Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), Staircase by Night (1848), Rooms with a View (see account of exhibit)
Dear friends and readers,
I was not able to write a blog-entry for a foremother poet last week, so I’m half tempted to write two this week, the second of them focusing on black women poets of whom I (unfortunately) know pathetically little: Anne Spencer (1882-1975), Angelina Weld Grimke (1880-1958), Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875-1935), part of a group of women poets Maureen Honey in her anthology, Shadowed Dreams, calls women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. My problem here (and a problem to my project) is my knowledge of these women is so narrow, based really on anthologies. My range of knowledge of women poets may be deep in the cases of those I know and cover a few centuries in Europe, but it is narrow enough that I question my ability to be adequate. This week I really began to say I should not carry on. But then when I looked on line for anything about Mehitabel Wright, I found nothing whatsoever. So I’ve told myself that limited as is my range, I am adding something. For Mehitabel we don’t even have relevant pictures (from her time or milieu), unless I were to focus on her religious brothers and family (e.g., John Wesley) who basically ruined her life. Instead I’ve opted for a few pieces that fit a mood I want to evoke (3 from the Windows of the 19th century exhibit I saw this past week, very much a woman’s motif as I said), one of Patricia Hodge in the film adaptation of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.
Mehitabel has received what measure of fame she has comes the frankness and perception of with which she depicts how marriage can simply simply to deteriorate. One of Wright’s poems has achieved a sort of fame because it is an unusually unqualified and real anti-marriage poem. It’s also easy to read:
Wedlock: A Satire
Thou tyrant, whom I will not name,
Whom heaven and hell alike disclaim;
Abhorred and shunned, for different ends,
By angels, Jesuits, beasts and fiends!
What terms to curse thee shall I find,
Thou plague peculiar to mankind?
O may my verse excel in spite
The wiliest, wittiest imps of night!
Then lend me for a while your rage,
You maidens old and matrons sage:
So may my terms in railing seem
As vile and hateful as my theme.
Eternal foe to soft desires,
Inflamer of forbidden fires,
Thou source of discord, pain and care,
Thou sure forerunner of despair,
Thou scorpion with a double face,
Thou lawful plague of human race,
Thou bane of freedom, ease and mirth,
Thou serpent which the angels fly,
Thou monster whom the beasts defy,
Whom wily Jesuits sneer at too;
And Satan (let him have his due)
Was never so confirmed a dunce
To risk damnation more than once.
That wretch, if such a wretch there be,
Who hopes for happiness from thee,
May search successfully as well
For truth in whores and ease in hell.
The problem here is that most of the time people reading the above know nothing of Wright’s life. Here is a case where an argument can be made one must know the woman poet’s life. Her poem is couched in the idiom of the day which was insistently generalizing (so as to hide private life) and if she had named names or really used language to tell what lies beneath this she would have been scourged (even literally) by her family.
Just as important: many would reject it as “over-the-top.” We would get the usual calls for “balance.” Here I’ll mention Jane Taylor (1783-1824), a lyricist and satirist writing the mode suggested by Margaret Homans (Women Writers and Poetic Identity, see “Dorothy Wordsworth”) whose story I’ll tell next or the following week, whose, for example, satire on a wedding night and description of an unhappy woman pushed into marriage was written indirectly; when another view point was allowed in (“balanced”), the poem became susceptible to and is now framed as a warning lesson (the critic said she meant to criticize the woman in the center) and on top of that given an anti-feminist twist. What we are given of the Taylors (Jane’s sister, Ann, was also a poet [1782-1866]) usually is “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”
The second one is I fear a bit long and again in 18th century idiom (Alexander Pope-like) and may not get many readers. But it is the great one. Why because it does tell of the life beneath the above
Address to Her Husband
The ardent lover cannot find
A coldness in his fair unkind,
But blaming what he cannot hate,
He mildly chides the dear ingrate;
And though despairing of relief,
In soft complaining vents his grief.
Then what should hinder but that I,
Impatient of my wrongs, may try,
By saddest softest strains, to move
My wedded, latest, dearest love,
To throw his cold neglect aside,
And cheer once more his injured bride!
