Three centuries ago, Jonathan Swift described the horrors of discovering that women poop—and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu responded in bitingly funny fashion.
He offered vulgar verses about the female body to a national audience.
I'm talking about one of the most entertaining—and instructive—celebrity skirmish of the sexes in history. And, no, it's not Rosie vs. The Donald, Kathryn Bigelow vs. Bret Easton Ellis, or even Harold Bloom vs. J. K. Rowling.
No, this is a literary feud almost three centuries old.
Why do so many labor under the impression that civility is on the decline? Are we not reading history? Long before the Twitter spats of today's stars-of-the-moment, before the ubiquity of the paparazzi, before the funhouse mirror of reality television, before the illusory niceness of a Wes Anderson-style New Sincerity, the literati engaged in grueling, dueling satires—no-holds-barred, below-the-belt, excruciatingly personal, downright dirty poetry wars. And the poetry-war-to-end-all-poetry-wars was battled by Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in eighteenth century England.
It went like this.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift—Anglican clergyman, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, advocate for the oppressed Irish, and champion of liberty extraordinaire—wrote a poem in 1732 called "The Lady's Dressing Room." It's the feature number in Swift's repertoire of so-called "excremental" poems that illuminate through satire that inescapable truth expressed so eloquently by St. Augustine that human beings are "born between urine and feces," an idea meant to be understood not just literally but metaphysically. In this particular poem, Swift describes in minute and grotesque detail the discoveries the lover Strephon makes upon stealing into his beloved Celia's vacant dressing room:
The various combs for various uses,
Filled up with dirt so closely fixt,
No brush could force a way betwixt.
A paste of composition rare, Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair;
A forehead cloth with oil upon't
To smooth the wrinkles on her front.
Here alum flower to stop the steams
Exhaled from sour unsavory streams;
There night-gloves made of Tripsy's hide,
Bequeath'd by Tripsy when she died,
With puppy water, beauty's help,
Distilled from Tripsy's darling whelp;
Here gallypots and vials placed,
Some filled with washes, some with paste,
Some with pomatum, paints and slops,
And ointments good for scabby chops.
Hard by a filthy basin stands,
Fouled with the scouring of her hands;
The basin takes whatever comes,
The scrapings of her teeth and gums,
A nasty compound of all hues,
For here she spits, and here she spews.
And things only go from bad to worse once poor Strephon opens the lid of the ornate box that holds Celia's chamber pot. He leaves the room in "fits," utterly disillusioned by the knowledge that his "goddess" Celia experiences the same mortal bodily functions as other human beings. Some of Swift's contemporaries, understandably, found it difficult to get past the shock of the poem's literal level in order to arrive at the metaphysical truths contained therein. Accusations of misogyny flew as did the counter responses.
The most famous of these was written a couple of years later (there were no hasty tweets in those days) by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an early feminist and writer in her own right. The Lady was quite offended by Swift's depiction of women in his poem as "gaudy tulips raised from dung." (Of course, the Lady also had certain personal axes to grind with Swift and his friends—but then as now, context dictates interpretation). So Montagu volleyed her salvo, "The Reasons that Induced Dr. Swift to write a Poem call'd the Lady's Dressing Room."
In her poem, Montagu imagines "the rest of the story," one in which the esteemed Reverend Doctor attempts to purchase certain pleasures from a lady of the night, but finds himself not quite up to the task:
The Reverend Lover with surprize
Peeps in her Bubbys, and her Eyes,
And kisses both, and trys—and trys.
(Perhaps MacFarlane took a vocabulary lesson from Mrs. Montagu.)
Even the Lady is not above some skillfully aimed scatology: The poem ends with the woman telling the frustrated Swift, who's threatened to write a poem blaming his inabilities on her slovenliness, "I'm glad you'l write / You'l furnish paper when I shite."
On the surface level, it's fair to say that victory clearly goes to the Lady for the rapier-sharp wit of her lampoon.
But by the test of time, the trophy goes to Swift. For the objects of his satire—which are multiple—are nuanced and complex in ways that escaped many of his contemporary and even many later readers. What on the surface appears to be a misogynist view of women—depicted in the poem as dirty and disgusting—is upon a closer examination not an attack on women but a mockery of the lover's delusion that his idealized view of a woman cannot accommodate a real human being who sweats and urinates and defecates and plucks her eyebrows. Those who see only misogyny or vulgarity in the poem miss the forest for the trees.
Likewise, even in taking such deep offense, Lady Montagu fashioned a response that offers not only bawdiness, but social criticism, too. Some lines in the poem take on many male imposters of her day, and the impotency Montagu assigns to Swift in the poem becomes emblematic of all imposters of various kinds, ill-fitted for the task at hand.
The Ox thinks he's for Saddle fit
(As long ago Freind Horace writ)
And Men their Talents still mistakeing,
The stutterer fancys his is speaking.
With Admiration oft we see
Hard Features heighten'd by Toupée,
The Beau affects the Politician,
Wit is the citizen's Ambition,
Poor Pope Philosophy displays on
With so much Rhime and little reason,
And thô he argues ne'er so long
That, all is right, his Head is wrong.
None strive to know their proper merit
But strain for Wisdom, Beauty, Spirit,
And lose the Praise that is their due
While they've th'impossible in view.
The legacy of writers such as Swift and Montagu is so immense that it's barely fitting to discuss their poetry war in the same breath as today's fleeting social media scuffles. And the depth of such skewering could never be replicated in the tweets that have replaced poetry today. But such juxtapositions are revealing.
Swift and Montagu wrote in the Neoclassical Age, characterized by a prevailing belief in conformity to agreed-upon norms and rules. It is in such an age that comedy, satire, and all their kin thrive—because humor arises in deviation from a rule or expectation. And where there are fewer agreed upon rules, there are, necessarily, fewer deviations.
Ours is an age of far fewer agreed-upon standards, moral, aesthetic, or otherwise. Our satires and our skirmishes, therefore, have narrower reach and shorter shelf life. No wonder the fragmented subcultures that comprise American society today could not agree on how to take MacFarlane's shenanigans at the Oscars, let alone most attempts at comedy today. Instead of a sense of humor we have senses of humor, each as circumscribed as the rules of those subcultures and the various corresponding subgenres that speak to the codes of each group. Still, if there's one thing that never changes, it's the abundance of opportunities to laugh at ourselves in the endless ways we fall short every day. And the ability of a bit of bawdy humor to turn up the heat and, perhaps, shine a little light.