Jonathan Swift represent women in his ‘Stella’s Birthday’
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In studying Jonathan Swift’s poetry, I have been instantly drawn to his series of Stella’s Birthday poems, one of which was written every year from 1719 until the death of their subject, and in this essay I will be examining how Swift has represented women and femininity in these poems, and several more of his works. My aim will be to ascertain this by examining his works in detail, and looking at what motivated Swift to represent women in the way he did, through looking both at the culture and literature at the time, and his own life and influences.
Swift never married, although ‘Stella,’ – whose real name was Esther Johnson – was thought to be his ‘dearest, most intimate companion’ , and it was alleged, although never proved, that the two secretly wed. In example, George Monck-Berkeley wrote in 1789 that Stella ‘had been cheered by the hope of one day becoming his (Swift’s) wife’, and that ‘In 1716 they were married’. However, although there is no record of such an engagement, in these poems to her, his feelings for her are clearly betrayed. It is interesting that Swift chose to direct these poems at a particular individual, unlike other poets such as William Shakespeare who wrote literature of a similar, romantic, praising vain but instead directed it at un-named or mystery women, for example in his ‘dark lady’ series of sonnets. This, for me, appears to show that he held a considerable amount of affection for Stella, in light of which I can more accurately examine the way in which she and women as a gender are represented in his work.
I feel that Swift has represented women in a diverse and layered manner; he lingers not only on the superficial level of Stella’s beauty, but heaps praise on her courage, her individual talents, and her morality. He appreciates her loyalty, and her ‘virtue’ – a superlative he repeatedly uses in the poem Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1727, and so we are left no illusion to the depth of his feelings of warmth towards her. He ‘reflects on a life well spent,’ which again signals to me that he is paying her the ultimate respect in that she has a led her life well and made the most of what she has given, something which is a greater compliment when we take into account Swift’s religious leanings (he became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1701). Life as a clergyman would have taught him to hold great regard in those who value their God-given gifts and live a principled existence as the one he describes in this poem, and therefore his words can be interpreted as carrying an obvious religious weight.
In line 45 of Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1727, he describes ‘Courage which can make you just,’ perhaps a reference to her strong-willed bravery which she demonstrated when a gang of robbers attempted to break into her house, and taking an initiative in the absence of any male servants or guests, she took a pistol and shot at the burglars, forcing them to withdraw. Swift takes an unusual step here because he is in fact praising an aspect of her personality which is associated with being masculine rather than feminine – stereotypes which still exist today and portray women as being the ‘fairer sex’, and essentially a weaker, less courageous gender, were even more prevalent at the time of this writing, and what is more surprising than her bravery is Swift’s acknowledgement of it.
A typical example of poetry written by men which pre-exists Swift’s is Robert Herrick’s To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, which displays a sexist attitude that suggests virginal, virtuous women are wasting their time in retaining their chastity. Here, Swift appears to me, to be taking a clear step away from this kind of literature and instead proclaiming all the positive aspects of female personality, even the aspects which fail to be considered as traditionally or intrinsically feminine.
In Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1727, Swift also refers to her ‘gen’rous boldness to defend, An innocent and absent friend’ which, as mentioned above, is a praise at her loyalty, and could be interpreted as an allusion to a defence she may have presented to Swift’s detractors; after Swift returned to Ireland in 1699, he is described as a man who made the ‘establishment uncomfortable, and they would not admit him’.
These strongly favourable sentiments are echoed in another poem, Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1719, a much shorter work which is, although again consistent in tribute to its subject, contains a more jovial, humorous element than the later poems dedicated to her. It opens with the lines; ‘Stella this day is thirty-four, (We shan’t dispute a year or more:) However, Stella, be not troubled, Although thy size and years are doubled.’
This is an entirely more amusing and light-hearted verse than Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1727, and this echoes the entire poem in that whilst it is forward in its flattery, it is approached in an entirely different manner. In this poem Swift focuses more on Stella at a superficial level; here women are represented as objects of beauty, which contrasts with the paragon of virtue and ‘patience under torturing pain’ she is portrayed as in his later poem. Swift writes here in a style reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example Sonnet XVIII, where the lady in question is compared to the weather and called an ‘eternal summer.’ In Swift’s work Stella is similarly elevated; he declares that even if she is split in two, ‘No age could furnish out a pair, Of nymphs so graceful, wise, and fair; With half the lustre of your eyes.’
