with the catalogue of hypocrisies throughout the poem, could be characterized as the "masquerades that time resumes" each morning. We might also say that Swift had "such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands."

Jonathan Swift, 1709

"A Description of the Morning"

Now hardly here and there an Hackney-Coach
Appearing, show'd the ruddy Morns Approach.
Now Betty from her Master's Bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
The Slipshod Prentice from his Masters Door
Had par'd the Dirt, and Sprinkled round the Floor.
Now Moll had whirl'd her Mop with dext'rous Airs,
Prepar'd to Scrub the Entry and the Stairs.
The Youth with broomy Stumps began to trace
The Kennel-Edge, where Wheels had worn the Place.
The Smallcoal-Man was heard with Cadence deep,
Till drown'd in shriller Notes of Chimney-Sweep.
Duns at his Lordships Gate begin to meet,
And Brickdust Moll had Scream'd through half the Street.
The Turnkey now his Flock returning sees,
Duly let out at Night to steal for Fees.
The watchful Bailiffs take their silent Stands,
And School-Boys lag with Satchels in their Hands.

T.S. Eliot

Prelude II

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust trampled streets
With all the feet that press
To early coffee stands.
With all the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

Prelude III

You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back and waited;
You dosed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul is constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

Morning at the Window

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.


It is well known that T. S. Eliot had a great appreciation for certain Restoration and Augustan poets and playwrights, as well the metaphysical poets. Thus, it should not be surprising to find that Eliot borrowed from, "stole," or modeled some of his work on seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century authors. Richard Turner makes a good case for Eliot's borrowing a phrase from Swift's A Tale of a Tub in his poem "Burbank With A Baedeker: Bleistein With A Cigar."1 Turner argues that with this borrowing "Eliot puts himself in the tradition of Swift as those who see into the forces that corrupt civilization" (348). Nicholas Joost and Ann Risdon also cite Eliot's borrowings from Ben Jonson, among others (381). It appears that Swift and Eliot each saw himself inhabiting a corrupt, crumbling civilization-as opposed to the harmony of the pastoral idyll. In addition, their work indicates that they found urban settings conducive to good poetry-a poetry filled with tension, ambiguity, and vivid imagery. Placed aside to the energy, confusion, and noise of the city, the pastoral landscape must have seemed quite dull to these two poets. The concept of the "anti-pastoral" comes to mind when we consider Eliot's view that at the root of mediocre English poetry, as represented by the 1920 Georgian Anthology, is the idea that "It is necessary to pretend that England is a green and pleasant land" (72: 513). "Green and pleasant" pastoral England is set against Eliot's hard, stony Waste Land, of which we see a preview in the "Preludes" and the "Morning at the Window." Yet Eliot is just as contemptuous of popular American poetry. In commenting on the 1920 anthology entitled Some Contemporary Poets edited by Harold Munro, Eliot writes, "The conventional literature of America is either wretchedly imitative of European culture, or ignorant of it, or both" (70: 450). Eliot characterizes contemporary American literature as a "literature without any critical sense; a poetry which takes not the faintest notice of the development of French verse from Baudelaire to the present day and which has perused English literature with only a wandering antiquarian passion" (70: 451).

It has been well documented that Eliot admired Swift for, among other traits, his sense of "disgust." Eliot classified "Dryden as the great master of contempt, Pope as the great master of hatred, and Swift as the great master of disgust" (Johnson 310). Maurice Johnson notes that in 1924, seven years after the publication of "Preludes" and "Morning at the Window," Eliot wrote that he had earlier planned an essay on Swift as a poet to be included in a series of essays on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English authors; however, as far as I am aware Eliot's only published statements on Swift are in the nature of asides, such as the remark about his sense of disgust (310). Eliot claimed that Swift's writings successfully represent the objective correlative of Swift's sense of disgust; that is to say, Swift was able to externalize, or give objective representation to, his emotions of disgust in the language of his poetry. Maurice Johnson writes: "There is in Swift's own life, according to Eliot, an objective correlative for the disgust he famously expressed in his poetry and prose." (311). Johnson goes on to state that "in Eliot's opinion, deep and intense emotion, terror, passion, bitter personal feeling, and tortured talent will be felt through satire that is 'Swiftian' and great" (313). Eliot also claimed that Dryden "has not the passion of his cousin Swift" (Johnson 313). Evidently, Eliot felt a powerful attraction for and seems to have identified with Swift, and they do seem to have had similar temperaments-at least in Eliot's opinion, if not in fact. Again quoting Maurice Johnson, "Eliot characterized Gulliver[s Travels] as a 'work of cynicism and loathing,' which manifests 'the progressive cynicism of the mature and disappointed man of the world.' This was written not in censure but in praise, for a sense of personal disgust was for Eliot a distinguishing characteristic of great 'Swiftian' satire" (314). It is unlikely that Eliot would have expressed such a keen interest in Swift if he had not felt that he and Swift had certain traits in common. I should note, however, that the poems by Eliot that I have selected for this paper are not satirical, and the satire aspect is not the main thrust of my argument. My primary concern in this paper is the connection between Swift and Eliot's views on the middle classes and how these views were expressed in their poetry.

