Revolution. We are in the midst of one. A radical change in the way we do business, raise our children, entertain, educate ourselves and disperse news. So when we look back at revolutions that occurred two or even three centuries ago, they seem tame and pale in the face of the current one - the digital phenomenon. Yet, when Vanessa Van Homrigh directed the release of the poem "Cadenus and Vanessa" after her death, it was a revolution because it revealed, or at least intimated, that the revered Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin had a romantic, human side and indeed appeared to have enjoyed a clandestine love affair.
Although this old news is still discussed and debated in Eighteenth Century studies, none of the conversations addresses Jonathan Swift's use of the pagan Roman and Greek female goddesses that scamper through the lines of this long poem. It's a theme that threads its way through all his works about women. Because of this consistency, I maintain that Swift, just as clandestinely, tried to show that women, especially those close to him, should be considered on an equal basis with men as they reportedly once were when primitive peoples revered them as creators of life. Dominating the poem is Venus, a goddess evoked by Lucretius as the proem of his long didactic poem, "De rerum natura":
To Lucretius, Venus was the Great Mother Goddess, a deity the earliest peoples venerated. But as the ages passed, she evolved into the forerunners of the deities Swift calls on in his poetry. As patriarchy became the norm, claim Ann Baring and Jules Cashford, "everything became turned around. Male was associated with spirit, light, order and mind, which were good; while the female aspect of life became identified with nature, darkness, chaos and body, which were evil."2 Swift does everything he can to refute this tragic misconception and transformation as he counters the surface historical realities with allusions to timeless, cyclical mythological women, incorporating in his poetry the very myths his contemporaries used constantly but in a much different way than they ever thought of.
I feel Swift expresses what the terms masculine and feminine should mean: a way of being or a mode of consciousness available to both men and women. It's no accident that Swift's ideal woman created by Venus received the most admirable qualities of both sexes. To him the prevailing attitude was unreasonable: that women were second class. So he shakes up his readers through a satiric approach to the abuse of reason. Martin Price says that most of Swift's satire deals with the way in which reason is cheated, subverted and betrayed by rationalism and brutality. His ironies "are means of restoring our awareness of choices, and his subjects are error, self-deception, insanity. Men fail to see clearly because their interests and passions make them prefer something more comfortable than the truth."3
"Cadenus and Vanessa" is a prime example of Swift's attempt to show the truth. Venus as the Cyprian queen, is evoked immediately. His use of "Cyprian" indicates he was aware of the histories and origins of the goddess who came to Greece from Cyprus where she was born from the foam of the sea (not from Zeus' head). So as a myth, she was ancient. But by the time she arrived on Mt. Olympus, she played a diminished role. Swift's reference to her birthplace and her birth, would indicate he knew and supported the earlier rendition of Venus as the mother goddess.
In his poem, Venus is placed in a deadlocked position unable to respond traditionally to a complaint of shepherds and nymphs that traditional love has deteriorated to the point of absurdity. The women, claiming Cupid as the culprit, say love has dwindled to intrigue, and marriage has become a money-league (l 13,14). Swift's narrator, or Swift himself, states that Cupid has lost his art and that his mother can no longer instill fire in anyone's loins, questioning the power of the mythic deities themselves. The shepherds counter the nymphs' accusations by blaming the women who, they say, have destroyed love as it was traditionally perceived by the troubadours. Swift detested this convention as well because it denigrated women:
Not only is Swift ridiculing the women who have accepted the modern conditions as well as the earlier poetry that elevates them to such a mindless state, he is saying to both men and women that the male dominated perception of love since the Renaissance, embodied in the medieval courtly love, and even in Ovid's advice to lovers, does not treat women as whole human beings who have the potential to think, make decisions and rule. Framing the poem with powerful mythological figures - women with power, reinforces Swift's concern as he continues to juxtapose the mythological cyclical time against the historic moment.
