Ros Ballaster

. . . no Poem was ever written with a better Design for the Service of the Sex: Wherein our Author hath observed to a Tittle, the Precepts of his Master Horace; or, indeed, hath gone very far beyond him, in the Article of Decency. ("A Modest Defence of a Late Poem by an unknown Author, call'd, The Lady's Dressing-Room" [1732], in Prose Works, vol. 5 [1962], 338)

Thus Jonathan Swift defends his poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" of 1732 with the claim that the aim, or end, of the poem is to promote cleanliness in women. Indeed, Swift complains that women's revulsion at the inflammatory language of the poem is misplaced, since the "decent Irish Poet" has avoided the "plain, slovenly Words" of his preceptor, Horace, and skipped "over a Hundred dirty places, without fowling his Shoes" (Prose Works, 340). Hence, the means do not so much justify the ends (as in "foul" satirical language being justified by the end of promoting cleanliness) as conform to the ends (both the poetic language and the poetic object are kept "clean" by the poet). Yet Swift's readers frequently experience a sudden reversal at the "end" of a piece of writing which undercuts their identification with the "means" or "mediator" of the message, the narrator (Gulliver, the "modern author" of A Tale of a Tub) or speaker/protagonist (Strephon in "The Lady's Dressing Room").

"The Lady's Dressing Room" illustrates this subversive reversal. The effect of riffling through the tawdry remnants of his mistress Celia's beauty regime in her boudoir on Strephon, the male protagonist of the poem, is a form of synaesthesia, where the sight of a woman prompts a Lockean association with the unpleasant odors he encountered there. The speaker of the poem concludes that Strephon should stop his nose in order to enjoy the ravishment of the eye unadulterated, so that he can admire "Such order from confusion sprung, / Such gaudy tulips raised from dung' (ll. 143—4). Paradoxically, clarity of sight can be achieved only through the suppression of another sense. Equally, the reader's understanding or enlightenment comes at the expense of the mediating figure, Strephon, whom we blame for the fragility of an attachment which can be shattered by the simple disclosure of Celia's fleshly condition. However, the unnamed speaker of the poem turns the tables once more. Throughout the poem, he has been a reluctant companion to Strephon's explorations: he complains, "The stockings why should I expose, / Stained with the moisture of her toes" (ll. 51—2), and "Why, Strephon, will you tell the rest? / And must you need describe the chest?" (ll. 69—70). Strephon is cast as spiteful in his exposure of his mistress's "hidden parts" (exposing her dirty linen), but by the end of the poem the poet's sympathies have shifted from Celia to Strephon: "I pity wretched Strephon, blind / To all the charms of womankind" (ll. 129—30). Put simply, the endings of Swift's writings often subvert his openings, just as Celia's "odds and ends," the waste from her body, undermine her lover's first idealization of her apparently perfect and clean physical form.

The "means" to Swift's larger "end" of moral instruction or satirical exposure is frequently the figure of woman: humanist understanding that man is composed of both flesh and spirit is arrived at through the satirical representation of women. The fact that women are not the target, the end of the satire, but the "means," the "signifier" rather than the "signified" of the satirist's intent, does not necessarily exempt Swift from the charge of misogyny. It is clear that for Swift women are not the "cause" of vice (as they so often appear to be for his friend and contemporary, Alexander Pope) but rather its barometer; yet the pursuit of his "end" (the hostile representation of vice) often rebounds on the means (the figure of woman).

"The Lady's Dressing Room," frequently labeled a "misogynist" poem and clearly in the satirical tradition that uses the female as a metaphor for a debased and copious materiality that challenges the spiritual and intellectual integrity of the masculine creative spirit (see Nussbaum 1984), might seem an obvious target for the feminist critic. It is not the only candidate: the series of poems Swift composed in the 1720s to his friend, companion, possible lover, and long-time correspondent Esther Johnson, the majority of them annual birthday tributes to her as his "muse," also demonstrate this tendency to turn upon the female figure in an act of aggression that exceeds her apparent function within the text. Swift appears to have named Esther after the famously idealized mistress of the speaker in Philip Sidney's late sixteenth-century sequence Astrophel and Stella in order to play comically upon his own muse's plump and aging domesticity by contrast with Sidney's eternally beautiful court mistress, although the choice of name — transposed into its Latin form — may have also been prompted by the similarity of Esther's name to the Greek term for star (aster) (Doody 2003: 97).