Eliot's own sense of disgust is clearly expressed in his "London Letters," which he composed from 1921-22 as a correspondent for The Dial. The main source of Eliot's disgust, as expressed in the "London Letters," was the English and American "insurgent middle class, [the] General Reading Public" along with the poets who appeal to middle-class audiences (70: 451). Eliot claims that "the Middle Class finds itself on the side more and more of what used to called the Lower Class" (70: 451). The April 1922 "London Letter" is devoted to a critique of two new poetry anthologies: Methuen and Company's Anthology of Modern Verse and Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry. Eliot speaks of the

instinct for safety [...] which seems to make the English poet take refuge in just those sentiments, images, and thoughts which render a man least distinguishable from the mob, the respectable mob, the decent middle-class mob [...].

We have, then, a large number of writers giving the public what it likes; and a large body of reviewers telling it that it is right to like what it likes; and the Morning Post to tell it that everything new is a symptom of Bolshevism; and the London Mercury to tell it that it is already such an enlightened public that what it does not like cannot be really good. (72: 511)

Judging by his "London Letters," Eliot found the middle classes dull, insipid, and completely lacking in "culture." He speaks, on one occasion, of "this great middle class public which consumes Georgian poetry" (70: 451-52). In his April 1922 "London Letter" Eliot writes, "There is certainly, in the atmosphere of literary London, something which may provisionally be called moral cowardice" (72: 510). In his November 1922 "Letter" Eliot goes as far as to state that "the middle classes are morally corrupt" (73: 662).

It is important to recognize, however, that Eliot's scorn was directed against the middle classes, not the working or lower classes, and the most salient parallel is these four poems by Swift and Eliot is that their subjects come primarily from the lower social strata-such as, in Prelude II, the population that resides in "a thousand furnished rooms." It appears that both Swift and Eliot were more kindly disposed to the working and lower classes. Arno Löffler notes that

Swift's manners were habitually easy with common people [...] Swift's attitude was certainly exemplary in his time: There was an increasing interest in the 'common people': this [enlightened view] interest was-partly at least-based on the observation that among the 'common people' there were to be found specimens that possessed outstanding talents and abilities and were able to make the best of them. (7)

This type of native talent is evident in the first Moll, who "whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs," as well as in the singing Small-Coal Man, whom I discuss at greater length below. In a significant parallel, Eliot's primary complaint against the middle-classes was that they stamped out all individuality, the culture of mass production being inimical to genius. Yet this does not necessarily mean that Eliot expressed great benevolence toward the lower classes, as some critics have implied. Joost and Risdon, for instance, claim that in his "London Letters" Eliot "is never snobbish or lacking in sympathy for the ordinary working man and woman, quite the contrary" (382).

