Malcolmson, Cristina. George Herbert: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
"AMBITION" Mary Astell (1689) Mary
Astell proved unusual among her contemporaries in supporting personal independence for women, although within the traditional patriarchal social structure. If society accepted the natural equality of the sexes, women could benefit from expansion of economic and work opportunities. Astell defended that idea in her prose. In her poem "Ambition," written while she was a teenager on March 30, 1684, Astell proposes faith as a more traditional route to independence. In four eight-line verses composed of four couplets each, she suggests that the immortality sought by male writers and those who possess an ambition for fame pales when compared to the ideal of Christian immortality. As her biographer Ruth Perry suggests, Astell made "a virtue of necessity" as she attempted to benefit from her gender's submissive position.
"Ambition" opens with the self-questioning of the poem's persona, who asks herself, "What's this that with such vigor fills my breast?" She next compares the force she feels to that of "the first mover," alluding to the medieval astronomical plan featuring the primum mobile. It occupied the outermost sphere but affected all aspects of the universe with its movement, making, as the speaker notes, "all submit to its imperial laws!" Astell therefore equates ambition to the strongest universal force, one that did not always result in good. Her next comparison of ambition is to "what Prometheus stole," referring to the mythological story of the Titan Prometheus, assigned by Jupiter to make humans from mud and water, who gave them the forbidden gift of fire. His punishment was consignment for eternity to pushing a large stone up a steep grade only to have it roll back again, requiring continuous repetition of his movements. She thus suggests that ambition leads to futility. Astell concludes the first verse with the persona announcing she cannot control the "sophistry," or deception, of those "Who falsely say that women have no soul." Thus, she begins her argument not only in favor of religious faith, but of women's place within that faith.
In verse two, the voice strongly declares, vile greatness! I disdain to bow to thee,
Thou are below even lowly me,
I would no fame, no titles have,
Astell makes clear that despite man's collection of titles and material goods, all humans must eventually bow to the universal leveler, death. She continues explaining that she has no desire to "reign" over worlds but wishes only for "empire o'er my self obtain." Self-control remained a social edict for women, who in Renaissance times were believed to have wild sexual desires that men had to control, for the good of the women themselves. One theory, inherited from the classical beliefs of the physician Galen, held that women's wombs wandered about their bodies when they lacked sexual satisfaction. Even in the Augustan age of reason, traditional views of women persisted. Astell extends the metaphor of
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