Home Forums Reading Group September 2020: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem (1812)

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    • Kim Simpson
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      Post count: 42

      Starter Questions

      – What version of the poem did you read? How was your experience reading it with/without explanatory notes?

      – Did the content of this poem surprise you? Did it alter or challenge your perceptions of what women wrote, or how they wrote?

      – What do you know about the reception of this poem?

      – What do you think the poem is saying about the following things:
      * Britain
      * War
      * Empire
      * Culture
      * Commerce
      * Enlightenment/progress
      * Nature
      * Gender

      – What did you think of the 2020 rewrite of this poem by Simon Jenner? [click here to read it]

    • Kim Simpson
      Forum Administrator
      Post count: 42

      Write Up: Chawton House Reading Group September 2020
      Kat Denny

      Key themes: ruin, decay, cyclical nature of societies rising and falling, horror of war

      M__ was struck by the ruins motif as it fitted into her current wider reading (Volney’s Les Ruines, which was very influential for Godwin’s group; read by the Monster in Frankenstein) and interests e.g. Gandy’s A Bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England

      Several commented on the circular feel of the poem; the author is saying that humanity keeps cycling through ruin and decay. ‘Arts, arms and wealth destroy the fruits they bring’. Kim suggested that women might be generally in tune with cycles. A question was raised over whether cycles could be used negatively/in a defeatist way e.g. climate change denial.

      Ozymandias by Shelley noted as very relevant – the fall of an empire and what’s left behind.

      Some found it depressing and a difficult read. A conversation ensued around how sometimes it’s important to read challenging/depressing things in order to think about/confront them. Some felt we are overwhelmed with these messages at the moment but in Barbauld’s pre-internet era the consumption of media was slower so such a publication likely to have been more impactful. R__ made the point that the difficult subject matter doesn’t have to be depressing; winter is still beautiful and spring will always follow eventually.

      Many of the themes were incredibly relevant to our current lives:
      • Multicultural London
      • Cultural revolution/protest movements
      • The tension between nationalism and global community
      • War/conflict
      • Environmentalism
      • Inequality (‘enfeebling luxury and ghastly want’ – KD note: enfeebling luxury made me think of Paris Hilton’s ‘reality’ series in which she tried/failed to do blue collar work)

      R__ found it very relevant but made the very entertaining and self-aware point that she’s somehow finding (or subconsciously looking for) relevance to our current difficult times in everything she’s consuming e.g. watched the new Emma film (Emma lived in lockdown imposed by her father’s fears). R__ also noted the very holistic worldview of the author, the way she manages to show the interconnected nature of everything/many issues (a very tricky and awesome thing to do). The phrase interconnected ecosystem was used to sum it up.

      P__ made the point that such a modern, subversive piece must have been highly unpopular at the time. Kim confirmed that it received a very savage review which some commentators feel ruined Barbauld’s career, although recent scholarship suggests its impact has been overplayed. Interesting for Barbauld to have written a highly political piece as she was known for children’s literature.
      Opinion on Jenner’s modern interpretation was mixed. Some found it helpful for unpicking the rather wordy original (which used many references to people and events current to that era) while others felt that it fell short in showing examples of how relevant the themes are to our times.

      Some found the form and styles used in the poem jarring/too slow/not to their taste. T__ felt that the changing of styles is an intentional pattern (albeit an idiosyncratic one) and may be to provide more than one narrator. The shift from the use of ‘Genius’ to ‘Spirit’ puzzled several people. T__ wondered if the change was to illustrate the shift from an isolated British (colonial) perspective to globalism.

      Floral/organic motifs used throughout noted as working well with the cyclical/decay theme. Kim brought up the point that flowers are typically seen as feminine imagery yet are being used to discuss very male dominated themes of war, politics, commerce. The depiction of ‘hot house flowers’ used as an example of the way that scientific progress and Enlightenment are subduing the natural world shows how progress is both beneficial to our lives but also may have hidden costs/dangers. Many women writers were in tune with this/sceptical of Enlightenment progress and concerned about what could be lost as a consequence of ‘progress’. Writers such as Blake (Visions of the Daughters of Albion) with a similar agenda of Nature v Enlightenment/Industrialism were discussed.

      Y__ noted the similarities between this poem and modern war poems such as Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Despite the many years separating these works from Barbauld, we can see that war is always the same – always bloody and awful – always has the same impact and inflicts the same pain.
      Ramifications of war for women:
      – as mothers losing children (‘fruitful in vain’)
      – as wives and daughters losing their breadwinner (and person they love)
      – as citizens faced with the consequential economic depression
      – as young women ending up with Austen’s desperate marriage market needing a husband for status and security but with a dearth of suitable men (as also happened post WW1)

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