ON BEING CAUTIONED AGAINST BEING A FEMALE AUTHOR IN THE ROMANTIC PERIOD: THE GOTHIC FEMINISM OF CHARLOTTE SMITH: A Romantic Close Reading

Charlotte Smith’s poem “Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic” has come to be retrospectively regarded among the historically significant texts written by female authors during the Romantic Period. Smith’s body of work, as with those produced by her fellow female peers in the literary world at the time, was and continues to be largely eclipsed by the work of her most prominent male contemporaries, specifically by the enduring canonical legacy of “the big six,” namely, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. The historical pattern and precedent of critically-driven privileging of male authors’ works is an unavoidable factor one must consider in analyzing the literary landscape of an historical period, as the substantial exclusion of women writers’ contributions significantly narrows and obscures one’s understanding of human life in the past. The Romantic representation of the experience of women is, for the most part, severely lacking. The reality of this male-centric prism through which the development of literature is understood imbues the few outlying female writers whose work gradually manages to surface in the margins of the Western canon with a valuable distinction, unique in their capacities to convey to the modern reader a crucial and regrettably limited perspective on what it was like to be alive at this point in history. Charlotte Smith’s poem, “On Being Cautioned…,” emerges from a context of a stifling, dismissive, and supercilious climate of critical reception toward female writers, a historical detail that one might argue is evident in this particular text itself.
The poem opens with a question, as the speaker inquires of the interlocutor whether there is a “solitary wretch,” presumably the titular “lunatic,” lurking around a seaside cliff and regarding the ocean below with his “wild and hollow eyes.” This question is not directly answered in the lines that follow, though the speaker does describe the way in which she sees this lunatic, and how she envies, rather than fears, his existence. She describes this figure as seeming to be “uncursed with reason,” and therefore, to some enviable extent, ignorant of his woeful condition.
The title of the poem contains a number of details that inform the reader of the setting and subject Smith describes. It is a sonnet “On Being Cautioned Against” walking in a particular area for a particular reason (the threat of the lunatic), implying that some otherwise unmentioned figure(s) or agency has cautioned the speaker, and that the fact of this word of warning is what the title claims the poem to be about, or “On.” The title is longer than any single line of the poem, and the only information that the title includes which does not appear in the poem itself is the fact of “being cautioned.”
The titular “Headland Overlooking the Sea” is referred to in the text as a “tall cliff,” and the sea itself is described in terms of its relationship to the lunatic, both spatially, as he “measures… its [the cliff on which he stands] distance from the waves that chide below,” and in his interactions with it, as he is “murmuring responses to the dashing surf.” The use of the word “chide” is an interesting means of characterizing the the waves to which the lunatic looks down upon and responds with “half-uttered lamentation,” suggesting that the relentless cycle of waves crashing and lapping at the shore is somehow scolding him. His distance from and above the waves, or, more specifically, his position atop this cliff, is emphasized in both the title and a few times in the poem. It is seemingly important that he views the ocean from this height.
One significant detail is the use of the pronouns “his,” “he,” and “him.” The first instance of one such identifier comes in line 6, establishing that the “solitary wretch” whom the speaker is referring to is not explicitly the speaker herself. The next usage of a male pronoun comes in line 10, wherein the speaker claims that she sees him “more with envy than with fear.” The previous line reads: “In moody sadness, on the giddy brink.” There is an ambiguity as to whether this line is meant to be applied to the state of the lunatic or the speaker herself, since all the lines prior to this one have dealt only with the lunatic, and this description could speak either to what she “sees” in him or to her own emotional state as she envies him. The “giddy brink” may refer to the dizzying height of the aforementioned seaside cliff, or it may refer to an internal emotional landscape, a sort of disorienting precipice, the “brink” of insanity rather than madness itself. This is a possible reading, as the speaker’s attitude toward the lunatic’s madness is that it is liberating, rather than worthy of fear or condemnation. In the eleventh line, the word “he” is italicized, as is “nice felicities.” This emphasizes the fact of this lunatic’s maleness, which arguably has as much to do with his having “no nice felicities that shrink/ From giant horrors” as the fact of his lunacy. The italicization of these particular words implies a connective importance between them. “Nice felicities” are the distinctly feminine burden of the speaker, in no way applicable to the lunatic’s experience.
The speaker’s envy of the lunatic does not hinge solely upon their difference in gender, however. While she does observe this difference through the use of male pronouns, it is in the final two lines that illustrate the enviable quality of the lunatic. “He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know/ The depth of the duration of his woe.” Reason is shown to be a curse, and this description in the context of the speaker’s confessed envy suggests that her faculty of reason factors significantly into her experience of suffering. The implications of the difference of gender between the speaker and the lunatic are painfully apparent to her reasoning mind; she has been cautioned against entering the territory in which he is empowered to move freely, “wildly wandering.”

