Women are an often-discussed topic in literature, not only in terms of their modern emancipation but also in terms of their previous idealized state and their ‘proper place in any given time period. As women gained more rights, more complete education, and greater freedoms, they began to respond to what was being written about them, correcting, agreeing, or absolutely refuting the charges they found. An examination into the poetry of a given time period, such as the early 1700s, reveals how ideas regarding women were changing.
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Jonathan Swift, for example, satirizes the idealized way in which women were presented in his time and previous by exaggerating both women’s attempts to live up to these ideals and the evidence of the grossness of their humanity in poems such as “A Lady’s Dressing Room.” Strephon and Betty peek into Celia’s room following her departure to find a collection of litter and trash were thrown about, illustrating that while Celia herself may seem the image of perfection outside of her private space, within the realm of her own world, she is just as messy and unorganized as any other human being.
In order to become the beautiful ‘goddess’ that has left the room, “arrayed in lace, brocade, and tissues”, Celia must go through the filthy, unnatural process that leaves such a terrible mess. Nevertheless, she is considered ‘haughty’ because it has taken her five hours to transform herself from the mundane human being of reality into the ‘goddess’ idealists would have her be.
Because of the way in which Swift’s poem was written, though, it could easily be taken to mean something different, such as a condemnation of the woman for having taken such efforts, to which poets such as Lady Mary Worthy Montagu would respond in such poems as “The Reasons that Induced Dr. S[wift] to Write a Poem Called The Lady’s Dressing Room.”
By illustrating the various ways in which man fools himself into thinking he is something greater than what he is: “Poor Pope philosophy displays on. / With so much rhyme and little reason, / And though he argues ne’er so long / That all is right, his head is wrong.” This seems to be, to a large extent, what Swift is attempting to say in his grossly exaggerated account of Celia’s room.
Finally, Alexander Pope illustrates the ridiculous results of female idealization in his epic poem “The Rape of the Lock,” in which he tells the story of the feud that results when a young man steals a lock of hair from a young woman. In Canto 4, the gnome Umbriel recognizes the superficial ‘passions’ of the young woman Belinda over the loss of a small piece of hair when he addresses the ‘wayward Queen’ of the spleen, which was the organ thought to control the passions.
He names her ” Parent of vapors and of female wit, / Who gives the hysteric or poetic fit, / On various tempers act by various ways, / Make some take physic, others scribble plays”, acknowledging that the outward manifestations of this element of female behavior is not universally ridiculous, but is instead different based upon the woman’s nature and expectations.
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In the end, all three of these poets illustrate how women are forced to conform to outward expectations of them that are based on unrealistic, unworthy ideals that serve to reduce their humanity. Whether this is done in a way so as to venerate the concept of a woman or to denigrate her remains, essentially, equally destructive. What does seem clear is that any concept of a woman that is not based upon her essential humanity is unacceptable.