J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Anna Barbauld and “A Pensive Prisoner’s Prayer”

On Sunday, the Guardian newspaper ran a story by Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder, about “The Royal Society’s lost women scientists.” It highlighted several pre-twentieth-century British women who, Holmes said, contributed to scientific inquiry.

The first example is Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who attended Royal Society meetings in the late 1600s. Back in college, I actually wrote a paper about one such session. As I recall now, Robert Hooke was supposed to do something awful to a dog to demonstrate its breathing, but so many members escorted the duchess out to her carriage halfway through the meeting that there wasn’t time. I don’t recall the duchess making a significant contribution to science, and Holmes doesn’t really describe one, as opposed to her contributions to philosophy and letters. Then again, I don’t recall such gentlemen at that meeting as John Evelyn doing much for science, either.

An example closer to 1775 and perhaps to the scientific process is Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825), an important literary figure. Holmes writes:

Anna Barbauld, the brilliant young assistant to Joseph Priestley FRS, the great 18th-century chemist, noticed the distress of his laboratory animals as they were steadily deprived of air in glass vacuum jars, during the experiments in which he first discovered oxygen (1774). Accordingly, she wrote a poem in the voice of one of Priestley’s laboratory mice and stuck it in the bars of the mouse’s cage for Priestley to find the next morning.
Barbauld actually published the poem in 1772. It’s in the voice of a wild mouse that Priestley has just trapped, not one he already had caged in his lab. As for stating that Barbauld was a laboratory assistant, her 2008 biographer, William McCarthy, wrote merely:
[Priestley] allowed his sons to use the block on which he kept his wig as a target for air-gun marksmanship. Like these boys, Anna Letitia was amused by the medley of books, papers, apparatus, and odds and ends that littered Priestley’s study; probably she also got to take a hand in his experiments.
That seems like a slender basis for saying Barbauld was Priestley’s scientific colleague, as opposed to a smart and lively protégée in poetry, politics, chess, and other fields. There’s a big difference between being a magician’s assistant and being a volunteer from the audience assisting with a trick.

In any event, here’s the complete murine poem that Barbauld left for Priestley:
The Mouse’s Petition
Found in the Trap, where he had been confined all Night

Parcere subjectis, & debellare superbos. [To spare the lowly, and to overthrow the proud.] VIRGIL.

Oh! hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries!

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.

If e’er thy breast with freedom glowed,
And spurned a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

Oh! do not stain with guiltless blood
Thy hospitable hearth!
Nor triumph that thy wiles betrayed
A prize so little worth.

The scattered gleanings of a feast
My scanty meals supply;
But if thine unrelenting heart
That slender boon deny,

The cheerful light, the vital air,
Are blessings widely given;
Let Nature's commoners enjoy
The common gifts of Heaven.

The well-taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives.

If mind, as ancient sages taught,
A never dying flame,
Still shifts through matter's varying forms,
In every form the same,

Beware, lest in the worm you crush,
A brother’s soul you find;
And tremble lest thy luckless hand
Dislodge a kindred mind.

Or, if this transient gleam of day
Be all of life we share,
Let pity plead within thy breast
That little all to spare.

So may thy hospitable board
With health and peace be crowned;
And every charm of heartfelt ease
Beneath thy roof be found.

So when destruction lurks unseen,
Which men, like mice, may share,
May some kind angel clear thy path,
And break the hidden snare.
When she republished the lines in the fifth edition of her Poems, Barbauld added this footnote:
The Author is concerned to find, that what was Intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as the victim of domestic œconomy, than of philosophical curiosity.
By then it had become known that the mouse had been trapped “by Dr. Priestley for the sake of making experiments with different kinds of air.” Though Barbauld had written the mouse’s plea, she felt a stronger urge to defend Priestley.


Chaucerian said...

"'Probably she also got to take a hand in his experiments.'" Probably, probably, I hate "probably." That word signifies an author's guess on the basis of his assumptions, which may have nothing to do with the ethos of the era he is describing. Speaking as the twentieth-century untrained wife of a scientist and then later as a scientist myself, I think that the likelihood of any scientist allowing an untrained person, particularly a woman, to touch his experiments is pretty close to zero. Now things may have been different in the eighteenth century, well known as a time of feminist enlightenment -- I'll stop now, I'm ranting. But could you maybe find an actual female scientist of the period? Or maybe not?

RFuller said...

How about: Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze better known as Mme. Lavoisier, who worked with her husband as a fellow scientist. Upon his death at the hands of French revolutionaries, she kept up with their research. She even later married Benjamin Thompson, AKA Count Rumford, who has been featured so much on this blog in the past. Une femme formidable!