 

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The iconic Romantic image of man beholding the sublime in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog might remind one of the poem’s lunatic in his solitary, wild and hollow-eyed contemplation of the waves below if one considers that, as Smith’s text illustrates, the female speaker is unable to approach this territory, let alone access this epic vista.

 

 

 

WORKS CITED

Smith, Charlotte. “Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web.

 

 

 

 

An Analysis of Coleridge’s “The Pains of Sleep”

Cloud Ghosts- Richard Riemerschmid
Cloud Ghosts by Richard Riemerschmid

Overcome by a deep, unrequited love, as well as suffering from the withdrawal symptoms from opium, Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a lot of heavy topics on his mind when writing his poem “The Pains of Sleep”. On the surface, Coleridge’s poem seems to be simply about how painful Coleridge finds it to fall asleep over the course of a few nights. However, a deeper analysis reveals that Coleridge is making a confession of some sort- of a lack of religion in his life, a lack of love, and an opium addiction that has sparked for withdrawal symptoms to begin appearing in the life of Coleridge- in his sleep and in his poetry.

“The Pains of Sleep” is broken up into three stanzas, each appearing to be about falling asleep, and each growing more restless than the one proceeding it. The first stanza can be compared to one praying before falling asleep. Coleridge uses words such as “pray” and “bended knees”, bended knees providing the reader with the imagery of one kneeling beside their beds to pray before climbing in for rest. “Spirit”, “reverential resignation”, “my soul”, “unblest”, “Eternal strength and Wisdom” also tie into religious imagery within the mind of the reader, which may symbolize that Coleridge is facing some sort of religious crisis in writing this poem.

Coleridge goes on to say, “In humble trust mine eye-lids close,/ With reverential resignation” (Lines 6-7), meaning that every night when he closes his eyes to surrender himself to sleep, he places his faith in God, resigning his control over his own life as he is allowing for himself to be in the most vulnerable state possible. Coleridge also goes on to say,

“A sense o’er all my soul imprest/ That I am weak, yet not unblest,/ Since in me, round me, every where/ Eternal strength and Wisdom are.” (Lines 10-13).

In other words, Coleridge means that even though, in the grand scheme of things, he is small and insignificant, he believes that he is still important due to the skill of being able to recognize God’s beauty in the world and convey it through his poetry.

The first stanza maintains an “aabb” rhyming scheme- however, this scheme is interrupted around line 7, switching very briefly to an “abab” rhyming scheme before reverting back, symbolizing a very brief, almost unnoticeable interruption in both the poem as well as Coleridge’s sleep.

Coleridge employs alliteration throughout the poem, relying on the use of the letter “s” to create a softer effect of the poem, and can be compared to a soft whisper that one may use when trying to induce sleep.

Everything shifts in the second stanza- Coleridge’s poem is becoming interrupted with sharper sounds, different rhyme schemes, and is bursting with overwhelming emotion, making the soft whisper found throughout the first stanza ineffective in aiding the quest for sleep that Coleridge desperately seeks.

The rhyme scheme of the poem is interrupted multiple times, more noticeably and often than in the first stanza, and can be compared to the interruptions one finds when finding it difficult to fall asleep. The “s” and “sh” sounds are replaced by sharper sounds- the “s” is usually followed or proceeded by a “t” or “c” to create the sharper sound-effects. For example, Coleridge uses words such as “yester-night“, “up-starting”, “scorned”, “strong”, “thirst“, “still”, “strangely”, “objects“, “fantastic“, and “stifling” to create a sharper effect in the reading, which can be compared to emotions of chaos or violence.

Coleridge also uses words such as “anguish”, “agony”, “fiendish”, “tortured”, “intolerable wrong”, “scorned”, “revenge”, “powerless”, “burning”, “loathing”, “hateful”, “maddening”, “shame”, “terror”, “confused”, “suffered” “guilt”, “remorse”, “woe”, and “fear” to create imagery in the reader of emotions such as feeling fear or being upset. These emotions can be compared to what one may feel when their sleep has begun to be interrupted, be it by something internal (a nightmare, a lot on one’s mind), or external (a loud noise/interruption that causes one to wake from sleep). It is also important to note that Coleridge makes a confession of some sort:

“Deeds to be hid which were not hid,/ Which all confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered, or I did…” (Lines 27-9).

