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Cultivating a “Dissenting Frame of Mind”: Radical Education, the Rhetoric of Inquiry, and Anna Barbauld’s Poetry[1]

  • Brad Sullivan

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  • Brad Sullivan
    Western New England College

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As a leading figure in the Dissenting Academies at Warrington and Palgrave, Anna Letitia Aikin Barbauld has received considerable attention as an educator. In general, her reputation and reception as “Mrs. Barbauld” has been grounded in her role as a school mistress and children’s author rather than as a woman of letters. “Grounding” is an appropriate figure; Lisa Zunshine (2002) is one of many critics that have highlighted Samuel Johnson’s disappointment with Barbauld’s “‘voluntary descent from possible splendor to painful duty’ (quoted in Ellis 1874:75)” (123). It might be argued that her “grounding” in the world of education and children’s literature was a primary cause of her rapid disappearance from the literary canon of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century poetry, so nicely documented by Watson (1999). But my claims here are not so vast. I simply suggest that Barbauld’s educational milieu did not “ground” her as Dr. Johnson would assert, by attenuating her literary ambitions, but “grounded” her in perception, empirical thinking, science, and an experience- and inquiry-centered model of human cognition and learning. We might do well to call her Anna Aikin Barbauld in order to focus our attention on her heritage within the Aikin family, steeped in a tradition of Dissenting education that was deeply committed to human freedom of inquiry. In this article, I will show how Barbauld’s rhetorical strategies as a poet often aim to create a “Dissenting frame of mind” in her readers. Her approaches are interesting in themselves, and they may have had a considerable effect on later authors. Despite the efforts by Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Lamb to disassociate themselves from Barbauld, they all shared an interest in inquiry-centered, experiential learning. Understanding Barbauld’s poetic practices within this context may help us understand early romanticism more fully.

I. Some Assumptions and Complexities Concerning “Dissenting Education”

Anna Barbauld’s reception among leading contemporary men of letters reveals interesting patterns of assumption about her role as an educator. As cited by McCarthy, Vargo, Watson, Zunshine, and others, Samuel Johnson bemoaned Anna Aikin’s 1774 marriage to Rochemont Barbauld, disdaining his position as a schoolmaster. In Johnson’s view she was “lost” as a woman of letters because of this choice. Later, William Wordsworth tempered his admiration for her poem “Life” (which he admitted that he wished he had written) by saying that Barbauld “was ‘spoiled by being a Dissenter and concerned with a Dissenting academy’” (McLachlan 31). And, as noted by Richardson and others, Charles Lamb, in a letter to Coleridge, encouraged him to “‘Think what you would have been now, if instead of being fed with Tales and old wives fables in childhood, you had been crammed with Geography & Natural History? Damn them. I mean the cursed Barbauld crew’ (LW 2: 82)” (Richardson, Literature, Education and Romanticism 114). Unpacking the assumptions that underlie these responses, we find an interesting combination of vocational elitism, jockeying for professional position, class and religious associations, and oversimplification. Barbauld’s brand of Dissenting education is dismissed by a number of unsavory insinuations: it diverges from established religious understanding, it stifles imagination and creativity, and it is the work of those who cannot be men and women of letters themselves.

These statements have been individually re-examined by a number of critics writing about Barbauld. But the broader taint that somehow attached itself to her as a “school woman” has not been removed successfully. It remains, quietly, in as well-balanced a book as Alan Richardson’s Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice 1780-1832 (1994). Richardson offers a sophisticated analysis of the competing interests in education and literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Yet by citing Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781) as a good example of the “catechistic method” which he claims was used as a “prime means of containing the new literacy” by repetition and indoctrination, he does Barbauld a disservice as an educator. Indirectly but decisively, Barbauld is allied with an emerging educational establishment in which dialectic “tended to yield to the mechanical production of set answers, obedient behavior within the educational setting, and (for the lower classes) passive literacy” (64). Following Foucault’s lead, Richardson concludes that “Catechism displaced dialectic as an exemplary disciplinary mode as the school (like the prison and the factory) became a site for functions of regulating and observation” (64). Since Richardson does not aim in his text to examine Dissenting education closely, the reader is left with a potentially Gradgrindian view of Barbauld’s educational views and practices.

Lisa Zunshine rescues Barbauld from the “grind” by showing how she uses sophisticated rhetorical strategies to shape the habits of mind of young children. The goal of those strategies, suggests Zunshine, is not to provide—and hammer home—rational systems for children, but to help them develop cognitive structures that encourage and sustain “devotion.” As such, the strategies are allied to the Catechistic method of teaching by repetition, but potentially richer in their intent and results.

Moving from the children’s literature to the schools themselves, we see a quite different view of Barbauld’s educational practices. Ruth Watts argues that Barbauld was a vital connecting link among several “educational networks” that attempted to counterbalance the torpor and traditionalism at Oxford and Cambridge with

an education which, in the tradition of Locke, taught students to think, to find evidence for their ideas and knowledge and to understand how things were or worked rather than just know because they had learnt delivered facts by heart.


