EESE 9/2000


Progress of Beauty .
Swift's Passionate Take on Women

Suzanne Poor (Seton Hall University)

When Jonathan Swift, the spirited Irish cleric, consistently incorporated what we now call bathroom imagery in his well read poetry and prose, it was cause for concern to the morally righteous, indeed all of English-speaking society.

But a different interpretation, drawing on his ubiquitous use of mythological women combined with a new approach to the scatological language, posits that one of the western world's greatest satirists and notorious disguiser of his true meanings used the seamy language to shatter the notion that women are objects. That he repeatedly called on the mythological women to reinforce his hidden sentiments is even more revealing because he incorporated goddesses in a way his contemporaries, so steeped themselves in mythology as decoration and color for their own insightful analyses of their times, never even considered.

The connection between the poetry under examination and my premise that Swift used the mythological goddess allusions lies in the fascination the early Eighteenth Century scholars had with the classic Greek and Roman myths. The various attitudes range from taking the stories of the capers of the gods and goddesses literally to Giambattista Vico's theory that the fables constituted the language of the first primitive peoples who created gods and goddesses to explain all natural phenomena - including human behavior. According to some scholars, the earliest worshippers (before patriarchy) revered nature. To them life was cyclical and therefore timeless. They saw the renewal of life every spring; they depended on, indeed counted on, the moon's return each month. And they considered the moon deity a woman because women were, in their primitive perceptions, the bringers of life.

Although Vico was a Christian operating in a patristic world, his ideas about language, history, literature and time are central to my argument. And it is not inconceivable that Swift was aware of similar concepts. Indeed Peter Hughes suggests that Swift uses satire and irony in "A Tale of a Tub," Gulliver's Travels, and "A Discourse of the Contests and Dissentions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome, with the Consequences they had upon both those States" in a manner similar to Vico's theories in The New Science. He notes that "Vico held [...] that man is the first speech that Nature holds with God; a dialogue in which consciousness is expressed through language, and language through poetry. What Vico calls the poetical characters of primitive thought are in fact metaphors that consciousness offers as objective correlatives for its perception of reality" (Hughes 1976: 161).

Myth is timeless, John Warner states in Joyce's Grandfathers (1993). By weaving the classic myths in his at times brutal satire in "Cadenus and Vanessa" and in the boudoir poetry - "The Progress of Beauty," "The Lady's Dressing Room," "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," "Strephon and Chloe" and "Cassinus and Peter," - Swift turns the linear ugliness of the poems into hopeful, cyclical, timeless charges to humanity to correct the status of women in his culture. Women, Swift satirically and quite graphically points out, were abused and denied equality, especially on an intellectual level. If women were considered mindless but beautiful 'goddesses,' degenerative prostitutes, society's witless wives, it was because the culture and indeed thousands of years of history made them so. Swift abhors this, and through his satire and use of the mythical goddesses, says emphatically that things should change. The message is the same in all six of the poems. I agree with Nora Crow Jaffe (1977) who has said that although Swift's boudoir poetry is still to her fairly lurid, he should probably be considered more as a Twentieth Century male than as a monstrous Eighteenth Century misogynist.

While the thinkers pondered deeply, coming up with weird and outrageous reasons why and how paganism managed to creep into Christianity and maintain its tenacious grip, myth also increasingly (to some thinkers) "came to be thought of as a creative process, a mode of the imagination usually expressed via art or literature. Myth even became a new way of redeeming modern man by seeking to restore him to his original oneness with nature [...]" (Feldman /Richardson 1972). At first blush, Swift's excremental, scatological or boudoir poems are harsh descriptions of unsavory women dressing, undressing and using the chamber pot. On another level they're satirical barbs targeting the troubadour/Renaissance poetry that put women, again as objects, on ridiculous pedestals. A few are portraits of foolish antics and witless conclusions drawn by male lovers. Albeit grossly exaggerated, these characterizations are historically correct and are what have riled and repulsed critics ever since Swift penned, then published the lines. But once we are aware of the repeated allusions of female goddesses together with the profusion of the mythical graces, hours, and muses, there's an altogether different impression. While references to the myths were commonplace in Eighteenth Century literary works, adorning architecture, books, nearly everything -- it's also reasonable to use the allusions as a vehicle to reach the very distant past before patriarchy -- a time when women in some cultures were not only equal, they were revered as goddesses because it was indeed through them that life emerged.

