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Peter J. Smith, Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift
by Stefanie Lethbridge

Smith, Peter J. Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representation in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. xii + 292 pp. ISBN 978-071987943. $92.70 cloth.


Sex sells, shit doesn’t. Though the body and its representations have been a focus of critical attention for some time, there remains a strange reluctance to deal with bodily excretions and scatology has only fairly recently arrived in mainstream academic discussion. While criticism often turned the other way, Smith follows Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rochester, Swift, and a host of less frequently discussed writers as they turn the other cheek (20). Scatology, in Smith’s outline, works through inversion and thus as subversion—bottom comes top, high turns low, back becomes front. Between the two stools of carnivalesque misrule and terrified self-disgust, putrefaction represents the necessary other of purification. Smith traces aspects of “shiterature” (11) in its negotiations of narrative authority, genre, and socio-political context. Particularly enlightening are Smith’s contextualizations with contemporary explorations of excrement in medicine, theology, or theories and practice of waste disposal. While Smith successfully represents “fecopoetics” as “morally and critically engaged criticism” (18), a slightly more combative engagement with recent critical positions would have made this book even more useful.

Smith starts his explorations with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale and Summoner’s Tale. He reads these tales as interlaced with the more genteel parts of the Canterbury Tales, and their intertextual relation with the bible and contemporary theological positions pushes the impact of the fabliau well beyond puerile enjoyment of transgression. Chaucer, according to Smith, sets up a “conversation” between high and low: the romance of The Knight’s Tale ends with the knight “interred,” the fabliau finishes “in turd” (23), high emotion turns physical, the “love-struck” knight becomes the “cunt-struck” clerk (25). Such juxtapositions do more than subvert the generic convention of chivalric romance and Petrarchanism; the relation of high to low is “fundamental to an understanding of both” (25) as the physical enables the ideal and vice versa. Smith traces biblical allusions in the Miller’s and the Summoner’s Tale and follows the ambiguities of the language of “pryvetee” down the slippery slope of its sexual, excretory, and spiritual reverberations (because the ways of God are mysterious—“Men sholde nat knowe of Goddes pryvetee,” The Canterbury Tales l.3454). The spiritus of excretory exhalations is of course not only godly but, above all, satanic. The “ars-metrike” (49) poser to divide the old man’s fart into twelve equal parts in The Summoner’s Tale becomes the evil parody of the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (47), Thomas’s three farts darkly parallel the Holy Trinity which “reinforces the parodic treatment of John’s religious hypocrisy” (51)—though Smith misses the more significant parallel to Peter’s denial of Christ before the cock crows three times. Smith also reflects on criticism’s resistance to admitting that “the fart is a fart is a fart” (13, quoting Peter Travis) and its sometimes desperate evasions into social, political or religious metaphor. Though given the representation of The Miller’s Tale and some of Swift’s scatological pieces in the recent and not so recent editions of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, modern academia, at least in the class room, is perhaps not quite so much “under the thumb of a censorial Victorianism” as Smith suggests (14)—students laugh first and consider metaphor later.

In his second and third chapters Smith takes on some Shakespearean riddles, focusing on Jaques in As You Like It and Malvolio’s conundrum of M.O.A.I. in Twelfth Night. The Renaissance, according to Smith, thought of language, especially of names, not as symbolic but as an indication of essence. This produces an “onomastic scatology,” and “onomastic bawdy” becomes the characters’ “localised essence” (73). Key to Smith’s readings of Shakespeare is John Harington’s treatise on the water-closet, A Nevv Discovrse of a Stale Svbject, Called the Metamorphosis of Aiax (1596) and connected with this, popular puns on Ajax, the Greek hero, and “a jakes,” slang for privy. Thus Jaques (not in its French pronunciation) literally represents “a jakes,” which expands his comic potential for audiences familiar with the joke and incidentally also gives a reason for his melancholy—thought to be caused by indigestion in contemporary medical discourse. Read with such connections in mind, Jaques’s philosophical stance “is not merely fatuous but flatulent” (88): “I must have liberty / Withal, as large a charter as the wind, / To blow on whom I please … / Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world” (AYL 2.7.47-60).

