“Come, then, domestic Muse”: Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Washing Day”

Image courtesy of winnond at freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of winnond at freedigitalphotos.net

Recently, a certain small acquaintance of mine left a tissue in a pair of pants that went into the wash, with predictable results. As I was grumpily separating flecks of tissue from every other item of clothing, it occurred to me that I should really be feeling gratitude for doing this in the comfort of our apartment kitchen, rather than in a laundromat I walked to, child in tow, and then sent a mental thank-you note to the parents and grandparents who have done and still do laundry in much less convenient situations.

I imagine that a laundromat would have looked pretty great to Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825). I just came across her often-hilarious poem “Washing Day,” about the household disruption occasioned by the day when all the washing was done (and heavens forbid that it rained). For this domestic subject Barbauld uses the blank verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost (no, I’m never going to stop talking about Paradise Lost), and even gives readers a parodic invocation of the Muse.

Washing Day

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

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.

As you can see, there’s a very clever mind at work in these lines, and it turns out that Anna Barbauld was extremely influential in her day, as a poet, abolitionist,  editor, essayist, and children’s book writer, but like too many women has been rather under-appreciated. I’m glad I’ve heard of her now, and will keep an eye out for more of her writing in the future.

Which domestic task would you like to read a poem about?
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“a narrow plot of sand”: Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson” from Domestic Work

photo (23)Domestic Work is the first collection of poems by Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United Sates from 2012 to 2014 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The collection won the inaugural Cave Canem Prize (an annual prize for the best first collection of poems by an African American poet), selected by Rita Dove. In both free verse and gorgeous formal poetry, these poems tell the stories of working-class African American people, focusing on men and women in the South in the twentieth century.

In her introduction to the book, Rita Dove writes, “With a steely grace reminiscent of those eight washerwomen [in the poem “Three Photographs”], she tells the hard facts of lives pursued on the margins, lived out under oppression and in scripted oblivion, with fear and a tremulous hope” (xi-xii).

It’s the tremulous hope that shines brightest in Domestic Work, but it’s a hope that flutters on the edges of a terrible past and an uncertain present. Take, for instance, “History Lesson.” At first, Trethewey describes a picture of herself as a small girl in a flowered bikini, toes curling in the sand “on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,” painting in vivid words the sense of the photo, and the bright sun of the day.

Then, at precisely the poem’s midpoint, the turn: “I am alone / except for my grandmother, other side.”

Now the focus shifts to the “history lesson” of the poem’s title, as Trethewey takes us back in time in two jumps. We learn that the poet’s grandmother is taking the picture in 1970—just “two years after they opened / the rest of this beach to us,” a chilling reminder of the cruelties of Jim Crow South; who could deny the pleasures of this beach, with its sun and its minnows, to a child?

And then the end of the poem completes the structure Trethewey has set up: it’s forty years since her grandmother (to whom the second half of the poem belongs)

stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,

her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.

The “meal-sack dress”  on is the visual counterpoint to the bikini Trethewey’s child-self wears, which seems like symbol of progress (out of poverty, and with only the beach behind it, not the dreadful sign). But then we remember that the picture of the poet is only two years past the end of the beach’s segregation, and progress—from “narrow plot” to “wide strip”—seems a fragile, fragile thing.