Meditation upon a Broom (April Fool!)

Vincent Van Gogh, "Man with a Broom"

Vincent Van Gogh, “Man with a Broom”

April Fool’s Day

One of the greatest April Fool’s jokesters of all time was Jonathan Swift. I’ve written in the past about one of his best jokes, how he posed as Isaac Bickerstaff and predicted that the astrologer John Partridge was a fraud because he hadn’t predicted that he would be dead in two months. But this wasn’t the only one.

Of course “Modest Proposal,” which wouldn’t have looked any different in the book stall that the other proposals for social improvement around it, would have worked as a joke. I don’t know what time of year it appeared.

Another prank, which I can well imagine occurring on April Fool’s Day, was Swift’s “Meditation upon a Broomstick” (1701). Supposedly he was accustomed to read aloud from Robert Boyle’s Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects (1665) to the ladies in the Earl of Berkeley’s household, whose chaplain he was. Boyle can find a religious message in just about anything—giving meat to a dog, getting caught in a storm, cleaning the house—and one can imagine Swift becoming impatient with how mechanical Boyle could be. One day he substituted his own meditation.

It starts sedately enough, perfectly capturing Boyle’s style. While his listeners may have been surprised by someone choosing a broomstick as a subject for meditation, everything else would have sounded right:

THIS single stick, which you now behold ingloriously lying in that neglected corner, I once knew in a flourishing state in a forest. It was full of sap, full of leaves, and full of boughs; but now in vain does the busy art of man pretend to vie with nature, by tying that withered bundle of twigs to its sapless trunk; it is now at best but the reverse of what it was, a tree turned upside-down, the branches on the earth, and the root in the air; it is now handled by every dirty wench, condemned to do her drudgery, and, by a capricious kind of fate, destined to make other things clean, and be nasty itself; at length, worn to the stumps in the service of the maids, it is either thrown out of doors or condemned to the last use — of kindling a fire. When I behold this I sighed, and said within myself, “Surely mortal man is a broomstick!” Nature sent him into the world strong and lusty, in a thriving condition, wearing his own hair on his head, the proper branches of this reasoning vegetable, till the axe of intemperance has lopped off his green boughs, and left him a withered trunk; he then flies to art, and puts on a periwig, valuing himself upon an unnatural bundle of hairs, all covered with powder, that never grew on his head; but now should this our broomstick pretend to enter the scene, proud of those birchen spoils it never bore, and all covered with dust, through the sweepings of the finest lady’s chamber, we should be apt to ridicule and despise its vanity. Partial judges that we are of our own excellencies, and other men’s defaults!

At this point, however, Swift’s satire turns dark. Not only does he lament that those who set themselves up as reformers accomplish nothing—in fact, they do more harm than good—but he talks of the broom being enslaved by women and exploited. As someone who was frustrated that his many career ambitions were being thwarted and that he was confined to being a country chaplain and reading meditations to women, did he have himself in mind? It’s a fact that he himself had been kicked out of doors following the death of William Temple, his previous employer.

But a broomstick, perhaps you will say, is an emblem of a tree standing on its head; and pray what is a man but a topsy-turvy creature, his animal faculties perpetually mounted on his rational, his head where his heels should be, groveling on the earth? And yet, with all his faults, he sets up to be a universal reformer and corrector of abuses, a remover of grievances, rakes into every slut’s corner of nature, bringing hidden corruptions to the light, and raises a mighty dust where there was none before, sharing deeply all the while in the very same pollutions he pretends to sweep away. His last days are spent in slavery to women, and generally the least deserving; till, worn to the stumps, like his brother besom [broomstick], he is either kicked out of doors, or made use of to kindle flames for others to warm themselves by.

The story goes that his auditors didn’t catch the joke until the next day, when they returned to the book to revisit this curious topic and found his version stuck inside. The best April Fool’s jokes are those that take a while to recognize.

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