The evidence, however, does not support the claim that Eliot was particularly well disposed toward the lower classes, and indeed there is plenty of snobbishness in the "London Letters." It might be more accurate to suppose that Eliot was friendlier toward the lower classes because they posed no immediate threat to high culture. In November 1922, Eliot writes, "The middle classes, in England as elsewhere, under democracy, are morally dependent upon the aristocracy, and the aristocracy are morally in fear of the middle class which is gradually absorbing and destroying them" (73: 662). Lumping the middle and lower classes together, in the March 1921 "Letter," Eliot writes, "Both the middle and lower classes are finding safety in Regular Hours, Regular Wages, Regular Pensions, and Regular Ideas. In other words, there will soon be only one class, and the second Flood is here" (70: 451). It is interesting that in Joost and Risdon's quote of the above statement by Eliot, they leave out the words "Both [...] and lower class," along with the final ominous sentence, thus making Eliot appear friendlier toward the lower classes than he may have been. While a student at Harvard, Eliot developed a fondness for burlesque and vaudeville, and in London he loved to attend the musical-hall comedies. Eliot wrote that "in the music-hall comedians [the lower class] find the artistic expression and dignity of their own lives" (73: 662).

Thus, Eliot, who is a notorious as a snob and an elitist, in his younger years had an appreciation for "vulgar" pleasures. Recalling Swift's famously vulgar "excremental vision," Eliot applauded a London production of Ben Jonson's Volpone which refused to expurgate any "indecencies." In the June 1921 "London Letter" Eliot wrote: "The sense of relief, in hearing the indecencies of Elizabethan and Restoration drama, leaves one a better and a stronger man" (70: 687). Joost and Risdon write:

There is obviously a direct parallel between [Eliot's] enjoyment of the bawdy of the Jacobean comedy and of the frank and sometimes crude humor or the music-hall performers. In contrast to his disgust with the inanities of contemporary 'Georgian' literature, is his pleasure in the openness and frankness of both the music hall and Jonson's play. (377)

The connection between social class structures and the "anti-pastoral," or Swift's and Eliot's rejection of the pastoral, is that the middle classes would have been the prime consumers of pastoral poetry, both in the early eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Furthermore, the readership that favored contemporary texts and modern ideas, whom Swift mocked in The Battle of the Books, A Tale of a Tub, and elsewhere, would have been come largely from the middle classes.2 And while it is true that Swift himself was a member of the middle class, he, unlike some other eighteenth-century authors (e.g., Defoe, Fielding, Richardson) wrote primarily for an aristocratic audience and resented middle-class encroachments (Palm 99).

Looking at two of these poems more closely, in Swift and Eliot's mention of gates we have a concrete manifestation of the desire to keep the social classes apart in both the early-eighteenth and the early-twentieth centuries. In Swift's poem we have: "Duns at his Lordships Gate begin to meet." And from Eliot's "Morning at the Window": "And along the trampled edges of the street / I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids / Sprouting despondently at area gates." In other words, the working and lower classes are waiting outside the gates of the upper classes. Only this physical structure separates the rich from the lower classes. From the above lines, "duns" are creditors, which implies that even his Lordship is in financial trouble, and nothing is as it appears. In fact, "his Lordship," given that he lives in the city, would actually have been a member of the upper-middle class, as opposed to the landed nobility-and the same can be said of the master who sleeps with his servant Betty. Hence, it is the upper-middle class characters who serve as the target of Swift's satire, rather than the lower classes, whom Swift treats much better - witness the first Moll and the Small-Coal Man.

Perhaps the first thing the reader notices on a first reading of these four poems is that there is dirt, dust, and mud everywhere; it's a collection of sordid, soiled images. From Eliot: "One thinks of all the hands / That are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms"; you "clasped the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hand"; "From the sawdust trampled street / With all its muddy feet"; "The brown waves of fog [...] a passer by with muddy skirts," and so on. And from Swift: "The slipshod 'prentice from his master's door, / had pared the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor. / Now Moll had whirled her mop with dextr'ous airs, / Prepared to scrub the entry and the stairs. / The Youth with broomy Stumps began to trace / The Kennel-Edge, where wheel has worn the place." Swift's poem is filled with dirt, coal, brickdust, as well as a bit of moral dirt. Of course, there is much more of this sort of imagery in Swift "Description of a City Shower," but for this paper I chose to limit myself to poems which describe morning in the city.