Watts’ broad view of Dissenting education as an antidote to a stifling, stagnant educational establishment is shared (with some qualifications) by other historians of education (Parker, McLachlan, Mercer, Stephens & Roderick). For her, it was not only the content but the methods that made Dissenting Academies “radical.” She places Joseph Priestley—who Barbauld knew well—at the center of the educational innovation of the times, and reminds us that “it was not only the subjects that he wanted modernized, but also the methods of teaching. As a principle he desired students to question, observe, investigate and understand for themselves” (Watts 4). This stress on inquiry and experiment, on experiential learning, seems quite appropriate for an inveterate experimentalist like Priestley; it certainly suits the atmosphere of Warrington as portrayed by a number of contemporaries who actually visited the school.

What if inquiry and observation are taken to be the central informing principles of the Dissenting education offered at schools such as Warrington Academy? Barbauld’s role as an educator may well be very nearly related to her poetic practices. In fact, it is more broadly related to the entire edifice of interdisciplinary exploration typical of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Those who inhabited the world of letters and those who peopled the classrooms and laboratories of “radical education” had one key thing in common—the desire to re-think man, nature, and society and to extend our understanding of the human mind. Experience and perception, and a common “frame of mind,” united the emerging “fields” of science, poetry, dissenting religion, and radical education. Intellectuals of the time would not find any dissonance among the aims and interests of all these areas of human inquiry. That interconnectedness is best exemplified in the lives and educational practices of the Dissenters. Barbauld’s work resonates with the kind of “science” typical of “radical education.” While she may try to instill devotion in pre-rational children, she clearly writes poetry within the broader tradition of inquiry-centered learning. We should consider her poetry, at least in part, as an effort to cultivate what I will call a “Dissenting frame of mind.”

II. What is a “Dissenting Frame of Mind”?

Much of the critical inquiry concerning Barbauld’s poetry and life has acknowledged the relationship she had with the Dissenting tradition in England, but none of it has investigated very fully how the ways of thinking typical of Dissent might illuminate her poetic practices and purposes. Keach says that Dissent is a “specific formation” that plays a role in the making of Barbauld’s poetry, but he doesn’t specify very fully just what that formation looks like. His primary point, and it is a good one, is that “Dissent has taught her to claim a critical freedom for herself that has to coexist both with intellectual and political solidarity and with the continuing relegation of women to the realm of nurturing domesticity” (50). In other words, the critical freedom involved in Dissent has pragmatic limits defined by social needs and expectations. Daniel White stresses this point when he writes that the Dissenters “domesticized” their radical ideas in order to generate broader social acceptance and endorsement of those ideas. Pragmatism and Idealism went hand in hand for those who opposed the existing structures of Church and State in England.

Nonetheless, the Dissenting “frame of mind” was marked by a refusal to accept traditional authority structures as fixed and final. These people had confidence in their own modes of inquiry, learning, and decision-making, and they were not willing to suppress their own intellectual energies in the name of “authority.” Laura Mandell recognizes the radical potential of this frame of mind when she suggests that Barbauld’s poetic voice emerges from the confidence offered by Dissenting religion:

It is her vision of God as overturning all hierarchies, and her fantasy that spirit is not distinct from matter but rather matter refined, that enables Barbauld to establish herself as simultaneously female and transcendent and thereby to assume an authoritative poetic voice.


I will return to the central importance of “overturning all hierarchies,” which Mandell suggests as important here and which I believe directly relates the Dissenting tradition to Barbauld’s poetic practices, shortly.

All of these critical approaches suggest connections between the practices of Dissent and Barbauld’s mode of thinking and writing. Yet all are, unfortunately, written with the assumption that Dissent was primarily a religious perspective. We need to recapture the dynamic and integrated worldview of the times in order to understand that Dissent and radical thinking in general were closely allied, that science and religion were directly linked, and that poetry was directly connected to “serious thinking.” Dissent was marked by a general refusal to accept traditions, customs, and “the normal” as authoritative. It was charged and sustained by a spirit of (often radical) inquiry. We must attend to the fact that Barbauld was an active member of a community of inquiry that included people such as Priestley, and her poetry never loses the sharpness of observation and the commitment to empirical truth typical of this community.

This atmosphere of inquiry must be understood in order for us to explore the ways in which poetry played a role in learning. The younger John Aikin and Priestley both wrote poetry, as did Erasmus Darwin and Humphry Davy. Poetry was seen as a valid mode of expressing and experiencing life—perhaps even a path that best allowed readers to “question, observe, investigate, and understand for themselves”? Science was not a set of answers for these inquirers, but an ongoing commitment to questioning. Yet it was not marked by skepticism or doubt, but by hope and confidence in the powers of the human mind.