0 thou, whom sacred rites designed
My guide, and husband ever kind,
My sovereign master, best of friends,
On whom my earthly bliss depends;
If e’er thou didst in Hetty see
Aught fair, or good, or dear to thee,
If gentle speech can ever move
The cold remains of former love,
Turn thee at last—my bosom ease,
Or tell me why I cease to please.
Is it because revolving years,
Heart-breaking sighs, and fruitless tears,
Have quite deprived this form of mine
Of all that once thou fanciedst fine?
Ah no! what once allured thy sight
Is still in its meridian height.
These eyes their usual lustre show,
When uneclipsed by flowing woe.
Old age and wrinkles in this face
As yet could never find a place:
A youthful grace informs these lines,
Where still the purple current shines;
Unless, by thy ungentle art,
It flies to aid my wretched heart:
Nor does this slighted bosom show
The thousand hours it spends in woe.
Or is it that, oppressed with care,
I stun with loud complaints thine ear,
And make thy home, for quiet meant,
The seat of noise and discontent?
Ah no! those ears were ever free
From matrimonial melody:
For though thine absence I lament
When half the lonely night is spent,
Yet when the watch or early morn
Has brought me hopes of thy return,
I oft have wiped these watchful eyes.
Concealed my cares, and curbed my sighs
In spite of grief, to let thee see
I wore an endless smile for thee.
Had I not practised even art
T’ oblige, divert, and cheer thy heart,
To make me pleasing in thine eyes,
And turn thy house to paradise;
I had not asked, ‘Why dost thou shun
These faithful arms, and eager run
To some obscure, unclean retreat,
With fiends incarnate glad to meet,
The vile companions of thy mirth.
The scum and refuse of the earth;
Who, when inspired by beer, can grin
At witless oaths and jests obscene,
Till the most learned of the throng
Begins a tale of ten hours long;
While thou in raptures with stretched jaws
Crownest each joke with loud applause?”
Deprived of freedom, health, and ease.
And rivaled by such things as these,
This latest effort will I try,
Or to regain thy heart, or die.
Soft as I am, I’ll make thee see
I will not brook contempt from thee!
Then quit the shuffling doubtful sense.
Nor hold me longer in suspense;
Unkind, ungrateful, as thou art,
Say, must I ne’er regain thy heart?
Must all attempts to please thee prove
Unable to regain thy love?
If so, by truth itself I swear,
The sad reverse I cannot bear;
No rest, no pleasure, will I see;
My whole of bliss is lost with thee!
I’ll give all thoughts of patience o’er
(A gift I never lost before);
Indulge at once my rage and grief,
Mourn obstinate, disdain relief,
And call that wretch my mortal foe,
Who tries to mitigate my woe;
Till life, on terms as severe as these,
Shall, ebbing, leave my heart at ease;
To thee thy liberty restore
To laugh when Hetty is nor more.
(Wr. c. 1730; pub 1825)
The tradition these belong to, the marriage complaint I’ll call it, includes the most-frequently reprinted poem by a women in the 18th century, Mary Chudleigh’s “To the Ladies” (“Wife and servant are the same,/But only differ in the name”), poetry by a number of women poets from the French and English and German Enlightenment, 17th through 19th century (from Sarah Egerton Fyge [1670-1723] to Louise Colet [1810-76] to Anna Louisa Karshe [1722-91] (see my foremother poet entry in the Wompo Festival online)
Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869), Rowing on the Elbe, also from Rooms with a View
There are two lives available of Mehetabel Wright. The one which tells the story aright is by Roger Lonsdale and prefaces the above two poems and others by Wright in his Eighteenth Century Women Poets.
In brief, Mehetabel Wright was John Wesley’s sister. Her upbringing must have been difficult to say the least. She received the same education as her brothers and showed real genius very young. She is said to have been able to read Greek. By her mid-twenties she was locked in a kind of mortal combat with her family as they proposed suitor after suitor whom they approved her and were people of their trading class.
She rejected two, one of whom the family had been so strong for they had bought clothes and set her out with him (Clarissa Harlowe’s story has much reality.) Well, she finally eloped from the family home in 1725 but returned unmarried and pregnant (horrors! and gasp!) and was forced to marry William Wright, a plumber. The marriage was deeply unhappy – as might be guessed from the two poems.
