Barbauld and Civilization

Thy hand has planted and thy spirit fills:

Soon as their gradual progress shall impart

The finer sense of morals and art,

Thy stores of knowledge the new states shall know… (84-87)

I found these lines particularly interesting because they reminded me of many other poems that we have read this semester in their focus on writing as something that improves people’s lives. One example is Wordsworth’s meditations on the nature of writing and its relation to immortality. But Barbauld treats writing as an agent of civilized society; she writes that British literature will have a powerful and positive influence on developing civilizations, such as America. There are probably many other British writers who, even if inadvertently, spread this message.

This idea of literature as a mark of civilization seems to connect to the idea of a “canon” that we spoke about in class. As I was thinking about Barbauld, Charles W. Chesnutt came to my mind, who we read in 19th Century American Literature; I remember discussing how he often tried to incorporate aspects of speech into his writing that were seen as informal but resonated more with his experiences and with real life in general. It seems to me that there are so many examples of literature excluded from the canon because they didn’t fit with what was considered “proper” for the time period. Or perhaps there wasn’t a receptive audience for the work when it was written.

This poem is also a great example of what we discussed in class, that Barbauld is trying to establish herself within a man’s world. This is extremely obvious when she praises exclusively male authors, stating, “And Milton’s tones the raptured ear entrall” (95). This seems such a fine line to walk and I think the fact that Barbauld’s writing career ended the way that it did perhaps speaks to the fact that success on the part of a woman sometimes comes at a cost when it must be tailored for a male audience/patriarchal society.

Leave a Reply