A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed by Jonathan Swift

Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain;
Never did Covent Garden boast
So bright a battered, strolling toast;
No drunken rake to pick her up,
No cellar where on tick to sup;
Returning at the midnight hour;
Four stories climbing to her bow’r;
Then, seated on a three-legged chair,
Takes off her artificial hair:
Now, picking out a crystal eye,
She wipes it clean, and lays it by.
Her eye-brows from a mouse’s hide,
Stuck on with art on either side,
Pulls off with care, and first displays ’em,
Then in a play-book smoothly lays ’em.
Now dexterously her plumpers draws,
That serve to fill her hollow jaws.
Untwists a wire; and from her gums
A set of teeth completely comes.
Pulls out the rags contrived to prop
Her flabby dugs and down they drop.
Proceeding on, the lovely goddess
Unlaces next her steel-ribbed bodice;
Which by the operator’s skill,
Press down the lumps, the hollows fill,
Up goes her hand, and off she slips
The bolsters that supply her hips.
With gentlest touch, she next explores
Her shankers, issues, running sores,
Effects of many a sad disaster;
And then to each applies a plaister.
But must, before she goes to bed,
Rub off the dawbs of white and red;
And smooth the furrows in her front
With greasy paper stuck upon’t.
She takes a bolus ere she sleeps;
And then between two blankets creeps.
With pains of love tormented lies;
Or if she chance to close her eyes,
Of Bridewell and the Compter dreams,
And feels the lash, and faintly screams;
Or, by a faithless bully drawn,
At some hedge-tavern lies in pawn;
Or to Jamaica seems transported,
Alone, and by no planter courted;
Or, near Fleet-Ditch’s oozy brinks,
Surrounded with a hundred stinks,
Belated, seems on watch to lie,
And snap some cully passing by;
Or, struck with fear, her fancy runs
On watchmen, constables and duns,
From whom she meets with frequent rubs;
But, never from religious clubs;
Whose favor she is sure to find,
Because she pays ’em all in kind.
         Corinna wakes. A dreadful sight!
Behold the ruins of the night!
A wicked rat her plaster stole,
Half eat, and dragged it to his hole.
The crystal eye, alas, was missed;
And puss had on her plumpers pissed.
A pigeon picked her issue-peas;
And Shock her tresses filled with fleas.
         The nymph, tho’ in this mangled plight,
Must ev’ry morn her limbs unite.
But how shall I describe her arts
To recollect the scattered parts?
Or shew the anguish, toil, and pain,
Of gath’ring up herself again?
The bashful muse will never bear
In such a scene to interfere.
Corinna in the morning dizened,
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.

Summary and Analysis

Published in 1734, the poem reflects Jonathan Swift’s satirical vehemence. The poem is structured around 36 couplets of short lines, divided into three sections, describing details of the process of a woman’s preparation for bed. The gradual undressing is an exposure of the extent to which prostitutes went to appear youthful in an attempt to attract customers for their survival. Swift’s vehement cynicism suggests a streak of hatred for women especially those who in his view were morally fallen. In a style typical of Swift, the title belies the reader’s expectations to make a shocking discovery. The subject or the protagonist of the poem turns out to be neither young nor beautiful and is pitted in contrast to the image created by a “nymph” set amidst pastoral bliss; Corrina is divested of her natural beauty and purity.

In the first six couplets i.e. lines 1-12, Corrina, the shepherdess of Greek pastoral is rapidly reduced to a notorious prostitute of London who is hardly sought after. The lines suggest that a woman who is the inverse of Corrina is deprived of attention in the worst of places, like brothels which are visited by the worst of rakes. Returning to her “bower” used invectively for bedroom, “Corrina” the artificially constructed prostitute begins the process of revealing her real appearance. Artificial hair, glassy eye are removed first. In the next two couplets it is the eyebrows that are removed to be put away in a “play-book”. The reference is to the use of artifice to project a false appearance to play with emotions and to create a make-believe world, for the customers as well as for herself. After the first eight couplets the structure of the poem contains a series of closed couplets each focusing on one part of the portrait being dismantled- the “jaws”, the “teeth”, the “dugs” freed from artificial props reveal their true state- a state of decay and ageing. However, the portrait is not condemnation of natural decay but used to represent false presentations and hypocrisy which had become integral to a society of superficialities.

Lines 24 to 30, i.e. the next three couplets restore the image of Corrina, the lovely goddess but only to dismantle her to bring out the concealed ugliness or rather a state of decay in contrast to the freshness and health of Pastoral figures. The following couplets, lines 31-34, draw attention to the infected “sores” resulting from sexually transmitted diseases, the common plight of prostitutes. The final stage of preparation for bed is accomplished by removing the last vestiges of cosmetics used to paint her face and cover the wrinkles on her brow with a greasy paper, an attempt to reduce them. The “Nymph” is now physically ready to sleep, but not without resorting to a sleep inducing pill. Once again, the focus is on the world of artificialities which surround and sustain the life of the subject described.

Lines 41-58 describe in a continuous series of couplets, the images and thoughts which would haunt a typical prostitute of Drury Lane. Sleep is not easy, for a mind tormented by “lies”. Line 41 contains a range of meanings-the kind of “love” a prostitute is destined for, painful, and make believe for herself and for those who “use” her. The word tormented also implies a sense of guilt. This idea is carried over in the succeeding lines with images of the “Bridwell” the correction house for women who were declared immoral. But the sense of torment is further elaborated through situations and “traps”, which are set for the prostitute as also by the prostitute to survive in a world of pimps, symbols of authority, hypocrisy and disease. The last three lines of the first section sum up the nexus between the world of prostitutes and the clergy, which seems to be the only section of society indulging the prostitutes who would, it is implied, render their services without any charge to the priests.

The second section of four couplets traces the ruins of Corrina after a wakeful, disturbing night. The animal imagery completes the picture of a human being, more so, a woman gone to seed, as a result of her wicked ways. Living in squalid surroundings, the prostitute’s condition evokes more disgust than sympathy. (Notice the difference in the portrayal of Blake’s poem).

The last section of the poem invokes the image of the nymph and conflates it with the prostitute and problematises the poet’s attitude of dismissive contempt for the prostitute. Does there lurk somewhere within the lines a sense of shock at what could possibly happen to a young, innocent maiden trapped in the culture of Fleet Street? “Mangled Plight” would perhaps suggest the idea of ruin imposed on the woman as also the repeated attempt to reconstruct herself to meet the Augustan stereotype of woman as a commodity. The poet’s helplessness in empathizing with the nymph’s plight shifts the tone from ridicule and disgust to one of another concern. The “modern” nymph can scarcely inspire poets or perhaps the Drury Lane prostitute is too disgusting a subject for poetry.

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