For the Good of the Sex

Susan Eilenberg

Once regarded as among the most distinguished poets in England, admired by Johnson, envied by Goldsmith, praised by Wordsworth, and read by everyone, Anna Letitia Barbauld has this last century or two thoroughly sunk into oblivion. Until recently, all that was remembered about her was an anecdote in Coleridge’s Table Talk, in which she figured, ingloriously, as the stooge whose miscomprehension of The Ancient Mariner provoked his comparison between that poem and the tale in the Arabian Nights of the genie, the merchant and the date shells. Even this anecdote was more likely to inspire debate about whether dates have shells than about the identity of Mrs Barbauld.

Mrs Barbauld was born Anna Letitia Aikin in 1743. She was educated at home, mostly by her mother and mostly in seclusion from the schoolboys her father taught. She learned Latin and some Greek despite her father’s reluctance to teach her, but never overcame an uneasiness about the unwomanly impropriety of erudition. The example of her father’s colleague Joseph Priestley first encouraged her to write verse, but she published no poetry until she was aided (indeed, virtually compelled) by her brother, who sponsored her first prose publications as well. When a volume appeared bearing both their names but containing not a hint about who had written what, she was delighted to find that readers confused her brother’s productions with hers. Thus began what was to become a life of publication. Unchecked by her marriage at 30 to Rochemont Barbauld, a schoolmaster and former student of her father’s, her writings streamed forth: poems, casual essays, hymns, lessons and stories for children, dialogues, literary criticism, political commentary and editions of Richardson’s letters, of the great 18th-century essayists and of fifty volumes’ worth of novelists.

It is hard at first to see what could have made her work vulnerable to disfavour. The handful of her poems recently printed in Roger Lonsdale’s 18th-Century Women Poets were very favourably received. In ‘Washing-Day’ the ‘domestic Muse’ abandons ‘Language of gods’ for gossip.

In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face.

My own favourite is ‘A Schoolboy Eclogue’, in which neo-Theocritean schoolboys boast and haggle, taunt and threaten, tease and ask ludicrous riddles of one another, never quite getting around to the rhyming contest for which they have staked a toy ship and half a cake not yet received from home:

                  Harry
Well does the gift thy liquorish palate suit,
I know who robb’d the orchard of its fruit ...
And, where the hoard you kept, I know full well;
The mellow gooseberries did themselves produce,
For thro’ thy pocket oozed the viscous juice.

                  Edward
I scorn a tell-tale, or I cou’d declare
How, leave unask’d, you sought the neighbouring fair;
Then home by moon-light spurred your jaded steed,
And scarce returned before the hour of bed.
Think how thy trembling heart had felt affright,
Had not our master supped abroad that night.

                  Harry
On the smooth, white-washed ceiling near thy bed,
Mixed with thine own, is Anna’s cypher read;
From wreaths of dusky smoke the letters flow;
Whose hand the waving candle held, I know.
Fines and jobations shall thy soul appall,
Whene’er our mistress spies the sully’d wall.

Almost as engaging is ‘The Caterpillar’, a creature the poet finds she cannot kill, for she has

Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,
Precipitous descent! with stretched out neck,
Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
To ask protection.

There are fine, vivid passages on nearly every page. In ‘Ode to Spring’, on the spring:

Sweet is thy reign, but short; The red dog-star
Shall scorch thy tresses, and the mower’s scythe
Thy greens, thy flow’ rets all,
Remorseless shall destroy

In ‘Hymn I’, on the sun, that

Shall in his silent, dark pavilion rest,
His Golden urn shall broke, and useless lie,
Amidst the common ruins of the sky ...

In ‘The Epiphany’, she describes the spiritual disquiet of the Magi passing over ‘billowy waves of loose, unfaithful sand’.

Not everything Barbauld writes has this power, this precision or this delicate clarity. But Elizabeth Kraft and William McCarthy, who edited this volume, doubt that either her lapses into mediocrity or changing tastes can account for the decline in her reputation, which they blame chiefly on the anti-feminism of the Romantic poets and their canonisers. This is plausible enough. Though she was no feminist, and although there is nothing confessional about her style, her verse betrays an ambivalent and embarrassed relation to the idea of feminine authorship. She wanted to write, but as a daughter, a wife, a sister, a neighbour, even a schoolmistress. These roles, not any muse or conviction of genius, were the professed sources of her authority, for, unlike some of her male contemporaries, she felt herself to be a creature of her circumstances and not a self-fathered imagination. If she was unwilling to renounce her poetic ambitions altogether, she must smuggle them in under cover of playfulness or pedagogy.

Although they admit that much of what Barbauld wrote ‘might be considered typical women’s verse’, the editors regard her work as essentially ungendered, an attitude that at least a few of Barbauld’s contemporaries shared. McCarthy and Kraft write that ‘her sensibility can be called neither masculine nor feminine; they are not categories that enlighten a reading of her verse, which must be taken on its own terms.’ This strikes me as wishful thinking. Whatever the gender of Barbauld’s sensibility, her literary demeanour is markedly feminine; it reflects a sharp awareness of a particular set of social ordinances sometimes comfortable and sometimes uncomfortable to obey.

