Barbauld (1795) Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote "The
Rights of Women" as a formal declaration regarding the lack of women's civil rights in early 19th-century England. She addresses her audience as "injured Woman!" urging that woman to "rise, assert thy right!" To emphasize the fact that only females will profit from the advice that follows, she repeats the personal exclamation "Woman!" at the beginning of her second line, followed by a discouraging description of that woman as "too long degraded, scorned, oppressed." Her railing focuses on legal restrictions as instruments of degradation and oppression. Because such legalities are controlled by the patriarchal culture, she suggests the only way a woman may rise above civil control is through responsibility for herself; a female can only experience liberty within her private sphere. The poem's speaker concludes the first four-line verse with a lament, followed by a call to action: "O born to rule in partial Law's despite, / Resume thy native empire o'er the breast!" Again with the phrase in partial Law's despite she urges her audience to defy an unjust law using whatever manner is available.
The poem's persona next instructs women in how to claim their personal independence. Adopting figurative language (figure of speech) in the extended metaphors of religion, royalty, and the military, Bar-bauld suggests that women march together, that they "Go forth arrayed in panoply divine" to project an "angel pureness which admits no stain." Readers will recognize the allusion to biblical angels, often known for their combative natures, as well as their purity. Of course angels lack humanity, a concept that promotes irony in the suggestion that women would have to be inhuman in order to assume an angelic mantle. The next order focuses on male pride, as Barbauld uses alliteration for effect: "Go, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign / And kiss the golden scepter of thy reign." While men suffer pride, women must resist a temptation to do the same, retaining a pure stance in their personal kingdom. The third stanza continues, "Go, gird thyself with grace, collect thy store / Of bright artillery glancing from afar," making clear that women will face resistance and must arm themselves for battle. However, theirs will be a non-traditional method, stressed by Barbauld through the use of paradox in "Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon's roar." She then adopts the Victorian consid eration of women as overly emotional, describing what will provide their ammunition: "Blushes and tears thy magazine of war."
The fifth stanza suggests that women also employ "wit and art" to try to bring men, "thy imperial foe," to their knees, the third line offering the wisdom, "Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend." Barbauld makes clear that woman must employ her wiles to conquer man, that he cannot be trusted as a friend. Even such a victory gives little comfort as women "mayest command, but never canst be free." Barbauld again offers a paradox, declaring that women may bid men to do their will, but that does not constitute to freedom outside the domestic sphere. In the next stanza the voice continues suggesting ways to gain freedom, bidding the audience,
Awe the licentious and restrain the rude;
Soften the sullen, clear the cloudy brow:
Be, more than princes' gifts, thy favors sued;—
She hazards all, who will the least allow.
Barbauld creates a skillful riddle, playing off the idea of risk. That sixth stanza's final line basically tells readers that those women who do not accept men as they are, working to curb undesirable behavior by giving of themselves, risk losing personal contentment.
In a surprising turn the poem's tone softens in its final two stanzas, where the speaker admonishes that pride will not remain where a true sympathy exists between two people. Through her action, the woman controls not only the man, but herself, and "subduing and subdued, thou shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way." Barbauld suggests that while the pride she mentioned earlier comes naturally to man, women's warmer natures will not sustain it. Her final stanza focuses even more closely on the natural differences between women and men, noting that women will "abandon each ambitious thought," that they are not moved by "Conquest of rule." Women learn not from mankind's arbitrary rules, but rather from "Nature's school" through "soft maxims. . . . That separate rights are lost in mutual love."
Barbauld's poem supports the idea held by many historians that women were allowed power within the home, if not in public. In most instances women controlled domestic issues, even though they could not, by law, have any ownership rights in the household they managed. Important to note in her final line is that she does not suggest that in the end woman must surrender to man. She emphasizes in closing not winning and losing, but rather the mutual respect that renders individual, civically determined privilege moot. Although she wrote into the 19th century, Barbauld remained grounded in 18th-century thought, and that century's emphasis on moderation and toleration as paths to prosperity framed her writing. While women of her youth had lost economic independence as a rural existence transformed into an urban one, they gained the privilege of education and expansion of middle-class opportunity that allowed the emergence of thoughtful writing women like Barbauld. Not yet ready to march for women's rights, nor even considering doing so a necessity, Barbauld focused on themes in her writing that emphasized the strength women could draw from their relationships with men as a manner by which to counter public forces that sought to control them.
RIME ROYAL Rime royal, a format probably created by Chaucer, remained a favorite with Renaissance writers, including Michael Drayton. Usually in seven-line verses its rhyme scheme was ababbcc. Verse length could vary, however, as in Nicholas Breton's "Come Little Babe," a late 16th- or early 17th-century lullaby containing six-line verses that omitted one of the middle b rhymes. Rime royal did not insist on distinct verses, often appearing in lengthy poems with no verse organization. Not appropriate to common verse, rime royal appeared in more elevated, courtly poetry. William Shakespeare employed it in his "Rape of Lucrece." Its use declined after the 17th century, as a result of changes in reader tastes and an increase in the production of poetry that focused on more common subjects for the more common reader.
Was this article helpful?