Description of a City Shower

By Jonathan Swift

Edited by Jack Lynch

Swift published this poem in the Tatler, and called it “the best thing I ever wrote.” Commentary and a note on the text will follow. Note that this is a reading text, with no pretense to being a critical edition.


Description of a City Shower (1710)

Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower: prognostics = signs of the future
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er depends = is expected
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Returning home at night, you’ll find the sink [5] sink = gutter
Strike your offended sense with double stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to dine;
You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine.
A coming shower your shooting corns presage, presage = predict
Old achès throb, your hollow tooth will rage. [10] [aches pronounced as two syllables]
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dulman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen. spleen = bad mood, depression
 
Meanwhile the South, rising with dabbled wings, dabbled = wet and dirty
A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings, sable = black; athwart = across; welkin = sky
That swilled more liquor than it could contain, [15] swilled = drank
And, like a drunkard, gives it up again.
Brisk Susan whips her linen from the rope, linen = laundry
While the first drizzling shower is born aslope: aslope = across
Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean quean = lower-class girl
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean: [20]
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop. rail = complain
Not yet the dust had shunned the unequal strife, strife = struggle
But, aided by the wind, fought still for life,
And wafted with its foe by violent gust, [25]
’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust.
Ah! where must needy poet seek for aid,
When dust and rain at once his coat invade?
Sole coat, where dust cemented by the rain
Erects the nap, and leaves a mingled stain. [30] erects the nap = makes the fabric's fiber stand up
 
Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down, contiguous = continuous
Threatening with deluge this devoted town. deluge = flood; devoted = doomed
To shops in crowds the daggled females fly, daggled = muddy
Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy.
The Templar spruce, while every spout’s abroach, [35] Templar spruce = well-dressed law student;
Stays till ’tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While seams run down her oiled umbrella’s sides.
Here various kinds, by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed. [40] shed = shelter
Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs Tories, Whigs, the two rival political parties
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.
Boxed in a chair the beau impatient sits, chair = sedan chair, a box carried by “chairmen”
While spouts run clattering o’er the roof by fits,
And ever and anon with frightful din [45]
The leather sounds; he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed, wooden steed = the Trojan Horse
Pregnant with Greeks impatient to be freed pregnant = filled
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do, bully = thuggish
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through), [50]
Laocoön struck the outside with his spear Laocoön wanted to test the Trojan Horse
And each imprisoned hero quaked for fear.
 
Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow, kennels = gutters
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell [55]
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge, confluence = flowing together
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge. [60]
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.