It provoked ‘A Full Answer’ from her brother Samuel (there were 19 surviving Wesley siblings) who told her ‘cursing wedlock is blaspheming’ and urged her to ‘Repent, renounce all wicked wit’ (see how wit, intelligence, is seen as suspect, wicked, no doubt doubly so in a woman). It is a savagely cruel poem. She was also visited by “friends” who continually urged her to accept this man as there was nothing wrong with him — as if two people are their categories. A later visitor (after her death), a literati of the period, John Duncombe visited her husband when he was a widow and “a very decent respectable man,” and he wrote up a life which rejected as untrue her complaints of “neglect and unkindnesss … unfeelingness,” and said she was afflicted by “religious melancholy.” Everything however points to the reality the man was her intellectual inferior who would spend his evenings with men drinking, playing cards, joking (a sort of Mr Price for those who have read Austen’s Mansfield Park and remember Fanny Price’s descriptions of how her father would spend his evenings). Wright had thought the lead-works on the premises caused her children’s early deaths (another poem printed by Lonsdale is to one of these children who died two days after birth), and it may have contributed to her own.
In her later alas she succumbed to the religion. How could she not? However she would not openly join the group but prayed apart said to have been reluctant to “bring more disgrace” on her brother. A family historian described her as “an elegant woman, with great refinement of manners; and had the traces of beauty in her countenance, with the appearance of being broken hearted.”
The second life is in the ODNB. It appears to have been written by one of Hetty’s mortal foes (the neighbors who came to “mitigate her woes”), for he erases all that is important and is very balanced :). Mehitabel was the sister of the Wesleys. It’s not done to condemn religion but here we see some of its results. They were a family filled with poetic talent. 19 children — imagine the mother(s?). The strong and memorable rhymes here are not so far from Charles Wesley’s hymns, even if the subject matter couldn’t very well be more different.
As to the poems, the first is a magnificent piece of invective only marred by the conventional and misogynist ‘truth in whores’ in the last line. Notice too the lines
And Satan (let him have his due)
Was never so confirmed a dunce
To risk damnation more than once.
So now reread the second poem I’ve reprinted.
Here we have indeed the reality of a woman’s life in the 18th century — for in Lonsdale’s volume, he includes a full life of Wright and other poetry. I do not want to imagine what it might be like to have to go to bed with a man and endure all he could do and not only not love him, but find him distasteful and know that he finds my personality and everything about me but my body something to scorn and what irritates him. — in Winston Graham’s brave Poldark historical novels he imagines this as repeated rape which shatters and destroys the woman’s self-image, makes her hate herself, her body and turns life for her into a range of cold mean materialism (very like say Gwenolen Harleth finds with Henleigh Grandcourt in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda). Imagine giving birth to this man’s children (he not only fills your body nightly but blows it up and subjects you to near-death childbirth) and then trying to love it for its own sake (what does she have) and the baby dies — as was common. And late in life to become religious and berate herself.
To note: how she has to endure rejection and slight and go to bed with him all the while. how he spends his time and how she has to serve him. Really this is a story of today too — in traditional societies and ours too. The poem shows how the continual repetitions of “friends” that there was nothing wrong with this man (respectable, makes money) and how she should like this life (something must be wrong with her) were among the worst things she was confronted with. Note the last stanza where she says “that wretch” is her “mortal foe” “who tries to mitigate her woe.” Life on terms like these is a living-death.
At the end she says all she can hope for to end this is death, and then that would free this husband.
Do you think the husband bothered to read the poem? I don’t. In it we see how she was left to him. He was her world! Let her why she ceases to please?
This is the under realities of the crude plays of the era; Anne Oldfield and many another actress to make money presented a falsifying dream image through stereotypes which apparently supported the misogynistic erasure of women (see my “I hate such parts as we have plaied today”). The key here is a woman is erased; she is invisible. Just a nearby vagina and womb and should obey and shut up. And in the bend she succumbed.
We have modern equivalents shown us in fiction: Fay Weldon’s Down Among the Women and Female Friends. Her Live and Loves of a She-Devil book and film belongs squarely here. It starred Patricia Hodge; here she is (transformed) kneeling before her man: