Barber ranked high in the opinion of the master essayist and poet Jonathan Swift, although later generations did not judge her poetry to be particularly skillful. A woman whose plans never quite reached fruition, Barber yet made a name for herself in Irish literary circles, with Swift supporting the publication of a collection of her poems. In "Written for My Son," Barber places words in the mouth of her child, who suppos edly complained about the restraints caused by various articles of clothing. While a feminist critical reading might interpret the poem as containing a message in subtext regarding the oppression of powerless individuals by custom, no indication exists that Barber intended the poem as any type of protest. Rather she frames her child's complaint as a humorous presentation, light in subject and substance.
The poem is formatted in five uneven verses with a total of 56 lines. In straightforward couplets Barber adopts simple rhymes that satisfyingly imitate a child's voice. She begins with two lines that mimic the limerick form, a clever suggestion of a child's riddle: "What is it our mamas bewitches, / To plague us little boys with breeches?" What follows is a rendition of the effect of binding clothing on the child's body. Examples of lines include
. . . and then our feet, though young and tender, We to the shoemaker surrender, Who often makes our shoes so strait our growing feet they cramp and fret.
In the second verse the speaker discusses clothes that are only considered "neat" when "they're so tight we cannot eat," and a hat band that "helps to cramp our brains." By the third verse the persona deviates to consider the irony in humans, who are "Fair privilege of nobler natures, / To be more plagued than other creatures!" Those creatures include "The wild inhabitants of air," which "Are clothed by heaven with wondrous care: The beauteous, well-compacted feathers / Are coats of mail against all weathers." The speaker laments, "Man only seems to sorrow born, / Naked, defenceless and forlorn."
The poem concludes with a traditional complaint against Custom, which has "usurped" the throne of Reason. Custom defies Reason's "rules" and
Delights to make us act like fools. o'er human race the tyrant reigns, And binds them in eternal chains. We yield to his despotic sway, The only monarch all obey.
The final two lines are the best of the poem, with the phrase despotic sway a strong example of hidden alliteration and the personification of Custom as a monarch effective. Although hardly sophisticated, both the sound and sense of the poem remain pleasing and appropriate to a verse about being a child.
WROTH, LADY MARY (1587?-1651-1653)
Born into a privileged and literary family, Mary Wroth was the eldest of six children. Her father, Sir Robert Sidney, later earl of Leicester, was a poet and a patron of the arts, while her wealthy mother, Barbara Gamage, was cousin to Sir Walter Raleigh. Her uncle and aunt, Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Sidney Herbert (countess of Pembroke), were widely known for their poetry as well as for the literary circles Lady Herbert held at her home. Mary Wroth's parents instilled in her the family's artistic values as well as the values of community and hospitality. When her father received an appointment in 1588 as governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, she moved in with her aunt. She enjoyed a happy childhood raised at Lady Herbert's estate, which was celebrated by Ben Jonson in "To Penshurst." The court became another home for Mary, after the appointment of her father by James I as an earl. She was pledged in an arranged marriage to Sir Robert Wroth, a wealthy landowner and favorite of the king, a union fated to fail.
Contemporaries noted Robert Wroth's jealous tendencies as his wife's popularity at court grew. He gained a reputation as a womanizer and a spendthrift, while Mary's reputation remained pristine, garnering her sympathy of those at court. She began writing poetry and prose and performed in a masque written by Jonson for Queen Anne, Masque of Beauty. The Wroths made a handsome couple despite their differences, and Jonson dedicated poetry to them both. He also dedicated his drama The Alchemist to Mary. The marriage soon ended with Robert's untimely death in 1614, leaving Mary alone with a son to raise and large debts to manage. Legal matters took away her share of her husband's estate, and within two years of Robert's death Wroth also lost her son. A short time later she began an affair with her cousin, who was also a poet, William Herbert, earl of Pembroke; they had a son and a daughter. Although the arrangement caused her to lose her preferred standing at court, the poet Edward Herbert, lord of Cherbury, dedicated a poem to their daughter.
Wroth continued to write, producing the astonishing uncompleted romance titled The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621) that contained the first sonnet sequence published by an English woman, "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus." She modeled her ambitious work, the first of prose fiction by an English woman, on her uncle Philip's famous Arcadia. The males in Wroth's romance proved unfaithful and irresponsible, as she examines the ideal of fidelity and the double standard in its application mainly to women of her era. Twentieth-century feminist critics found it of great interest, as the female characters have a clear sense of identity separate from their lovers and husbands. Not a roman a clef, the sequence nevertheless suggested real-life courtiers in its characterizations, drawing the ire of several well-placed public figures. Those criticizing her work included the royalist poet Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, who attacked its supposedly lascivious and unsuitably amorous nature in her Sociable Letters. The charge proved successful, if untrue; Pamphilia is clearly distinguished by her virtue. She will not yield to Amphilanthus until he demonstrates maturity and fidelity. Wroth based her heroine on a shepherdess in Arcadia, a characterization she much admired. After trying in vain to defend Urania publicly, Wroth had to recall it, dashing her hopes for the income it should have produced. Little to nothing is known of her life after that scandal.
While Wroth could not publish the completed version of her masterpiece, it was discovered in the 20th century. In addition to the prose romance and the sonnet sequence, the original book contained some 74 additional poems, one written by William Herbert, and others of that group remaining in manuscript form. It included a "crown" of sonnets, poems in a challenging fixed form, such as the often anthologized "IN THIS STRANGE LABYRINTH HOW SHALL I TURN?" Additional commonly published sonnets from "Pamphilia and Amphilanthus" include "My muse now happy, lay thyself to rest," "When night's black mantle," "My pain
STILL SMOTHERED IN MY GRIEVED BREAST," and the song,
"Love a child is ever crying" and "Sweetest love, return again." This extraordinary output made Wroth the most published woman of her day. Although she had spent a good deal of time at the Jacobean court and her writing occasionally reflected some influence by John Donne, most of Wroth's work remains remarkable for its freedom from conventions of her day. Rather it echoed the times of the Elizabethan writers, including her uncle. Josephine A. Roberts published much of Wroth's work in a modern edition, and other feminist critics have assured this amazing woman's place in the history of English poetry.
Was this article helpful?