Cassinus and Peter: A Tragical Elegy

Swift, Jonathan

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: Aug-16-2006
  • Last revised: Jul-27-2006


Published in 1734, this poem of 7-syllable couplets describes how Peter goes to visit his college friend Cassinus. He finds Cassinus filthy and miserable in his dorm room and asks his friend why he is such a mess. Cassinus replies that he is in this state because of Celia. Peter wonders if Celia has died; if she has cheated on Cassinus; if she has been struck down by some disfiguring disease; or, ultimately, if there is something terribly wrong with Cassinus. No, replies Cassinus, to each of these in turn. He makes Peter promise not to divulge the terrible secret he has discovered about his once beloved Celia, and then tells him: "Nor wonder how I lost my wits; / Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits."


With a last couplet like that, it is no wonder that this poem has a certain infamy. The shocking expletive is quite easily interpreted as a misanthropic, or even misogynistic, revulsion with the body. But that is to forget the rest of the poem (easy to do, given the startling couplet). Cassinus's own physical degradation has been jarringly contrasted with the pastoral tropes he employs, and already there is a wide gap between ideals and corporeality.

Both Cassinus and Peter can describe and imagine decaying or sick bodies, as well as deceit and death, but only in a hypothetical way, imbued with the mystery and distance of mythic conceits about nature. For all his knowledge about the world as a young scholar, and despite his facility with the literary trappings of nature, it comes as a terrible shock to Cassinus that Celia has a human body.

We need not be entirely unsympathetic to Cassinus: it is quite possible that love, whether idealized or quite powerfully felt (or both), can make us blind to another's less delicious activities. The discovery of this imperfection, this failing, this humanity, however mundane, can be quite a shock.


Originally published 1731 or 1734

Primary Source

The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Restoration and Eighteenth Century


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published