1797
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Washing-Day.

Monthly Magazine 4 (December 1797) 452.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld


A Miltonic burlesque; though the poem is not signed it is plainly the work of an experienced housewife and a skilled poet. Barbauld's imitation of Philips's The Splendid Shilling turns from the usual city descriptions to a domestic landscape, recounting how the household is transformed on what amounts to a day of wrath: "Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth, | E'er visited that day; the very cat, | From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth, | Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest." The poet, as was customary in this series, inserts allusions to earlier burlesques: the shoe, the tart, the rent trousers (here a rent stocking), the tobacco pipe (here employed to blow soap-bubbles).

Doubtless this particular theme was chosen in homage to William Cowper's The Task, with its notable descriptions of domestic life. The very title might have been chosen with Cowper in mind. In addition to adding vividness and sentimentality to the poem, the concluding recollections of washdays remembered from childhood nicely parallels the pervading sense of tradition that characterizes this long-running series of burlesques: the "dear grandmother, eldest of forms" would have been very familiar with Philips and his imitators. While this amusing poem was several times reprinted, it was evidently not recognized as Barbauld's until posthumously published in her Works.

Headnote in Port Folio [Philadelphia]: "We recollect to have read, many years since, in an old gazette, a ludicrous poem, on the familiar topic of the cleansing art of the laundress. This little poem, we believe, was an indigenous production, and in very smooth verse, and with very sprightly wit, described the persecution of a family, upon the memorable washing-day. The following, with the stateliness of Milton's numbers, pursues the same track; and, as the classical reader will perceive, is worthy to be arranged with the Splendid Shilling of Philips. We borrow it from a very novel miscellany, and, it is believed, are the first to usher it to the American public" 4 (29 December 1804) 416.

Headnote in New England Galaxy [Boston]: "We have never seen a piece of descriptive poetry more completely and technically graphic, than the following fragment. Can any of our readers point out its origin?" 10 (9 February 1827).



The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskin'd step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day.

—Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs
Nor comfort; e'er the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-arm'd washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
E'er visited that day; the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast-meal is soon dispatch'd
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters — dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short — and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Montezuma smil'd on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing-day.

—But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who call'st thyself perchance the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual 'tendance; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, tho' the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus, nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious; should'st thou try
The customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse check'd apron, with impatient hand
Twitch'd off when showers impend: or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a day the hospitable rites;
Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy,
Shall he receive; vainly he feeds all hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding: — pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, tho' the husband try,
Mending what can't be help'd, to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort's brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.

I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relique of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or butter'd toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder — so I went
And shelter'd me beside the parlour fire,
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm,
Anxiously fond, tho' oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravell'd stocking, might have sour'd
One less indulgent—
At intervals my mother's voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
To fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were. Sometimes thro' hollow bole
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles, little dreaming then
To see, Mongolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant thro' the clouds — so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them — this most of all.

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