It may be that what the editors find non-feminine is simply the belief, which Barbauld inspired in others and seems to have shared herself, that she possessed a humane intelligence greater than could be easily accommodated to the requirements of her fate. Men who knew her recognised her extraordinary abilities and worried about what would become of them – and her – in a life that afforded so little opportunity for glorious exertion. Her brother worried that she was wasting her talents; Samuel Johnson lamented that such an intellect should be reduced to teaching children: ‘This is a cat, and this is a dog, with four legs and a tail; see there!’ And Barbauld herself offered a glimpse of the unhappiness she felt at being left at home while her brother went away to a university and a career in medicine.

Those hours are now no more which smiling flew
And the same studies saw us both pursue;
Our path divides – to thee fair fate assign’d
The nobler labours of a manly mind:
While mine, more humble works, and lower cares,
Less shining toils, and meaner praises shares.
Yet sure in different moulds they were not cast
Nor stampt with separate sentiments and taste.
But hush my heart! nor strive to soar too high,
Nor for the tree of knowledge vainly sigh.

But Barbauld had no patience with those who wasted their energies desiring impossibilities. She announced in her essay ‘Against Inconsistency in Our Expectations’ that ‘it is of the utmost consequence to attain just notions of the laws and order of the universe, that we may not vex ourselves with fruitless wishes, or give way to groundless and unreasonable discontent ... The mind of man naturally yields to necessity; and our wishes soon subside when we see the impossibility of their being gratified.’ Barbauld believed in the bounded sphere and would enforce its bondage for the good of her sex. In her view ‘The Rights of Woman’ (the misleading title of one poem) depend on the sublimation of ambition into coyness:

Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store
Of bright artillery glancing from afar;
Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon’s roar,
Blushes and fears thy magazine of war.

Nor may these blushes and fears be merely feigned. To ensure the authenticity of feminine confusion, women ought to avoid acquiring more than ‘a general tincture of knowledge’. A systematic education, she wrote to a friend who had asked for her help in establishing a school for girls, would render young ladies unfit as ‘good wives or agreeable companions’. The level of feminine literacy she praised, as in ‘On a Lady’s Writing’, was that commensurate with good penmanship, an acquaintance with letters sufficient to produce ‘even Lines ... Neat as [a lady’s] dress, and polish’d as her brow’. That she herself was learned and presumed to advise men on the conduct of state was beside the point, for she refused to present herself as a model for women in general.

Barbauld wanted very much, perhaps too much, to please, and she wrote to give pleasure to those around her. Remarkably few of her pieces speak from solitude (except, of course, the devotional ones) or fail to imply a particular audience, who will take delight in recognising the particulars of their own lives in what she writes for them. Her pieces reflect but also help maintain a network of familial and affectionate relations.

Unsurprisingly, her subjects (like those of most women who were writing verse at that time) tend towards the domestic, and the verse is concerned with familiar and quite real things, which themselves often serve to define relationships of various kinds: Dr Priestley’s mousetrap, a game of chess she has lost because she was sleepy, a tankard her father used to fill with water rather than ale. Barbauld writes poems to accompany gifts, poems to amuse children or their parents, and poems to rejoice in a friend’s good fortune, good complexion, or good nature. She writes poems to tease (gently) or to reassure, more rarely to exhort.

One would not expect a poetry intended to affirm the dearness of familiar things and people to shock its readers, and her poetry scrupulously avoids this. Its language and forms are fairly conventional and, by the standards of the early 19th century, when she wrote her last poems, fairly old-fashioned. Barbauld likes her verses to rhyme in unsurprising ways, and she likes to describe things in ways some of her predecessors thought witty. Table water appears here as the ‘limpid wave’, for example, and nearly every field or meadow is ‘enamel’d’. Her many riddles threaten to produce monstrous novelties, but the mechanism of a riddle is predictably to unmask the monstrous as the delightfully ordinary. Borrowings from Milton, Pope and Collins give some of her verse a familiar, slightly secondhand sound, as does her use of structures such as the extended simile, comparison/contrast and allegory, which are employed so frequently that they produce a comfortable predictability.

If all this suggests an affinity with an antique and very superior kind of greeting-card verse, it is not surprising, for much of Barbauld’s work is essentially occasional. In order to write, Barbauld seems to have needed to be able to point to some objectively verifiable justification, and greedily seizes on birthdays, marriages, funerals, Parliamentary votes, military manoeuvres, and also on casual visits, inscribable surfaces and the mere fact of friendship. Her habit of writing to friends (where the act of address creates its own occasion) may suggest that she seeks a sympathetic or at least uncritical audience. This is, after all, the woman who declares that ‘friendship, better than a Muse inspires’. But friendship, though valuable, may ultimately matter less to her than the assurance of reception. She needs to know that there is a context for her words.