In other words, Coleridge explains that there are deeds that exist that need to be concealed due to a certain shame revolving around them, but have not yet been hidden due to confusion that Coleridge feels towards them.

The third and final stanza, once again, takes a dramatic shift- Coleridge has now suffered through “two nights” of this painful, restless, sleep, and has finally had enough when he writes his climax:

“The third night, when my own loud scream/ Had waked me from the fiendish dream,/ O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,/ I wept as I had been a child.” (Lines 37-40).

The dreams that Coleridge faces appears to be so terrifying, that it wakes him from his sleep, causing for him to actually cry. This appears to be the climax, because immediately following this event, Coleridge writes,

“And having thus by tears subdued/ My anguish to a milder mood…” (Lines 40-41).

It appears as though Coleridge’s tears act as an emotional purge, allowing for him to finally release the turmoil and restlessness that has built within him for the past few nights. Religious imagery returns once again as Coleridge uses words such as “blessing”, “sin”, and “hell”- these words create emotions within the reader of dread. This dread for Coleridge is a dread of punishment for the sins that he has committed, which signifies to the reader that a confession needs to be made- of the sins that he has committed. Coleridge concludes this stanza and his entire poem with,

“To be loved is all I need,/ And whom I love, I love indeed.” (Lines 50-51).

Although Coleridge has a specific person in mind when writing these lines, as he has a person whom he “loves indeed”, he still maintains his own need for this love to be requited- which it clearly isn’t. The fact that this is mentioned in the final two lines of the poem signifies to the reader that this was the overall point that Coleridge seemed to struggle with throughout the entirety of his poem.

In conclusion, although Coleridge uses many words that symbolize some sort of religious imagery for the reader, his struggle appears to be more spiritual than religious, as he does not mention God’s name anywhere throughout his poem. This turmoil also seems to be a result of some heavy thinking- perhaps about a woman who Coleridge loves, a woman who is unable to return the love that Coleridge feels towards her (Mary Evans perhaps?). Finally, the turmoil that Coleridge describes throughout the entirety of his work seems to be, unbeknownst perhaps even to him, of the withdrawal one faces from opium. The full effects of opium as well as what happens when one stops taking it after consuming it over an extended period of time were not completely understood by those of the Romantic Era, which could explain Coleridge’s night terrors as well as his restlessness.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Pains of Sleep.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2017. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
Everett, Glenn. “Coleridge’s Religion.” The Victorian Web. The Victorian Web, July 2000. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Everett, Glenn. “Samuel Coleridge: A Brief Biography.” The Victorian Web. The Victorian Web, 27 Sept. 2000. Web. 14 Apr. 2017. <http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/stc/bio.html&gt;.
Fabian, Jenny. “Literature: Coleridge’s Crisis of Creativity.” Londongrip.co.uk. London Grip, 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
“Samuel Taylor Coleridge- Poet.” Poets.org. The Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web.

Mont Blanc’s Voice

Mont Blanc has a voice full of power that Percy Shelley brings to light in one of his many poems about the egotistical sublime. Join me in analyzing what we gain by reading the poem, Mont Blanc by Percy Shelley.

Image sourcing from: Pintrest.com and Google Images

Like most writers of the romantic period Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc is all about himself. Inspired by writers of the same period and a societal rejection of the industrial age the entire poem comes across rather egotistical and uneventful. It is merely the admired account of the tallest mountain in the Swiss Alps. In fact the only purpose it serves is as an inspiration to Shelley. Yet he makes the argument through language and symbolism that this idolization of man in nature gives beauty a reason to exist. Without the advanced mind to comprehend, appreciate and be inspired by, what is the purpose of beauty in nature? Beauty, like art and writing, is meant to be admired and if not talked about then silently appreciated in the mind.

I50abef4f219dd7760993c2b6326deff2.jpgt is important to note first how Shelley achieves this sense of vast glory the mountain has through language. “From the ice gulphs that gird his [the river Arve’s] secret throne/bursting through these dark mountains like the flame/of lightning through the tempest” (Shelley 17-19). There is an overabundance of elemental stimulation here that leaves the reader and the narrator astounded, in awe of the mighty power this mountain has. Not only is ice engulfing a part of the river, there is a power, presumably glaciers, that are large enough to burst through the mountain sides. They are then compared to the “flame of lightning through the tempest”, which is a line that holds the most imagery for this quote, including a contradiction of not only flame against a rain storm but a flame which acts like a lightning bolt as well.

