Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hymn to the Goddess of Sewers

Jonathan Swift was often a guest at Market Hill, County Armagh, Ireland, the home of Sir Arthur Acheson and his wife Anne.  Swift's poem A Panegyric on the Dean: In the Person of a Lady of the North purports to be written by Lady Acheson. Among other accomplishments of Swift, she praises his skill in building a pair of privies, one for males, the other for females, on the estate (lines 197-224). This leads to an amusing hymn to Cloacina, Roman goddess of sewers, in which the author waxes nostalgic for the golden age, when men and women loosed their bowels in the open air (229-252). Now Gluttony reigns (252-268), and homage is paid to Cloacina indoors (269-290), especially by the great (291-298). Only the humble and lowly still make their offerings to Cloacina outdoors (299-308), where Lady Acheson sometimes unwittingly steps on them when she takes a stroll (309-318).

Thee bounteous goddess Cloacine,
To temples why do we confine? 230
Forbid in open air to breathe;
Why are thine altars fixed beneath?

When Saturn ruled the skies alone,
That golden age to gold unknown;
This earthly globe to thee assigned,
Received the gifts of all mankind.
Ten thousand altars smoking round
Were built to thee, with offerings crowned:
And here thy daily votaries placed
Their sacrifice with zeal and haste: 240
The margin of a purling stream
Sent up to thee a grateful steam.
(Though sometimes thou wert pleased to wink,
If Naiads swept them from the brink)
Or where appointing lovers rove,
The shelter of a shady grove:
Or, offered in some flowery vale,
Were wafted by a gentle gale
There many a flower abstersive grew,
Thy favourite flowers of yellow hue; 250
The crocus and the daffodil,
The cowslip soft, and sweet jonquil.

But when at last usurping Jove
Old Saturn from his empire drove;
Then Gluttony with greasy paws
Her napkin pinned up to her jaws,
With watery chaps, and wagging chin,
Braced like a drum her oily skin;
Wedged in a spacious elbow-chair,
And on her plate a treble share, 260
As if she ne'er could have enough;
Taught harmless man to cram and stuff.
She sent her priests in wooden shoes
From haughty Gaul to make ragouts.
Instead of wholesome bread and cheese,
To dress their soups and fricassees;
And, for our home-bred British cheer,
Botargo, catsup, and caveer.

This bloated harpy, sprung from hell,
Confined thee, goddess, to a cell: 270
Sprung from her womb that impious line,
Contemners of thy rites divine.
First, lolling Sloth in woollen cap,
Taking her after-dinner nap:
Pale Dropsy with a sallow face,
Her belly burst, and slow her pace:
And lordly Gout wrapped up in fur:
And wheezing Asthma, loth to stir:
Voluptuous Ease, the child of Wealth,
Infecting thus our hearts by stealth; 280
None seek thee now in open air;
To thee no verdant altars rear;
But, in their cells and vaults obscene
Present a sacrifice unclean;
From whence unsavoury vapours rose,
Offensive to thy nicer nose.
Ah! who in our degenerate days,
As nature prompts, his offering pays?
Here nature never difference made
Between the sceptre and the spade. 290

Ye great ones, why will ye disdain
To pay your tribute on the plain?
Why will you place in lazy pride
Your altars near your couch's side?
When from the homeliest earthenware
Are sent up offerings more sincere
Than where the haughty duchess locks
Her silver vase in cedar box?

Yet, some devotion still remains
Among our harmless northern swains; 300
Whose offerings placed in golden ranks,
Adorn our crystal river's banks:
Nor seldom grace the flowery downs,
With spiral tops and copple-crowns:
Or gilding in a sunny morn
The humble branches of a thorn.
(So poets sing, with golden bough
The Trojan hero paid his vow.)

Hither by luckless error led,
The crude consistence oft I tread. 310
Here, when my shoes are out of case,
Unweeting gild the tarnished lace:
Here, by the sacred bramble tinged,
My petticoat is doubly fringed.

Be witness for me, nymph divine,
I never robb'd thee with design:
Nor will the zealous Hannah pout
To wash thy injured offering out.
Geoffrey Hill, The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 81, draws special attention to the description of feces in line 304 ("With spiral tops and copple-crowns"):
The poem's tonality suggests that Swift is writing, not out of fascinated disgust or angry contempt, but under the obligation to amuse: it is the very coolness of the verbal draughtsmanship, the detailing of the faecal coils, that is so chilling.

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