Full Disclosure: Magnification in Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

A close reading of Jonathan Swift’s famously obscene poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” offers several targets for the author’s satire. The focus on Celia’s vanity and deceit, compared with the forgivability of Strephon’s crimes of ignorance, indicate an obvious misogyny in the poem. Despite the subject matter of the poem itself, Swift’s critique is broader than simply a discussion of his feelings about women and vanity. As in all satire, Swift makes much of the absurdity of society’s attempt to disguise that which cannot be disguised, namely the utter baseness to be found among all of humanity, despite its imagined progresses.

Swift starts the poem with a nod to the divine, referring to Celia as “the Goddess,” who “from her chamber issues” (3). The imagery of the goddess here brings to mind a tradition in pastoral poetry to characterize feminine beauty as divine. This poetic device, according to Laura Baudot, “nourishes the vanity of the fair. . . by insisting on the divinity of women” (Baudot 637). Swift uses it to show the illusion of a state of divinity within British imperial culture, a sense of achieving something greater than base humanity. By contrasting the divine with images of human feces and grit, Swift warns against the tendency to romanticize humanity in the face of scientific progress.

Once Celia leaves the room and Strephon enters, the language takes on a scientific tone when the speaker warns, “An inventory follows here” (10). Strephon is like a scientist, embarking on his quest to find the secret to Celia’s divine beauty, “turn[ing] it round on every side” (14). His innocence lets us know that Strephon likely expects to find some pleasant truth to bolster his illusion of Celia’s divinity. Instead, what he discovers radically transforms the way he views all womankind. What is truly revealed is a naturalistic reality that is only barely obscured by frightening and disgusting means of disguise.

“The virtues we must not let pass,
Of Celia’s magnifying glass
When frightened Strephon cast his eye on’t
It showed visage of a giant.” (60-63)

This passage introduces Celia’s mirror, the “magnifying glass.” The term “magnifying glass” is not incidental in this passage. Swift’s word choice shows that the mirror is a scientific tool, as in the new field of microscopy, that can be used “to reveal the true nature of things” (Baudot 647). As we see in the last two lines of the passage, Strephon already begins to view the world differently when he is shocked to see himself looking like a giant in its reflection. As the poem’s wording moves from “virtues” to “giant,” Strephon is transformed from a wondrous student of mystery to a man disillusioned and irrevocably exposed to the grotesque. In kind, Celia is transformed from a typical pastoral beauty to a monster representing all the baseness of humanity.

With disgusting clarity, Swift takes inventory of what is disclosed about the true nature of humanity in the course of scientific exploration. The illusion of divinity is all the more deceitful and harmful in light of the truth. The use of the word “disclose” in the couplet “A glass that can to sight disclose,/ The smallest worm in Celia’s nose,” gives the audience another clue that the poem wants to draw attention to what expectations are placed on scientific discovery and what is truly observable (64-65). Looking beyond Strephon’s ignorance and resulting violent revelation as just another battle of the sexes, one finds Swift delving into a critique of British identity for trying to disguise reality with a more pleasant version of the truth.

The age of rapid scientific discovery in the 18th century, coinciding with the expansion of the empire and the rise of mercantile capitalism, lends itself to an illusion that culture and civilization are reaching divine heights, progressing to a higher order of humanity and greater good. In his poem, Swift uses scatalogical imagery to remind his readers what is truly being “disclosed” by scientific exploration: not an advancement of human civilization, but a new understanding of its materiality and baseness.

“As from within Pandora’s box,
When Epimetheus op’d the locks,
A sudden universal crew
Of human evils upward flew;” (83-88)

In his passage mentioning Pandora’s box, Swift makes a case for the weightiness behind the problem of mistaking scientific progress for a sign of cultural supremacy. It may seem like, by equating Strephon with Epimetheus and Celia with Pandora, Swift is warning against discovery, but rather he is warning that what is discovered should be taken at face value and not disguised as divine. Returning to religious imagery, the poem enforces the notion that naivete is what makes discovery so painful and seemingly grotesque. Before revelation, ignorance is the normal state, but after revelation, ignorance is a dangerous evil, preventing transcendence by holding civilization back from knowing its true nature.

For all his investments through this poem, Swift powerfully attempts to protect the means of describing the world (poetry, science, etc.) from becoming “a vehicle of self-deception” (Baudot 665). Feces is what Strephon finds in Celia’s dressing room, not divine beauty. When humanity puts a magnifying glass to itself, it should find the truth, that is, excrement and other trappings of animal existence. Swift shows the audience that science can be dangerously poeticized when its value lies in knowing the truth, and the truth cannot always be aesthetically placed in the narrative of mankind. Swift’s capable satire handily finds the ridiculous in the absurdity of society attempting to disguise the baseness to be found in all people, despite their imagined divinity.

Works Cited

Baudot, Laura. “What Not to Avoid in Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 49, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Summer, 2009), pp. 637-666

Brown, Laura. “Race and Gender: Jonathan Swift.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Special Issue: The Politics of Difference (Summer, 1990), pp. 425-442

Nerd Snaps. “’The Lady’s Dressing Room’ – Jonathan Swift (1732).” Illustration is a print titled “Lady Friz at her Toilet” (1785). Snapchat. https://nerdsnaps.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/the-ladys-dressing-room

Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Volume 1C, The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (Fourth Edition), pp. 2346-2349