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, January 24, 2012

Anna Lætitia Barbauld: “The awe this day struck into me”

Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743-1825) was a writer, teacher, and minister’s wife in England. She moved in circles of religious and political dissenters, and was acquainted with Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is the last part of Barbauld’s poem “Washing Day,” first published in the Monthly Magazine of December 1797. It’s an evocative slice of life, showing a moment when laundry day meant all the women in a household were busy and little girls weren’t allowed jelly or butter, yet science was about to let people fly:
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.
Read the whole poem here.

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