Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I'm Sure 'Twas I That Smelt the Stink

Jonathan Swift's poem "The Problem" has the subtitle "That Sidney Earl of Romney Stinks, When He Is in Love" in manuscript, "That My Lord Berkeley Stinks When He Is in Love" in printed editions:
Did ever problem thus perplex,
Or more employ the female sex?
So sweet a passion who would think,
Jove ever formed to make a stink?
The ladies vow and swear they'll try,
Whether it be a truth or lie.

Love's fire, it seems, like inward heat,
Works in my lord by stool and sweat;
Which brings a stink from every pore,
And from behind and from before:    10
Yet what is wonderful to tell it,
None but the favourite nymph can smell it.
But now, to solve the natural cause
By sober philosophic laws:
Whether all passions, when in ferment,
Work out as anger does in vermin?
So, when a weasel you torment,
You find his passion by his scent.
We read of kings, who, in a fright,
Though on a throne, would fall to shite.    20
Beside all this, deep scholars know,
That the mainstring of Cupid's bow,
Once on a time was an ass's gut;
Now to a nobler office put,
By favour or desert preferred
From giving passage to a turd.
But still, though fixed among the stars,
Does sympathize with human arse.
Thus, when you feel a hard-bound breech,
Conclude Love's bow-string at full stretch,    30
Till the kind looseness comes, and then,
Conclude the bow relaxed again.

And now, the ladies all are bent,
To try the great experiment;
Ambitious of a regent's heart,
Spread all their charms to catch a fart!
Watching the first unsavoury wind,
Some ply before and some behind.
My lord, on fire amidst the dames,
Farts like a laurel in the flames.    40
The fair approach the speaking part,
To try the back way to his heart.
For, as when we a gun discharge,
Although the bore be ne'er so large,
Before the flame from muzzle burst,
Just at the breech it flashes first:
So from my Lord his passion broke,
He farted first and then he spoke.

The ladies vanish in the smother,
To confer notes with one another:    50
And now they all agreed to name
Whom each one thought the happy dame.
Quoth Neal, 'Whate'er the rest may think,
I'm sure 'twas I that smelt the stink.'
'You smelt the stink! By God, you lie,'
Quoth Ross, 'for I'll be sworn 'twas I.'
'Ladies,' quoth Levens, 'pray forbear,
Let's not fall out; we all had share;
And, by the most I can discover,
My lord's a universal lover.'    60
Scholars don't seem to have noticed the appropriateness of the comparison in lines 43-46—Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney, was Master-General of the Ordnance from 1693 to 1702. The poem is usually dated 1699.

Unknown, Portrait of Henry Sidney, 1st Earl of Romney (1641-1704)

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