Anna Letitia Barbauld Selected Poetry and Prose
Transcending the Cosmos in “A Summer Evening’s Meditation”
“A Summer Evening’s Meditation” is a poem by Anna Letitia Barbauld that was published in 1773. The poem details the expansive thoughts of the speaker who is reflecting and philosophizing upon a summer evening’s sky. In this poem, Barbauld carries readers through the cosmos for a transcendental experience with her poetic stylization and by use of literary devices, specifically personification. Through personification of planets and stars, Barbauld communicates the speaker’s feeling of divine connection to nature. Barbauld’s “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” is a Romantic presentation of an astral projection-like meditative experience that leads to a greater knowledge of the self and a closer connection to God.
The poem begins at the close of day, and the speaker of the poem is eased by the sun’s setting because the night sky allows for a more meditative state of mind. Barbauld describes the sun as an oppressive figure who stifles the wonders of the night sky through personification. This portrayal of the sun highlights the importance of the temporal setting of night time for the speaker’s transcendental experience; further, this attribution of humanlike qualities to the sun allows the speaker to understand the sun in a more meaningful manner. Barbauld opens the poem with an exclamatory remark to emphasize the importance of the sun’s setting. She writes,
‘Tis past! The sultry tyrant of the south
Has spent his short-lived rage; more grateful hours
Move silent on; the skies no more repel
The dazzled sight … (1-4)
Barbauld’s personification of the sun as a “sultry tyrant” emphasizes the relief felt by the speaker at sunset. The sun does not merely shine; rather, it rages on oppressively with stifling heat, humidity, and brightness. The stars, which Barbauld depicts as having feminine beauty and soft, flowing grace, are “repelled” by the sun’s harsh nature. The nighttime is personified as being the “more grateful hours” of the day, and this implies that the sun is ungrateful. It is clear that the sun is the enemy of the speaker’s meditative mind.
As the burdensome sun sets, the moon and the stars begin to glisten in the night sky, and the speaker of the poem finds herself in a state of contemplation. In contrast to the negative connotation given to the sun through Barbauld’s use of personification, the moon and the stars are personified through terms of radiance and favorability. Barbauld, personifying the moon in contrast to the sun, writes,
… but with mild maiden beams
Of tempered lustre court the cherished eye
To wander o’er their sphere; where, hung aloft,
Dian’s bright crescent, like a silver bow
New strung in heaven, lifts high its beamy horns
Impatient for the night, and seems to push
Her brother down the sky. (4-10)
Unlike the sun, which is personified as an oppressive figure, the night sky is personified as an inviting and gentle female figure. The depiction of the moonbeam’s luster “courting” the “cherished eye” showcases the tone with which Barbauld approaches the night sky. Through her personification of the moon, Barbauld creates a connection between the speaker and the moon that goes beyond simple stargazing. The moon beckons the speaker’s eyes to scan the sky, to find peace in the expansive night sky and its endless beauty and opportunity. Unlike the ungrateful sun, the moon is impatient, or eager, to hang in the sky and shine her own light. Barbauld’s personification of the moon is gentle and encouraging. Based on Barbauld’s personification of the moon, it is understood that the moon offers the time and the space for solitude and reflection. Contrasted against the tyrannical daylight, the soft, ethereal light of the moon offers the speaker an opportunity to reflect.
In addition to personifying the sun and moon, Barbauld continues to employ personification throughout the poem to depict other planets and stars in the cosmos. This concept of adding humanlike attributes to the planets and stars is conventional of the Romantic literary tradition because it allows for the speaker to connect with nature on a spiritual level. The planets and stars are not simply bodies of gas; they epitomize the power of God’s divinity. The night sky invokes a meditative mind in the speaker which allows her to view the cosmos from a philosophical perspective. The speaker, imagining herself floating through space, existing as one with the planets, feels a divine connection to the cosmos. The speaker views “solitary Mars,” Jupiter, who “dances in ether like the lightest leaf,” and “cheerless Saturn,” who “sits like an exiled monarch” (75-81). As the speaker of the poem, in her meditative state, begins to visualize herself drifting into the ether, she recognizes these planets and stars as their own sentient beings with a purposeful existence. It is through this personification of the night sky that the speaker comes to understand the concept of a living, breathing, and interconnected cosmos that exemplifies God’s power and divinity.
