It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

John Constable, Rainstorm over the Sea

Monday

For those of us living in rural America, hearing news of overcrowded Italian hospitals and mounting COVID-19 deaths makes us feel like we are in the calm before the storm. All hell is about to break loose but at the moment, with the exception of the various closings, life in Appalachian Tennessee goes on as before.

No poet captures this temporary lull so well as Jonathan Swift in his “Description of a City Shower.” “Careful observers may foretell the hour,” he writes, “(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower.”

Many, both in the government and out of it, were prognosticating this particular shower, only to have their warnings overridden by Donald Trump and the rightwing media. While few are now denying the approaching storm, I still see people downplaying it, including Tennessee’s governor and its Republican legislators. Oh, and Trump himself in his refusal to take drastic action.

In the poem, Swift lists multiple signs that a storm is on its way:

 While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Returning home at night, you’ll find the sink
Strike your offended sense with double stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to dine;
You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine.
A coming shower your shooting corns presage,
Old achès throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dulman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen.

On March 16, in one of his many attempts to underplay the virus, Trump used the image of washing, as though America would experience a cleansing. Making soothing wave motions with his hands, he said, “So it could be right in that period of time [the middle of the summer] where it, I say, wash — it washes through. Other people don’t like that term. But where it washes through.”

There is nothing clean about Swift’s shower. The poet compares the approaching dark cloud to a drunkard, saying that it “swilled more liquor than it could contain” before it “gives it up again.” The first few droplets, meanwhile, are like the dirty water in a mop that is being twirled by a “careless quean” (a cantankerous woman) in her battle with dust. Violent gusts of wind stir up the sweepings she is trying to contain.

Incidentally, Shakespeare too has a dark image of the rain cycle, which he actually associates with contagion. The cause is Oberon’s and Titania’s quarrel:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in
vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents

The heavens open up as well in Swift’s poem (“now in contiguous drops the flood comes down, /Threatening with deluge this devoted town”), causing chaos amongst the city folk. Then, in the last stanza, it’s Armageddon.

Armageddon in this instance involves all the city’s garbage, from every street and ally, converging in an unstoppable flood of filth. The heroic couplets that have been valiantly trying to contain it break down in the final line:

         Now
from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

To switch poems, at the moment we in rural America are like those oblivious children in Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” From his hilltop position, he can see the approaching storm as they cannot and melodramatically observes, “Alas, regardless of their doom/ The little victims play.” Thanks to news reports we’re not quite so ignorant, but we’re still playing.

That’s about to end. As America’s most recent Nobel laureate in literature informs us, “It’s a hard rain that’s a-gonna fall.” No gentle washing.

Here’s Swift’s poem in its entirety.

A Description of a City Shower
By Jonathan Swift

Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Returning home at night, you’ll find the sink
Strike your offended sense with double stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to dine;
You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine.
A coming shower your shooting corns presage,
Old achès throb, your hollow tooth will rage.
Sauntering in coffeehouse is Dulman seen;
He damns the climate and complains of spleen.
       Meanwhile the South, rising with dabbled wings,
A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings,
That swilled more liquor than it could contain,
And, like a drunkard, gives it up again.
Brisk Susan whips her linen from the rope,
While the first drizzling shower is born aslope:
Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean:
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop.
Not yet the dust had shunned the unequal strife,
But, aided by the wind, fought still for life,
And wafted with its foe by violent gust,
’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust.
Ah! where must needy poet seek for aid,
When dust and rain at once his coat invade?
Sole coat, where dust cemented by the rain
Erects the nap, and leaves a mingled stain.
         Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.
To shops in crowds the daggled females fly,
Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy.
The Templar spruce, while every spout’s abroach,
Stays till ’tis fair, yet seems to call a coach.
The tucked-up sempstress walks with hasty strides,
While seams run down her oiled umbrella’s sides.
Here various kinds, by various fortunes led,
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed.
Triumphant Tories and desponding Whigs
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs.
Boxed in a chair the beau impatient sits,
While spouts run clattering o’er the roof by fits,
And ever and anon with frightful din
The leather sounds; he trembles from within.
So when Troy chairmen bore the wooden steed,
Pregnant with Greeks impatient to be freed
(Those bully Greeks, who, as the moderns do,
Instead of paying chairmen, run them through),
Laocoön struck the outside with his spear,
And each imprisoned hero quaked for fear.
         Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
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