Seen within this context, Barbauld’s Dissenting stance would have included religion and science in a mixture that may be almost unheard of today. And that mixture suggests other conceptual mixtures that may be unfamiliar to us—mixtures of reason and sensibility, of thinking and feeling, of ideal vision and pragmatic action. All of these “conceptual mixtures” can only emerge when existing hierarchies of meaning and value are disrupted, when existing binary constructions of power are pushed aside.

In fact, Dissent was marked by a tendency to do what Laura Mandell suggests that God does: “overturning all hierarchies.” For the critics of Dissent, this was seen as a “leveling” tendency. But in the hands of Barbauld, this tendency morphs into a sophisticated awareness of hierarchy as a frame of mind that needs to be disrupted and re-modeled, as a poor mental construct that pervades much of our thinking about social roles, gender, and—of course—religious practice.

Hierarchy is older than Aristotle. It has served as one of the central organizing models in western philosophy, religion, government, and business. It is paradigmatic in our culture. Put simply, hierarchy is an assumption we make about the order of the universe. Things are organized by classes within overarching “ladders” of power or priority. As one approaches the “top” of the structure, one arrives at the most powerful or general point—the culmination of everything else. So in education, we tend to talk about foundational knowledge leading to the pinnacle of general theories that encompass all cases and claim “universality.” In business we have a host of workers taking on roles at various “levels” in the system, all working under an administrative team at the “top” of the structure. Fundamental to this kind of structure is binarization. Either you are in a class are you aren’t. Either you are in the upper tier or the lower tier. Either you are a leader or a follower.

Once this model is set forth as “the way things are,” our perceptions and roles can be organized readily. Mind is the ruler of the organization called body, which is organized into classes of organs and activities at various levels. Dominance and submission are normative. Classes, gender differences, and labor roles are understood by hierarchical expectations. The model becomes the reality.

But perhaps there are other paradigms, maps, and models that would be more appropriate to describe social relations, gender relations, and labor roles. A “Dissenting frame of mind” would begin with this idea as an “article of faith” and then attempt to see things anew without the intrusion of false assumptions about necessary hierarchies. Barbauld’s poetry suggests that she does just that, not often finding the answers she seeks but continuing to ask questions that might lead to new paradigms. Open-mindedness and radical thinking are blended with a commitment to close observation, realistic expectations, and practical action. Yet these practices of inquiry never become caustic questioning, skepticism, or doubt. Barbauld is very specific in her rejection of these “frames of mind.” Instead, the poetry suggests dynamic balances among habits of mind that we normally see as mutually exclusive: reason and sensibility, thinking and feeling, ideal vision and pragmatic action.

Once we start to make these connections, we are reminded of two general claims about knowledge made by Gregory Bateson in Mind and Nature: “There is no meaning without context” and “all knowledge is subjective.” Knowledge begins in the engagement of the human organism with a new experiential moment. That engagement is always perceptual, grounded in the physical apparatus by which we image forth “reality.” At the most literal level, the state of the biological apparatus for perception IS the reader’s (or learner’s) “frame of mind.” The state of bodily awareness, and of mental concentration and attention that emerges from that awareness, is central to the process of knowing. In order to clarify this idea I will borrow a concept, and a term, that should prove helpful as we proceed. This concept was articulated by Alan Richardson in his more recent book British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001). After briefly reviewing a long tradition of criticism that has “viewed Romanticism in terms of a flight from Enlightenment universalism toward an obsession with difference and diversity—individual, national, cultural, and racial” (152), he goes on to offer an intriguing counterpoint:

The widespread view that Romanticism entails a rejection of human uniformity represents at best, however, a half truth. It would be more accurate to say that a number of Romantic writers—poets and scientists alike—rejected [sic] the “timeless” universalism of the Enlightenment, which located human uniformity in reason, language, and logic, with a time-bound and biological universalism that instead grounded “primary” human features in the body, in the material organization of the mind, and in the emotions. As Wordsworth’s thinking on poetry and language suggests, the shift from a mechanistic and dualistic to a biological, embodied view of human nature entails not so much an abandonment as a radical reformulation of human universals.


The romantic writers, Richardson writes, believed that human beings were connected by “the material organization of the mind”—and thus, I would argue, by perceptual possibilities, sensations, and lived experiences—rather than by abstract universals of reason or logic or language. In his chapter, Richardson calls this romantic stance “embodied universalism.”

“Embodied universalism” seems to be a very helpful idea when we are dealing with Dissenting thinkers such as Priestley, who argued in Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (1777) that the mind emerges from physical processes. Universals of meaning came from the similarities in the structure of mind, rather than from logically consistent—and inescapable—rational arguments. Starting with this concept allows us to make headway when we are faced with the idea that radical education was “rational education.” It wasn’t—at least not in the philosophically-attenuated version of Reason offered by writers such as William Godwin. Radical education was more vital—and more dangerous—than that. It was democratic in its insistence that the student, the learner, the thinker, had to inquire and observe and come to his or her own conclusions. But it was also rich with the idea that the structure of the human organism—and the human mind—united us, regardless of class, wealth, and other forms of social difference.