In reading these four poems one generalization we can make is that these are all poems of disorder. The city, in contrast with the romantic pastoral idyll, is disorderly. In an important respect, this is the disorder of different social classes coming together-the city being the place where members of various social strata come together most visibly. Frederick Smith makes the point that, in Swift's poetry, "the order of the world has been disturbed" (191).3 In Swift's poem most of the people, from the Betty to the bailiffs, are going about putting things in order, although the order is inevitably a masquerade-the "masquerade that time resumes" each morning. Ironically, the servant Betty, who awakens in her master's bed, preserves appearances by discomposing her own bed-Betty's disturbed bed thus maintaining the facade of decorum, which rests on the separation of the social classes. It is noteworthy that in eighteenth-century England the word "promiscuous" was used to refer to the mixing of social classes - social promiscuity being, for conservatives anyway, a bad thing. The disorder of these poems, then, reflects the threatened breakdown of strict class divisions. In other words, the Great Chain of Being, in all its manifestations, was quite vulnerable in post-Cromwellian England.

A. B. England comments on the disorder or apparent randomness of the elements Swift has collected into this poem, and he refers to the line "Such Order from Confusion sprung" in Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room." Yet, in departing from the conventional interpretation, which assumes an order at the heart of the poem, England argues that disorder actually represents the truth of the poem and that whatever order we may find is imposed on the poem by the reader. In other words, any order we perceive in Swift's poem simply represents our desire to find order in chaos; it is a function of reader-response (9). Despite the fact that a number of critics (Manlove; Real & Vienken; Smith) have found order underlying the disorder of Swift's "Description of Morning" and other of his poems, I don't believe Swift was that na´ve or optimistic, and any statement about "order from confusion sprung" should be taken as ironic. A. B. England writes that "Swift was well aware of the human mind's impulse to find order in apparently random sequences, and he capitalized on this with his poetry so as to create a 'revolutionary realism'" (10-11). The conventional reaction, the ordering impulse, might therefore be seen as the reader's effort to get past or deny the initial discomfort associated with the perception of disorder.

In the works of Swift and Eliot there is a dynamic interplay of order and disorder. There is disorder in Eliot's Waste Land with its jarring juxtaposition of different languages, themes, and imagery. And in this jarring, clashing style, Eliot appears to have been influenced by the music of Igor Stravinsky. In a "London Letter" in which Eliot comments on Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du printemps, which was notorious for provoking a riot at its 1913 Paris debut, Eliot writes of the clashing of modern noises that somehow makes a revolutionary, modern kind of music: "Stravinsky's music [...] did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music" (71: 453). In Swift's "A Description of Morning" there is plenty of noise as well, along with some music: "The Smallcoal-Man was heard with Cadence deep, / Till drown'd in shriller Notes of Chimney-Sweep. / Duns at his Lordships Gate begin to meet, / And Brickdust Moll had Scream'd through half the Street." In the above lines, the Smallcoal-Man is of some interest. In a recent article, Arno Löffler, who identifies the "Smallcoal-Man" as one Thomas Britton, writes:

In the years about 1700 one particular sonorous voice often towered above the diffused and dissonant street cries of the trading mob, the bass of the coal merchant Thomas Britton (1654?-1714) [...]. However, Britton was well-known in London not only as a coal dealer. He was held in high esteem also as a collector of books and as a virtuoso, but, first of all, as a talented amateur musician and as a pioneer of the public concert [...]. Jonathan Swift could, therefore, be certain that his London readers would be able to understand his allusion to Britton.

Thomas Britton's voice must not, therefore, be lumped in among the harsh noises of the London morning. Indeed, his deep cadence is music that is drowned out by the shrill notes of the Chimney Sweep. Löffler continues:

In Swift's poem Britton stands out from the uncleanly, shabby urban scene as a dominant figure, and he is introduced without any tinge of satire. Satirical mockery would have been amiss anyway, as Britton possessed a completely stainless image. Already during his lifetime, he was held in high repute as an upright, honest, industrious man without snobbish attitudes and social aspirations.

In the juxtaposition of Thomas Britton and the Chimney Sweep, we have the type of revolutionary clash spoken of by Eliot. The city, from Swift's time to Eliot's and into the twenty-first century, is perhaps most distinctive as environment were all types, degrees, and levels of humanity - and non-humans - come together. In Eliot's third "Prelude," for instance, we have the sound of "the sparrows in the gutters" - a pleasant sound, but set amid the dirt of the rooftop gutters.