In the spring of 1720 Swift fell ill and, in place of the annual birthday poem, he offered Stella two poems, "To Stella, Visiting Me in My Sickness" and "To Stella, Who Collected and Transcribed His Poems." The latter poem refers to the manuscript collection of nineteen poems transcribed in Stella's hand into a small 85-leaf quarto which she appears to have commenced around 1719, when Swift began to write poems to her (see Woolley 1989). Swift's poem commences by arguing that the workmen are always obscured by the fame of the architect in the erection of a building, but that it is Stella who has brought together his "scattered rhymes" so that they can endure.

However, at the virtual midway point of the poem (at the 83rd of 144 lines), Swift suddenly alters the direction of his poem, indeed repossesses the claim to virtuous "authority" and "authorship" from Stella:

Stella, when you these lines transcribe, Lest you should take them for a bribe; Resolved to mortify your pride, I'll here expose your weaker side.

He then invites Stella to transcribe his complaint that her temperament is too quick to fire when criticized. It is not only Stella's handwriting, it appears, which resembles that of her mentor/tutor/companion, the poet Swift. The poem becomes a test of Stella's ability to accept his friendly blame, proven by her willingness to copy his text uncorrupted:

Say Stella, when you copy next, Will you keep strictly to the text? Dare you let these reproaches stand, And to your failing set your hand? Or if these lines your anger fire, Shall they in baser flames expire? Whene'er they burn, if burn they must, They'll prove my accusation just.

The poem has shifted from panegyric or "familiar" exchange to a hostile battle of wits in which Stella can "win" only through submission. Should she burn the paper rather than transcribe it, Swift's claim that she cannot accept criticism will be justified. Should she transcribe Swift's words, she will "disprove" his accusation but confirm his mastery over her "hand." Here, then, the woman as "means" (transcribing hand) is also the "end," the object of an aggression which seeks to correct her and quite literally "bring her into line."

"Best Pattern of true Friends, beware": The Ambivalence of Friendship

Jonathan Swift first met Esther (or Hester) Johnson, in 1689, when she was eight and he was in his early twenties. The Irish-educated ambitious young man, estranged from most of his family except his mother and fatherless from birth, entered the household of the retired diplomat Sir William Temple at Moor Park in Surrey and quickly formed attachments with his employer and the favored but frail little girl whose education he quickly assumed. Although his relationship with Temple cooled as the tedium of Moor Park set in and Swift did not enjoy the advancement he had hoped from his employment, his affection for the little Esther continued to grow. William Temple's death in 1699 left Esther financially embarrassed. She and her older companion, a poor relation of the Temples named Rebecca Dingley, entered the service of William Temple's widowed sister Martha, Lady Giffard, in London, but by 1701 they had made arrangements to move to Dublin and establish themselves there under Swift's official guardianship. Swift paid Esther Johnson £50 per annum, no small sum from his salary, to maintain her household in Dublin. Since his departure from Moor Park in 1694, he had been ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland and in 1700 was installed as prebendary of St. Patrick's Cathedral. But almost as soon as Esther and Rebecca arrived in Dublin he left for England as chaplain to Lord Berkeley, and within the year had published his first political pamphlet. Between September 1710 and September 1713 he wrote a series of letters to Esther and Rebecca from London, where he was extending his network of literary and political friendships and developing his Tory principles. These letters were posthumously titled the "Journal to Stella" by their editor, Thomas Sheridan, in a 1784 edition of Swift's works, although Swift appears not to have bestowed the name until he began to write his birthday poems to her in March 1719. In London, Swift's attentions had turned to a lovely young Irish society lady named Hester Vanhomrigh (the "Vanessa" of his poem "Cadenus and Vanessa"), who followed him to Dublin on his return in 1714 but was subsequently estranged from him. Swift appears to have gone to considerable effort to conceal the possibly sexual and certainly flirtatious nature of this relationship from the woman with whom he shared a similarly eroticized mentor—pupil dynamic, Esther Johnson. Although much younger than her rival, Hester/Vanessa died in 1723, making no mention of Swift in her will, her hostility possibly exacerbated by rumors that Swift and Esther had secretly married around 1716. It was probably around the time of Hester Vanhomrigh's death that Esther became aware of the nature of Swift's relationship with this other woman, when manuscript copies of the poem "Cadenus and Vanessa" were circulating. Esther herself was to die after a long period of illness in 1728; Swift lived on until 1745.