III. Using Poetry to Create “Frames of Mind”

“Embodied Universalism” enables us to make important connections between areas that might have once seemed divergent, to bridge gaps that once loomed large, and to read romantic concern with “feeling” and “pleasure” in an entirely new way. And it allows us to see poetry as a discourse that is particularly well-suited for the work of reaching other human beings with experiences and ideas. Poetry is sound, rhythm, and story all rolled into one. It addresses perception directly, and embodies (rather than analyzing) human experience. It can be targeted to reach “like minds” and to lead them to similar ideas by way of personal experiences.

Barbauld senses the possibilities of poetry, as Wordsworth later does, and begins to use it in ways that were surprising to critics and her fellow poets of the time. She represents a movement away from didacticism and abstraction toward a more personal poetry. But in her hands, the personal does not lapse into triviality, sentimentalism, or an “expressive” stance. Instead, Barbauld develops a rhetoric of inquiry in her poems that fuses the “personal” and “subjective” with the communal and social. She draws on what she considers to be universals of human experience—sensation, perception, awareness, engagement, sympathy, compassion—to lead us away from sterile abstractions and toward a more comprehensive mind—one that comprehends more fully, and one that is grounded in both thinking and feeling, object and subject, close examination and compassionate engagement.

Central to Barbauld’s approach is the Dissenting insistence that hierarchies are not final, not enough to ground meaning. She questions hierarchies of power, of social class, of gender, and suggests that the binary constructions upon which those hierarchies are founded are false and even dangerous. Keach senses this trend in Barbauld, but leaves it at a correction of McCarthy’s response to her ambivalence regarding Dissent. “If ‘Barbauld is ambivalent in her relation to Dissent’, as William McCarthy has recently argued, it is not primarily because ‘she resents its self-denial, rationalism, and emotional low temperature.’11 Rather it is because Dissent has taught her to claim a critical freedom for herself that has to coexist both with intellectual and political solidarity and with the continuing relegation of women to the realm of nurturing domesticity” (49-50). That critical freedom DOES have to fit into a communitarian model, and DOES have to deal with realities that do not always respond quickly to new critical understandings. As a result, Barbauld’s rhetoric of inquiry encourages us as readers to question hierarchies and binaries, and while it doesn’t offer many final answers, it encourages us to re-think our own positions and to emerge from the process changed. Alice Den Otter (2004) notices the subversive quality of Barbauld’s “The Caterpillar” and suggests that multiple positions toward pests, parasites, and moral virtue are enacted in that poem. I agree, and believe that “positionality” is a category of rhetorical effect for Barbauld. Her poems create complex, multiple positions for the reader to inhabit, and by doing so they encourage what I am calling a “Dissenting frame of mind.” The key to social change, for Barbauld, is the ability to “think again.” And poetry is an excellent vehicle for that work.

Here, I will focus on two aspects of this “rhetoric of inquiry” that disrupts and subverts simple abstractions and binary oppositions in Barbauld’s work. The first is Barbauld’s intermingling of two apparently opposed kinds of language: the language of nurture and the language of scientific observation and reflection. The second is her creation of situations in which the normal order of things is disrupted, opening up new possibilities for consideration. I will focus on three poems to make my case: “The Mouse’s Petition,” “The Caterpillar” and “Washing Day.” Then I will close with readings of two other important poems that are usually seen as evidence of Barbauld’s conservative turn: “To the Poor” and “The Rights of Woman.” These poems convey unexpected meanings within the framework of the strategies that I will discuss here.

“The Caterpillar” is a lyric poem, focusing on the mental process and state of mind of the speaker. Typical of Barbauld, the poem is written in such a way as to transform a familiar domestic situation into something unfamiliar—even extraordinary. Anyone who gardens or keeps fruit trees knows the damage that caterpillars can do. Despite their fuzzy appeal, they are destroyers. And we tend to destroy them in an effort to protect our own labors. In this poem, there is an inversion of another fine poem by Anna Barbauld—“The Mouse’s Petition.” In a sense, the speaker is responding to the caterpillar’s “petition” or plea for mercy: “No, helpless thing, I cannot harm thee now; / Depart in peace, thy little life is safe”. In a sentimental poem, we would expect what Isobel Armstrong labeled “the gush of the feminine” to ensue. But it doesn’t. In fact, the following 11 lines mingle science (natural philosophy) and sensitivity in highly interesting ways. First, the science:

For I have scanned thy form with curious eye,

Noted the silver line that streaks thy back,

The azure and orange that divide

Thy velvet sides

This language is the language of empirical enquiry, not feeling response. There is little or no “Romance” here, at least until we reach the word “velvet,” which introduces a “softer” approach to come.