Barbauld also experiments frequently with masculine voices, perhaps because of her belief that serious poetry is a fundamentally male enterprise. In her verse the generic figure of the poet is always male – even, oddly, the poet positioned before what looks at first to be her own fireside. The strain of full-scale male impersonation creates some rather odd effects. How are we to take ‘Song V’, in which a sympathetic old shepherd, observing to a pining Araminta that ‘woman, either a slave or queen, / Is quickly scorn’d when not ador’d,’ concludes that as ‘All nature yields but one relief; / Die, hapless ARAMINTA, die’? And what are we to make of ‘Song VI’, which addresses its creepily erotic adorings to a figure just emerging from childhood? Far more successful are her schoolboy poems, including ‘Petition of a Schoolboy to His Father’, a verse epistle in the mock-heroic style on the necessity of being sent cake.

Also outside the domain of feminine social verse are Barbauld’s political poems, including ‘Corsica’, ‘Epistle to William Wilber-force, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade’, ‘The Apology of the Bishops’ and ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’, a gloomy and very badly received prophecy about the coming decline of British Empire. These do not show her talents to their best advantage. But even in the midst of tedious allegories and bombast she remains conspicuously thoughtful. For her the evil of slavery, for instance, is not confined to the pain of the slaves but finds expression, too, in the image (naturally abhorrent to a good housewife) of a ‘pale Beauty’ slatternly, empty and vicious in her ease. And Barbauld registers that evil as a threat to herself as a poet, for where there is such injustice there can be no pastoral, a loss that grieves her:

No milk-maid’s song, or hum of village talk,
Sooths the lone Poet in his evening walk:
No willing arm the flail unweary’d plies.
Where the mix’d sounds of cheerful labour rise;
No blooming maid, and frolic swains are seen
To pay gay homage to their harvest queen ...
Far from the sounding lash the Muses fly ...

Barbauld’s most frequent gesture in the direction of the larger world is also the simplest. She makes endless analogies, many of them with an ostensible moral purpose, between small things and large. She compares the end of summer to old age, the cold of an ice-house to the cold of winter; a doll’s-house supports meditations on the pyramids, Versailles and English great houses; while the sight of a marble scuffled about suggests the world fought over by schoolboys grown into conquerors and tyrants.

These similes, growing into epic similes capable of swallow up entire poems, are puzzling because often utterly unenlightening; they raise questions about what Barbauld’s subject really is. The proliferation of these similes suggests mere poetic reflex. But the mechanism itself may be more significant than any of its manifestations. That their constant direction should be from small to large suggests a desire for larger subjects than she normally permits herself. On the other hand, the identification of great with small, a conviction of symmetry across scale, may be what Barbauld values in these similes.

Her motives for seeking a world in a grain of sand (or a marble) are not Blake’s; but her wish to enclose a larger world within a smaller one, her desire to stay conspicuously within bounds while retaining her imaginative freedom, has something Romantic about it. And there are poems in which Barbauld seems, briefly, to be a member of the same lyric enterprise as Wordsworth and Coleridge. ‘A Summer Evening’s Meditation’ anticipates the cadences of Coleridge’s conversation poems by at least a couple of years:

                      Nature’s self is hush’d.
And, but a scatter’d leaf, which rustles thro’
The thick-wove foliage, not a sound is heard
To break the midnight air; tho’ the rais’d ear,
Intensely listening, drinks in every breath.
How deep the silence, yet how loud the praise!

‘On the Death of the Princess Charlotte’ presents the Prince Regent as oddly akin to Wordsworth’s Old Cumberland Beggar and his Discharged Soldier, a figure of unfelt bereavement whose ‘strange tranquillity’ stirs the poet’s wonder:

                                Oh forbear
Nor deem him hard of heart, for, awful, struck
By heaven’s severest visitation, sad,
Like a scathed oak amidst the forest trees
Lonely he stands; leaves sprout, and fade, and fall,
And seasons run their round, to him in vain,
He holds no sympathy with living nature,
Or time’s incessant change.

But Barbauld is less skilled at rendering her own emotions. Passages of heightened self-consciousness are rare and abrupt; where we might expect her to reveal herself as more than simply a good friend or astute observer, she tends to retreat into impersonality. A comparison between her ‘Dejection’ and ‘Stanzas: In the Manner of Spenser’ and Coleridge’s ‘Dejection: An Ode’ would be disheartening, for the abstraction that Coleridge reveals to be a form of anaesthetised grief and thereby transforms into a source of horrifying poetic power Barbauld simply retains, with no apparent disquiet, as the style of emotional decorum. Despite the veneer of Romanticism her verse intermittently assumes, the mode seems to have been fundamentally uncongenial to her.

This edition of Barbauld’s poems, the first to appear in over a century, presents ‘every Barbauld poem – indeed, every scrap of verse’ the editors could find, 169 poems in all, together with ‘Conjectural Attributions’ and information about ‘Lost Poems’ and ‘Doubtful and Spurious Attributions’. McCarthy and Kraft supply background on Barbauld’s life, works and critical reception and offer a somewhat partisan appreciation of her poems. Their notes, which occupy more than a hundred and fifty pages, offer an abundance of useful commentary about local, literary historical and textual matters; they track down Latin tags, gloss the less accessible terms and allusions, and tell us the gossip we need to know in order to read these poems as they should be read. Like any collection that aims at completeness, this one is a little uneven. But at its best her poetry is so witty, so keen, so mischievous and so apt, that one must wonder at her long obscurity.