David Nokes suggests that "It is probable that it was the reactivation of Swift's feelings for Vanessa which motivated him to begin his series of birthday verses for Stella in an attempt to restore the balance, and split his worship evenly between the two 'nymphs' " (Nokes 1985: 250). This is a plausible explanation for the bizarre and incipiently hostile conceit which governs the first poem of the series, an attractive squib of nine couplets entitled "Stella's Birth-day, 1719" (first published in Miscellanies 1728 and the first of the "Stella" poems in Esther Johnson's manuscript book). Here, Swift requests that Stella, twice the age and twice the size of the sixteen-year-old "brightest virgin on the green" (l. 6) so fondly remembered, be split by the gods into a "pair / Of nymphs" (ll. 11—12), and he in turn will plead "To split my worship too in twain" (l. 18).

Like his more famous later work, Gulliver's Travels (1726), this poem plays on distortions of size and proportion, not least in its opening line, which discreetly knocks four years off the real age of the addressee of a birthday poem (Stella was thirty-eight at the time) and adds six years to her age when he first saw her (she was eight). Indeed, the poem comically plays with these numbers; two eight-line stanzas produce a sixteen-line poem which recreates the early blooming girl from its two parts. There is, however, a covert aggression in a poem that plays throughout with ideas of doubleness. This theme invokes the sense of their coupled relationship, a relationship in which each mirrors or imitates the other. But this is no easy equilibrium, no golden mean in relationship. Swift calls upon the gods to give him the authority to manipulate Stella's image to restore his memory of her, and in turn it is the image of the split Stella which leads to his desire to split his "worship" of her so that both Stellas can have their own "swain"; she authorizes his self-division.

The strained "doubleness" of the relationship is apparent in the second poem addressed directly to Stella, "To Stella, Visiting Me in My Sickness." Swift was ill in early 1720 and Stella's birthday fell in March, circumstances that together suggest this poem was intended to take the place of the birthday tribute, established as an annual offering the previous year. The conceit of this 124-line poem (the occasions when Swift claims that personal circumstances or lack of inspiration have inhibited his production of a poem to Stella often, paradoxically, generate the longest works) is that Pallas, goddess of wisdom, has given Stella the gift of "honour" to protect humankind from the otherwise too dazzling effects of her wit and beauty. The poem goes on to claim that honor is the "spirit of the soul," the secular equivalent of faith in divinity. We might speculate that here Swift imagines himself as faith and Stella as honor, a twinning of the secular and the spiritual, the female and the male, the domestic woman and the clergyman. Stella's honor makes her a loyal friend, a courageous soul.

Honor is a strange virtue to celebrate in a poem which is expressly announced as written in praise of Stella's feminine tenderness and sympathy in coming to visit the sick poet. And the poem turns in the last two stanzas to undermine the position of the preceding eight, precisely at the moment when it introduces the first person, the figure of the ailing male speaker, Swift himself. On his "sickly couch" he finds Stella running to tend to him and restore his sinking spirits. In the last stanza he addresses her directly, warning that her tenderness puts her own life at risk (she may catch his illness):

Best pattern of true friends, beware; You pay too dearly for your care, If, while your tenderness secures My life, it must endanger yours. For such a fool was never found, Who pulled a palace to the ground,

Only to have the ruins made Materials for an house decayed.