That softer approach is charged with protectiveness and feeling, and it is built on imaginative identification with the caterpillar, as evidenced by the next few lines:

. . .thee, houseless wanderer,

My garment has enfolded . . .

From “scanned” to “enfolded”—quite a shift here. The caterpillar is morphing from a “specimen” of “curiousity” into a “houseless wanderer” in need of nurture:

. . . and my arm

Felt the light pressure of thy tiny little feet,

Barbauld’s language choices are brilliant here. Felt obviously means “sensed” here, but in the context of the poem it might also imply “was moved by.” The connection between perception and reflection is established here.

The description continues:

Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,

Precipitous descent! With stretched out neck,

Bending thy head in airy vacancy,

This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed

To ask protection; now, I cannot kill thee.

Barbauld’s language defies easy categorization. It refuses to become sentimental or ungrounded by adhering to rigorous empirical attention to THIS caterpillar. Yet it continually integrates objectivity with intimacy, observation with feeling, sense with both emotion and empirical description. Words like “curled” achieve such an integration beautifully, as do phrases such as “precipitous descent” and “stretched out neck.” Barbauld unites the language of affect and rational inquiry here in a way that is highly sophisticated—and challenging.

And then she hits us with yet another surprise, by explaining the context within which she has spared this one creature:

Yet I have sworn perdition to thy race,

And recent from the slaughter am I come

Of tribes and embryo nations: I have sought

With sharpened eye and persecuting zeal,

Where folded in their silken webs they lay,

Thriving and happy; swept them from the tree

And crushed whole families beneath my foot;

The language changes here, shifting into a warlike mode with words such as “perdition,” “slaughter,” and “persecuting.” Yet it remains vitally connected to what has gone before. Reason mandates that we destroy the caterpillars that destroy our gardens and trees. But the shift in tone encourages us to consider: how rational is this moment? Note that the “eye” is no longer “curious” as it was earlier in the poem, but now is “sharpened” as if a weapon of destruction.[2] Note the echoes of “folded” and “enfolded” earlier, and the reversal of “crushing”—“foot” versus “feeling”—“arm” earlier in the poem. Which is the more rational response?

The poem reverses our expectations by suggesting that compassion emerges from close rational consideration. By attending closely to the caterpillar, the persona is able to identify with it. Reason and imagination dance together here. On the other hand, rational agendas may not lead to rational actions. Once we have a formula, a system of thought, or a set of established categories, we may “roll dreadful on” under the sway of our reasonings. The poem places us in a position in which we can, like the speaker,

feel and clearly recognize

Thine individual existence, life,

And fellowship of sense with all that breathes

The individual is a different matter than the category, and should be. Yet Barbauld does not dismiss categories or abstractions, either. Somehow we must keep both in mind at once, we must dynamically balance the demands of reason and compassion in each situation. And imagination (and poetry) helps us to do so by enabling us to see connections, to envision things more vividly, to focus our attention in new ways.

The second poetic strategy that I will discuss here is relevant to “The Caterpillar,” as well. Barbauld often creates unfamiliar situations using familiar materials, and by doing so encourages us to re-think our views, to “think again.” Poems such as “The First Fire,” “Washing-Day,” and “The Mouse’s Petition” are examples of this strategy. The problem of hierarchy is addressed in all three, but I will focus on “Washing-Day” for this brief analysis.

In “Washing-Day,” Barbauld establishes a tone of gentle irony early in the poem that persists throughout. The mock-epic approach and the exaggerations in the first 40-50 lines generate irony. But how is the irony directed? At men who don’t understand the travails of washing day? At women who do? At laborers who complain about their task? At pampered children who see the labor but never have to do it? At the reader who expects something more than a poem about “washing day”? So many of these perceptual “participants” are smug in their self-assurance and their own perceptual field. In fact they are all related in their partiality. And the irony strikes home with all of them.

In the opening lines, Barbauld calls on the “domestic muse” who has “turned gossip,” suggesting that she is seeking a different source of inspiration for her poem than the male poets who have preceded her. Is she mocking herself here? Male poets? The “high and mighty” poetic tradition? All the above? Whichever, her poem still centers on the imagination in flight—but a low flying, bright-eyed bird rather than a soaring eagle that loses sight of the particulars in the landscape.

The observing eye creates a poem that is perceptually rich—perpetually “present” in the domestic sphere. From the “red-armed washers” who “come and chase repose” before the sun rises, to the cat who is frightened out of the kitchen by the profusion of water and fire being employed, to the broken laundry lines and dirt and gravel stains imagined by the washers as they cast “anxious looks” at “the lowering sky,” the poem grounds ideas in sensual experience. At the beginning, the central idea is “all the petty miseries of life,” and we feel them on our pulses.

But the poem slips from grounded perception into imaginative exaggeration often and with purpose. For instance, immediately after the convincing rendering of “all the petty miseries of life,” it refers to torture and insists that while those being tortured may have smiled, no housewife smiles at the prospect of a rainy washing day. Is the housewife’s plight darker than those of the “saints” or “Guatimozin”? Or is Barbauld poking fun at her, too, despite her acute awareness of “the petty miseries of life”?

In similar fashion, the mock-epic situation both elevates washing day and suggests mockery of the high and mighty poetic traditions that it echoes. The hierarchy of poetic subjects and forms is subverted. So the stage is set for further reversals and subversions. Next we have “thou / Who call’st thyself perchance the master there”—the male householder—who finds himself no master today! Indignity is more likely as he asks for small favors, attempts to find a snug hideaway, or “tries his garden walks.” The result? A cold, wet sheet flapping in his face. A wonderful figure of discomfort and disdainful indifference!

Notice that each of these characters lives in both the world of “the petty miseries of life” and their own imaginations. The poem is about the ways in which the two just refuse to get along—and the discomfort that ensues. The housewife imagines disasters that are not forthcoming, and the imagining darkens the day. The husband imagines order and routine that are not forthcoming, and the imagining makes him a refugee. The friend imagines hospitality and well-prepared dinners that are not forthcoming, and the imagining leaves him unsatisfied: In silence [he] dines, and slinks away early.” But subversion is everywhere. The guest is treated inhospitably; the husband is no longer master of the house (more on this later), the day is both bigger and more miserable than a day should ever be.

Then we move into the world of the persona, and find she has the same problems. Like the “man of the house,” her expectations are deflated. She remembers

 the awe

This day struck into me; for then the maids,

I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;

Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope

Usual indulgences; jelly or creams,

Relique of costly suppers, and set by

For me their petted one; or butter’d toast,

When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale

Of ghost, or witch, or murder—so I went

And shelter’d me beside the parlour fire.

ll 58-67

Again we have a plethora of details to make the situation real for us. Her usual indulgences mark her as one used to special treatment and attention. But she, too, has received a cold, wet slap in the face—and joins the cat in the parlour.

Another reversal appears here. The maids, whose job it is to care for the house and to attend to “the petted one,” are suddenly masters of a situation that they’d prefer to be rid of. And the “petted one” is suddenly left in the charge of (or in charge of?) a grandmother who can’t find her glasses and whose needlework goes amiss in ways that are very uncomfortable to those around her.

Her mother’s voice ruled the household that day, unlike other days, and the work went on relentlessly outside the shelter of the parlour. And so she “ponder[ed] much / Why washings were.” The reversals and subversions are all around her, so it is fitting that the poem ends in an exploration of such reversals and subversions—all grounded in the imagination and its categories. The blowing of bubbles is made possible by the labor of the washers, so play and work are united on Washing Day. “So near approach the sports of children and the toils of men.” The imagination both causes reversals and reverses them again. It can subvert hierarchies, but it can also maintain them endlessly. It can free us from the “petty miseries of life,” or it can magnify them to the point at which they crush us. Poetry, then, is charged with a weighty purpose—to balance play and work, reality and romance, expectation and desire. It should work playfully on, and play seriously with, those who experience it.

Imagination can disrupt hierarchies, establish new connections, and revitalize our mental and physical worlds. In this poem, Barbauld shows how a particular day of labor re-arranges power relations, forcing the classes to work side by side, turning masters into servants, and turning women into the rulers of the household. Instead of bemoaning this day, she implies, we should celebrate it as a moment of re-clarification. The insights of the poem are yielded by engaging the re-arrangements of power that it makes possible. Men’s work and children’s play are connected—a balloon and a bubble are both the product of imaginative exploration and freedom channeled. Labor and imagination are linked. Poetry is the place where we can make these links—where the labors of life can lead to reflection and to “bubbles” of new meaning.

With these hierarchical subversions in mind, and the centrality of Barbauld’s rhetoric of experience established, we can now re-visit poems such as “The Rights of Woman,” which has often been read as a dismissal of Wollstonecraft’s high ambitions for women and a conservative counter to those positions, and “To the Poor,” which seems to recommend that the poor accept their position rather than fight for freedom from oppression. As Barbauld experienced the disappointments of the French Revolution, she tempered the idealism of “Corsica” with a new element that remained firmly grounded in her rhetoric of experience. We cannot always change the world, but we can change the way we think about the world—and by doing so we can become change agents in our own lives and in the lives of others. The key is to “think again.” Both of these poems work in the same vein as the one’s discussed so far.

“The Rights of Woman” is an interesting poem because it works on a higher level of abstraction than most critical readers have allowed. Rather than advancing a new idea and then retreating from it, the poem shows how the “new idea” being offered by radical feminist thinkers is not a “new idea” at all, and suggests that we must come up with genuinely new ideas in order to change gender relations. As in many cases with Barbauld, humorous exaggeration is used to undermine established hierarchies of thought and to clear the way for “thinking again.” The poem is loaded with the complexities of Barbauld’s thinking about gender relations, and I do not mean to “solve” it. But there is a coherent thread of anti-hierarchical thinking here that deserves to be highlighted, so I will do so.

Barbauld’s ambivalence about education for women has been well-documented. She refused to start a college for women, apparently because she felt that they were not best served by such an educational establishment. Yet she chafed at her own limits in comparison to the opportunities afforded her brother John. Her own career provides us with ample evidence of her confidence that she could speak on issues of national significance and play a role in the world of public discourse, yet it also provides evidence that she tended to couch all of her larger critical statements in domestic and communal phrasings and settings. What, then, is woman’s “place” in the culture? How should women relate to men, and what should be their role?

“The Rights of Woman” suggests that their role should not be “ruler.” But that is not the same thing as saying their role should be “slave.” Ruler/Subject is, in fact, one of the hierarchical constructions that Barbauld questions repeatedly in her work. Why must we use this easy, false “map” to understand the territory of complicated relationships? From the opening lines, the poem’s exaggerated tone and imagery highlight the inadequacy of a view of male/female relations based on master/subject thinking.

Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy right!

Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest,

O born to rule in partial Law’s despite,

Resume thy native empire o’er the breast!

Go forth arrayed in panoply divine;

That angel pureness which admits no stain;

Go, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign,

And kiss the golden sceptre of thy reign.

The ideas are tangled here. Woman is “injured” by being “too long degraded, scorned, opprest,” yet she is “born to rule.” This poem may reveal, as does “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” an awareness of necessary unfolding of change over time. Women must first attempt to rule men, then must come to the understanding that ruling is not the answer. Barbauld knows that “partial Law” has established a hierarchy in which men are the rulers. Yet she asserts that women are the rulers of a “native empire o’er the breast.” The world of feeling and engagement and nurture? Perhaps this is an empire worth ruling wisely too?

“Panoply” is an interesting word choice for this poem. The Oxford English Dictionary lists meanings such as “ceremonial attire,” “something that covers and protects,” and “the complete arms and armor of a warrior.” The word “panoply” suggests the dual meaning of the next section of the poem by establishing the problem of appearance and reality. Is “rulership” something real or ceremonial? Is it lasting or temporary? How can we protect ourselves against it without becoming infected by it? Once we are within the mode of thinking in which rulership is necessary, we must arm ourselves for battle and attempt to become rulers—or else resign ourselves to being ruled. Duality becomes necessity. But how well armed can women be in this world? Will “angel pureness” serve well enough as armor against Man’s “boasted Rule” which is supported by real weapons and physical might? The silliness of such a response pervades the next stanza:

Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store

Of bright artillery glancing from afar;

Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon’s roar,

Blushes and fears thy magazine of war.

Woman’s “panoply” does not appear mighty enough to do battle with male rulership. Yet “empire” is the only answer! The poem returns to this idea with an urgency that suggests irony:

Thy rights are empire: urge no meaner claim,—

Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost;

Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame,

Shunning discussion, are revered the most.

Rights are reduced to “rule or be ruled” here. Would Barbauld have really accepted such an oversimplified view of the order of things? No. And the stanza questions the idea by suggesting that it is “felt, not defined, and if debated, lost.” Perhaps “like sacred mysteries,” the assumption of hierarchical organization is most powerful when it is submerged and assumed, hidden under everything, subconsciously upheld in the face of other debates.

So the poem then suggests subterfuge as a path to rulership:

Try all that wit and art suggest to bend

Of thy imperial foe the stubborn knee;

Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend;

Thou mayst command, but never canst be free.

Machiavellian manipulations are suggested here. Women should be treacherous, and should assume men to be treacherous. The result, of course, is fearful rulership. “Thou mayst command, but never canst be free.” The exaggeration of bended knee, “subject, not . . . friend,” and “imperial foe” are palpable. Why must we relate to each other this way? Must we?

The poem leads us through the silliness of a hierarchical, warlike relationship between males and females toward the realization that a better model is needed. The final stanzas are not a retreat, but a confirmation of everything that has been developed earlier in the poem. Women may find a way to turn the hierarchical structure upside down, but if they do, they will be subject to the idea of hierarchy itself (as men are already). They “mayst command, but never canst be free” in such a binary model, and they cannot hope “On this proud eminence secure to stay.” As all rulers, they will find themselves in the position of “subduing and subdued,” ruling others but ruled by the necessity of self-protection and maintenance of the myth of power that they’ve created. The end result, for Barbauld, is the awareness that hierarchical and binary relations between the genders are a losing proposition. Rights and rulership are not the answer. Friendship and love are. We should avoid subject-hood by leaving the idea of rulership behind.

In similar fashion, “To the Poor” suggests that the answer to unfair rule is not rebellion, but re-thinking. Only when the rulers see things more clearly can anything change. Rebellion leads to replication. One ruler is replaced by another, and the beat goes on. Again, Barbauld writes a poem that is intimate, yet political, in its address to two distinct audiences—the poor themselves, and the establishment that mistreats them. The poem addresses the poor directly, opening with a statement of identification with their plight:

Child of distress, who meet’st the bitter scorn

Of fellow men to happier prospects born,

Doomed art and nature’s various stores to see

Flow in full cups of joy,—and not for thee,

Then the poem turns to address the other audience by stressing the perceptions of the rich and their relationship to those of the poor:

 —and not for thee,

Who seest the rich, to heaven and fate resign’d,

Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind;

These lines show a strong awareness of how important perceptions are in human knowledge. The rich are “to heaven and fate resign’d” because they (1) expect to enter heaven, (2) use heaven as a reward for those who do not have as good fortune on earth as they do, and (3) see all of this as “fate” in the sense of “the predestined order of things.” As a result, the rich are able to bear the afflictions of the poor without too much guilt. And to do nothing about them. The irony of “Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind” is intended to re-provoke that guilt in those who should be acting to make the lives of the poor better—not stoking anger among the poor. That’s important, and the interpretation I’m offering comes because of the later admonition for the poor to bear their burdens gracefully. William Keach misses this key distinction in his reading of “To the Poor,” concluding that despite its final “sarcastic denunciation of ruling-class superiority and established religious authority” (57), the poem “offers a message of resignation and acceptance that sounds more like Hannah More than Barbauld or Priestley” (56). The true audience for this poem is not the poor, because most of them would never read it anyway. The “target” audience is the rich and privileged themselves, and the poem seeks to reveal the hypocrisy and wrong-headedness of their “pre-established codes of decision.” The ironic turn in “Bear thy afflictions with a patient mind” is a pivot point that changes the thrust of the poem. From there to the end, the wealthy reader is placed in the position of experiencing the poor’s struggles vicariously and seeing just how absurd the established “solutions” to the problem really are.

The poor are downtrodden, oppressed, placed in a situation which is completely untenable. Yet they are expected to “Bear, bear thy wrongs, fulfil thy destined hour, / Bend thy meek neck beneath the foot of power!” (139). Is this Barbauld’s injunction to the poor? Or the expectation of the society in which they live? The semantic distance traversed between “Whose bursting heart disdains unjust control” and “Bend thy meek neck beneath the foot of power!” is much greater than the four lines it takes to move from one to the other. Is it fair, or even possible, to expect the poor to complete that journey? Or is the privileged reader supposed to gasp at the sudden turn, and wonder if it is possible? The latter makes more sense, given the biting commentary that completes the poem:

Think not their threats can work thy future woe,

Nor deem the Lord above, like Lords below.

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.

ll 17-22, p 140

This poem brilliantly walks a razor’s edge. It turns the simple injunctions of the privileged on their heads, suggesting to them just how absurd they are. Yet it also recognizes that the problem will not simply be fixed—particularly by rebellion. While the final lines sound Godwinian in their dismissal of traditional formulations of God being used to control the poor, and echo with revolutionary fervor, the poem as a whole is pragmatic in its acknowledgement that the POOR cannot change their plight. Only a change of heart and mind among the RICH can help the poor. So the poem is addressed to the privileged in an effort to start that “re-seeing.” For the poor, not meekness, but proud awareness of their heavenly equality is suggested. Not a message of threat—if you don’t live by OUR rules, you won’t make it to heaven—but a message of reassurance—you are equal to the rich in heaven, and will receive fair treatment in God’s hands. Don’t let the stupidity of the rich goad you into hateful behaviors here on earth, and don’t let the threats of the rich break your spirit.

In a way, my argument about Barbauld is that her poetry espouses “pragmatic dissent” by offering new angles of approach to readers with the full awareness that many readers will not “see again” or “think again” despite the opportunity to do so. Her turn toward a more conservative-sounding poetry in the 1790s does not reflect a retreat from her dissenting quest for independent thinking, for the “freedom of the mind” that she cites in “Corsica.” But it reflects a broader knowledge of just how strong social habits and assumptions are. Can a poem change a society? Not likely. Can it change the way a reader sees that society, and by doing so with many readers begin to change the society? Yes. If cultures have a mind of their own (as Edmund Burke seems to suggest), we must change that mind gradually by changing its constituent minds. Poetry, and literature, are vital to that process. This seems a key insight of early romanticism—and it was being “embodied” by Barbauld well before Wordsworth and Coleridge arrived on the scene.