Although the so-called boudoir poetry is lumped into one class or category, "The Progress of Beauty" was published 15 years before the others. "The Lady's Dressing Room," printed in 1732 preceded "Strephon and Chloe," "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," and "Cassinus and Peter" by two years. Throughout each, the goddess allusions abound. Most of us miss them. This paper focuses on the earliest poem because it best demonstrates my thesis, although the others contain far more actual allusions. And so I begin by asking was Jonathan Swift a dirty old man or did he have insights beyond our own? Was he really a Twentieth-Century enlightened male in powdered wig and cleric garb as some critics have suggested? Or a rogue as Victoria Glendinning implies in her new book, Jonathan Swift: a Portrait (1998)?

I maintain that Swift presents a double vision of women. One approach - the generally accepted - represents the historical, anti-woman Eighteenth-Century view, while the other alludes to the mythic, mother-goddess idea of women. The dichotomy is kept in constant focus through stark, unlikely contrasts and comparisons, outrageous images, subtle verbal references and the allusions to the goddesses themselves. As a result, all the poems can be interpreted in a way that's exactly the opposite of what they seem to mean on the surface.

In "The Progress of Beauty," Swift wastes no time introducing Diana, who's immediately contrasted to Celia, a pathetic street walker. Considered the first goddess, Diana is generally associated with the moon, while Celia is a typical name for a nymph in conventional love poetry. To the very earliest people of Greater Europe, as far back as 18,000 BC, as Ann Baring and Jules Cashford (1991) argue, the new, crescent moon indicated the beginning of the perpetual renewal of life, and thus hope. Full and on the wane, it was the opposite, a symbol of death and decay, of the withdrawal of life. "The moon was an image in the sky that was always changing, yet always the same." They say what endured was the cycle. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever-recurring sequence.

While one scholar comments that the Diana Swift calls on could have been Diana of Drury Lane, most likely she's the Roman/Greco moon goddess - the bringer of life. Another possible connection, adding to the mystery, is that she's Artemis, the virginal deity, the huntress. Or going even further back, she could be the tripart goddess - virgin, mother, crone - pure, mature/wise and wrinkled, a deity of the prehistoric culture documented by Marija Gimbutas (1991) and described by Ann Baring and Jules Cashford (1991).

And so when Swift launches the Progress poem, with the waning full moon and ends it with the new, waxing, soon to be crescent moon, he's referring to the goddesses life giving power (thus exalting his ideal woman) and at the same time alluding to the not very ideal, decadent, superficial existence of many Eighteenth-Century ladies. Some of these decadent women he knew; others were the street nymphs he encountered as he strolled through London's tawdry, unkempt streets. Many, like Celia, were victims of syphilis and, by extension, the culture.

The poem begins as the full moon rises. Clouds and human pollutants of vapours and steams have created the familiar hazy-red illusion of enormity. The rising moon, like Celia, appears to be frowzy, dirty, red and wrinkled. Swift compares Celia to this illusive moon and finds her very much like it. When the mist vanishes, the moon, reduced in size, appears silvery and perfect -- but only from a distance. Similarly, when Celia is seen from afar, she, too, appears lovely and perfect. While Diana becomes pure naturally; however, Celia never does, relying, as we will see, on artificial masking for her hypocritical charms.

When first Diana leaves her bed,
Vapours and steams her looks disgrace,
A frowzy dirty coloured red
Sits on her cloudy wrinkled face;
But by degrees, when mounted high,
Her artificial face appears
Down from her window in the sky,
Her spots are gone, her visage clears.
Twixt earthly females and the moon,
All parallels exactly run;
If Celia should appear too soon,
Alas, the nymph would be undone!
                         (ll. 1-12)

Swift equates all women with the moon, an exaggerated but clearly an effective ploy. These earthly Celias are meant to be "ladies of the night." However, all women are not prostitutes; nor does Swift mean to imply they are. But by suggesting that every woman creates and recreates herself just as the moon appears to, he calls attention not only to the contradictions between the ideal Diana and the contrived Celia by paradoxically describing the similarities.

