Monday, March 5, 2012

On “The Rights of Woman”

Anna Barbauld's “The Rights of Woman” is a poem of many contradictions. The title starts plural, with “Rights” but the same clause ends singular with “Woman” which seems contradictory. The poem's message follows this pattern by beginning in support of a female revolution, but ending with a warning call about results of such a revolution. The phrasing of several of the lines continue this theme of contradiction, such as “Thou mayst command, but never canst be free” (20). The issue of feminism was and continues to be full of controversy and contradiction. It seems plausible that Barbauld was intentional in her poem to present her views carefully on this topic; however it is also plausible that such contradiction stem from her own internal conflicts on the subject. She may have enjoyed the popularity she had and not felt as strongly on the subject as other female authors did. In examining the internal conflicts of the poem it does not matter if this was intentional or not. From its title to overall thematic structure the internal conflicts resonant with the overarching divisive theme of man versus woman.
The poem begins with internal conflict in the first stanza, calling to “[w]oman” (1) not women, like the title. She continues with, “O born to rule in partial Law's despite, / Resume thy native empire o'er the breast!” (3-4) which shows a contradiction in implication. Ruling in law implies ruling in logic and intelligence, but then having empire over the breast implies ruling over emotion and matters of the heart. Which one is she calling for, she seems to lament that woman is born to rule over the mind, but implores that woman should resume ruling over the heart. She is presenting conflict in ideology over what exactly it is that women should rule over and she does not make it clear which is more important.
In the second stanza the internal conflicts continue as she commands, “Go forth arrayed in panoply divine” (5) implying beauty and ornamentation. She then adds, “[g]o, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign, / and kiss the golden sceptre of thy reign” (7-8). The contradiction here is calling men to resign their pride and boasts, while comparing woman to the divine. If men can not boast in their rule why can the woman proudly declare their likeness to divinity, again an implied conflict in her argument.
She also adds to the implied conflicts of ideology by comparing the tools of woman, “[b]lushes and fears” (12) to the tools of war, “artillery” (10) and “cannon” (11), implying a connection and conflict between the weapons of man's wars amongst each other and woman's war again men. She compares the rights of woman to be “[f]elt, not defined, and if debated, lost” (14) much like “sacred mysteries” (15) which “[s]hunning discussion, are revered the most” (16). She claims that the rights of women have been treated like the mysteries of the gospels, things that can not be talked about, because their power and import is lost if discussed. However this shows the difficulty she has in writing this poem, as it may devalue the very things she is trying to claim and prove. Each line and clause is filled with conflict in tone, meaning and content.
Despite these internal conflicts the first six stanzas do seem overall connected in theme. They all present a similar and complex argument. The time is right for woman to assert herself into society and have some sort of dominance. The major conflict of the poem in entirety happens with a shift in the theme in the last two stanzas. She argues that if all that she has wished for in the first six stanzas comes true, then: “hope not, courted idol of mankind, / On this proud eminence secure to stay” (25-26) and continues with, “[s]ubduing and subdued, thou soon shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way” (27-28). She concludes that even if women manage to gain dominance they can not hold it, they will soften their rule and let go of their pride. She is implying that to want to rule over men is something that only men want, that women do or should desire something else. Her final line ends, “separate rights are lost in mutual love” (32). She is showing that for women to desire rule over men is not natural and will not lost. The conflict is temporary and nature's will is not for women to rule. There are many good reasons for women to cast of the dominance of men, but if women try to rule in their place nature will not let it last long, woman’s love will overcome their pride and anger.
Nearly every clause, idea, and theme of this poem is in conflict. There are various contradictions present throughout the entire text. Whether this is intentional or it stems from the authors own internal conflicts does not matter. What matters is that a seemingly simple poem becomes a perfect microcosm for a complex issue. The subject of woman's rights versus male rights, or even the subject and natural genders and their characteristics is something that has been and will continue to be debated across a variety of mediums. Seeing the complexities in this poem and the conflicts in those complexities enables a reader to see a broader spectrum of ideas about causes and solutions to this issue.  

1 comment:

  1. This helped me a lot! I'm currently doing a project on the Romantic Era and this has helped me gain a new perspective on the poem when looking at Feminism and Slavery in the time, thank you!