“A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” is commonly linked by critics to three other so-called “excremental poems” by Swift—“The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “Strephon and Chloe,” and “Cassinus and Peter”—all produced by the poet during 1730 and 1731. While there exist important thematic differences among these poems, they are certainly similar in their overt physicality and, more important, in their common assault on deception. Swift’s mad persona in A Tale of a Tub (1704) observes that happiness resides in “a perpetual Possession of being well Deceived,” but it is the role of satirists everywhere to compel their audience to look beyond those comfortable constructs by which humans customarily seek to delude themselves into a facile state of contentment. “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed,” accordingly, aims at stripping away such obfuscation by depicting the rank grossness of human flesh when it is divested of all ornament and is operating in its natural state.
Indeed, any temptation to sympathize with the downtrodden, much-victimized Corinna inevitably runs up against Swift’s conception of both God and humankind. For Swift, God is a largely unapproachable, unspeakably transcendent being who created the world and left behind certain commandments, laws that establish minimal requirements of human behavior. In Swift’s view, Corinna and her clients clearly fall short of those moral standards, to the point that the harlot poses an outright danger to the community.
Further, any sympathetic response to Corinna and her troubles must first be grounded in seeing her as a real human being. However, this particular prostitute’s ills are so calamitous—and her prosthetic efforts after beauty are so patently absurd—that she calls forth much more laughter than empathy. While any person might rightly respond sympathetically toward a “beautiful nymph” with, say, a glass eye, that milk becomes distinctly clabbered when the reader learns that the same woman is bald, crafts her eyebrows from mouse skins, has no teeth, props up her breasts with rags, and wears a steel-ribbed corset and artificial hips. In short, her farcical portrayal in the poem is so purposefully and grotesquely overdone as to effectively block any empathetic response.
However, while Corinna may not be “real,” the hazards that she poses certainly are; paradoxically, the unreality of the harlot allows Corinna to be betrayed for what she really is—namely, a social menace. After all, her morning-after attempt to restore her mechanical, absurdly artificial body ultimately represents an effort at general contagion: “Corinna in the morning dizen’d,/ Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.”
In short, Swift here presents what critic Nora Crow Jaffe termed a “pure invective against vice” and what Maurice Johnson called “the wages of sin[like] a preacher shouting hell-fire and brimstone, or the photographs in a medical treatise.” Indeed, to the degree that Swift succeeds in disgusting his audience through his graphic depiction of Corinna, he succeeds as well in accomplishing his thematic and moral purposes in this disturbing poem.