While the following verse paragraph parodies the much ridiculed Cooper's Hill poetry, it also satirizes the harsh perception of women:
Since women's minds only gather chaff, straws and feathers, a.k.a., fools, fops and rakes, they can't be won by virtue, wit and parts. In making this adroit comparison, Swift draws attention to the conditions women confronted in his day. These lines describe women as no more than whores. They suggest that the fault, according to the men of the poem, lies with the nymphs who either have no brains or have resorted to the streets. It also becomes clear that Swift is using his own extraordinary wit and knowledge to say something almost the opposite of what critics and the reading public have concluded over the years. By equating the female mind with a slow moving, dull stream, Swift limits women's capabilities to attracting the chaff and straws of life; they can't control the conditions that control them. Women are, to the men, like reeds in the wind, at the mercy of the social elements. Not only does the exaggerated picture reject those conditions, it makes the men look asinine for thinking so, an irony in itself because the men blame the women for a condition they themselves created. So to combat this abuse, Swift calls on Venus to create his perfect woman, a creature with both masculine and feminine traits. The poem's Venus is, of course, beside herself: mortals disdain to love.4
Thus Swift sets the stage for his miracle. Rather than soaring off to Cyprus, Venus remains, calling for advice from the muses and the Graces--the immortals who helped form Venus/Aphrodite. Even with her reinforcements, Venus doesn't recognize the plaintiffs and so resorts to her law books. She rejects contemporary legal advice, as well as Ovid's counsel in the Amores and the Art of Love, both of which look upon women as sex objects. Edmund Waller and Abraham Cowley, the Seventeenth Century's respected love poets, are also tossed out of court, because they, too, place women in the same untenable position.5
For almost two decades Venus listens to the briefs of each party, ultimately dismissing everything. "For sixteen years the cause was spun,/ And then stood where it begun" (ll. 124-5). Finally the Goddess of Love conceives a plan. Throwing away her law books, Venus summons other goddesses including Lucina - the goddess of light who illuminates the world and reigns over births. Venus dream of a woman who will restore her reign and vows to search everywhere for all the positive attributes of a human.
Vanessa is crafted by the Graces, they nymphs who attend Aphrodite/Venus, "weaving her robes, plaiting her crown of violets, all that makes for sweetness in life." "Each breathing on her thrice, inspired/That gentle, soft engaging air,/Which in old times, adorned the fair." (ll. 177-9) And who are the fair but these early goddesses? Venus plans her strategy to ferret out the purest virtues for her creation which men claim they can't find:
Then Venus plucks a sprig of amaranthine (unfading) flowers to assure that her creation will last and the earlier reign return.6
Subtle references to the earlier goddesses are strewn casually throughout the poem. In the next section Venus, "drawn by her doves," birds classically associated with goddesses, seeks out Athena to instill wisdom and knowledge. The goddess of love decides to deceive Athena and tells her the newly created child is a boy. The Olympians were also part of the switch to patriarchal thinking, and so Swift, calling attention in still another way to the inequities his society perpetuates, allows Venus's deception to stand. Swift's describing Athena as "The Queen of Learning" is also significant because he instills a female deity with the power to "sow within her (Vanessa's) tender mind/Seeds long unknown to womankind" (ll. 202,3),that is, the power to provide a mortal woman with the education long denied Eighteenth-Century women, indeed all women, for centuries.
Venus is happy with Pallas' work and hopes that in addition to men falling head over heels in love with Vanessa, that "womankind/Would by her model form their mind." (236-7) The motif of restoring the goddess's reign appears again as well in "My power shall be again restored,/And happy lovers bless my reign." (ll. 246-7). While Venus's reign ostensibly means the rule of the Queen of Love, it also has implications of the restoration of the time when she was worshiped as the Great Mother Goddsss, as a forever renewable circle that turns back on itself.
