The eighteenth century
Discuss the relationship between the city and the country as presented in Swift’s `Description of a City Shower’ and Pope’s `Windsor Forest’ The Eighteenth Century was a transitional time for England, and this is reflected in the range and versatility in style that was characteristic of the Romantic movement. In a century when the novel remained a relatively recent genre, poetry was the most widely used and most comprehensively recognised form of literary expression.
Perhaps one of the most prominent themes that that really began in the eighteenth century was the growing concern that the relationship between mankind and the natural world was under threat. Poetry offered a means of addressing the fear that industrialisation was encouraging people to grow away from the rural traditions, and towards a more commercially driven way of life, that left no time for spending time in the landscape.
This theme remains poignant in literature today, and it is through discussion of its origins that we might better understand the impulse that led authors such as Alexander pope and Jonathan Swift to contemplate the relationship between mankind and the environment, and between city life and country life, over two hundred years ago. During the course of this essay I seek to establish points of similarity and difference between the work of these two authors, drawing from Pope’s `Windsor Forest’, and from Swift’s `Description of a City Shower.
‘ In `Description of a City Shower’, Swift presents the subtle changes and preparations which might occur in the city when the threat of rain is imminent. In the first line Swift makes it clear that these little signs are obvious only to the ‘careful observer’ – one who is aware of the environment and in sync with their surroundings. For example, at the beginning of the poem Swift mentions the `pensive cat’, suggesting that there can exist an affinity with nature even in the midst of the city.
However, during the course of the poem this relationship becomes strained as the natural world upsets the orderliness of the city, and in the final line Swift makes another, less harmonious reference to cats – where `dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood. ‘ In contrast to Swift’s representation of how separate city life can be from the natural world, Alexander Pope’s poem focuses on how country living is `harmonious’ as it involves an age-old relationship between man and nature that has evolved through history.
In a letter to Barton Booth in 1714, the eminent critic John Dennis said of Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest – `[it] is a wretched Rhapsody, not worthy the Observation of a Man of Sense. ‘ (Barnard, 1995: 89). However, this comment might overlook the subtleties of sensuous expression in Pope’s writing. For example, in the following quote we see how Pope equates the image of the fallen world with a sense of renewal within himself – inspired by the `green’ of the land:
The groves of Eden, vanish’d now so long, Live in description, and look green in song: These, were my breast inspired with equal flame, Like them in beauty, should be like in fame. (Lines 6-10. pp. 20). Pope’s poem is primarily concerned with representing the sense of harmony that he himself had experienced with the natural world. The variant features of Pope’s landscape – the `hills and vales’ and `earth and water’ are united in striving towards some greater object of unity.
As Pope qualifies – `Not chaos-like together crushed and bruised/ But as the world, harmoniously confused. ‘ (Lines 13-14, p21). These lines present an effective contrast to Swift’s description of the effects of rain in the city – where the natural world brings disorder, dirt, and strife to the inhabitants: where `swelling kennels flow/ And bear their Trophies with them as they go.
‘ Indeed, Swift’s representation of city life creates a quite vulnerable picture – where the `heavy din’ of rainfall inspires fear and terror to those listening to the rain on the roof from within their shelter. The `beau’ who is `boxed in a chair’ is perhaps a metaphorical intention on the part of Swift to exemplify the vulnerability of mankind in the context of the forces of nature, where the lone human being sits trapped within a box of his own creation with only the only liberty remaining being to listen – and not even see – the destructive weather without.