Stella's "honour" (her masculine side) is put at risk by her feminine "tenderness," which may cause the "palace" of her feminine frame to decline, leaving behind only the "ruins" on which to try to build a decayed house (either that of her own health or, more dramatically, Swift without her companionship after her death). Her honor should have led her away from her friend's bedside rather than to it. Of course, this is a gentle compliment to the concern of a friend. Coupled, however, with the other poem written in the same year to Stella, and in the light of the others addressed to her, it contributes to a characteristic picture of, if not aggression and hostility, at least a desire to always have the last word and the upper hand in the relationship, to set its terms even while citing Stella as its controlling spirit.

"To Stella, Who Collected and Transcribed His Poems" opens on the closing image of "To Stella, Visiting Me in My Sickness," that of the erection of a building, and returns to the image of the fire, suggesting that the poems themselves might be coupled. And, as discussed earlier, it traces the same line, from praise and admiration to chastisement and "correction" of a behavior which puts his subject and her admirer at risk. Here, then, the Promethean "fire that forms a manly soul" of the sister poem now appears as Stella's "spirits," which "kindle to a flame, / Moved with the lightest touch of blame" (ll. 87-8). These in turn are likened to "Etna's fire, / Which, though with trembling, all admire" (ll. 105-6), allowing a more positive spin on her personality; the volcanic spirit of his subject protects and nurtures those she loves, just as the volcano produces "generous wines" (l. 112) on its slopes. Yet, the sun's heat not only "Ripens the grape" but also "the liquor sours" (l. 120). Throughout the Stella poems, Swift rings the changes on the characteristics he identifies in Stella, offering two readings even within a single line. Here too Stella is firmly put in her place, deployed to reveal the virtuosity of her poet-admirer. Finally, the image of volcanic flame is reduced to the more domestic and literal notion of the burnt paper, the verses she may choose to confine to the flames rather than transcribe and so admit her own failing while also correcting it through the physical act of transcription. Yet, the image of the flame carries still a possible double meaning. "Whene'er they burn, if burn they must, / They'll prove my accusation just" (ll. 143-4): the letters may be burnt upon Stella's mind as an indelible memory even as their physical existence is erased through being set alight.

The vehicle for the representation of Stella shifts in Swift's next annual tribute to her (which also appeared in the 1728 Miscellanies). Stella and the poem to Stella are now figured as a building, no longer a "palace" or a "lofty pile," but rather a familiar and hospitable inn. Swift depicts Stella as the Angel Inn, with her "neat" chamber (her cleanliness is, as elsewhere in the poetry, a key marker of her virtue) and "reasonable bills" that prompt travelers to return despite the more alluring signs and fronts of her neighbors and rivals, Doll and Chloe. Although Stella's eyes are now "fainting rays" (l. 22) her "breeding, humour, wit, and sense" are full recompense for her guests (l. 25). The concluding stanzas of this 56-line poem turn its aggression not on its subject but on these rivals, warning Chloe that despite her attempts to malign the aging Stella, the latter will continue, despite grey hair and wrinkles, to attract "All men of sense" (l. 55) to her doors. This is the first of the poems to Stella which makes quite explicit the relations of exchange that underpin this apparently amiable and convivial hospitality. The image of Stella as an inn (and the name "Angel" invokes in the early modern tradition not just the "divine" but also the monetary, since the angel is a coin as well as a heavenly body) reminds us that Stella extends her friendship to maintain her livelihood. Stella, we are told, puts her guests to so small expense: Their mind so plentifully fills, And makes such reasonable bills; So little gets for what she gives, We really wonder how she lives! And had her stock been less, no doubt She must have long ago run out.

("Stella's Birthday. Written in the Year 1720-21," ll. 26-32)

When the exchange structure is made explicit, the latent hostility toward the poem's subject is displaced onto another woman. It seems as though Swift is easier in figuring his relationship with Stella as one of exchange (albeit a mysterious and unequal process whereby she appears to flourish even though she asks for little); it promotes less anxiety than other images of connection, diverts the kneejerk, irritable turn of the speaker against the dependence his relationship with "Stella" engenders.