How often are so many elemental forces presented by one object of study? Mont Blanc, Shelley writes, is displaying its power and beauty by being akin to fire, lightning, water, wind and ice all at the same time. It is this overstimulation that inspires the narrator. Again in lines 85-90 does Shelley describe this whirlwind of elements. He uses the terms; “lightning”, “rain”, “earthquakes” and “fiery floods”. Again telling us how Shelley views the mountain. Mont Blanc is a force nature so powerful it commands control of the earth, the sky and the waters around it all at the same time. Shelley also personifies the mountain throughout the poem, “thou hast a voice, great mountain” (Shelley 80). Personifying such a powerful being gives not only Shelley but also the reader a sense of admired apprehension. Mont Blanc is not to be trifled with, it is to be admired and almost worshipped. This mountain is so awe inspiring Shelley is immediately influenced by it, thus we see the reason for the creation of this poem, Mont Blanc. In this way Shelley is giving the mountain a purpose beyond simply being there. He is pushing human comprehension unto it in the most proficient use of the mountain’s beauty.

To create a work of art that is published, admired, then talked about and makes money is arguably the best use for the poetic muse a poet like Percy Shelley gains from nature. In the poem he argues that without the human mind to contemplate nature’s artistry, it cannot exist. “And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea/if to the human mind’s imaginings/silence and solitude were vacancy” (Shelley 142-4). Shelley is speaking directly to the mountain here, asking what would you be if humans did not give nature’s silent beauty meaning through their imagination. There is no purpose to beauty without anyone to appreciate it. The very idea of an aesthetic is to be appealing to the eye. If humans, and in Shelley’s case poets, did not write poems, sonnets, or fictions inspired from great mountains such as Mont Blanc it would merely exist as another part of the earth. Its aesthetic value would be wasted and lost to eyes that can’t create meaning out of beauty.

To further emphasize the through provoking aspect of Mont Blanc, Shelley writes; “And this, the naked countenance of earth/on which I gaze, even these primeval mountains/teach the averting mind” (Shelley 98-100). Because Shelley can comprehend the grandeur of the mountain he can learn from it lessons of life and death. In which he takes a few lines to describe how everything in the world is connected to, is born and dies within the same earth the mountain sits on.

Shelley’s handling of the sublime in these poems, a writing technique used often in romantic period England where man is influenced heavily by nature, reflects more on the author’s personal views than on anything else. Shelley is a man of nature, he admires it and like many other writers during his time, wishes to talk more of nature than of the increasing industrial age that was taking over. Given the time period it is no wonder Shelley and other poets wrote so much about the sublime, egotistical of not. The industrial age was a time of change for England, many feared that by becoming more urbanized England would lose its sense of admiration for natural beauty, ergo the reason for the value of aesthetics in the romantic period.

Shelley takes the sublime a step further however, he makes himself the narrator as the entirety of the poem is told through his point of view. Shelley paints a vibrant picture of the value he sees in this mighty mountain. This technique is referred to as the egotistical sublime and used by many romantic period writers, many of whom were inspired by William Wordsworth. Looking at the footnotes in the Norton Anthology of English literature we can even see that Shelley may have been influenced by Wordsworth’s ideals when it comes to poetry. Not only is OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe use of egotistical sublime similar to Wordsworth but in the first footnote regarding Shelley’s poem we see part of a preface written by Shelley which states; “It [the poem] was composed…as an indisciplined overflowing of the soul” (Norton Anthology 770). This sounds
conveniently similar to Wordsworth’s claim in his
Preface to Lyrical Ballads that poetry should be a “spontaneous overflow of emotion” written when feelings are “recollected in tranquility”. Shelley would not be the first poet of this period to be inspired so by nature and by Wordsworth’s claims to how poetry should be written. Indeed Wordsworth represented, through his writing and essays on poets, an all encompassing ideal of the romantic poet in 18th century England.

Mont Blanc, revolving around egotistical sublime and the beauty of nature does the same, capturing easily the overall values that England held in the romantic period. It talks of everlasting beauty, nature as a force mightier than humankind and as something to be inspired by. Mont Blanc claims that beauty cannot exist without a human mind to comprehend it because if imagination does not give way to meaning there can be no purpose for vibrant trees and mighty mountains. Shelley, like most writers, is influenced by the intellectual works of those around him, namely William Wordsworth. Both of these writers at once teach readers through poetry how mother nature can inspire through grandeur displays of her beauty and power.