As I will show, Swift shatters the normal romantic conventions basic to moon/female parallels with his near-scatological attacks on artifice. As is commonly known, those very attacks, because of their satire and stark contrast, also focus attention on the kinds of women Swift clustered around him, that is, properly educated (some by him) women. I suggest that Swift uses Celia first (doubling the positive symbolism of Diana against the negative image of Celia) to demonstrate the conditions women were subjected to and, second, to highlight the status and position he felt women deserved. By juxtaposing the physical decay of a typical Eighteenth-Century prostitute to the cyclical perpetuation of life as symbolized by Diana, Swift indicates that the misogynist facade masks a man who rejected the conditions women of his time were forced to endure.

Just as the moon is distorted by the lens of dust and grime as it rises from the horizon, so would Celia appear as unreal and grotesque when she leaves her bed if she were observed prior to the paint job she performs on herself. Swift notes that Strephon (a name synomous with young lovers of the Renaissance) would be upset as well should he see Celia thus, because he, too, is part of the Eighteenth-Century convention that thinks women are all body and no brain.

The poem proceeds with a litany of Celia's pastings that tend to fall off and fall apart, producing "a mingled mass of dirt and sweat" (l. 20). The three colors, red, black and white, have been identified by both Baring and Cashford (1991), and Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) as colors symbolizing early goddesses. This mythology dates through Catul Huyuk in Turkey where the central image of the religion was the Mother Goddess who appears as a young woman, a mother giving birth and an old woman, to discoveries of female Venus statues in France dating to the fourteenth century BC.

The colors were the fabric of traditional Eighteenth-Century make-up, all lead based paints - white for skin, black for eyebrows and eyelashes, and red for rouge. Actually, many women of the time died from overuse and abuse of these cosmetics. In contrast, the colors have other meanings; they're the pigments of life in the goddess mythology. As Joseph Campbell writes in the introduction to The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas (1991), The goddess was the single source of all life who took her energy from the springs and wells, from the sun, moon, and moist earth, a symbolic system that represents cyclical, mythical time. Consequently we find signs of dynamic motion; whirling and twisting spirals, winding and coiling snakes, circles, crescents, horns, sprouting seeds and shoots. Ironically, the snake was a symbol of life energy and regeneratio, not of evil. Campbell says that even the colors had a different meaning than in the Indo-European symbolic system. Black did not mean death or the underworld; it was the color of fertility, the color of damp caves and rich soil, of the womb of the Goddess where life begins.

White, on the other hand, was "the color of death, of bones, while red signified the blood of life." Cave drawings with these colors have been found in southwestern France ,some of which date to 30,000 BC. In Swift we read:

Three colors, black, and red, and white
So graceful in their proper place
Remove them to a different light.
They form a frightful hideous face
                         (ll. 21-24)

When these colors are in their proper place (which could mean anything -- make-up properly applied, the goddess symbols, even colors on a Greek vase depicting the myths) they are graceful. But when they wander into alien territory, that is, sloshing around on a prostitute's face, they form a different pattern, a lethal one. Celia goes to bed, her colors in place, but when she wakes up, they " had changed their ground" (l. 32).

The black, which would not be confined
A more inferior station seeks,
Leaving the fiery red behind
And mingles in her muddy cheeks.
                         (ll. 33-6)

Swift knew the history of and concerns about mythology. Surely he read the books in his library as documented by Harold Williams in 1932. Ovid, Homer, Heroditus, Bayle, Fontenelle, Aristophanes, Plutarch, Tacitus, Boileau and a host of others relating to the early Eighteenth- Century's intense interest in myths. Moreover, if he was a man of his time, which he was, he made the connection between prostitution and the early goddesses. Herodotus relates that temple prostitution was a service offered freely on behalf of the goddess Aphrodite, a fact confirmed by Gerda Lerner. A priestess offered sexual intercourse with strangers in the temple to honor the goddesses' fertility and sexual power (Lerner 1986: 130; Baring/Cashford 1991: 358). Thus the proper place could easily be resonances and echoes of prehistoric times when prostitution and deity were not mutually exclusive terms.

The lines referring to the lily and the rose also allude to the mythical symbols of the life force of the early female gods. The contrast between the idea of woman as the true life giver and woman as a seductive creature intent on enticing a man (the true life taker) become obvious when looked at through this new long lens.

