Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Mouse's Petition - Anna Laetitia Barbauld

The Mouse's Petition, Found in the TRAP where he had been confin'd all Night [by Dr. Priestley.]

Anna Barbauld calls for liberty from patriarchal restraints.

Photo: Copyright Janet Cameron

"If women tended to see differently from men, it was axiomatic in the eighteenth century that they felt differently too," says Stuart Curran in "Romantic poetry - the I altered." From this, and the rise of the woman-poet, emerged the cult of sensibility which Curran regards as "largely a female creation."  We should acknowledge, of course, that men can "feel" too, but what women needed to prove was that they, like men, could also "think." There was, at the time of Romanticism, a great divide, and a conviction that the female mind was defective. From this followed strong resistance against learned women, which hardly provides a "natural atmosphere in which intellectual development is fostered and shaped," as described in Curran's article. Sensibility, as it succeeded in becoming a cultural norm, made it easier for women to assert themselves as writers.

Sensibility Equal to Rationality
Anna Laetitia Barbauld's sad poem, The Mouse's Petition is, in fact, a fable, with many layers of meaning:
"O HEAR a pensive prisoner's prayer / For liberty that sighs; / And never let thine heart be shut / Against the wretch's cries! / For here forlorn and sad I sit, / Within the wiry grate: / And tremble at the approaching morn, / Which brings impending fate."
Stuart Curran says: "Even if addressed with youthful affection to an admired family associate, the poem is a direct assertion of the claims of feminine sensibility against male rationality."  It is a plea, even a demand, that woman should be released from the prison that is imposed upon her due to her gender. It upholds, like other female writing of that time, the assertion that sensibility is, at least, equal in value, to rationality.
"Let Nature's commoners enjoy / The common gifts of Heaven, / The well-taught philosophic mind / To all compassion gives; / Castes (sic) round the world an equal eye / and feels for all that lives."
Beware the Worm you Crush
The poems claims an interconnectedness between all the creatures of the Universe: "Beware, lest in the worm you crush, / A brother's soul you find." This, says, Curran, "... is a literature of psychological exploration, and it is the foundation on which Romanticism was reared."  It gave rise to debates among the literati and bluestockings, as to the comparative values of stoicism and sensibility. Eventually, it became a subgenre, an independent, analytical, feminist poetic tradition encompassing fine-feeling and the sharing and valuing of female experience.
The poem serves a double-purpose, by also countering the work of Dr. Joseph Priestley, a theologian with a strong interest in science and scientific experiments, see article summary. Barbauld took a similar approach to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with dire consequences for her.

  • Curran, Stuart, "Romantic Poetry, the I Altered," Romantic Writings,Routledge,1996.
  • Barbauld, Anna, "The Mouse's Petition," The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld, Ed.W. McCarthy and E. Kraft, University of Geogia Press.

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