However, the balance once more seems to have lost equilibrium in the next birthday poem, "To Stella on her Birthday. Written ad 1721-1722," found in Esther's manuscript but not published until 1766. This 20-line poem is positively brusque and dismissive of its subject: "You, every year the debt enlarge, / I grow less equal to the charge" (ll. 7-8). Indeed, the poem implies that it is not simply accidental or contingent that "In you, each virtue brighter shines, / But my poetic vein declines" (ll. 9-10). In fact, Swift wrote most of his major poetry in his sixties, so there is no indication that his poetic muse suffered a general decline with age. Rather, this poem, through the conventional compliment of the subject exceeding the skill of its depictor, suggests that Stella is now not so much a means to his poetic ends as an impediment to them, and may even bring about the "end" of his poetic skill. The poem envisages not only the end of his poetry but the end of his life - a life ending in debtors' prison for unpaid debts to Stella: "And thus, my stock of wit decayed; / I dying leave the debt unpaid" (ll. 17-18). It may be no coincidence that the relationship with Hester Vanhomrigh was at its emotional peak at this point. Indeed, Swift, a posthumous son himself, nominates a posthumous heir, Patrick Delany the Dublin churchman, to take his place and repay the debt left by his poetic father. He will die in debt "Unless Delany as my heir, / Will answer for the whole arrear" (ll. 19—20). Stella is now parceled off to another poet-churchman who can take responsibility for her poetic care and celebration.

The poem of the following year is a longer and more involved development of the theme of creative poverty. "Stella's Birthday (1723)" (first published in Miscellanies, 1728) is a long comic hybrid of love poem, anacreontic celebration of wine and conviviality, and Swift's characteristically playful use of the figures and voices of domestic servants in his poetry. Here the tables are turned, in that the paralysis of the relationship between Stella as virtuous muse and Swift as tongue-tied songster is overcome by the introduction of a new "female instrument." The poet, "Forsaken by the inspiring nine" (i.e. muses) asks Apollo for his assistance. Apollo sends him to the housekeeper Mrs. Brent, the priestess of the god of the earth who is "nine ways looking" (she had a cast in her eye) to mark the spot in the cellar where a bottle of wine can be discovered which "in the spacious womb contains / A sovereign medicine for the brains" (ll. 69—70). The female "instruments" — Stella, Mrs. Brent, the womb-shaped bottle — enable Swift to write a poem which is not about them, but a comic and inverted meditation on the notion of creativity: here a creativity derived from the earth, from the low, from the material, rather than from the divine or the spirit or the soul. The "means," it appears, are the "end" in this poem, which reveals the necessarily earthly and fleshly nature of creativity, even while it invokes the mock-heroic apparatus of gods, fates, priestesses, and muses. And, of course, the poem offers a mixed compliment, implying that the poet needs to be inebriated to create a tribute to his muse/mistress.

Between April and October of that year, Esther Johnson visited their mutual friend, Charles Ford, at Woodpark, some eleven miles from Dublin. Swift appears to have written two poems to her about this visit, according to the evidence of their manuscript transcription by Ford as two fragments divided by a double line and a Latin quotation. Ford headed the first fragment "Stella's Distress, on the 3rd fatal day of October 1723" (ll. 25—40 of the composite poem), referring to the theme of the section that concerns Stella's unhappiness at returning to her modest lodgings in Dublin after months of pastoral luxury at Woodpark. The other, untitled, fragment constitutes the remainder of the 92-line poem. Ford, referred to as "Don Carlos," is described in terms similar to those used of Strephon in the later "Lady's Dressing Room" as a figure prompted by "a merry spite" (l. 1) who by lines 23—4 "now began to find / His malice work as he designed." The more overt parallel is that Don Carlos plays Milton's Satan to Stella's Eve in this brief mock-epic, tempting her to gustatory pleasures and the phantasm of authority and power where she plays "mistress" of his luxurious house, only to discover that the simple pleasures of her own table no longer satisfy on her return. Stella returns to her lodgings and attempts to compensate for their meanness by aping the experience at Woodpark, summoning wine and a supper that deplete her resources, until a week later she is obliged to return to "her former scene. / Small beer, a herring, and the Dean" (ll. 71—2). As with the other Stella poems, the concluding lines institute a turn, marked by the introduction of the first-person voice of the poet. Here too the line between mockery and chastisement is acknowledged as a narrow one. "Thus far in jest. Though now I fear / You think my jesting too severe" (ll. 73—4). Swift apologizes, claiming that he has exaggerated the meanness of her circumstances, admiring the fact that her table is always "neat" (cleanliness again the marker of virtue) and concluding with a compliment to Stella that:

The virtue lies not in the place: For though my raillery were true, A cottage is Woodpark with you.

