duchess of Newcastle (1653) When Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, wrote "An Excuse for So Much Writ upon My Verses," she joined her contemporary, the American poet Anne Bradstreet, in referring to her poetry as her offspring. Unlike Brad-street, Cavendish had no children of her own and expressed the seeming tension between that absence and her mainly healthy self-image by noting that the fame one attained through writing proved more satisfying than children, who could become treacherous to their parents. While Cavendish may have suppressed her anxiety about publishing with a brash approach contrasting greatly with Bradstreet's humility, they shared concern over how the public might receive writing by a woman. Unlike Bradstreet, who wrote mainly of her domestic sphere, Cavendish's topics often proved more ambitious, as she focused on her own brand of science. She then suffered attack by those who accused her of placing her name on writings by her husband and brother-in-law. She adamantly denied the claim, although she had somewhat invited it by carefully excusing her female "ignorance," then presuming to write about scientific and philosophical topics whose familiarity was generally gained only by upper-class males through formal education. She had enjoyed a tutored education as a child in a wealthy family, but not over an extended time, as she and her rowdy siblings succeeded in driving away several tutors. Thus, some readers did not understand how she might have acquired certain knowledge expressed in her poetry.
In this brief 10-line poem of rhyming couplets, Cavendish adopts a light tone. The apology would become a common convention for women, who spent 200 writing years making excuses for their activity. Thus, she calls to readers, "Condemn me not for making such a coil," where coil meant "trouble" or "turmoil," "About my book, alas it is my child." By adopting figurative language comparing her words to offspring, she plays upon public sympathy; anyone could understand the motherly impulse to protect her children. She also manages to identify herself with women who enjoyed motherhood, something she did not. The fact that she remained childless while married to a once-widowed duke who had already fathered multiple children no doubt raised public suspicion about her femininity.
Cavendish then extends her metaphor of her writing as offspring by using imagery of a mother bird who must eventually urge her fledglings to fly from the nest, offering the woman-as-bird symbol that would become important to later feminist critics in their study of early women writers. As she identifies herself with a mother bird that pursues unceasing honest labor on behalf of her babies, she asks the public to approve of her own activity nurturing her creation. She also suggests that she achieves a personal freedom as her words, so intimately identified with her, achieve independence:
Just like a bird, when her young are in nest,
Goes in, and out, and hops, and takes no rest;
But when their young are fledged, their heads out peep,
She humorously implies that just as baby birds create a disturbance that forces the mother to push them out and onto their own, her writing clamored for public reception, to be allowed a chance for exposure to readers. Because that exposure carried the threat of destruction while exposed to, in her case, critical elements, she must cry out a warning to her own words. She explains her position, writing,
So I, for fear, my strengthless child should fall
Against a door, or stool, aloud I call,
Bid have a care of such a dangerous place:
Thus write I much, to hinder all disgrace.
Although Cavendish remains unassuming with a teasing tone, her noting the reading world is a "dangerous place" reveals her real concern over public reaction to her words. The public had already made clear their attitude toward her as an eccentric in both dress and preoccupation with the intellectual life, which had remained theretofore a male arena. The danger for women who overstepped socially established boundaries separating females from males proved quite real. However, with her husband's devoted protection and support, Cavendish flourished as a writer, becoming astoundingly productive and outspoken on behalf of freedom for her sex, or at least those in her own social class.
"EYAM" Anna Hunter Seward (1788) Anna Hunter Seward wrote "Eyam" as she visited her birthplace, Eyam in Derbyshire, where her father had served as pastor. The poem sadly recalls the happier days of her childhood. At the time Seward visited Eyam, she had lost two siblings as infants, her younger sister and best friend as an adult, her adult foster sister, and her mother. Most important to the poem, her father had fought a long battle with mental illness, during which Seward acted as full-time caregiver; he would die two years after she wrote "Eyam." The form of the poem is seven eight-line stanzas, each with the rhyme pattern ababccdd.
After noting that she is allowed "one short week" for her visit, the poem's speaker remarks in the second line on the responsibility she bears for her father, writing that she leaves the "Source of my filial cares, the Full of Days." Although Seward probably intended the brief escape from nursing duties as a respite, it seems to have had more of a melancholy than an uplifting effect. Her strong use of descriptive detail may be seen as she describes the nearby Derwent River: "I trace the Derwent's amber wave, / Foaming through umbrag'd banks." Even the river suggests sad memories, as an acquaintance distraught over financial difficulties had committed suicide by jumping into the river. She continues by describing the countryside as "The soft, romantic valleys, high o'er-peered, / By hills and rocks, in savage grandeur reared." Seward's use of past tense may indicate that she remains lost in memories, rather than immersed in the present. She mentions "Thy haunts, my native Eyam, long unseen" and remarks on the "lov'd inhabitants" that she imagines she sees "again." She notes their gaze is from "the eyes of Friendship," but that they inspire in her "pain'd sighs" and a "spontaneous flow" of tears. She recalls that she had viewed everything while "by a Father's side," now "pastor, to this human-flock no more," while "Distant he droops, and that once gladdening eye / Now languid gleams." The melancholy tone heightens as the speaker remarks on the change in the walk from one "once smooth, and vivid green" to one of "weedy gravel . . . / Rough, and unsightly," as she makes her way to the now "deserted rectory."
Knowing that she may never return, the speaker walks through the church and her "vital spirits freeze, / Passing the vacant pulpit" where the ashes of her infant sister "sleep." She describes the church beams "with paper garlands hung / In memory of some village youth, or maid," adding that the sight draws from her "the soft tear" as she recalls how often her "childhood mark'd that tribute paid." Here Seward reflects on the many deaths that were a part of the life of her youth. She adds a touching description of a pair of "gloves, suspended by the garland's side, / White as its snowy flowers." She concludes the penultimate verse by addressing her onetime home: "Dear village, long these wreaths funereal spread, / Simple memorials of thy early dead!" in which her own siblings would have been included.
Seward concludes her poem by returning to the "blank, and silent pulpit!" a metaphor for her own father, whose "precepts, just, and bland, / Didst win my ear, as reason's strength'ning glow." She describes his "eloquence" as "paternal, nervous, clear," and imagines him before her "sad, suffs'd, and trembling gaze" as a "Dim Apparition" that draws from her a "bitter" tear. The contrast of the dim apparition to her father's once-sharp expression is achieved with lucid imagery, and Seward emphasizes her deepening gloom with the adjective bitter to describe tears she earlier described as "soft."
Seward's autobiographical poem remains the one that critics most favor. It well illustrates her sentimen tality, yet also exhibits a modicum of restraint, as if Seward sought to pay tribute to her father's "just, and bland" pronouncements through her own words. The speaker's voice remains abject, calm, and completely despondent.
Was this article helpful?