collections

A Meditation upon a Broomstick (1711)



A treatise on adulteration of food, and culinary poisons, exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy. And methods of detecting them. By Frederick Accum; 1820; Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown in London.

A classic piece of parody from the great Anglo-Irish satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. The particular butt of Swift’s sharp pen in this instance was Robert Boyle and his Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects (1665), in which various everyday subjects (mirrors, fruit-trees, fish) were likened to religious themes – man’s relationship to God, man’s relationship to his soul, etc. Swift came across the book during his stay in the household of William Temple, for whom he was employed as a secretary. The book was supposedly very popular in the Temple household and Swift would often read aloud from it to an audience of ladies. However, becoming bored with the predictability of Boyle’s points, Swift penned his own Meditation (“upon a broomstick”) and inserted it into the Temple’s copy. Legend has it that, when it came round to Swift’s next recital from the book, instead of reading Boyle’s words he read his own musings upon the broomstick, his audience not catching on until the rather absurd frantic finale in which Boyle’s kindly tone is replaced with a misanthropistic note of despair and nihilism. Originally penned in 1701, the piece went for many years unpublished until the controversial bookseller and publisher Edmund Curll (the scorn of many of London’s literati at the time) published it in 1710 from a manuscript stolen from Swift. This in turn forced Swift to publish a corrected and authorised version (that he apparently had to write from memory). The copy featured above is from an anthology of Swift’s works from 1801. You can see the three subtly varying versions here at the Jonathan Swift Archive. Below, the earliest published authorised version from 1711.

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 busie Art of Man pretend to Vye with Nature, by tying that withered Bundle of Twigs to its sapless Trunk; It’s 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; ’tis now handled by every Dirty Wench, condemned to doe her Drudgery, and by a Capricious kind of Fate, destined to make other Things Clean, and be Nasty it self: At Length, worn to the Stumps in the Service of the Maids, ’tis either thrown out of Doors, or condemned to its last use of kindling a Fire. When I beheld this, I sigh’d and said within my self, Surely Mortal Man is a Broom Stick; 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 lopt off his Green Boughs, and left him a withered Trunk: He then flies to Art, and puts on a Perewig, valuing himself upon an Unnatural Bundle of Hairs all covered with Powder, that never grew on his Head; but now should this our Broom-Stick pretend to enter the Scene, proud of those Birchen Spoils it never bore, and all covered with Dust, though 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!

BUT a Broom-Stick, perhaps you will say, is an Emblem of a Tree standing on its Head; and pray what is Man, but a Topsy-turvey 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 an universal Reformer and Corrector of Abuses, a Remover of Grievances, rakes into every Sluts 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 Bezom, he is either kickt out of Doors, or made use of to kindle Flames, for others to warm themselves by.