This is a profound and grandiose statement, with hints of sexual desire and physical attraction which, for me, seem to show that Swift’s representation of women is comparable to that of the great romantic writers like Shakespeare or Philip Ayres in sonnets such as The Proem: To Love, in which women seem to be admired almost purely for their attractiveness – placed on a pedestal upon which they are worshipped as objects of beauty. Poems such as this were commonplace in both the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, but they appear to overlook women as anything but these ‘objects of beauty’. The personalities and free-will of their subjects are almost entirely overlooked in many of the poems written in this era, and this is what seems to set aside Swift from many of his peers and even a few of his contemporaries, as he is able to show both the physical attractiveness of women in one piece of literature, whilst revealing his appreciation of their virtues and strength of characters in another.
Another example of the way in which Swift represents women in his poetry comes in the form of another from his Stella’s Birthday poems, dated 1721. Here he is able to combine a manifestation of both the female personality and the female sensuality; the poem again starts on an amusing note, with Swift comparing Stella to an ‘Angel Inn’, which entertains and takes on guests, and is so hospitable that it ‘will never lose its trade,’ just like the lady herself, who ‘freely entertains, With breeding, humor, wit, and sense.’
Swift again mentions her ‘virtue,’ and as I have mentioned praises her hospitality and social skills, yet the final stanza contains possibly his deepest betrayal of feelings for her I came across whilst studying his work. He declares that if a newer, younger face comes along, no-one would be tempted to stray from ‘the Inn’ and then goes on tenderly state that if anyone lives to see the day when she grows older and greyer, no matter what anyone else looks like, all ‘men of sense’ will recognise the qualities Stella has maintained.
Analysing this I feel that – again comparing Swift’s work to Shakespeare’s – the poem is similar to Sonnet CIII in that it takes a subject, compares it to something in a comedic fashion and then eventually declares its subject as triumphant. Swift has here used this traditional method in writing his poem, one that both Stella and a wider audience would be familiar with, and this adds to the ironic, amusing nature of the work. It is interesting to consider whether or not Swift’s ‘making fun’ of Stella’s ageing can be considered a favourable representation of women.
However, despite my ideas on Swift’s thoughtful and magnanimous portrayal of females, it would be short-sighted of me to base all my assumptions on the way he represents women in his poetry on the praise of a single lady – therefore I felt the need to examine some more of his work. Around the time that Swift began writing his poems to Stella, he begun another series of ‘Dressing Room’ poems, most of which concerned ladies and their behaviour when inside their own private chambers. The Beautiful Young Nymph is an excellent example of this; it is a poem in which Swift goes into grotesque and exaggerated detail about a woman – implied as a prostitute – who undresses herself in privacy and removes the ‘artificial hair,’ fake eyebrows and false teeth, basically deconstructing her entire appearance.
By using the title The Beautiful Young Nymph, Swift is revealing how the woman appears in public, and then stripping her bare of her fake appearance, he is basically attacking the illusion that women create in order to fool men that they are, indeed, beautiful young nymphs. I found this incredibly different to the way in which he represents women in his other poetry – here Swift is attempting to destroy the smoke-screen of beauty, and criticise all women that dare to use cosmetics to make themselves more attractive.
It is interesting to consider, when analysing why Swift portrays women the way he does in poetry, the fact he had no clear father-figure in his life. His father died some eight months before his birth, and there seems to be a pattern in Swifts relations with women much younger than him. He even helped to educate Stella whilst she was a little girl, and she even had near-undistinguishable handwriting from his. I feel it is this fatherly instinct that is prevalent in the manner through which he presents Stella in his poetry, whereas other aspects of his personality are more eminent in his portray of women as fake and quick to deceive.
I would conclude that Swift portrays women in a variety of ways, and whilst his scathing attack on cosmetic ladies is rather negative, generalised, and sexist, it is clear he is very capable of representing and appreciating the female psyche on a deep level.
His representation of women in some of his poetry is multi-faceted; they are presented outside of stereo-types that were prevalent in typical poetry of the time, and various features of their personalities as well as their physical attractions are paid homage to in his literature.
Ehrenpreis, Irvin;The Pattern of Swift’s Women, published 1955
Hearsey, Marguerite,New Light on the Evidence for Swift’s Marriage, published in 1927
Henderson, Sir Nicholas; Alumni of Hertford College, Jonathon Swift,