"A Description of the Morning" by Jonathan Swift (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

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Swift was a great satirist. Gulliver's Travels can be read as a work of fantasy but it was a criticism of society. When asked why he wrote it he replied "To vex the world".

In the country Swift would have been awakened by a dawn-chorus of bird-song and the poem is constructed like a pastoral in praise of nature. The similarity was intentionally ironic: the sounds of city starting its day with deceits and solicitations.

A hackney was a hired cab - and still is, officially, named after a London Borough.

Gentlefolk would call their maidservants Polly or Betty, irrespective of what their name was. Maidservants would sleep with their masters for an easier life - and perhaps because they liked it. Samuel Pepys' diary records many such assignations.

The slipshod apprentice sprinkles water on the floor to make it look as though he cleaned it properly.

"Broomy stumps" are short brushes used to sweep muck back into the "kennel" which was the gutter of filth flowing down the middle of the street, into which people would empty their chamber-pots. It wasn't until the 1760s, after Swift's death, that society became concerned about London's "miasmas" and filthy streets.

Chimney sweeps were boys perhaps 10 years old, so their cries were shriller than the "small-coal" man's. Small-coal was charcoal.

Duns are debt-collectors. Postal demands for payment with threats of court action are still called "dunning letters" in Britain.

Brickdust Moll probably sold brickdust to polish brassware and cutlery. The idea put forward that she was a whore wearing rouge like red brick dust is less likely. Whores didn't scream through the streets in the early mornings.

The turnkey was the jailer, who took a little bunce on the side for providing prisoners with privileges, so he let them out at night so that they could steal to pay him.

Bailiffs were (and still are) court officers authorised to seize goods from debtors, so they would conceal themselves at streetcorners and look for opportunity to act on their warrants.

The engraving is called "Morning" by William Hogarth (1697-1764) who was 30 years younger than Swift. His other depictions of London life are fascinating and you can find some of them here:


This poem is similar to Eliot's "Preludes".
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