Washing Day

I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments about Steamies. So many interesting snapshots of women’s lives – so different, but all connected by the necessary business of laundry! I was very struck by how so many of your comments were written from a child’s perspective: an outsider, while the bustling work of women went on around you. This reminded me of Anna Laetita Barbauld’s poem Washing Day, which I thought I’d reproduce here for those of you who don’t know it.

For many years, I did not get on with this poem. I felt that it was in some way responsible for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women as domestic writers. I disliked its ‘prattling’ muse, and I disliked the fact that it was about, of all things washing – how very inconsequential! Barbauld is a tremendous writer, and I felt strongly that she needed to be known more for her political works. After all, any woman who could write a pamphlet with the title Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation deserved to be taken seriously. But, after a decade or so immersed in the Eighteenth Century, my thoughts about this poem totally changed – not coincidentally, around the same time that I started knitting again. I realised that Washing Day was a brilliant poem, with all of Barbauld’s brilliance, on a subject that was no less worthy of attention than the many other topics she tackled in her writing. The poem itself was not to blame for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women writers — rather, that was the fault of several generations of male academics and editors. The beginning of the poem is mock-epic in tone, but I don’t think that this trivialises its subject matter in the least. I love its material, textile details: the wet sheets on the line; the grandmother in the process of knitting a stocking. It is an important poem for being written from a child’s perspective, as well as for its descriptions of women’s work and household routines. And I really think that, in the last few lines, the transformation of the child’s soap bubble into the Montgolfier hot-air balloon – before the poem itself goes POP and disappears – is one of the most gobsmacking, imaginatively defining, moments of eighteenth-century poetry. I hope you enjoy it.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Washing Day (1797)

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; ere 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 Guatimozin 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 his 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 bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles, little dreaming then
To see, Mongolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through 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.

(Antonio Carnicero Y Mancio, Ascent of the Montgolfier Balloon in the Gardens of Aranjuez, 1784)