Sublime Stench: Burke, Montagu, and “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

Portrait of Jonathan Swift, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery

In today’s stereotypical relationship, it is considered taboo for couples to pass gas, use the bathroom, or even vomit in front of each other. Jonathan Swift, sarcastic poet and political novelist, writes a story that takes this concept to the extreme: Strephon, who is pursuing a woman named Celia, invades Celia’s dressing room and discovers her veiled hygienic practices. When applying Edmund Burke’s ideas of power through the sublime, Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” can be interpreted as a means for men to maintain power within the supposed sex/gender binary. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s rebuttal entitled “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S to Write a Poem Called The Lady’s Dressing Room” furthers this argument.

Burke discusses the twin feelings of pleasure and pain, and claims that pain is more sublime: “for the enjoyment of pleasure, no great efforts of power are at all necessary…for pleasure must be stolen and forced upon us; pleasure follows the will; and therefore we are generally affected with it by many things of a force greatly inferior to our own. But pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly. So that strength, violence, pain, and terror, are ideas that rush in upon the mind together” (36). Here, Burke describes the dynamics of pain and pleasure, in that pain is not within our own choosing and therefore cannot be controlled; pain is sublime, or comes from a sublime power. When considering the sublimity of conception through Burke’s writings, it is clear that females are more connected to the sublime through the pain and uncertainty of childbirth; males, on the other hand, have a few moments of pleasure before resuming their routine, every-day lives. Within nature, females are closer to a superior power, pertaining to the sublime.

In “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Strephon’s unrealistic conceptions of women are smashed. Swift not only diminishes the image of all women through Strephon’s exploration of Celia’s dressing room, but he also confiscates any power that women held as far as their personal lives. In the beginning of the poem, Celia holds power over Strephon, however small, through the privacy of her dressing room. By entering her room uninvited, Strephon reclaims that power, and further, tamps down the power–and sublimity–that other women hold: “His foul imagination links each dame he sees with all her stinks” (121-122). Other lines in the poem broadcast Swift’s haughty tone and solidify the meaning behind the poem. “No object Strephon’s eye escapes” (47) implies the male gaze within this society and suggests Celia’s lack of agency, while “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung” (144) gives the impression that outer beauty trumps all else, specifically when it comes to how it impacts men’s lives. These societal implications and expectations placed on women inadvertently place power within the male gaze.  

Creatures with a connection to the sublime are only seen as terrifying when they are untamed by humanity; in other words, the sublime relies on the unknown and the violence and unpredictability of nature. Burke posits that a horse is only sublime when it can be categorized as wild, and that a dog is just a wolf without its sublime features. Through Burke’s descriptions of these creatures, is it clear that a powerful being’s sublimity depends on how it is characterized, how much allowance it is given, and how connected it is to nature. Further, he states that “power derives all its sublimity from terror with which it is generally accompanied, will appear evidently from its own effect in the very few cases, in which it may be possible to strip a considerable degree of strength of its ability to hurt. When you do this, you spoil it of everything sublime, and it immediately becomes contemptible” (36). When applying this to Swift’s poem, it can be argued that, by creating this olfactory portrait of a female whose only power within society is her beauty—and further, her physical power of reproducing—he is “stripping” power from females everywhere and strengthening an atmosphere of male dominance.

In Montagu’s rebuttal, Swift becomes the main character, and is eventually shamed for his views and expectations of women. The poem begins by making “the Doctor” out to be the vain one of the two: “The Doctor in a clean starched band, His golden snuff box in hand, With care his diamond ring displays And artful shows its various rays” (1-4). Further, Montagu writes that “None strive to know their proper merit But strain for wisdom, beauty, spirit, And lose the praise that is their due While they’ve th’ impossible in view” (49-52), noting the unrealistic expectations in regards to the societal standards of beauty for women. The female figure in the poem is a prostitute by the name of Betty, who shares a name with Celia’s maid from the aforementioned poem. The Doctor pays for her services, but when he can’t perform, a dialogue begins about where that payment will end up. The poem ends with a threat of revenge—to expose her body and its habits for what they are: the natural functions of a human being—from the Doctor, to which Betty replies: “I’m glad you’ll write. You’ll furnish paper when I shite” (88-89). Through this exchange, Montagu is not only calling Swift out on his misconceptions and degradation of the female sex, but also implying that Swift’s poem was simply an attempt at regaining power and control over the sublime.

Montagu’s story works to discredit “The Lady’s Dressing Room” by calling Swift himself into question. She writes “…will pursue th’ instructive tale, To show the wise in some things fail” (61-62) to pursue the idea that, even though Swift is a renown political writer, his musings may not always be correct. Along with this, Montagu argues that “Instinct the hound does better teach, Who never undertook to preach; The frighted hare from dogs does run But not attempts to bear a gun” (55-58) to point out that Swift is fighting against an unarmed crowd in order to get his kicks. Montagu’s resounding implication against Swift is within his view of women and Strephon’s objectification of Celia, in that Strephon is projecting his will onto Celia: “whenever strength is only useful, and employed for out benefit or our pleasure, then it is never sublime: for nothing can act agreeably to us, that does not act in conformity to our will: but to act agreeable to our will, it must be subject to us” (Burke, 36).

Where Swift calls for disgust, Montagu weaves a web of intimacy that resembles the sublime. Burke states that “we have continually about us animals of a strength that is considerable, but not pernicious. Amongst these we never look for the sublime: it comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros” (36). Swift and Montagu both set their tales in places that are largely unknown by their average audience member (i.e. a lady’s private dressing room, a prostitute’s bedroom…). Montagu rebels against Swifts claims by giving her female character the upper hand, and ultimately control over her own body and sublimity.

Burke, Edmund. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Vol. 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries, Pearson, 4th ed., 2009. pp. 33-39.

“Jonathan Swift.” The British Library, The British Library, 28 Nov. 2017, https://www.bl.uk/people/jonathan-swift.

Montagu, Mary Wortley. “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S to Write a Poem Called The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 1C: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Pearson, 4th ed. 2009. pp 2350-2352.

Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 1C: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Pearson, 4th ed., 2009. pp 2346-2349.