I believe that the disorder Eliot and Swift created in their poetry may be characterized as a type of "revolutionary music" created from the sounds, sights, and smells of their respective urban realities. This theme of disorder, which in Eliot's case was thoroughly Modernist and avant garde, also relates to Eliot's interest in the work of Pablo Picasso, whom he mentions along with Stravinsky, in his "London Letters." Picasso's revolutionary paintings are in some ways quite similar to Eliot's verse with its strange juxtapositions and odd perspectives. And returning to Swift, despite the fact that he sided with the Ancients, his work is actually quite Modernist in the twentieth-century sense of that term. Swift scatological references are quite Joycean, in fact-or it might more accurate to say that James Joyce's scatological references are quite Swiftian.

In closing, I believe that it's possible to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of Jonathan Swift by studying T. S. Eliot, as well as other twentieth-century Modernists - strange as this may sound. We might also gain insight into Eliot's work by studying Swift, along with other poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whom Eliot is known to have admired.4 It seems to me that Eliot was answering questions posed by Swift two centuries earlier, and if we can we get a sense of what Eliot's answers were, we might gain some insight into Swift's questions.

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. "London Letter." The Dial 70 (March 1921): 448-53; 70; 70 (May 1921): 686-91; 71 (July 1921): 213-17; 71 (Oct ?? 1921): 452-55; 72 (Apr 1922): 510-13; 73 (June 1922): 94-96; 73 (Aug 1922): 329-31); 73 (Nov 1922):659-63.

---. Prufrock and Other Observations. (London: The Egotist, Ltd., 1917). Bartleby Archive (28 June 1999).

---. The Waste Land and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt, 1934).

England, A. B. "The Perils of Discontinuous Form: A Description of the Morning and Some of Its Readers." Studies in the Literary Imagination 17 (1984): 3-15.

Johnson, Maurice. "T. S. Eliot on Satire, Swift, and Disgust." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 5 (1969): 310-15.

Joost, Nicholas and Ann Risdon. "Sketches and Preludes: T. S. Eliot's 'London Letters' in the Dial." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 12 (1976): 366-83.

Löffler, Arno. "Thomas Britton, the 'Musical Smallcoal-Man' Paragon of Englishness." Erfurt Electronic Studies in English (July 1999)

Manlove, C. N. "Swift's Structures: 'A Description of Morning' and Some Others." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 29 (1989): 463-72.

Palm, Franklin Charles. The Middle Classes: Then and Now. New York: MacMillan, 1936.

Real, Herman J. and Heinz J. Vienken. "Swift's 'A Description of Morning,' Lines 9-10." Notes and Queries 33 (1986): 47.

Smith, Frederick N. "Swift's 'Descriptions.'" Teaching Eighteenth-Century Poetry. Ed. Christopher Fox (New York: AMS, 1990).

Swift, Jonathan. A Norton Critical Edition: The Writings of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg and William Bowman Piper (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

Turner, Richard C. "Burbank and Grub-Street: A Note on T. S. Eliot and Swift." English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 52 (19): 347-48.


1 The lines, from the final stanza of Eliot's poem, are: "Who clipped the lion's wings / And flea'd his rump and pared his claws."

2 Although by the beginning of the fourteenth century the middle classes were legally recognized, the word bourgeois, according to Franklin C. Palm, does not appear in print until the 1671, bourgeoisie is first recorded in 1707, and the term middle class was not recorded until 1812 (Palm 95).

3 Disorder is heteroglossic; it goes against the grain of pastoral, romantic, courtly poetry, and the sentimental novel-of all which are, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, monological genres. Bakhtin, however, claimed that all poetry is monological. Nevertheless, if some poems can be more heteroglossic than others, the four poems discussed in the paper seem meet the standard.

4 I should note here, at least in passing, that Eliot's anti-middle-class elitism and notion of "culture" derived in part from Matthew Arnold. And the "Preludes" seem to have been influenced by Dostoevsky's psychological method in Crime and Punishment (Joost and Risdon 373). Eliot, in fact, remarks on Dostoevsky's genius in his August 1922 "London Letter" (73: 331). I am not making the claim that Jonathan Swift was the chief influence on Eliot's social conservatism or on his poetry.