For instance, when the lily slips
Into the precincts of the rose,
And takes possession of the lips,
Leaving the purple to the nose.
                         (ll. 25-28)

The rose, lily, meander (a labyrinthine-like engraving or drawing -- the oldest was found in Ukraine and dates to 133,000 BC) and the color red, as has been mentioned, are symbols of the earlier cyclical life force. The lily refers to the triple aspect of the triple goddess or Diana and is the incorruptible flower of the goddess herself. The rose represents full-blown maternal sexuality, a sexual symbol of goddess worship brought back to Europe from Arabia (see Baring/Cashford 1991).

Taken literally, the lines so far do not paint a pretty picture, but if Swift really is reaching out to the early goddess myths through the use of these symbols, then the myths that depict Diana as a powerful deity counterpoint the grossness. We must always keep in mind that Swift was constantly playing with words and reversing himself. While the historical surface meaning may have been obvious and vile, the allusions convey the impression that when the white lead drops on to the red of the lips, it is ugly, moreover deadly, thereby indicating a different interpretation -- a disintegration of the cultural standards by which they are held. The paint no longer has a use or a purpose. But in reverse, it could mean that when the immature virgin becomes a sexually fulfilled person, she is graceful. The color purple, which on the surface refers to a syphilitic nose lathed in mercury salve, might also be alluding to the Christian symbol of resurrection and rebirth.

Thus the mingled colors present a repulsive picture of a woman for whom beauty is superficial artistry, not mental acumen. So ultimately the paint smears into mud. Reminiscent of Swift's "Description of a City Shower" with its depiction of the waste waters flowing toward the Thames, saturated with offal from each of the various streets where they originated, these lines bring into focus Swift's preoccupation with artifice and the unsanitary conditions of the times.

Just as the worst elements of the city flow toward the river, all the negative aspects of women congregate on Celia's chin.

The paint by perspiration cracks,
And falls in rivulets of sweat,
On either side you see the tracks,
While at her chin the confluents met.
                         (ll. 36-40)

The fused colors, now brown, come as meanders "in trickling streams betwixt her joints." The graphic of a meander would, to the earliest humans, steeped in communication through mythologies, refer to the waters beneath the earth and the serpent with its regenerative powers. Meander also means "the intricate pathway that connects the visible world to the invisible, the kind that the souls of the dead would have taken to reenter the tomb of the mother" (Baring/Cashford 1991: 25).

Therefore, we can conclude that these double entendres -- negative, frankly gross statements, when countered by the mythological emblems, are clues to Swift's real intent in writing the insulting lines. The effect is an entirely new view of Swift and women. Celia uses her cosmetic wizardry to repair the damage and retransform herself into her former glory. She admires her artistry. Then the narrator, wondering what heavenly powers could have performed such magic, suggests in a satiric statement that Venus is the culprit because she provided the white lead;

Venus, indulgent to her kind,
Gave women all their hearts could wish
When first she taught them where to find
White lead and Lusitanian dish .
                         (ll. 57-60)

The reference to Venus' providing women with "white lead and Lusitanian dish" is not only satiric but ludicrous because Venus/Aphrodite probably never used any cosmetics at all. She never grows old; she is always beautiful, virginal (which in this case means perpetually renewing herself like Diana) -- despite her many lovers. On the other hand, the ability to use cosmetics was a female skill so important to Eighteenth-Century culture that little girls were well versed in its deceptions. Swift attacks this practice in "Cadenus and Vanesa" as well. Published at the height of his relationship with Vanessa, "The Progress of Beauty" reinforces his belief that women should ignore the frivolous conventions and concentrate on improving their minds.

There's more to the satiric thrust. The narrator advises Celia to be careful, to keep her beaux at bay because if they see her, they'll be repulsed. You're beautiful now, but like the moon, rising full and bathed in pollutants, keep a good distance from your swains and they will surely say, "God damn me, Jack, she's wondrous fair." (l. 76). The lines also recall Artemis, who when seen from a distance is more beautiful and the viewers safer.

She ventures now to lift the sash,
The window is her proper sphere;
Ah, lovely nymph, Be not too rash,
Nor let the beaux approach too near.
                         (ll. 65-68)

Referring to Aristotle, Swift says that form must fail if there's nothing substantial to begin with. So while Diana fades away, she also returns whole and perfect, while Celia, in the end, loses all her form, deteriorating into nothing. And there's nothing that can rescue her.