Just as "Stella's Birthday (1723)" plays with the anacreontic verse, this poem plays with the familiar contrast between town and country, the urbane satire and rude pastoral; and here too, Swift cannot resist stamping his variant on a familiar theme with his own presence, the "I" which succeeds in transforming a public and well-worn type of poetry into a personal address that makes both speaker and addressee individuals in a relationship of playful and productive tension rather than mere representative types.

The birthday poem of the next year, "To Stella, written on the day of her birth, but not on the subject, when I was sick in bed" (written in 1724 but not published until 1765), sees both Swift and Stella unwell. Yet despite the equality of their circumstances (Swift suffering from his recurrent problems of deafness and vertigo, and Stella increasingly fragile), the poem is preoccupied with inequalities: that Swift cannot produce his "yearly pay" of the verse he owes Stella on her March birthday because of his illness, that her tenderness and solicitude only keep him alive to suffer more pains, that she returns his "brutish passions" when he is suffering with "soft speech" and gives him assistance when she is in want of it. The moment of direct address comes at lines 29-30, when Swift enters in the first person ("Whatever base returns you find / From me, dear Stella, still be kind"), and requests that Stella "reap the fruit" (l. 31) in her own heart of her kindness, with a promise that when he is "out of pain" (l. 33) he will "be good again" (l. 34). He advises that, in the meantime, she turn to their other friends to "make amends" for his follies (l. 36) by acknowledging her virtues. Of course, the paradox of the poem is that while it disavows poetry when overcome with physical sickness, it does so in poetic form. Stella becomes the means that makes poetry possible, despite the poet's fallen and brutish nature, governed only by physical pain.

Stella is, moreover, also cast as a "mean," a model of balance, as a "Stoic" who can come to terms with sickness and put her own cares aside to care for another, while the poet is a creature of extremity: "With gall in every word I speak" (l. 12). Indeed, the poem itself acts as a kind of gall or poison which must be expelled from the suffering body to offer the possibility of relief. When Swift asks: "Tormented with incessant pains, / Can I devise poetic strains?" (ll. 1-2), it is tempting to read the "strains" of passing a poem as equivalent to the "strains" of passing urine or feces or gallstones.

Swift "passes" his annual tribute to Stella with difficulty; but it is also a "means" to his improvement.

The careful balance of opposing qualities that constitutes the relationship between Swift and Stella, and the vigor of the relationship despite shifts and reversals in that balance, is amply demonstrated in the 1725 "Stella's Birthday" (first published in the 1728 Miscellanies). This is the first of the last three poems Swift wrote for Esther Johnson and it marks, following the death of Vanessa, a new calmness and confidence in the relationship as the ground of his poetic capacity, while also acknowledging the increasing precariousness of its continuance in light of Stella's advancing ill-health. The poem opens on the opposition of textual means to celebrate a mistress, setting prose/speech (suitable to a lady of advancing years such as Stella, now forty-three, and her 56-year-old balladeer) against poetry/song (suited to the fifteen-year-old nymph and her 21-year-old swain). It concludes on the opposition of physical means to appreciate a mistress, setting against one another the senses of sight and hearing: the poet's fading eyesight means that, despite her graying locks and wrinkles, Stella still looks lovely to him, and he hopes that he may retain his hearing so that he can continue to hear her speak the words of "Honour and virtue, sense and wit" (l. 50) that guarantee her status as muse for him. As in "The Lady's Dressing Room," the failure to exploit a sense to the full is the only guarantor of continuing idealism; the poet refuses to listen to those with better eyesight who report that she is "no longer young" (l. 36), claiming that "nature, always in the right, / To your decays adapts my sight" (ll. 43-4). Swift "adapts" his poetry to bring it closer to the condition of prose so that it "fits" his aging muse better, just as his eyesight "adapts" to ensure her continuing status as his muse by concealing her "decays" from him. Swift here plays with the conceit that the unusual nature of his muse makes possible an "unusual," adaptive, and hybrid poetry, a poetry that, if it shuns the condition of song, can still celebrate the sense of hearing, by contrast with traditional love poetry which shuns the prosaic and grounds its aesthetic on the pleasures of looking at an admired object.

