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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 12: VIRTUE AND THE DOMESTIC-- THE MOCK-EPIC

Reading Assignment:

    Anna Barbauld, "Washing Day" (1797)
    Demaria, p. 869
DUE: Weekly Post #6 Scotland and Ireland groups

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 eighteenth-century poetry.

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)

1.

All the world's a stage,
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)

This speech of Jacques on the seven ages of man provides the epigraph for Barbauld's "Washing-day":

"... 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, folding, etc.

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 differences suggest?

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 voice.

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?

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