But her hopes are crushed. Pallas lets things play out as they will naturally. And naturally, the internal culture of the poem cannot accept a woman crafted with both masculine and feminine attributes just as Swift's Eighteenth Century culture finds this kind of acceptance impossible. Pallas knows this, finding "her foe's conclusions were not sound." (l. 279) Pallas and Venus are at odds with each other. Pallas chastises Venus for tricking her, informing her that she's only deceived herself and that men only worship her "for want of sense."
Although Pallas predicts that Venus's scheme will fail, Vanessa nonetheless enters the world. The next 110 lines describe Eighteenth-Century society fairly accurately. Vanessa was not accepted. Her learning was too learned; her clothes were archaic and dowdy, her tastes were academic, not laced with gossip. The women she found herself among could only stare at her and ridicule her. They called her the dullest soul, noting that "[...] none will burn her for a witch." (363) I suggest the reference means that Vanessa was considered so dull that not even the purveyors of the Inquisition would consider her a threat.7
The testing of Vanessa literally continues to diminish her as Swift alludes to, or describes in a scathing indictment, the behavior of women of his day:
The lines reflect the details of a contemporary woman's toilet and life. Vanessa was not among those jaded women and because she was not, Swift is saying that no woman should be required, taught, or expected to behave in such a fashion. But,alas, the culture prevailed. Pallas was right; the world rejected the nymph. And so like Belinda's lock, Vanessa is consigned to the heavens, a goddess. On the other hand, Venus acknowledges that "[...] great examples are but vain,/Where ignorance begats disdain." (ll. 436-7). In other words, when people are unaware of the truth, their conclusions (often erroneous) are so ingrained in a culture, that the false notion is ultimately accepted as truth.
The mid section of the poem is Swift's poetic rendering of the relationship between Cadenus (an acronym for Decanus, the Latin word for Dean) and Vanessa and is obviously drawn from real life experiences. Cupid, trying to vindicate his mother Venus's wrongs, aims arrows at Vanessa, but Cadenus wards off the blows. Cupid eventually pierces Vanessa's bosom with an arrow that went through a volume of Cadenus's "Poetic Works" (a volume that did not exist at the time) directly to her heart. The narrator contrasts the pair, noting that Vanessa is young and waxing, while Cadenus is on the wane, unaware of "what was love." Cadenus compiles a litany of excuses of why he can't love his pupil although he is proud of her abilities. He wants to share his creation with the world but then realizes that the pupil is more interested in him as a person than a teacher - "she wished her tutor were her lover." (l. 562) He prepares to "take his last adieu," feeling that all his lectures were in vain. She denies his accusations, declaring that she knew "How dangerous things were men of wit,/You cautioned me against their charms,/ But never gave me equal arms:/ Your lessons found the weakest part,/Aimed at the head, but reached the heart." (ll. 627-31) Arms must be assumed to be weapons women should carry to fend off the traditional male who would naturally seek a woman as beautiful as Vanessa but who had no interest in her intellect. Cadenus continues to resist, maintains his innocence, lacing the lines with satiric jibes at the gossips who probably concluded they were already lovers:
Vanessa of the poem, like Vanessa of the real relationship, pays no attention to Cadenus' protesting. Never intended for publication, the poem was a love letter. Ultimately it would seem that Cadenus (Swift) succumbs: "Things took a turn he never meant...And oft the dancing-master's art/Climbs from the toe to touch the heart." (l. 739; 748-9) Cadenus (Swift) says quite openly in the lines, "In learning let a nymph delight,/The pedant gets a mistress by't," (750-1) that he allowed the unthinkable (to him) to happen. Vanessa became his mistress. These lines are not the lines of a woman hater; rather, they are part of an intricately complex poem brimming with allusions to strong, powerful goddesses, goddesses who actually created a woman perfect for Swift. It was no accident that their names were the same.