Works cited:

Shelley, Percy. “Mont Blanc”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

Racing Against Race

 

In the poem “The Little Black Boy” by William Blake, a black child is telling his story about how he understands his identity and his connection with God. This poem can be seen as ahead of its time because the topic of racism was being mentioned and had a positive spin. Often racism was’t seen as a problem, rather it was seen as normal. White people understood that there were people of different races, but came to the fact that some races were superior then others. If you were white then there should be no worry about racism because it didn’t affect you directly. This can be still be said for today’s age. White people understand that racism is still a problem and can see the impact, but choose to ignore it because it has no affect on them.

In the opening stanza the little boy explains how his “soul is white:/White as an angel” (Blake 120). This is a great example of color symbolizism and demonstrates how white is often looked at as pure. Angels are God’s messengers so therefore are serving God. If the angels are white then they must be good and therefore white would be good and pure. The little boy however is black, so therefore does that mean he is the opposite of pure? He has decided that there is a loophole to this. He has discovered that God’s love is just to bright for him. This can become a worry though because does this mean that the boy will not be able to handle the love? The boy believes God’s love is to bright for him, which means maybe he won’t be able to handle it. This is concerning because in the poem the boy seems to have a positive outlook on his skin tone, but this could be a belief that white people believed. The little boy seems to have characteristics of racism directed at himself. He understands that he is different and seems to be bringing himself down because of the color of his skin. Previously it was said that different races are higher up in society, and if this was a reason why then white people would feel that they are able to love God equally with no pain or delusion.

Even though the boy’s soul is pure, his skin tone is dark. Later in the poem the boy explains “these black bodies and this sun-burnt face/ Is but a cloud” and that the cloud can be moved” (121 Blake). The cloud is representing how his skin color does not matter because the cloud can easily be moved to discover sunshine from God. The sunshine behind the cloud would be his soul and his purity. His skin color is but a representation of how God loves him. If people tried they could easily over look the color of his skin and see that he was pure inside and that he appreciated God. Because of the intensity of the love and rays God has given him, he has been burned by the beams which caused his skin to be black. This helps build his relationship with God because it demonstrates the love they both have for each other. Even though the boy may not have the skin “as an angel” God’s love for him has expanded to his soul (Blake 121). During this time period being a darker skin tone was seen as a negative and put people of diversity in a less place, but recently people of diversity have the advantage of being different and people are striving to be part of this community.

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(image source Academic Help)

In the video attached here Shawn’s House is explaining a controversial subject that has recently been glorified by Jeffree Starr. Starr has been known for his racial comments that he makes on his YouTube videos and recently has took action on them. Starr is a makeup artist that usually focuses on different brands and gives advice to his audience about how to apply makeup.  Starr recently came out with a new campaign for his own makeup brand where he used a half Mexican and half South East Asian model named Nikta Dragun. Dragun also has some popularity on Youtube for being a transgender spokes model and giving tutorials about makeup and hair. In the campaign photograph Dragun is presumably much darker then her past photos and has been accused of blackface. Blackface is “the makeup used by a non black performer playing a black role” (Webster 1). Starr has not come out with a reason why he used Dragun for his campaign, though one theory is that he wanted diversity in his photos. The public has stripped this argument down though because he could have easily found a black model to pose in his campaign. Dragun has admitted that the photograph was of her with a spray tan, making people wonder if this was purposely done. Dragun has no past history of racial comments, but because of her association with Starr her reputation has gone down.

In the first photo below you will find an image of how Dragun usually presents herself. In this photo she is seemingly white and shows a natural skin makeup. The photo below this illustrates what the campaign was and how she was portrayed. She is seemingly more tan and as nearly changed her racial identity. This connects back to the little boy because she has changed her appearance to represent two races. Would the little boy think she was loved by God? In the little boy’s reasoning if a person is white they are pure on the inside and outside, but what if they are both? The blackfaced photo would mean that she was pure on the outside and that her skin was burned by God’s love. If she could so easily switch her race that means that she is only pure on the inside and is seemingly only loved by God immensely at certain points.

