‘A Description of the Morning’ by Jonathan Swift is a twenty line poem which follows a rhyming pattern of aabb ccdd, for the poem’s entirely. The poet has chosen to deviate from the rhyme scheme once, in the final two lines, in order to conclude with a single rhyming couplet.
A reader should also take note of the metrical pattern the poet has chosen to make use of. Each line contains five iambs, or pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. This scheme is known as iambic pentameter and is one of, if not the, most commonly used metrical patterns.
‘A Description of the Morning’ was first published in a literary and newspaper called The Tatler. This publication was run by one of Swift’s close friends, Sir Richard Steele. The poem was published on April 30, 1709.
Summary of A Description of the Morning
The poem begins with the speaker describing a servant, referred to as “Betty” leaving her masters bed and returning to her own room. It is the early morning and the residents of the city are just starting their day. After “Betty,” Swift moves on to speak about cleaners and the different ways they work. These characters are followed by bill-collectors, thieves, a chimney-sweep, and a brickdust seller.
All manner of the profession is mentioned by the speaker, emphasizing the wide-ranging types of existence in Swift’s own time.
Analysis of A Description of the Morning
Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach
Appearing, show’d the ruddy morn’s approach.
Now Betty from her master’s bed had flown,
And softly stole to discompose her own.
In the first stanza of ‘A Description of the Morning’, the speaker begins by describing the early morning hours of a day in London’s West End. He is looking around and noting the very few “hackney-coach[es]” or four-wheeled carriages. The one or two vehicles he can see inform him that the morning is approaching. When the drivers are moving about the city, the speaker knows it is almost time for the whole city to wake up.
One of the residents of the city who is just waking up is a character named “Betty.” She is only one of a number of different people ‘A Description of the Morning’ will briefly focus on. She is surprised by the hour and jumps from “her master’s bed.” From this line, one realizes that Betty, a name often used to refer to a female servant, has been sleeping with the man she works for. She is frightened by the time of day and flies to her own room.
This movement must be done quietly, and as the speaker states, she steals “softly” to her room to disrupt, or “discompose,” her own bed. This way, anyone who might come into her room will think that she spent the night there. From this point, the narrative moves away from Betty to other characters living in the same area.
The slip-shod ‘prentice from his master’s door
Had par’d the dirt, and sprinkled round the floor.
Now Moll had whirl’d her mop with dext’rous airs,
Prepar’d to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The next character to introduced to the narrative is a “slip-shod” apprentice. This young man is irresponsible and somewhat lazy. It is also likely his personal appearance is in disrepair. His appearance mimics the job he does cleaning the floor. He “par’d” or removed the “dirt” by moving it around on the floor. He lives up to his title as “slip-shod.”
Additionally present in the scene is “Moll” who is doing a better job than the “‘prentice” is. She also seems to enjoy herself more as she is described as “whirling” her “mop” dextrously. Having finished this task, she moves on to “scrub the entry and the stairs.” This particular cleaner does not waste time as the first does. She is moving quickly from task to task.
Now that there are three different characters in this narrative a reader is able to contrast the different lives they led at one particular time of day. Swift chose to carry the narrative from one character to another without interlude in an effort to show that each event is happening simultaneously.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace
The kennel-edge, where wheels had worn the place.
The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep;
Till drown’d in shriller notes of “chimney-sweep.”
In the next set of four lines the speaker goes on to discuss a number of other London residents and how they are spending this particular morning. The first is a “youth,” or young person, who is sweeping the “kennel-edge” or gutter. This is a task that should immediately strike a reader as impossible as gutters are made to carry refuse. It was perpetually dirty. Also, it is not with much determination he sweeps. He is only “trac[ing]” the very edge where the “wheel had worn the place.”
From this addition to the description, it is clear the boy is cleaning the track made by carriages, clearing the way for those wealthier than he.
The second person featured in these lines is a “small-coal man” with a deep voice. He is calling out, attempting to sell his coal, which was being used at the time for cooking and warmth, to any passerby. This line is followed by the “shriller notes” of a young “chimney-sweep” who is also attempting to sell his skills. One should note the off-hand emphasis placed on making clear the fact that children were labouring.
Duns at his lordship’s gate began to meet;
And brickdust Moll had scream’d through half a street.
The turnkey now his flock returning sees,
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees.
The following lines of ‘A Description of the Morning’ speak of the “Duns” or bill collectors who are gathering before “his lordship’s gate.” This is a reference to some member of the aristocracy who might finally be held to account for what he is spending.
At this point, the name “Moll” is reintroduced to the story. This person is likely selling “brickdust” which was used as a scouring, or cleaning powder. All of the people mentioned in the last six lines are doing a job on the street. Their voices are overlapping and adding to the din which was London’s West End.
The next person that Swift introduces is a “turnkey,” or jail keeper who is welcoming back to jail the thieves who were previously let out in order that he might profit off their crimes. His life, like the lives of all those mentioned previously, works in a circle.
The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands;
And schoolboys lag with satchels in their hands.
In the final couplet of ‘A Description of the Morning’ the speaker references two final London characters. First, there are the “watchful bailiffs” who take their “silent stands.” This is meant ironically as the reader learned in the previous line, they are not watchful in the least.
The final line mentions “schoolboys” who are dragging along on their way to school. They hold their “satchels in their hands,” unwilling to rush to their destination.
Swift has taken the reader through a variety of different locations and professions. Some Londoners were loud and others demure but all were doing their best to improve their own lot in life.