‘A Description of the Morning’ is a 1709 poem by the Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Published in The Tatler, Swift’s poem displays his keen eye for contemporary detail as he satirises elements of early eighteenth-century London. ‘A Description of the Morning’ is written in heroic couplets: iambic pentameter rhyming couplets. The couplets are closed, in that one couplet does not flow into the next, but is instead concluded with punctuation (often a full stop).
Let’s go through the poem and analyse the meaning of the poem in sections, offering a summary of its content as we go.
Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing, show’d the ruddy morn’s approach.
Swift begins with a nice mock-heroic detail: a key feature of much Augustan poetry, and something that Alexander Pope would use on a grander scale three years after ‘A Description of the Morning’ in his 1712 poem The Rape of the Lock.
Here, Swift alludes to the mythological idea of the Greek god of the sun, Phoebus Apollo, driving his chariot across the sky, bearing the sun – the ancients’ way of explaining how the sun rose and set in the sky every day. But instead of Apollo’s heavenly chariot, we find nothing more divine than a ‘hackney-coach’: that is, a horse-and-cart on a London road. Swift further undercuts the grandeur of epic poetry by bringing Homer’s description of ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ down to earth: Swift’s description of the ‘ruddy morn’ is far less romantic or idealised.
Now Betty from her master’s bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
Betty, a generic stock name for a lower-class female servant at the time, is here seen leaving the bed of her employer, having spent the night with him. So the other servants won’t suspect anything, she goes to ruffle up her own bedsheets, so it looks as though she’s spent the night there instead. In just two lines, Swift summons a world in which masters engage in extramarital relations with their servants, who have to cover up this fact lest they be thought ‘low’ or promiscuous. The soft sibilance of ‘softly stole’ suggests the furtive movements of Betty, who is tied to that bed by way of the consonance – and assonance – of Betty/bed.
The slip-shod ’prentice from his master’s door
Had par’d the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor.
Here we have another servant – this time, a young male apprentice – also trying to cover things up. In this case, rather than removing the dirt from outside his master’s door, he simply moves it about the place, hoping nobody will notice. Note how Swift moves from one servant to another, but we are still within the master’s house.
Now Moll had whirl’d her mop with dext’rous airs,
Prepar’d to scrub the entry and the stairs.
Remaining in the master’s house, we move from that apprentice (failing to do the) cleaning to another servant, Moll, mopping the floor: like Betty with her bed, Moll is tied consonantly and assonantly to her mop, as though suggesting she is destined to remain in servitude. (Moll, like Betty, is a stock name for a lower-class woman at the time.)
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.
From Moll mopping the floor inside, we move to the street outside, where a young boy is sweeping the road. But unlike Moll – and like the apprentice indoors – he seems to be performing or miming the act of sweeping more than he is actually doing it: he traces the outline of the gutter or ‘kennel’ where the wheels of the carriages have worn a groove, but he isn’t necessarily being a very effective sweeper.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep;
Till drown’d in shriller notes of ‘chimney-sweep.’
The road-sweeper gives way to a chimney-sweep, another youth who is advertising his trade to passers-by. He has ‘shriller notes’ because he is so young: small children were sent up to clean chimneys (a very dangerous job which was eventually outlawed in the Victorian era) because they were small enough to squeeze up the narrow chimneys in people’s homes and sweep out the soot.
Of course, the coal-man is older and has a deeper voice, but the two figures are related: the coal-man sells people the coal to burn in their fireplaces, while the chimney-sweep comes and cleans out the coal-dust once it has been transformed into soot.
Duns at his lordship’s gate began to meet;
And brickdust Moll had scream’d through half a street.
‘Duns’ were creditors to whom money was owed: these gather outside the gate of a wealthy lord who has frittered away his money, perhaps because of a dissolute lifestyle. Once again, we have a suggestion of immorality among the lords and masters of the age: when they’re not taking their servants to bed, they’re losing all their inherited wealth at the gambling table (or in the pursuit of other things).
Moll returns here, though it’s a different woman from the Moll inside the master’s house: this one is actually a prostitute, with ‘brickdust Moll’ being a euphemism for what we’d now call a sex worker. Her scream prefigures the ‘harlot’s cry’ of William Blake’s ‘London’ almost a century later, but it also arises naturally from the chimney-sweep’s own ‘shriller notes’ in the previous couplet.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees.
A gaoler sees his ‘flock’ of prisoners returning to the gaol: he has let them out at night to steal things, which are then handed over (in return for money or ‘fees’) to the gaoler. The line between law and crime has been blurred: the gaoler is as corrupt as his prisoners. The word ‘flock’ is obviously deeply ironic, suggesting a pastoral scene of shepherds and their sheep (indeed, many of Swift’s satirical poems about the city are mock-pastoral: see also his ‘Description of a City Shower’) and also, perhaps, even carrying a sacrilegious suggestion of a priest (another kind of ‘pastor’) and his congregation.
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands;
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.
The bailiffs or lawmen turn a blind eye to this corruption, presumably making money out of it as well, as they’re in on the deal with turnkey has with his prisoners. Swift concludes ‘A Description of the Morning’ with the next generation reluctantly going to school (recalling the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where children creep unwillingly ‘like snail’ to school).
Each of Swift’s couplets or tableaux is linked to the next: something you begin to explore here but could have probed more fully. So Betty leaves her master’s bed, which gives way to the apprentice moving the dirt around his master’s floor, which gives way to Moll doing her cleaning; the youth sweeping (or cleaning) the road turns into the chimney-sweep advertising his trade, while his ‘shriller notes’ give way to Moll’s screams. The poem presents individual scenes but he links them together to suggest a coherent, larger scene where every stratum of society is somehow linked.