On This Washing Day

Anna Laetita Barbould
1743-1825
By Laurie Epps

Anna Laetitia Barbould was very close with her brother. Her brother's influence was so great upon her life, in part because he was the first one to tell her that she should write and later encouraged her to publish her poetry. Today, ALB reminds us of the playfulness of poetry. Told from a child's perspective, Washing Day reminds us that every truth in life is largely dependent on your perspective.

The collaboration of work between her younger brother, John Aiken and her has resulted in Evenings at Home and Monthly Magazine. Barbould even raised her brother's third born son.

In her own life, her husband Rochemont Barbould was a French Huguenot and sought asylum in England where the two fell in love. They were married in 1774, and bore no children, but ran a children's home until 1785. Her love of children highly influenced her writing, and she often plays around with writing from a child's perspective.

Unfortunately, by January of 1808, Rochemont's health was deteriorating, and he was stricken by mental illness. At one point, he chased her around a room of their house with a knife. Barbould, afraid for her life jumped out the window to  the safety of her garden. However, it shook her up so terribly that she had to make the painful decision to be separated from her husband in March of that year. This was followed by many entries about grief and loss. By November of that year, her husband escaped his mental institution and drowned himself in the river.

Washing Day
by Anna Laetitia Barbould

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskined step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on,
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or droning flies, or shoes lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face —
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded washing day.
Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs,
Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-armed washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
Ere visited that day; the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast meal is soon despatched,
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the louring, if sky should lour.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters — dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short, and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Montezuma smiled on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing day.
But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who callest thyself, perchance, the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual ’tendence; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, though the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus; nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious. Shouldst thou try
The ’customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse-checked apron, with impatient hand
Twitched off when showers impend; or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a dav the hospitable rites;            
Looks blank at best, and stinted courtesy
Shall he receive; vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding; pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, though the husband try —
Mending what can’t be helped — to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.
I well remember, when a child, 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 indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relic of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or buttered toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder. So I went
And sheltered me beside the parlour fire;
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm;
Anxiously fond, though oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravelled stocking, might have soured
One less indulgent.
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were; sometimes through hollow hole
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles; little dreaming then
To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds, so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them — this most of all.

Painting by William Merritt Chase
1849-1916
Analysis:

Foremost you must know that this poem is told from two points of view.
  1.   POV from the people around her, and their view of chores, and
  2.   The POV of a child watching child watching chores being done.

This also exudes the glamorization and valorization of domesticity that was trending in the Romantic era.

  •   Brings to the forefront the joy and innocence of childhood.
  •   Also, in the forefront is the importance of the tasks of the day.
  •   From the opening lines, one senses melancholy.
  •   There's lots of use of sarcasm and contrasts.
  •   Demonstrates that women have to marry, and have very little to say about it.
  •   Lines 30-50 demonstrates how little the men value the work the women are doing and view the women as having tons of free time.
  •   The first 2/3rds of the poem demonstrates the dissatisfaction of the wife.
  •   The mood shifts with the child's POV near the end of the poem.
  •   The child doesn't see this day as dreadful, and doesn't understand how others do.
Are my notes helpful? Does it give you any insight into the poem? Please let me know in the comments section below. Also, if you need help understanding the poem, also write a comment and I'll get back to you.

Laurie Epps is a recent graduate of Anderson University majoring in Creative Writing. Already Laurie is most published as a feature article writer, essayist, and poet. A seeker of beauty and world traveler, Laurie hopes to grow into a career in travel writing illuminating the many stories that make us human despite our differences. Currently, Laurie also has a Monday Morning Book Club column dedicated to writers everywhere.


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