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.)