Maria’s fake love-letter to Malvolio, a source of frustration not only for Shakespeare’s steward but “for generations of Shakespearean scholars” (107), also gains new significance when read against Harington, though dividing the discussion of Shakespeare’s allusions to Harington into two chapters leads to some repetition which could perhaps have been avoided by reorganizing the two parts into one argument. When read with Harington in mind, not only do Olivia’s c’s, u’s, t’s and especially her “great P’s” reverberate with sexual and fecal innuendo of “cut/cunt” and “piss” (connections that are usually noted in modern Shakespeare editions), but Malvolio’s efforts to decode the bewildering M.O.A.I. also gains scatological significance. Smith seems to revel in a long exposition of previous hair-splitting and hair-raising, scholarly attempts to decode the letters. His own solution is simple: M.O.A.I. is an acronym of the text “which celebrates, as does Twelfth Night, the misprision and comedy of metamorphosis itself, The Metamorphosis Of AIAX” (121). After Smith has built up tension with an almost Swiftian report on increasingly arcane scholarly attempts to solve the conundrum, this solution is compelling. It is, on the other hand, not a major insight to note Shakespeare’s liking for bawdy and leave it at that. Smith side-steps the impact the Harington allusion has on the play by diverting the discussion onto Reginald Reynold’s early 20th-century treatise on Cleanliness and Godliness (1943). Reynold, like Shakespeare and Harington, proves capable of straddling “the two stools of scatological comedy and political censure” (133). The discussion of Reynold’s text produces some surprising connections between talking about feces and food in terms of (f)ecopolitics. It is less clear what this discussion is doing at this particular place in the book.

One of the valuable aspects of Smith’s undertaking is the long-term perspective from Chaucer to Swift. Supported by the argument of other scholars, Smith traces a seismic shift from “a carnivalesque, merry, even hearty disposition” towards excrement up to the 17th century to an attitude of self-disgust “characterized by a withering misanthropy and hypochondria,” though he concedes that this model of “merry poo versus miserable poo” (6) is oversimplified. In chapter 4, the argument focusing on Rochester, Smith makes out a convincing case for a shift from “innocent scatology” to “malevolent obscenity” (8) and self-disgust. Bodily disease and spiritual dis-ease (152) become a symptom of an aristocracy in crisis, a sense of disorder is reified as “dis-ordure” (145). In Rochester, scatology merges into sexual disgust and the other way round, orifices fuse, “become synonymous as their corruption is figured both front and back” (155). Several examples from Pepys (who, with Jaques and Rochester, joins the ranks of those subdued by constipation) provide further evidence for an “irrevocable shift in sensibility” (178). With Francis Barker, Smith describes Pepys’s bodily anxieties as the outcome of the mid-century revolutions and locates them in new “forms of cultural repression of corporeal operation.” This would seem to offer slightly different parameters to the cultural crisis that triggered Rochester’s self-loathing, though crisis nonetheless.

To emphasize the changes, Smith contrasts excerpts from the Musarum Deliciae, or the Muses Recreation, a miscellany of cavalier poetry compiled by James Smith and Sir John Mennes, Pepys’s colleague at the admiralty, and first published in 1655. The contrast between the miscellany’s cheerful and Rabelaisian scatology and Rochester’s “bleak anality” (178) is certainly striking. In the Musarum Deliciae “intellectual achievement offers physical comfort” as pages from poetry books are used for toilet paper (172)—a trope that was actually to reappear throughout the 18th century. Rochester, on the other hand, denounces poetic achievement as “th’Excrement of my dull brain” and thus as “shit, pure and simple” (ibid). Whether Musarum Deliciae really does represent “perhaps the last articulation of what we might think of as a golden age of ‘innocent scatology’” as Smith claims (179) cannot, however, be conclusively established by comparing it to Rochester (or Pepys), which is really comparing apples with pears: produced for different audiences, different media (the miscellany for large-scale publication, Rochester and Pepys in manuscript) and in different genres. What happens in the many other miscellanies published from the 1660s onwards and thus after the “final extinction” of innocent scatology that Smith claims?[1] The Dryden-Tonson miscellanies, first published during the last decades of the 17th century, certainly were nothing loathe to jostle elevated sentiment against cheerful bawdy; volume three for instance (in the reprint of 1727) presents Anne Finch’s “A Sigh” (“Gentlest Air thou breath of Lovers”) followed by an anonymous poem titled “A F—t” (“Gentlest Blast of ill Concoction”) with similar Rabelaisian abandon. It seems that, instead of representing a seismic shift where one attitude to excrement replaced another, Rochester added a strain which did not necessarily eclipse the earlier stance. In fact, as Smith unfolds his argument, it becomes rather less clear why, for instance, the sheer glee with which Pope lets his enemies dive for turds in The Dunciad (which is not discussed in Smith) is so very different from Malvolio’s inadvertent revel in the muck of M.O.A.I.