In the same year, another poem to Stella also challenges conventional expectations of the poem of compliment with its startling couplet "Why, Stella, should you knit your brow, / If I compare you to the cow?" ("A Receipt to Restore Stella's Youth," ll. 21-2, first published in the 1735 Works). Esther Johnson had spent a long period at Quilca, Richard Sheridan's house in County Cavan, where Swift also stayed from the end of April to the end of September 1725. Swift develops in the poem a comic simile whereby Stella is cast as a cow which is starved over winter until spring comes, when it is put out to pasture to be fattened up. Swift informs Stella that after this period of fleshing out, if your flesh and blood be new, You'll be no more your former you; But for a blooming nymph will pass, Just fifteen, coming summer's grass.

Of course, this is not so much a new Stella as a restored one, the teenage virgin Stella on the green described in the first birthday poem. The poem plays throughout with the conceit that, just as Quilca's pastoral pleasures and diets will "fill out" and re-invigorate Stella's wasted body, the poet's memory and attachment constantly renews her. The poem concludes with the suggestion that Stella must return to the physician-poet to secure the good restorative effects of the country spring:

But, lest you should my skill disgrace, Come back before you're out of case; For if to Michaelmas you stay, The new-born flesh will melt away.

Stella will, like the cow, become thin again over the winter period, while in Dublin the poet will feed her up with "beef and claret" (l. 56) - but the more sinister underlying association of the simile is that the cow is fattened only in order to be slaughtered to provide that very "beef and claret" the poet promises her. The poet's "skill" is needed to "preserve" Stella's life, but there is something oddly light-hearted about Swift's open acknowledgement of the logical "end" of the simile he has deployed, the inevitability of Stella's physical death and the possibility of her continuing life only as a poetic figure in his verse.

There is nothing light-hearted, however, about the last and best of Swift's poems to Stella, written in the shadow of that death in 1727. Swift took the poem with him to England, where he traveled a month after her March birthday. He returned in the autumn, and she died on 28 January 1728. The poem was published in the 1728 Miscellanies. It is Swift's most attractive and moving tribute to the long friendship that had sustained him through his adult life. It shares the structure of many of the birthday poems, in that it moves from an address to Stella. combining instruction and admiration, to a first-person statement by the poet that implies his separateness from her even as it acknowledges her gift of friendship. The poem has a simple message: it attempts to reconcile Stella to her mortality by asserting that her virtue and tenderness, which have touched many lives, will leave a lasting legacy. Swift announces the solemnity of this last poem early on when he requests that Stella "From not the gravest of divines, / Accept for once some serious lines" (ll. 13-14). He then turns to request Stella to look back on her past life with content because it has entailed the preservation of so many other lives from sickness or infamy. Even when her physical body is gone, her virtue will continue to "feed" the lives of those who knew her. Although the poem is punctuated by three direct invocations to Stella ("Say, Stella, feel you no content, / Reflecting on a life well spent?" [ll. 35-6], "Believe me Stella" [l. 67], "O then, whatever heaven intends, / Take pity on your pitying friends" [ll. 79-80]), it lacks the corrective aggression of so many of the earlier poems and seems designed to reconcile Stella to her situation rather than challenge her. It concludes on a testimony to his commitment to her, requesting her not to think her friends "unkind" (l. 82):

Me, surely me, you ought to spare, Who gladly would your sufferings share; Or give my scrap of life to you, And think it far beneath your due; You, to whose care so oft I owe, That I'm alive to tell you so.