In "The Progress of Beauty," Swift incorporates nearly every aspect of Diana --from the mother goddess to the huntress who turns Actaeon into a stag, to the renewer of life, to the charmer of Endymion. He knew the myths and calls on them collectively to make his point -- that a women should be whole in mind and spirit. Diana, the mythological, timeless, cyclical moon goddess, representing what women should be, is whole by virtue of the perpetual return to fullness. Celia, representing the historical female who resorts to artifice and lives in squalor, is not.

Swift is unrelenting in his comparison of the earthy "goddess" with the heavenly deity. As Celia's mask deteriorates, so does Diana lose part of her face each night, but the two are not the same. Swift acknowledges that as the moon wastes, she grows discreet -- that is, in ancient mythological terms she grows wise -- a wise old crone. Celia uses her own brand of discretion and doesn't appear until midnight to stroll the streets, rotting under her makeup mask. Knowing that the moon will be dark for three days, Swift pities poor Celia who will have no such night journey to repair herself. Diana will return but Celia:

When Mercury her tresses mows
To think of black lead combs is vain,
No painting can restore a nose,
Nor will her teeth return again.

Two balls of glass may serve for eyes.
White lead can paste up a cleft,
But these alas, are poor supplies
If neither cheeks, nor lips be left.
                         (ll. 109-116)

Thus, Celia, a caricature of Eighteenth-Century woman, is doomed to fail. The solution is to be more like the moon, the Diana of many facets who rises anew each night and as the month progresses, returns in full. Swift makes it clear that the woman who eschews the contemporary practices of seduction of men by superficial artistry will be loved.

Ye powers, who over love preside,
Since mortal beauties drop so soon.
If you would have us well supplied,
Send us new nymphs with each new moon.
                         (ll. 117-120)

As Maria Gimbutas tells us, "The main theme of the Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death -- the renewal of life, not only human but all life on earth and indeed in the whole cosmos" (1989: xix) .

Thus Swift effectively incorporates the predictable phases of the moon to describe the decay of the earthly nymph Celia, who can't restore herself. The crescent moon does. To the earliest peoples, the moon meant renewal. Hope for women is in terms of the waxing sphere. Celia ends up with no form, but Diana will return completely renewed. It was this predictability that engaged the first peoples. It is why they worshiped Diana. In another historic sense, the poem, by painting such a vivid picture of the ravages of surface beauty, implies fairly emphatically that women don't need to apply heavy, potentially lethal cosmetics, sleep around, or practice Celia's kind of prostitution, but like Diana, cast off the old decaying ways and return anew, renewed, and whole.

Some wise critics claim "The Progress of Beauty" is a study of art versus nature, which is clearly the case. But more importantly, since the poem, as do all the other boudoir verses, draws on the timeless, cyclic mythologies, one can also state that another of Swift's messages is that women do not need the artifice they are so consumed with when they have the whole body of mythological women as a standard. It is ironic, indeed, that as the enlightenment moved toward rationality and progress, Eighteenth Century writers (in addition to architects, illustrators, builders, book publishers, artists, artisans and more) drew on the ancient mythological world, which rose out of the very passion they eschewed, to provide depth, color and meaning to their work. It was an age when thinkers pompously pondered the role of government in the lives of the populace, debated the merits of the antiquity versus modernity, pagan idolatry versus Christian monotheism, and order versus chaos. Despite the plethora of volumes condemning the worship of mythic gods and goddesses, many of those thinkers resorted to the classics for their metaphors because they felt the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations which also drew on the early myths, were more stable. As John Warner has said, Swift, along with his contemporaries, "faced this same sense of potential chaos of a modern naturalistic world and looked increasingly to mythic modes as a means of structuring their work" (1993: 9).

Whatever motivated the Augustans to incorporate mythology so profusely in their writing and in their culture--nostalgia for the past, their classic education, humanistic leanings, rejection of Christianity, recovery of emotional fullness--it behooves Twenty-First Century scholars to look beyond the superficial renderings of those mythological figures to the cyclical, nature, and goddess-focused times they represent to begin to understand what Jonathan Swift really tells us in his poetry.

Jonathan Swift was not a dirty old man, a nasty obsessive rouge, a misogynist; he loved at least one woman in a healthy, normal, sexual way. Further, he was well ahead of his times as many scholars have said in their books, their papers and their dissertations. The difference lies in his use of myths, the goddesses and their implications.

And so I ask, shall we be, as Eliot's Prufrock said long ago, awakened by those mermaids, and call them goddesses, singing each to each, a song we've not heard before?