Smith follows through his own line of argument with “Swift’s shit” in chapter 5—and Swift, relentlessly vitriolic and viciously satiric, of course fits the paradigm of a darker and more destructive scatology after 1650. For Swift, as for Chaucer, Between Two Stools unravels another series of “conversations” with earlier poets. This creates a “parodic inversion” of poetic traditions (197) and Swift’s scatology is above all transgressive of genre convention: pastoral, sonnet, elegy, and the idealization of the female body within these conventions. Against critical trends, and with Margaret Anne Doody, Smith asserts that “Swift liked women” and according to Smith’s analysis anality denotes not contamination but genuineness (212). Here Smith seems to be arguing against his previous claim of a changed attitude to excrement and is now in agreement with Sophie Gee, who convincingly defends the notion of a double function of excrement as fecundity and threat in the 18th century.[2]

In his last chapter Smith turns from the scatology of the library to that of the streets, particularly to Ned Ward’s magazine The London Spy (1698-1700), a rather more earthy counterpart to Addison’s and Steele’s gentrifying Tatler and Spectator. Ward revels in the reality of a London “shitscape” both in and out of doors, muck may not be urbane but it is after all typically urban, a position also reiterated by John Gay’s Trivia: “Effluent seems to flow as part of the animus of London …” (233). Smith reaches for Bakhtin, to claim that the carnivalesque nature of such shiterature makes it also essentially dynamic, expressive of life and change, “the eternal incomplete unfinished nature of being” (239). In a final flourish, and returning to Swift, Smith follows the shape-shifter excrement from “scatology to eschatology” (242) as it links intense physical to intense religious experience: Gulliver, pressed by physical need is forced to relieve himself in a church and “A Panegyric on the Dean” puts defecation and religious ritual parallel (243-45). Harmony between body and soul in Swift “is a coprophilic paradise; but it is a paradise lost” (245). The parallel between bodily and spiritual distress, fall and redemption reaches back to Chaucer; post-lapsarian humanity remains deficient as well as defecating even in the enlightenment.

The proximity of Smith’s argument to the position so influentially elaborated by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White[3] makes it a little odd that the book is not even mentioned, especially given that Stallybrass and White, like Smith, draw on Bakhtin for their argument. While recent criticism is in fact repeatedly quoted, Smith situates his own position—with rather lengthy quotations—within the criticism of the 1960s and 1970s, notably Vivien de Sola Pinto’s contribution to the Pelican Guide to English Literature (1965), David Vieth (1976), and Norman O. Brown (1959, given incorrectly as 1950 in the bibliography). On occasions this seems to stage battles that have already been fought, for instance the need to read literature against its socio-political context or the connection between anality and sexuality. Smith’s contention that feminist criticism both misunderstands and misrepresents Swift’s scatology as misogynist (202) is worth pursuing in more detail. It would also have been interesting to see whether the argument that Swift’s satire of filthy females represents mainly an enactment of “the powerful conflicts between the reality of physical functions and idealising, literary traditions” (211)—and thus in effect a defense of the female body—works with changed gender roles, as in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to Write a poem called The Dressing Room.” In this poem the prostitute Betty redirects the muck thrown at herself both at the male body (which is dysfunctional) and the male body of writing: “She answered short, ‘I’m glad you’ll write, / You’ll furnish paper when I shite.’”

Smith’s aptitude for puns and his broad base of sources make this book both readable and informative. One emerges with one’s awareness—and one’s vocabulary—marvelously expanded. Between Two Stools left me divided between admiration and criticism; Smith’s wide-ranging and far-reaching elaborations are enlightening though I disagreed with many of his conclusions. The book raises more questions than it answers but in a sense this is a good thing. “Many a tulip raised from dung,” as Swift would have it, this book turns excretion into something worth looking at.


Stefanie Lethbridge
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

[1] For a list of Restoration miscellanies see Adam Smyth. Profit and Delight: Printed Miscellanies in England, 1640-1682. (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004).

[2] Sophie Gee, Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth-Century Imagination (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010).

[3] Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986).


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Cite as:

Stefanie Lethbridge , "Peter J. Smith, Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift," Spenser Review 43.3.61 (Winter 2014). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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