Progress of Beauty
Swift's Passionate Take on Women
(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!
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 .
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
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.
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.
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.
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?