The speaker of the poem experiences serenity in the silence of the night, and this nurtures her ability to understand nature in a spiritually meaningful way. By visualizing herself among the stars in this astral projection-like experience, the speaker views the planets and stars as representations of God’s glorious creation, and she comes to realize the divinity in herself by seeing the divinity of the night’s sky. Barbauld writes,
… Or is there not
A tongue in every star, that talks with man,
And woos him to be wise? nor woos in vain:
This dead of midnight is the noon of thought,
And Wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars. (48-52)
Continuing her use of personification, Barbauld depicts the stars much like she depicts the moon. Like the moon, the stars call to the speaker; they woo her to seek some greater knowledge from their flickering. The speaker gains a closer understanding of herself and God by transcending her earthly form and aligning herself with the stars. For the speaker of the poem, the beauty of the stars captures the essence of God’s presence. It is at night, when the stars flicker and the moonlight softens the sky, that the speaker can witness the overwhelming yet humbling expanse of God’s creation.
In conclusion, Barbauld’s “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” demonstrates a conventionally Romantic portrayal of a starlit meditation that transforms into a transcendental astral projection-like experience which spiritually ignites the speaker. By utilizing personification in her writing, Barbauld pinpoints the divine connection that the speaker feels when reflecting upon the night sky. It is through this recognition of the divine interconnectedness of the cosmos and her place within them that the speaker realizes that she can find God in herself just as she finds God in the stars. In the poem, the night sky encourages a state of contemplation, and this state of contemplation allows for the speaker to transcend her physical state to gain a closer connection to God.
Barbauld, Anna Letitia. “A Summer Evening’s Meditation.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., D, W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 43–45.
A Masterful Mouse and a Wise Woman: The Female Figure of Wit in Hannah Cowley’s The Belle’s Stratagem and Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s The Mouse’s Petition to Doctor Priestley Found in the Trap where he had been confined all Night
“[Wit] means something pithy, penetrating, profound, aptly and forcefully expressed (and by extension, someone who is apt to speak in this way)” (Palmer 136). The female figure of wit was widely unaccepted in 18th and 19th century Britain. It was considered impolite or improper in these times for females to express witty sentiments in their writing. Despite this, “more and more poetry was written to be […] a display of wit, social grace, or accomplishment” (Backscheider 3). Anna Laetitia Barbauld demonstrates her wit in her poem “The Mouse’s Petition to Doctor Priestley Found in the Trap where he had been confined all Night” with her use of intellectual discourse and allegorical content in which the mouse is “especially adaptable to women’s concerns and their critique of masculine values” (Kraft 70). She appeals to Dr. Priestley and readers on a number of levels, proving herself to be extremely persuading regardless of the audience. On the other hand, in her play The Belle’s Stratagem, Hannah Cowley casts her main female character, Letitia, as a female figure of wit. Letitia’s crafty plan to persuade Doricourt to fall for her makes for a very successful representation of female wit and wisdom. The works of both Barbauld and Cowley are essential to the study of gender constructions and women’s ability to express wit in their writing. Each female writer cleverly appeals to the male ego, intellect and emotions in order to get what they want.Both Barbauld and Cowley appeal to the egos of men using tones of sarcasm and irony. “Like all fables, ‘The Mouse’s Petition’ has its interior shades of meaning [and] its winning style enacts the claim of its underlying metaphor” (Kostelanetz 197). Barbauld’s mouse is representative of a woman feeling confined by unequal