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(image source Nikita Dragun Archives)

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(image source Nicola Dall’Asen)

In “The Little Black Boy” racism is seen as a way of connecting with God and stating that there is a difference that needs to be brought up concerning race. The little boy is almost being racism to himself because he is pointing out the difference of his skin color compared to the English boy.  In the YouTube video about blackface, a reference to college students is brought up and explained that students don’t seem to understand there is a problem with racism. In the hyperlink here you will find a more specific example. A white female college student recently posted a photo of her with a black facemask on with the filter of Black History Month. She is not the only example and many other colleges have started to enforce social media because of this. This particular poem was written in 1789 when racism was extreme and people often chose to not speak of it. In the year 2017 racism is still an issue, if not larger. The boy in the poem had an almost positive outlook on his darker skin tone. He believed that his dark skin was a connection to God and that it demonstrated his love for him. In the year 2017 racism is often ignored because people don’t want to discuss the problems. Avoiding the topic makes the problem worse because people will be uneducated and preform actions that they believe are acceptable when they are really not. Even though white people are ignoring the problems of racism, they are accepting the diversity and beauty people of color offer. The white community needs to accept that diversity and racism don’t go hand in hand, you can’t have one without the other. Racism will always be a problem and we are only running against time to stop it.

Sources-

“Blackface.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

            CULTURAL APPROPRIATION? Dir. Shyleen Shawn. Perf. Shyleen Shawn. Shawn’s House. N.p., 5 Mar. 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.

Dall’Asen, Nicola. “Jeffree Star Responds to Accusations of Blackface in His New Campaign.” Revelist.com. Revelist, 2 Mar. 2017. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

Greenblatt, Stephen, and Meyer Howard. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.

“Nikita Dragun Archives.” Transgender News. Entertainment & More – TRANZGENDR. Tranzgender, 07 Nov. 2016. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

“The Little Black Boy: Free Poetry Analysis Samples and Examples.” AcademicHelp.net. Academic Help, 23 Mar. 2017. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

Wiedemann, KCRG-TV9 Katie. “Apology from University of Dubuque Student Who Posted ‘black Face’ Picture.” KCRG | Cedar Rapids, Iowa Content. Your 24 Hours News Source, 1 Mar. 2017. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

“The Rights of Woman”: An Anti-Feminist Analysis

lady liberty
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugene Delacroix

At first glance, “The Rights of Woman” seems to be a cry for female equality. Written in 1792 by
Anna Barbauld, the bulk of the poem beckons women to assert themselves in male dominated, Romantic Period England. Barbauld rips into the patriarchy of the era, calling man “treacherous”, and referring to them as women’s “imperial foe” (Barbauld, 18-19). “The Rights of Woman”’s initial stanzas aim to invokes a feeling of power and rebellion, urging women to take back the authority to rule over man.

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Anna Barbauld

Despite these strong words, however, the poem closes with an ominous message, one that turns the previous feminist reading on its head. Barbauld’s final stanzas explain that cultivating love and trust between sexes will diminish a woman’s yearning for power. According to Barbauld, a woman’s appetite for vigorous action will fade with the warmth of a husband. If you slice away the last two stanzas of the poem, it can be viewed as a feminist text. However, with the final stanzas included, the poem takes on a strange, anti-feminist vibe.

For more on Anna Barbauld, see: Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld Bibliography

The Dissection: Close Readings of Important Passages

Stanza I, Lines 1-4
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!
This opening stanza sets the stage for the poem. Barbauld addresses the “injured woman”, or the women who have been “degraded, scorned, opprest”. This speaks to the women of the Romantic Era, who were unable to receive the respect and authority that was organically given to men.  Barbauld says that women are “born to rule in partial Law’s despite”, meaning that they are capable of wielding power, placing them above man. The final line of the stanza, however, tells women to “resume thy native empire o’er the breast”. “Thy native empire” refers to the place where women naturally belong, and “o’er” the breast refers to the heart. This means that, while women have the power to rule, they rule predominately over their hearts. This is different than what one would expect a ruler to rule over; kings and queens are often associated with power kingdoms and countries, not power over emotions.
Stanza IV, Lines 13-16
Thy rights are empire: urge no meaner claim,—
Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost;
Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame,
Shunning discussion, are revered the most.
This passage solidifies the importance of women’s rights. It says that “thy rights are empire”, meaning they are of great importance. The language used here is also important, because it brings a focus toward what women should be striving toward: an empire. Barbauld tells women to “urge no meaner claim”, meaning that this goal is the meanest, or greatest thing they can ask of their oppressors. These rights are “felt” by women, but not defined. This means that women instinctually know that there is a need for equality, but the lines have never been drawn to create this equality.
In addition, she mentions that if these rights are debated, they will be lost. This can support the need for revolution seen in the first lines of the poem, which urge women to rise and take action rather than negotiate. In the last two lines, the tone changes a bit, becoming more abstract. Barbault relates women’s rights to “sacred mysteries”, as though they are something vital, but undiscovered. She notes that while they are not often talked about, they are revered, or greatly desired. In these ending lines, Barbauld may be pointing out that the discussion, or movement, toward the power and rights of women needs to be put at center-stage.
Stanza VII, Lines 25-28
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.