Cadenus is proud. He now takes credit for her passion, but continuing to resist, says "love, hitherto a transient guest,/ Ne'er held possession of his breast," (ll. 776-7) until that moment. Cadenus claims he is too dignified and too old to engage in love making. But then Vanessa decides, and Cadenus allows her, to teach him how to love. He reveals he's not so inept that he can't read a lady's eyes. Then Swift writes:
It will be up to the unconscious muse - i.e. the timeless mythologies themselves - that there indeed was a love relationship and that Swift embraced the various kinds of love Venus in her ancient reign represented.
The fictive portrayal of the affair between Swift and Vanessa is framed by myth. By reintroducing Venus, Swift thus unites the historical with the cyclical and the timeless. Venus, having waited out the earthly conflict, decrees against the men for having been so undiscriminating as not to fall in love with the beautiful and brilliant Vanessa.
The reasoning behind making women even more foolish than they had been is to make them equal to the men because the men were foolish, and "every being loves its like."(l. 887) Swift uses the word 'equal,' but he implies that for equality to occur, women must drop down to the male level. Venus finds herself in a ridiculous situation where neither men or women realize how to love. However revealing some of the lines are, however succinctly they point to the earliest times when women were not vilified, however much they state emphatically that women and men should be on an intellectually equal plane, the poem ends with Venus harnessing her doves, leaving the world "at six and seven." (l. 896) Venus throws up her hands in disgust, leaving the mess and all its rubble to Cupid. An obvious conclusion is that until the world realizes that men and women should be equal in judgement, learning and wit, nothing will be done. And very little has.
"Cadenus and Vanessa" is one of the most extensively and intensely examined of Swift's poems because of its puzzling nature,8 but no one is really ready to acknowledge that Swift, the satirist, the humorist, the cleric, the man, could actually be a lover. Some concede he might have had an intimate, but sexless relationship with Vanessa. Most feel he rejected her outright. All fail to comment on the cryptic lines that refer to the conscious muse unfold her secret (ll. 832-5). Basically they dismiss or ignore the hints in the lines and between the lines, reading the poem on an historical level only. Although Peter Schakel describes the allusions in Ovid and Virgil, no one suggests or acknowledges the dichotomy between the historic presentation and the mythological references even though the goddesses and all they imply line the pages of this poem.
Louise K. Barnett's explication of "Cadenus and Vanessa" actually comes close to my position, but she, too, fails to grasp the significance of the mythical figures.Describing the poem as Swift's most comprehensive poetic treatment of the position of women, Barnett remarks on Swift's portrait of Vanessa. She says it is noteworthy because it "divorces admirable qualities from gender and unites the best of both sexes in one person. Vanessa is not an unattainable ideal, but one that could be realized if artificial distinctions between the sexes were obliterated. Swift creates the ideal woman only to find that the perfect woman is unsuitable in an imperfect society and that "without changing both sexes, the poem concludes, there is little chance of improvement. The investigation of love, she writes, "produces an explicit statement: both men and women are guilty of foolishness."9 But the poem goes on to say that in order for women and men to be on equal footing, women should become even more foolish. In light of my premise, one must take that notion as satire. Women could not become more foolish than they already were perceived to be.
Absurdly, to David Nokes, providing Vanessa with masculine qualities is a reflection of Swift's own lack of sexual desire. "Vanessa emerges as the de-sexed hygienic Swiftian ideal, a woman whose cleanliness, decency and manly temperament make her a truly rational companion." He says that although Swift felt passion for Vanessa, he rejected her "with feelings of guilt and loss."10 This, as Bruce Arnold, the well known Irish critic who wrote and produced an opera about Swift and his passion, and I agree, is nonsense. Why do we insist on making Jonathan Swift less than human?
