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Description of a City Shower: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Introduction To Jonathan Swift
  • 0:25 Summary Of Description…
  • 1:40 Analysis Of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

April showers might bring May flowers in your hometown, but 'A Description of a City Shower' says they would only wash up smelly trash in London. Read on to find out more about this critique of society written by the sharp-tongued Jonathan Swift.

Introduction to Jonathan Swift

There are all kinds of 'old-wives' tales' and even entire holidays (like Groundhog Day) devoted to forecasting the weather. Jonathan Swift, the renowned Irish author of works like Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal, may not write about groundhogs, but he does describe several other indicators of a coming storm in his 1710 poem 'A Description of a City Shower.'

Summary of 'A Description of a City Shower'

Swift starts the poem by describing what happens before a storm arrives. For instance, he claims that cats will stop playing, and that the toilet would stink twice as much as usual. As the storm draws closer, ominous black clouds are noted on the horizon, and the first drops of rain start to fall. Swift jokingly describes them as being like drops of water flung from the twirling mop of a woman of ill-repute. These women might be a contrast to 'Brisk Susan,' who hurriedly takes down her laundry on the line. All the while, dust and water swirl around to form a type of cement in the poet's coat.

With the rainstorm right on top of them, all the citizens scurry to find shelter: ladies pretend to shop, a seamstress huddles beneath her umbrella, and even political rivals find refuge together. Even though they're safe, and even though it's only rain, Swift compares these cowering men to frightened Greek heroes hiding in the Trojan Horse.

The rain's now coming in full-force, completely flooding the streets and bringing all the city's garbage to the surface. Swift even claims that you can tell what street the water came from by the trash floating in it as he ends the poem with a fairly graphic description (which you'll see below) of the grisly garbage that's all been washed up.

Analysis 'A Description of a City Shower'

Have you ever gotten into an argument about whether it's better to live in the city or the country? Jonathan Swift isn't exactly shy about his opinion on the matter. He uses several literary techniques to get his point across. One of these is satire, or a genre dedicated to literary or social criticism through the use of comedic elements. But how and why does Swift use satire to make his point that city living is, well, trashy?

It might help us at first to understand that Jonathan Swift was an early champion of Neoclassicism - an artistic movement between the late-17th and 18th centuries noted for its imitation of Greco-Roman styles and genres, particularly that of satire. In fact, because of satirical poems like this and other similar works, Swift has become known as one of the foremost Neoclassicists. He proves this reputation when, in 'A Description of a City Shower,' Swift uses his intimate knowledge of Latin literature to critique the citizens of London.

The first indication that we're dealing with a poem that's closely linked to another much older one comes from Swift's use of heroic couplets, or sets of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter often used in English to translate ancient epic literature. The ancient piece here is actually the Roman poet Vergil's Georgic I, which belongs to his collection (Georgics) of pastoral poetry - which are verse works concerning the homes and activities of shepherds, farmers, or other rural folk. Throughout 'A Description of a City Shower,' Swift mockingly imitates not only Vergil's pastoral style but even some of his wording to poke fun at what he finds to be a cesspool of a city.

At the very end of his poem, Swift describes the types of trash that come washing down the city streets when they're flooded with heavy rain: 'Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood, / Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, / Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.' These closing remarks are meant to be a sharp rebuke of the people of London - not for the refuse they've made, but for the garbage they've allowed themselves to become. In the lines prior to this closer, Swift is particularly specific about the kinds of people these are who've turned the city into the dump he saw in his day.

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