At this point, the poem begins to shift. Barbauld notes that the “courted idol of mankind”, meaning women, will find “thy coldness soften, and thy pride give away”. The tone of the poem goes from one filled with vigor and ambition into one of vulnerability and defeat. The hoo-rah attitude in the beginning of the poem fades away. Even though women are “subduing”, they will eventually be “subdued”. Successfully rebelling against patriarchy is useless, their will to conquer cannot last.

Stanza VIII, Lines 29-32
Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought,
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.

This stanza follows the theme of the previous stanza, retracting the battlecry for Romantic women to take up arms. It is replaced with a request: that women “abandon each ambitious thought”, deconstructing the obelisk of rebellious desire, which is exactly what the previous stanzas built in their hearts. So what is causing this sudden change?

Men, of course.

In lines 31-32, Barbauld explains that due to mutual love, women will lose their lust for power in a male dominated society. Barbauld is basically saying that while women can be swayed away from revolution by the love of a man. All the ambition found in the previous stanzas goes to waste under the gaze of a tender man. This, she says, it part of “nature’s school”, which basically means that it is natural for females to lose their social aspirations when in love.

Detail-from-the-Nine-Living-Muses-of-Great-Britain-1799.-Barbauld-is-raising-her-hand.
“The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain” by Richard Samuel

Final Thoughts

Barbauld has created a literary roller coaster with “The Rights of Woman”. Initially, we have a call to action for women to rise up against patriarchy. By the middle of the poem, the action rises. Barbauld pushes her ambitions for women even further, saying that women should not only be equals, but should also rule over their male counterparts. This attitude is then demolished by the final two stanzas, that basically say that a women’s natural role is to be a lover of man, not a lover of power. Once a woman saddles up and finds herself a husband, she naturally defaults into the housewife role, and her ambition to rule is swept away.

vindicationSo where is all this coming from? This poem came shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. By the title alone, one can see that “The Rights of Woman” is reactionary to Wollstonecraft’s novel. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication was known for its outspoken demand for equal education opportunities for women. With this in mind, it is easy to see how Barbauld’s poem conflict’s with that notion; in “The Rights of Woman”, she states that these dreams of equality become unimportant once a woman feels the love of a man. In her mind, it’s pointless to fill a woman with an impassioned, rebellious attitude when it will dissipate under the influence of romance.

View Works Cited


ryanandcat

Ryan Jace French is an English student, blogger, and
fishing enthusiast attending Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH.  He can often be found weeping over his student debt while cooking Ramen noodles in the Belknap communal kitchen. Follow him on Twitter today: @RJaceFrench

Lamia: Victim or Perpetrator?

Lamia, in addition to being the main character of John Keats’s poem, is also a creature of Greek myth. Her name means “large shark” in ancient Greek (Atsma). Originally a queen of Libya, she became one of Zeus’s lovers as she was very beautiful. Hera found out and murdered her children in a jealous rage (Atsma). In order to help her get revenge, Zeus turned Lamia into a sea monster with an appetite for human children (Atsma). In this original myth, Lamia is a victim to the goddess’s wrath and Zeus’s weird perception of getting revenge rather than a true perpetrator of evil. Read more about the Lamia of myth here!

When we first meet Lamia in Keats’s poem, she is a beautiful snake with a woman’s mouth rather than a sea monster. She is “dazzling”, “rainbow-sided”, and has fair eyes (Keats 937). These are pretty words, however, she is also described as “some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self” (Keats 937). Changing Lamia from a sea monster to a beautiful snake could be a reference to the treacherous serpent in the bible. She also has a “woman’s mouth, with all its pearls complete” (Keats 937). According to the Bible, Eve convinces Adam to eat the apple, so the woman’s mouth with perfect teeth would be a vision of temptation but dishonesty. The snake combined with a woman’s mouth is a deadly combination, treacherous but beautiful. The snake-woman is the forbidden fruit herself.

Although she claims to love Lycius, the man she covets and asked Hermes to turn her human for, she does not seem to show much care for his well-being. After explaining to him that she cannot live among humans, he faints.