gender constructions, and Dr. Priestley represents men as figures of ultimate power. Throughout the poem, Barbauld’s tone remains highly dramatized as if to mock men for believing they have ultimate reign over women. The mouse asks that Dr. Priestley “let not thy strong oppressive force/ A free-born mouse detain,” appealing to his sense of manliness by describing his force as “strong” (Barbauld 11-12). She continues this flattery a few lines later by describing his “hearth” as “hospitable” when ironically she means the opposite (Barbauld 14). Throughout the poem, Barbauld appeals to Dr. Priestley’s ego to aid in making her petition convincing. Cowley takes a similar stance in The Belle’s Stratagem during “the second installment of her masquerade romance, [when] Letitia adopts … an alternate persona, that of a witty charmer” (Isikoff 102). She showers Doricourt with flattery: “Fashion and taste preside in this spot; they throw/ their spells around you; ten thousand delights/ spring up at their command” (Cowley 4.1.201-203). Doricourt eagerly takes the bait: “And you, the most charming being in the world,/ awake me to admiration. Did you come from the stars?” (Cowley 4.1.205-207). Letitia responds, declaring that she “shall reascend in a moment” (Cowley 4.1.208). Just when Letitia has Doricourt wrapped around her finger with flattery, she sarcastically states her leave, inevitably hurting his ego. Any male with a damaged ego will predictably continue fighting for the eventual fulfillment of said ego, and Doricourt does so throughout the remainder of the play, determined to win the masked Letitia’s heart. While Barbauld’s mouse appeals to the male ego by flattering the male ego, Cowley’s leading woman does so by damaging it. Regardless, both women have the common goal of reaching their male target audience through the ego, hoping that the men will be blind to their mockery and in turn offer them what they desire (freedom and marriage, respectively).Barbauld’s mouse and Cowley’s Letitia continue their attempts to out-wit their male counterparts by appealing to their intellect. On the literal level, the mouse is pleading with Dr. Priestley to refrain from using her in scientific experiments. It is logical for the mouse to appeal to the doctor’s intelligence, as he is, after all, a well-established intellectual. Barbauld argues for the compassion embodied in any well-educated person. She writes:The well-taught philosophic mindTo all compassion gives;Casts round the world an equal eye,And feels for all that lives. (Barbauld 25-28)In this passage she both appeals to his ego by describing his “philosophic mind” as “well-taught”, and to his intellectual capacity by making a general statement about the generous capacity of well-educated persons. Barbauld is charming Dr. Priestley’s intellect with rationality. Similarly, Letitia works to charm Doricourt’s intellect and his desire to be with an intelligent woman throughout the masquerade, which “licensed both of Letitia’s required devices, mystery and wit” (Isikoff 107). Upon recognizing that Doricourt is not interested in her at first glance, she chooses to mask herself as each quality that Doricourt might desire in a woman: “English beauty, French vivacity, wit, elegance” (Cowley 4.1.286-289). Letitia’s plan works seamlessly, as Doricourt professes his love to her: You shall be nothing but yourself; nothing can be captivating that you are not. I will not wrong your penetration by pretending that you won my heart at the first interview. But you have now my whole soul. Your person, your face, your mind I would not exchange for those of any other woman breathing. (Cowley 5.5.283-289)Appealing to male intellect is significant to both Barbauld and Letitia, as they attempt to out-wit the men with whom they plea. Barbauld does so by appealing directly to Dr. Priestley’s intellect, while Cowley takes a more drawn out approach by gradually building Doricourt’s respect and admiration for Letitia because of her wit and craftiness.Barbauld’s mouse and Cowley’s Letitia also attempt to win over their male audiences by drawing directly on their emotions. The witty females attempt to unveil Dr. Priestley and Doricourt as men of feeling by enchanting their delicately refined sensibilities. Barbauld begins her poem by having the mouse tug on Dr. Priestley’s emotions:For here forlorn and sad I sit,Within the wiry grate;And tremble at th’ approaching morn,Which brings impending fate. (Barbauld 5-8)The mouse describes herself as “forlorn and sad”, trembling with dread. Any man with a shred of sensibility would feel compassionate towards a human in such a depressing state. Recognizing this likelihood, Barbauld personifies the mouse throughout the poem as a caged prisoner, hoping to appeal to Dr. Priestley’s sensibility. At the end of the poem, the mouse makes its final begging remarks: “May some kind angel clear thy path,/ And break the hidden snare” (Barbauld 47-48). Here, Barbauld’s mouse is still skillfully pulling at the doctor’s sympathies. Likewise, Letitia in The Belle’s Stratagem yearns to tug at Doricourt’s emotions as she forces him to wait until the last minute for her to remove her mask. In the meantime, Flutter has taken it upon himself to tell Doricourt that “she’s kept by Lord George Jennet” (Cowley 4.1.366). Revealing himself as a man of feeling, Doricourt begins to fall into a state of depression:Moon! Who dares talk of the moon? The patronessof genius—the rectifier of wits—the—Oh! Hereshe is!—I feel her—she tugs at my brain—she hasit—she has it—Oh! (Cowley 5.2.66-69) Just as Letitia has wittily devised, Doricourt is falling madly in love with her. She appeals to his emotions in a most enchanting fashion, and in turn wins his heart. While Barbauld’s mouse appeals to Dr. Priestley’s sentiments by aiming to make him feel guilty and remorseful, Cowley’s Letitia dupes Doricourt into falling for her. The two writers take different approaches, but both artfully appeal to male emotions.In The Mouse’s Petition and The Belle’s Stratagem, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Hannah Cowley cunningly beguile the male ego, wisdom and sensibility. In the case of The Mouse’s Petition, “however intended, the poem has indeed been read as a plea of humanity against cruelty, and also as a political statement” (Kraft 70). The mouse’s plea to Dr. Priestley comes to represent the disillusionment faced by women regarding unfair gender constructions and the male/female dichotomy in 18th and 19th century British society. Regarding The Belle’s Stratagem, “by adopting a conventional mask of reserve, Letitia makes herself indistinguishable from a sea of marriageable young ladies; it is only by literally masking herself that she unmasks her wit and talents” (Pix xlv). Letitia’s games with Doricourt more broadly symbolize the struggle women faced during the time to be recognized as witty, intellectual beings rather than only being noticed for their looks and manners – a feat Cowley may have been attempting to overcome by writing this play. What this says about women during this time period, then, is that they were generally unappreciated as intellectuals and without putting in reasonable effort. 18th and 19th century women writers have proven themselves as females of wit with clever dialogue and allegorical content, accentuating their intellect. As defined in the Dictionary of Sensibility:The right kind of wit goes hand in hand with strong feeling; rather than paving over sensibility, it enables active and powerful expressions of it. ‘True wit’ leads to a kind of natural invention which the Romantics will call “genius,” sensibility’s final, potent appropriation of craft. (Brady)Both Barbauld and Cowley demonstrate this craft with flair, proving their standing as respectable female figures of wit. Works CitedBackshielder, Paula R. Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005. Barbauld, Anna Laetitia. “The Mouse’s Petition to Doctor Priestley Found in the Trap where he had been confined all Night.” Eighteenth Century Women Poets. Ed. Roger Lonsdale. Oxford University Press, 1990. 302-303. Rpt. in ENGL 2880: Women in Literature 18th & 19th Century British Literature; Or, The Unsex’d Females. Comp. Anne Milne. Guelph: University of Guelph Bookstore, 2010. 29.Brady, Corey, Virginia Cope, Mike Millner, Ana Mitric, Kent Puckett, and Danny Siegel. “Wit/Humor/Invention.” Dictionary of Sensibility. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.
Anna Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”
Divisions within Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and ElevenAnna Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven demonstrates Romantic-era Cosmopolitanism’s promotion of a global consciousness and transnational empathy. Cosmopolitan theory emerged as a result of Napoleon’s growing power, English imperialism and the development of a global economy. This theory, however, is marked by the limitations and stereotypes of the time, as it frequently advocates European and Anglo superiority. Anna Barbauld’s poem is no exception. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven criticizes Britain’s foreign policy of imperialism, but is divided in doing so, illustrating the limitations of Romantic Cosmopolitanism. This poem, however, should not be devalued for its displays of insularity. Instead, we must examine the divisions and stereotypes, as well as recognize its progressive promotion of transnational sympathy to gain a greater understanding of cosmopolitan thought during Barbauld’s time. This paper will examine the divisions and successes of the poem through a close reading of lines 31-38 and 73-82. I will examine the poetic details of the poem, indicating that they function to create serious political poetry. I will then address the thematic concerns of cosmopolitanism within these passages and the entire poem. Finally, I will relate Eighteen Hundred and Eleven to Kant’s cosmopolitan outlook in “Perpetual Peace” to develop a greater understanding of the nature of Romantic-era cosmopolitanism. In completing a close reading of these specific passages, it is important to first identify the metrical form, rhyming structures and their implications. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is written in heroic couplets, constructed with iambic pentameter lines with a masculine rhyme. At the time this poem was written, serious political poetry written in heroic couplet form was often associated with conventional and conservative politics. Barbauld obviously wrote this poem to have a serious impact on English politics and change the country’s foreign policy. Heroic couplet form is therefore used to give the poem a more serious, credible tone. The fact that the metrical form used is associated with conservative politics seems to make her radical criticism of British foreign policy even more shocking. Interestingly, Barbauld uses several trochees and spondees within the metrical form, interrupting the conventional stress pattern of iambic pentameter. This adds energy and force to the language and, in turn, her political message. An example of a trochee is line 31, “Frequent, some stream obscure, some uncouth name”. This line begins with a stress and a trochee that renews the fervor within the language and enlivens the next passage. An example of a spondee is line 35, “Or the spread map with anxious eye explores”. The words “spread” and “map” are both stressed, creating a spondee, giving greater emphasis to this important image. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’s combination of traditional metrical form of heroic couplets with the use of frequent trochees and spondees creates vibrant, energetic political poetry to forcibly deliver her political message.The first passage, lines 31-38, describes the suffering of a female individual. The woman is not British, as depicted in line 31, “…some stream obscure, some uncouth name”. Her “husbands, brothers, friends” are killed in some global dispute and her suffering is illustrated. This is possibly an allusion to the War of 1812 and the woman could be a citizen of Napoleon’s empire is directly affected by British violence. The scene, however, is not explicit; this event could occur in any area, resulting from any global conflict. The woman is a universal individual. The reader easily relates and empathizes with her loss of family and sub sequential suffering. Barbauld creates empathy for the ‘other’ by particularizing the individual and describing their emotions in a universal manner. This is done in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven through the portrayal of individual’s within families, frequently women. The technique of a individuating a foreigner is used in works by different poets of this time to address the cosmopolitan concerns of abolitionism and women’s rights, for example, Yearsley’s A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade. Barbauld alludes to British imperialism in lines 35-36, with the imagery describing a map and the dissection of the world into different nations through imperialism. Obviously, the description of “dotted boundaries and penciled shores” is a description of the negative effects of imperialism. Barbauld indicates that the downfall of the British Empire will come from resistance and uprising against Britain, as a result of their imperialistic lack of transnational sympathy. The passage demonstrates that those who suffer as a result of British aggression understandably hate Britain. The woman we empathize with, “Asks where the spot that wrecked her bliss is found,/ And learns its name but to detest the sound” (lines 37-38). Eighteen Hundred and Eleven warns Britain of this future and also warns them of the blame and guilt from their suppression of others; “Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe” (line 46). In this manner, Barbauld draws attention to the negative political consequences of British foreign policy, as well as the emotional repercussions. The sympathy evoked in this passage is indeed the foundation of Barbauld’s progressive cosmopolitanism, as well as her call to end British imperialism that causes this suffering throughout the world. The poem calls for a spread of this global consciousness and presents the benefits of this ideal. For example, lines 165-168 describe a diverse and cosmopolitan London where her vision of cosmopolitanism is practiced, “Streets, where the turban’d Moslem, bearded Jew,/ and wolly Afric, met the brown Hindu;/ Where through each vein spontaneous plenty flowed,/ where Wealth enjoyed, and Charity bestowed”. This empathy is sometimes limited by Barbauld’s preference for the local. For example, the passage introduces the foreign woman by indicating that her name is “uncouth”. This description emphasizes this woman’s otherness and can also be considered a demeaning by suggesting she is less cultured. Barbauld’s cosmopolitan vision is shown to be limited by its Anglo-centricity. The second passage, lines 73-82, demonstrates these divisions between cosmopolitanism and insularism. Barbauld qualifies her notions of cosmopolitanism, as this passage celebrates the artistic and social accomplishments of Britain. The imagery and language insinuate the superiority of British culture. A specific example of this Euro-centric outlook is found in line 82, where Barbauld promotes the English language and accent as superior, and expresses joy that it has been spread throughout the world. The passage also includes the literary pattern of associating British culture with light, for example line 80, “Still from the lamp they streaming radiance pours”. This image associates Britain with the divine and, therefore, the enlightened and superior. Barbauld demonstrates her Anglo bias by elevating British accomplishments and uses language that devalues other cultures. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven subversively promotes anti-Muslim attitudes. For example, line 73 states, “Not like the dim cold Crescent shalt thou fade”. Note the use of a spondee to accent the words “cold” and “Crescent”, emphasizing this negative image of the Turkish Empire. Barbauld’s Anglo-centricity limits her progressive cosmopolitan view greatly. The poem’s demeaning view of Muslim culture and promotion of Britain undermines the cosmopolitan ideal of transnational sympathy. However, this is the result of the limits of her time and society and Eighteen Hundred and Eleven should be assessed with this understanding. This Euro-centric qualification is found throughout Romantic-era cosmopolitan theory. An interesting way in which to assess Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’s split between progressive cosmopolitanism and a more conservative insularity is to compare it with another example of Romantic-era cosmopolitanism, such as Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace”. These Romantic-era writers proscribe similar visions of global harmony that also display a divisive and limiting Euro-centric bias. Both Barbauld and Kant’s vision of cosmopolitanism both promote the virtues of international hospitality and sympathy. Barbauld does this by particularizing the suffering of an ‘other’ figure. Kant, on the other hand, does this though the philosophical assertion of national sovereignty and human rights. The works similarly call attention to the negative consequences of international aggression and violence, criticizing the “rules of states in particular, who are insatiable of war” (Kant 3). Barbauld illustrates the human loss and emotional suffering that result from these policies in a general manner. For example, the first passage describes the sufferings of a universal individual. Kant, on the other hand, cites specific examples of countries and conflicts that are suffering from the politics of aggression. These works are also similar because they give only abstract theories and ideals of cosmopolitanism, without any indication of how to actually implement them. Barbauld calls Britain to change their ways, but does not suggest how. Kant calls for a “league of nations” (Kant 16), but without giving any explanation as to how it should be organized or function in reality. There are several differences between the two works. Obviously, they are written in very different forms, as Kant explains his ideas through political philosophical writing. Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” criticizes all of European politics and foreign policies. His ideas of political reformations and organizations apply to the entire globe. Barbauld, on the other hand, only criticizes Britain. Another very important distinction is that Kant’s cosmopolitan ideal of international hospitality does not apply to women. Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven draws a great deal of attention to women’s suffering throughout the world, indicating the need for a promotion of women’s rights. Despite the differences in Kant and Barbauld’s cosmopolitanisms, they are both marked by the Euro-centricity of the time. Kant’s political model to establish world peace is proposes the implementation of a European construct throughout the world. The essay also displays inadvertent racism tendencies, similar to Barbauld. These two writers thought this way as a result of the beliefs of their society and time. This does not, however, discount the progressiveness of their works. We must identify, and learn from, the limitations of the Romantic-era in recognition of our own time’s faults. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, although problematic, is a highly progressive poem that advocates global empathy and the sympathy of the ‘other’. At the time of its publication, this poem was incredibly controversial, indicating just how radical her cosmopolitan ideals were. It also stands as a testament to the progress of women’s rights, as Barbauld boldly enters the world of male-dominated politics to promote national change and writes a serious, literary poem. Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven is so interesting because it exemplifies Romantic-era cosmopolitanism’s split between progressivism and nationalism.