Barbauld, Byron, and the Fourth Wall

“[. . .] Here I must stop,

Or is there aught beyond? What hand unseen

Impels me onward through the glowing orbs

Of habitable nature, far remote,

To the dread confines of eternal night,

To solitudes of vast unpeopled space [. . .]?” (lines 89-94)


By the time in today’s reading that I reached “A Summer Evening’s Meditation,” although it was only the third poem of Barbauld’s we read, there was a pretty clear pattern established: she begins with a fairly banal topic — a mouse, a map, an evening — and then systematically expands it into a whole philosophical treatise. I was surprised, therefore, when, around line 80, “A Summer Evening’s Meditation” was still a meditation on a summer evening, albeit a particularly creative and dramatic one.

The lines I quoted above jumped out at me as indicating a level of self-awareness of this trend; whether Barbauld saw her pattern as a mold to write inviting yet meaningful poetry or a habit worth breaking, she definitely seems compelled in some way to follow that structure, and even, in those lines, blames it on an outside force, a “hand unseen.” It reminded me, in a way, of Byron writing a handful of pointedly eroticized stanzas and then interrupting himself with “And then—God knows what next—I can’t go on; / I’m almost sorry that I e’er begun” before taking a massive step back to discuss Plato (canto 1, stanzas 115-6). While Byron’s take evokes humor, though, I’m not really sure about the intention behind Barbauld’s digression. It doesn’t have the same air of irony as it does in “Don Juan,” and it certainly doesn’t explain her future behavior — the poem after that point is far more abstract than before.

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