The cruel lady, without any show/ of sorrow for her tender favorite’s woe/ but rather, if her eyes could brighter be/ With brighter eyes and slow amenity/Put her new lips to his, and gave afresh/The life she had so tangled in her mesh:/And as he from one trance was wakening/ Into another, she began to sing,/ Happy in beauty, life, and love, and every thing,/A song of love, too sweet for earthly lyres,/While, like held breath, the stars drew in their panting fires/And then she whisper’d in such trembling tone,/As those who, safe together met alone/ For the first time through many anguish’d days,/ Use other speech than looks; bidding him raise/ His drooping head, and clear his soul of doubt,/ For that she was a woman, and without/ Any more subtle fluid in her veins/Than throbbing blood, and that the self-same pains/ Inhabited her frail-strung heart as his (Keats 942)

First of all, she is described as a “cruel lady”, another negative word. To be cruel is to mean to cause one harm, uncaring of the pain of others. These lines say explicitly she does not show any sign that she is concerned for her lover. On the contrary, her eyes could not possibly be any brighter once he faints. “Bright eyes” can be used as a euphemism for eagerness. As opposed to being concerned for his safety and well-being, she is excited to have him in such a vulnerable and easily corruptible state. His life is “so tangled in her mesh”, leaving him unable to escape her influence. Next, she sings so beautifully that she convinces him utterly that she is a normal woman and not a snake in disguise. This likens her to the Greek siren, whose lovely singing lures men to their death. The siren is also a water creature, which connects to the original Greek myth that she was transformed into some type of sea monster. Under the influence of her siren song, she also convinces him that “the self-same pains/Inhabited her frail-strung heart as his” (Keats, 941), implying that her heart is different from his and that she does not truly feel the same human love for him that he does for her. Lamia, although she protests that she was once human in the past, has proven here that she is a nefarious character.

Finally, Apollonius, Lycius’s old mentor, shows up unannounced to his and Lamia’s wedding. Apollonius is named after the Greek god Apollo, who is the god of music, poetry, archery, and light. However, he is also described as “the god who punishes and destroys the wicked and the overbearing” (Atsma). Lamia has already been described as cruel and demon-like, so it should not be surprising that a character with Apollo’s name, with his piercing, spear-like stare would be the one to ultimately destroy Lamia. Apollo is also the god of prophecies (Atsma). Right before Lamia and Lycius’s wedding, Apollonius is confirmed to be able to see the future as well. “His patient thought, had now begun to thaw/ and solve and melt:–‘twas just as he foresaw” (Keats 947). Since Apollonius is able to see the future, or at least guess correctly at what would happen next, we can draw further parallels between him and the god Apollo.

While in the original Greek myth Lamia may have been a victim of Hera’s wrath, in Keats’s poem Lamia is quite obviously depicted as a treacherous snake who keeps Lycius from his true calling—philosophy and rationality. Her siren spell traps him, and so when Apollonius the mentor reveals the truth, he dies along with her of a broken heart. According to Keats, Lamia was cruel for keeping Lycius underneath her spell and neglecting his studies. This poem is a warning to men. Beware of tempting women who will make you stray from the path of knowledge and truth, lest they turn out to betray you and take your life away. In short, beware of all-encompassing love.

Works Cited

Atsma, Aaron J. “APOLLO- Greek God of Music, Prophecy, & Healing.” Theoi Greek Mythology. 2001. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.theoi.com/olympios/apollon.html&gt;

Atsma, Aaron J. “LAMIA.” LAMIA – Demon & Sea-Monster of Greek Mythology. Theoi Greek Mythology, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <http://www.theoi.com/Ther/Lamia.html&gt;.

Keats, John. “Lamia.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Comp. Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 935-50. Print.

Waterhouse, John W. Lamia, Second Version. Digital Image. Wikipedia. Web. 30 Mar 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamia#/media/File:Lamia_Waterhouse.jpg&gt;

Master Storify – Confessions of a Romantic Period Reader

Reflecting upon a day well spent,

Observing daffodils, and grand mountains, as I went,

I felt a strong sense of emotion, as I saw nature, in all of its glory,

Embodying Wordsworth’s rules, as depicted in this bedtime story.

The Romantic Period, as you soon will learn,

Saw numerous literary forms, concepts, and writers, including lots of poetry.

Lasting from 1789, with the French Revolution, until 1837, when Queen Victoria claimed the throne, one may discern,

The Romantic Period was a significant era in history.