Until the last two stanzas, a seemingly positive response to Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"(1792), a radical look at the place of women in society.
The Rights of Woman (1790)
Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy right! Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest; O born to rule in partial Law's despite, Resume thy native empire o'er the breast! 5 Go forth arrayed in panoply divine; That angel pureness which admits no stain; Go, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign, And kiss the golden sceptre of thy reign. Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store 10 Of bright artillery glancing from afar; Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon's roar, Blushes and fears thy magazine of war. Thy rights are empire: urge no meaner claim,- Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost; 15 Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame, Shunning discussion, are revered the most. Try all that wit and art suggest to bend Of thy imperial foe the stubborn knee; Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend; 20 Thou mayst command, but never canst be free. Awe the licentious, and restrain the rude; Soften the sullen, clear the cloudy brow: Be, more than princes' gifts, thy favours sued;- She hazards all, who will the least allow. 25 But hope not, courted idol of mankind, On this proud eminence secure to stay; Subduing and subdued; thou soon shalt find Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way. Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought, 30 Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move, In Nature's school, by her soft maxims taught, That separate rights are lost in mutual love.
Poems are structured by patterns of repetition: of sounds and rhythms for example, but they always have some kind of logical structure as well. Sometimes the logic of a poem can be very simple, as the poet just focuses in on some single moment or emotion. But often there is some kind of logical progression, as the poem explores an idea or an experience, maybe moves toward some kind of revelation, or even contradicts itself. Sonnets often have what's called a "turn" at some point: the lover's frustration might get the better of him, for example, and so he turns to religion instead.
Anna Letitia Barbauld's poem, "The Rights of Woman" has a rather abrupt turn in the last two stanzas. After demanding that women should throw off male rule and institute an empire of their own, the poet suddenly undercuts the possibility she has just laid out. And the change is not a choice on the part of the women: it just seems to happen -- "thou soon shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way." The poem's conclusion ascribes the change to Nature, reasserting the inevitable:
Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move,
In Nature's school, by her soft maxims taught,
That separate rights are lost in mutual love.
But the poem begins on a different note -- a trumpet note I guess. The rhetorical stance is that of the public orator, and the imagery seems to come straight out of an epic poem: Woman is urged to go into battle "arrayed in panoply divine," while artillery flashes and cannons thunder. The context is empire, and the prize is a golden sceptre. Is the poem serious about all this, simply qualifying it a bit at the end, perhaps tempering the new rule with a mutuality that the old order lacked? Or does the poem set up this ambitious epic bubble only in order to puncture it later? A lot depends on how we read the logic of a poem.
Anna Letitia Barbauld was a supporter of radical politics in the 1790s, defending dissenters, democratic government, and popular education, and opposing Britain's declaration of war against France. Her radical politics did not extend to support of female education or women writers, as her "Rights of Woman," a reply to Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792) indicates. Like many writers at the time, she wrote occasional verse and her writing could be sharply satirical. If "The Rights of Woman" as a protest poem adopts a rhetoric of public speech as it addresses the entire female sex, other poems she wrote about the relations between men and women take a different position.
"To Mr. Barbauld, with a Map of the Land of Matrimony," perhaps written on the occasion of her marriage in 1774, reveals Barbauld's more private voice.
"To Mr. Barbauld, with a Map of the Land of Matrimony"
The sailor worn by toil and wet with storms, As in the wished-for port secure he rides, With transport numbers o'er the dangers past From threatning quicksands and from adverse tides.
Joyous he tells among his jocund mates Of loud alarms that chased his broken sleep, And blesses every kinder star that led His favoured vessel through the raging deep.
Thus canst thou, Rochemont, view this pictured chart, And trace thy voyage to the promised shore; Thus does thy faithful bosom beat with joy, To think the tempest past, the wanderings o'er?
Canst thou recall the days when jealous Doubt, When boding Fears thy anxious heart oppresst, When Hope, our star, shone faintly through the gloom, And the pale cheek betrayed the tortured breast?
The bright Elysian fields her pencil drew,- Has time the dear ideas realized? Or are her optics false, her tints untrue?
O say they are not!- Though life's ceaseless cares, Life's ceaseless toils demand thy golden hours, Tell her glad heart whose hand these lines confess, That peace resides in Hymen's happy bowers.
But soon the restless seaman longs to change His bounded view and tempt the deeps again; Careless he breaks from weeping Susan's arms, To fight with billows and to plough the main. for no returning prow E'er cut the ocean which thy bark has past; Too strong relentless Fate has fixed her bars, And I my destined captive hold too fast.
Click here to see "A New Map of the Land of Matrimony," which Anna Letitia Barbauld presented to her husband along with this poem.
Click here for an analysis of the role of domesticity in the work of Barbauld and other woman writers of her time: Carol Shiner Wilson, "Lost Needles, Tangled Threads: Stitchery, Domesticity, and the Artistic Enterprise in Barbauld, Edgeworth, Taylor, and Lamb."
The Poet´s Life and Work
- Stuart Curran, "Romantic Poetry: The I Altered."
- Carol Shiner Wilson, "Lost Needles, Tangled Threads: Stitchery, Domesticity, and the Artistic Enterprise in Barbauld, Edgeworth, Taylor, and Lamb."