Anna Barbauld, "Washing Day" (1797)
DUE: Weekly Post #6 Scotland and Ireland groups
Demaria, p. 869
Also read the introductory statements for the author in Demaria.
Barbauld's poem brings together several threads we have been working on. In the
first place, it is a wonderful example of the mock-epic form, including gentle
parodies of classical epics and Paradise Lost, as well as stylistic
echoes of Milton and Pope.
The poem also turns our attention to the domestic setting, and so we bring our
focus from epic scale to domestic homefront, a trajectory that reflects the
overall shift in emphasis in eighteenth-century literature. Finally, with Barbauld
we are introduced to our first female author of the class (although she is NOT the first
female author chronologically.)
Her poem, "Washing Day," continues the themes of
virtue and truth, but here we begin to see
distinctions of virtue and truth from socially inscribed perspectives,
namely ideas informed by class and gender. How does the world introduced
in this poem differ from the stories and characters you have met thus far? To what extent
might gender be responsible?
This work will also function as a bridge to working-class
issues raised in the poems we will study next week.
For now consider how the poem represents domestic labor. We will
focus on the ending of the poem, where the speaker's voice becomes
far more subjective and personal then we have yet seen in
For continued work on your paper, review the following:
Draft or Plan assessment. Here I have listed a series of questions to provoke thought
on how to evaluate and improve your writing plans.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
"Washing Day" (1797)
All the world's a stage,
This speech of Jacques on the seven ages of man provides
the epigraph for Barbauld's "Washing-day":
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(As You Like It, II vii 139-166)
"... And their voice, / Turning again towards childish
treble, pipes/ And whistles in its sound."
The epigraph draws to mind the parallels between childhood
and old age, the parallels between the small and the great,
between dreams and whimsy and the achievements of adult men.
What significance do these parallels have in the poem?
In Barbauld's time the "dreaded Washing-Day"
was scheduled every five weeks. The activity put the house
in complete disarray; essentially nothing else could
be done on that day -- the entire house, indoors and
outdoors was used for washing, rinsing, drying, ironing,
How might this focus on domestic labor change the control
of power in the home? Is there any evidence of a shift
from patriarchal power to domestic power in the poem?
Examine the opening eight lines. How does Barbauld
characterize the domestic muse? How does this invocation
compare with Milton's? with Pope's? What do the
To whom does Barbauld address her poem? Again, how
does this compare with earlier epic and mock-epic?
What is the effect?
Describe the tone of this poem. What devices are used
to establish this tone? In particular, look for the
influence of Miltonic diction, inversion and repetition.
Also consider the Popean style of parody, understatement,
overstatement (hyperbole), irony, etc.
Lines 13-14 describe the washerwomen in Homeric
terms: Homer's "rosy fingered dawn" becomes for
Barbauld, the "red-armed washers" approaching in
the "grey streak of dawn." What are the implications
of the literary comparison? Later we will compare this
representation with Collier's description
of the plight of washerwomen.
How do the middle lines of the poem (lines 33-57) depict the
change in normal household routine? What impact does this have on the "housewife"?
The master? Or, the "friend"?
Examine the closing lines of the poem, beginning
with line 58. How does the voice of the speaker
change here? What is the effect? How does the tone
change? What is the effect?
Compare the speaker's memory of her role as a child
with the activities of the maids and washerwomen. What
privileges does the child enjoy? What is the
effect of representing the serious labor of washing-day
from the perspective of the child?
Examine the lines: "Then would I sit me down, and
ponder much / Why washings were" (78-79). What
is the tone? What is the implication of such pensiveness? Consider,
too, the change in perspective implied by the speaker's adult
Examine the image of the Mongolfier balloon in line 82. Look up the image and
find out more information. What does it represent? How
does this compare with a child's soap-bubble? How
does this compare with the poet's "bubble" in lines
85-86? What are the implications of the repeated image?
If the shift in voice/tone at line 58 essentially splits the poem in two,
what is the relationship between the opening mock-
epic and the closing lines?
Return to the the parallels between childhood and
old age, the parallels between the small and the
great, between dreams and whimsy and the achievements
of adult men. What do you think the poem suggests about the relationship
between these things?
Whose story does the poem tell?
We might ask whose story Paradise Lost tells
, and whose story does The Rape of the Lock
tell? In what ways does this poem differ?
Back to Top of Page
Back to 3230 Syllabus