I occasionally try to sort out the contents of my poetry folder(s), which is an exercise in futility, since clippings are notoriously resistant to staying put, poetry doesn’t like to be categorized, and organization isn’t what you would ever call my strong suit.*
But I have a good time reminding myself of what I have and why I have it and I always find things worth sharing, so the effort is never wasted.
This time, I found four poems (well, five, really) by women I would love to have over for coffee once I fix that time machine in my basement.**
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, is a fascinating woman—an aristocrat, scientist, poet, and novelist.***
I could go on and on about her, but there’s a gorgeous poem about her that says it all much better than I ever could—it’s called “Sonnets Uncorseted” by the superlative Mixine W. Kumin. I don’t have permission to share it, but the Poetry Foundation has it here.^
But though Her Grace published her work under her own name, an indicator of her position and her personality, even confident, accomplished writers are never that far away from self-doubt.
An Apology For Her Poetry
(Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle1661–1717 )
I language want to dress my fancies in,
The hair’s uncurled, the garment’s loose and thin.
Had they but silver lace to make them gay,
They’d be more courted than in poor array;
Or, had they art, would make a better show;
But they are plain; yet cleanly do they go.
The world in bravery doth take delight,
And glistering shows do more attract the sight:
And every one doth honor a rich hood,
As if the outside made the inside good.
And every one doth bow and give the place,
Not for the man’s sake but the silver lace.
Let me intreat in my poor book’s behalf,
That all will not adore the golden calf.
Consider, pray, gold hath no life therein,
And life, in nature, is the richest thing.
Be just, let Fancy have the upper place,
And then my verses may perchance find grace.
I hear you, milady.
In contrast, Elizabeth Hands wrote under the name Daphne and was married, possibly to a blacksmith. That’s pretty much all we know about her, except that her only book of verse sold at least a thousand copies—in 1789—and this doesn’t seem to surprise anyone who has read it.
Her stuff has a subtle, satirical snark to it that was probably lost on most of its subjects and I wish I knew more about her—I have the distinct feeling that if she had been born in our time, she might have owned a tea mug that says, Be Careful, or You’ll End Up In My Next Poem.
A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid
(Elizabeth Hands, 1746–1815 )
The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d’ye’s were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceased to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence opened her fan,
And thus the discourse in an instant began
(All affected reserve and formality scorning):
“I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning
A volume of Poems advertised—’tis said
They’re produced by the pen of a poor servant-maid.”
“A servant write verses!” says Madam Du Bloom:
“Pray what is the subjectd—a Mop, or a Broom?”
“He, he, he,” says Miss Flounce: “I suppose we shall see
An ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?”
Says Miss Coquettilla, “Why, ladies, so tart?
Perhaps Tom the footman has fired her heart;
And she’ll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how, the last time that he went to May Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of gingerbread ware.”
“For my part I think,” says old Lady Marr-joy,
“A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I’d employ her as long as ’twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night.”
“Why so?” says Miss Rhymer, displeased: “I protest
’Tis pity a genius should be so depressed!”
“What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive?”
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laughed in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, “If servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday The Duty of Man,
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think ’tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere.”
Says old Mrs. Candour, “I’ve now got a maid
That’s the plague of my life—a young gossiping jade;
There’s no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I’m out, she is never at home;
I’d rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town every night.”
“Some whimsical trollop most like,” says Miss Prim,
“Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And, conscious it neither is witty nor pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.”
“I once had a servant myself,” says Miss Pines,
“That wrote on a wedding some very good lines.”
Says Mrs. Domestic, “And when they were done,
I can’t see for my part what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to’ve instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragout,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champagne,
It might have been useful, again and again.”
On the sofa was old Lady Pedigree placed;
She owned that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella, “Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don’t burn.”
The tea-things removed, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies, ambitious for each other’s crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours, sat down.
See what I mean?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Julia Ward Howe, who was not only a co-founder of the American suffrage movement, an abolitionist, and the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but she also wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which, as I’ve mentioned before, has special meaning to me.^^
And it’s comforting to know that this accomplished woman had her off-days, too.
(Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910)
I never made a poem, dear friend—
I never sat me down, and said,
This cunning brain and patient hand
Shall fashion something to be read.
Men often came to me, and prayed
I should indite a fitting verse
For fast, or festival, or in
Some stately pageant to rehearse.
(As if, than Balaam more endowed,
I of myself could bless or curse.)
Reluctantly I bade them go,
Ungladdened by my poet-mite;
My heart is not so churlish but
Its loves to minister delight.
But not a word I breathe is mine
To sing, in praise of man or God;
My Master calls, at noon or night,
I know his whisper and his nod.
Yet all my thoughts to rhythms run,
To rhyme, my wisdom and my wit?
True, I consume my life in verse,
But wouldst thou know how that is writ?
‘T is thus—through weary length of days,
I bear a thought within my breast
That greatens from my growth of soul,
And waits, and will not be expressed.
It greatens, till its hour has come,
Not without pain, it sees the light;
‘Twixt smiles and tears I view it o’er,
And dare not deem it perfect, quite.
These children of my soul I keep
Where scarce a mortal man may see,
Yet not unconsecrate, dear friend,
Baptismal rites they claim of thee.
Sing it, sister.
Like Mrs. Hand, I don’t know much about Christian Milne, except she was Scottish and published a single poetry collection in 1805. Plus, when she was employed as a domestic servant before her marriage, she supposedly carried around a slate and pencil to write down verses as they came to her.
I like that.
To A Lady Who Said It Was Sinful to Read Novels
( Christian Milne, 1773–1816)
To love these books, and harmless tea,
Has always been my foible,
Yet will I ne’er forgetful be
To read my Psalms and Bible.
Travels I like, and history too,
Or entertaining fiction;
Novels and plays I’d have a few,
If sense and proper diction.
I love a natural harmless song,
But I cannot sing like Handel;
Deprived of such resource, the tongue
Is sure employed — in scandal.
And I’m sure I would have liked her, too.
I should go through my folders more often . . .
*More like the Emperor’s New Filing System, to be completely honest.
**And deliver a year’s supply of Zoloft to Thomas Hardy. And hug Alexander Pope. And sort out that grassy knoll business. And get Bix Beiderbecke into AA. And stop the 1890 Federal Census from being destroyed. My personal timeline is gonna be packed—but I digress . . .
*** Some argue that her book, The Blazing World, is one of the first science fiction novels. I don’t know if that’s true, but I plan to find out.
^And while you’re there, check out more of Ms. Kumin’s work—wow.
^^It was Mom’s Lamaze focus song for me and so was the first song I heard in this world—explains a lot, doesn’t it?