Byrne, Paula. Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson. New York: Random House, 2004.
"TO THE POOR" Anna Laetitia Barbauld
(1825) Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote "To the Poor" in 1795, but it would not be published until 1825. It remains of interest in its strong projection of themes common in Barbauld's work of the mistreatment of marginalized members of society and the responsibility of the church to supply the support that the government often did not. As wife of a minister Barbauld often worked among church members, and she also taught young children, activities that relate to her attack in "To the Poor" on the lack of concern by the wealthy for those living in poverty, especially children.
Barbauld creates a sympathetic but strong persona who uses forceful language to make her point. The poem opens, "Child of distress, who meet'st the bitter scorn / Of fellow-men to happier prospects born," making clear that the distress suffered by the child is a direct result of lack of concern of those born to wealth. The child's distress is heightened because she is "doomed" to observe "Art and Nature's various stores" that "flow in full cups of joy" but she is not privileged to sample. Barbauld attacks those who use the name of religion to excuse their disregard as she continues explaining that the child also observes the wealthy resign to "heaven and fate" the "affliction" of the poor, their excuses allowing them to bear those afflictions "with a patient mind."
The next lines express the pitiable condition of the child:
Whose bursting heart disdains unjust control, Who feel'st oppression's iron in thy soul, Who dragg'st the load of faint and feeble years, Whose bread is anguish, and whose water tears.
Barbauld adopts a comparison of the child's plight to that of prisoners whose sustenance is bread and water to make clear the child's oppression. With little hope for any improvement in the child's condition the speaker admonishes her, "Bear, bear thy wrongs—fulfil thy destined hour, / Bend thy meek neck beneath the foot of Power;" because the Child can do nothing else. She must commit herself to the mercy of those in power, who apparently have no mercy to spare.
Although the 22 lines of rhyming couplets are not organized into verses, line 13 moves into a second stage in which the speaker focuses on the child's early death as a release from the terror and control inflicted upon her during her brief life:
But when thou feel'st the great deliverer nigh, And thy freed spirit mounting seeks the sky, Let no vain fears thy parting hour molest, No whispered terrors shake thy quiet breast.
Barbauld adopts the traditional approach to death as deliverance from suffering and calls upon religious imagery of the assent of the spirit into the sky to heaven. The poem's persona bids the child not to worry when death arrives, explaining that no earthly force can keep her spirit on earth. Barbauld then blasts members of the aristocracy, writing, "Think not their threats can work thy future woe, / Nor deem the Lord above like lords below." She makes clear that God, as a heavenly Lord, exercises the care over heaven's tenants that earthly lords reject, finding it too burdensome.
In her final four lines the speaker gently urges the child to prepare to meet her maker and then turns her ire upon the church for allowing government control to influence its attitude toward the poor:
Safe in the bosom of that love repose By whom the sun gives light, the ocean flows; Prepare to meet a Father undismayed, Nor fear the God whom priests and kings have made.
Barbauld suggests that religion and monarchy have conjured a God in order to use it as an excuse to satisfy their own agendas; this is not the Father who awaits the child. That Father remains "undismayed," untouched by the influence of earthly powers.
According to the scholar Roger Lonsdale, Barbauld showed her poem to a friend soon after writing it, describing it as "inspired by indignation on hearing sermons in which the poor are addressed in a manner which evidently shows the design of making religion an engine of government." Never one to mince words or soften her message, Barbauld expresses dismay over the dangers inherent in the church's sharing with the government a shameful attitude toward the poor. Even worse would be the church's becoming an instrument of the monarchy, pursuing a material agenda rather than a spiritual one. England's treatment of its working class became more and more abusive after the Indus trial Revolution, which began about 1760. Decreased economic support for workers was exacerbated by the depression sparked by the Napoleonic Wars, which at last ended in 1815. Barbauld's timely poem appeared just prior to the development of forces such as Chartism, a political movement that formed in reaction to working-class discontent with the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Poor Law of 1834. Many saw the bills as discriminatory against workers who faced multiple abuses in the new industrialized society.
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