It is surprising that such conclusions have been drawn about this poem, given the available information and the obvious messages within the lines. These critics' readings fail to give full voice to what I have demonstrated as Swift's complex sense of the dialectic between the historical and the mythic view of women. In the poem, he graphically describes the terrible fate that awaits young women of the Eighteenth Century-little or no education, pursuit of a financially suitable marriage, generally without love. Swift riles against the inevitable pursuit of prostitution as an alternative, or worse still, the practice of elevating women to a mindless perch on an imaginary pedestal. But this historical rendering is not just recorded as lusty satire; it is countered by the consistent use of mythologies that point to the time when women were worshiped as goddesses. The strength of the poem lies in Swift's telling lines about making the women as foolish as the men when no swain wants her. Knowing this, Venus, the goddess Swift calls on repeatedly to open his reader's eyes and the goddess who has the power to create an ideal woman, throws up her hands in frustration. And why shouldn't she? Swift makes his point. Until both men and women understand that the sexes are equal and should be treated thus, there is no solution to the gender problem. We are still waiting.
1 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, transl. William Ellery Leonard
2 Ann Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London: Viking Arcana, 1991), 282.
3 Martin Price, To the Palace of Wisdom: Studies in Order and Energy from Dryden to Blake (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 189.
4 The use of Venus should be a clue to begin with. Jonathan Swift, the man many critics claim to be incapable of love, has written nearly 1,000 lines in rhymed couplets about the subject, using the most powerful and respected love image of his time, effectively bringing the matter of love into sharper focus than ever before.
5 Throughout this poem, it must be added, Swift takes time to satirize many of the political issues of the day. he did not like lawyers, troubadour and Renaissance poetry, astrology and more. Consequently, the poem requires a tremendous knowledge of the Eighteenth Century in order for it to be enjoyed; it also mandates that the reader have a fastidious awareness of the myths to understand it.
6 This poem was written to a woman twenty years Swift's junior, a woman, he, as seen in the accounts of his life, not just loved, but adored. Why else would he have spent so much energy, drawing on so much of his knowledge, had he not loved the woman? What else could he have been telling us? He says no one will ever know the outcome. And rightly so; we don't know, but he gives himself away with the clues to the goddesses. The similarity to the Pygmalion story is not just happenstance. The Cyprian sculpture created a statue, Galatea, and then fell in love with her. Appropriately Aphrodite breathed life into Galatea, just a she, as Venus, created Vanessa, filling her with the breath of life as well.
7 In reality, witches appear to have been good. According to Marilyn French, Beyond Power: on Women, Men, and Morals (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985), 167, "the words witch and wise woman were interchangeable as late as Sixteenth-Century Scotland. Wise women were healers, herbalists, midwives, and surgeons. Nonetheless four thousand were executed. As early as the Twelfth Century, however, French writes, a new motif appeared in accusations of heresy, a charge that the accused had made a pact with the devil." French adds that by the Fifteenth Century many serious and intelligent men viewed witchcraft as the 'single greatest threat' to Christian European civilisation; see Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1972), 5.
8 Among the notable discussions: Ehrenpreis, Swift: the Man, his Works, and the Age, II: Dr. Swift (London: Methuen, 1967), 674-51; Samuel Johnson, Lives of English Poets (New York: Dutton, 1950), II.43-45; Nora Crowe Jaffe, The Poet Swift (Hanover: The University Press of New England, 1977), 139-41; Martin Price, To the Palace of Wisdom; Herbert Davis, Jonathan Swift: Essays on His Satire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 66-70, 183-6; Peter J. Schakel, 'Swift's "Dapper Clerk and the Matrix of Allusions in 'Cadenus and Vanessa'"; Criticism XVII (1975), 246-61, which traces an elaborate pattern of allusion to Ovid and Virgil. Most of these imply some reservation concerning the older view that the poem was one of Swift's most successful; cf. Swift, Complete Poems, ed. Pat Rogers (first edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 659.
9 Louise K. Barnett, Swift's Poetic Worlds (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981), 162-63.
10 David Nokes, Jonathan Swift, a Hypocrity Reversed: a Critical Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 162, 165.