Stella's end produces a poem that refutes the idea of an "end." If they can no longer plan their future together, the couple can look back over Stella's past and she will continue to inhabit the future of all her friends. And in this last poem, for the first time, Swift presents himself as Stella's instrument, implying that he might be the "means" for her own consolation and reconciliation to her fate. For the last time the balance of the relationship tips, so that Stella is no longer the "means" for Swift's poetic creativity, but he becomes the means to restore her reason, to give her her own "raison d'etre."

"Not the gravest of divines": The Twist in the Tale

Do these readings take Swift's consistently light and self-consciously trivial poetry too seriously? Like Swift's anxious modern author, have we tied the texts into epistemological knots that conceal or obscure their simple message(s)? Swift seems to conceive of the poem itself as a parodic intervention, a moment of address, rather than a developed piece of exposition. And his tone is invariably comic and mocking. This is equally or especially true of the poems to Stella, making comedy a vital part of their originality as experiments in the love poem, a mode, as Margaret Anne Doody notes, unusual in eighteenth-century versifying (Doody 2003: 98).

Swift consistently reminds both his muse and his reader that his poetry to her is not prompted by a sexual, conjugal, or romantic passion:

Thou, Stella, wert no longer young, When first for thee my harp I strung: Without one word of Cupid's darts, Of killing eyes, or bleeding hearts: With friendship and esteem possessed, I ne'er admitted love a guest.

("To Stella, Who Collected and Transcribed His Poems," ll. 9-14)

His Stella cuts a pedestrian figure; but her virtues are solid and lasting, whereas the beauty of the muses of other poets fades before the poem is even completed. Indeed, Stella is a poem, the lines of her face and of her figure familiar and often traced by the loving hand of the poet, and returned to at regular intervals as a familiar site and citation, as well as measure of his poetic abilities. Yet the very doubleness and dependence of the relationship between poet and muse (however material and matter-of-fact) can threaten the former's creative authority. If Stella is a text, she is also a transcriber, and Swift "corrects" or "balances" their relationship by requiring her, like a good parson or monkish scribe, to "keep strictly to the text" in her copying of his chastising text — but also, perhaps, more widely, in her imitation of his prescripts for female behavior.

Swift's verse is no mere imitation or copy of his mistress/muse, then; it "composes" her, turns her into a textual figure, but also calms her too violent spirits, which threaten to resist his creative authority. Swift had learnt this technique from his long acquaintance with the Horatian tradition of satire with which this reading opened: the satiric target is first inflated into a consuming threat and then comically defused. But in this process, it is not only the poetic "vehicle" (the figure of Stella) that is transformed, but the "tenor" (the voice of the poet). Swift succeeds in producing a poetry which, precisely because of its prosaic tone, its directness of address, its self-questioning and self-mockery, challenges both the "means" and "end" of poetry itself. The neoclassical, controlled, confident relationship of poet and poetic subject is given new vigor conveying a sense of genuine "ethics," in the traditional sense of "ethos," from the Greek term for "character" or "prevailing sentiment" of an individual or community. Swift's poems to his Stella are "ethical" texts in that they portray the complex, individual, local, and shifting nature of the continuing encounter between self and other, in and through which both parties are repeatedly required to question and adapt their perceptions of relationship and of the role each plays in the other's life. And, in turn, an acquaintance with Swift's poems to Stella requires us to readjust our own preconceptions of a personality unable to sustain or address relationships with women. Despite its tensions and conflicts, this depiction of a friendship in verse presents us with a male poet willing and able to allow his poetic object a life beyond that of simple "means" or "spur" to poetic creativity, a life which, especially toward its own end, touches and alters the fabric of the verse it engenders.

See also chs. 11, "Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and 'Eloisa to Abelard' "; 31, "The Constructions of Femininity."

The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 5 vols., A Tale of a Tub, 2nd edn., ed. A. C. Guthkelch

References and Further Reading

Swift editions

Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems, ed. Pat Rogers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. All quotations are from this edition.

ed. Harold Williams. Oxford: Clarendon,

0 0

Post a comment