An Explication of "Washing Day"
The poem Washing Day by Anna Letitia Barbauld illustrates two different points of view of the events that are happening on washing day. The first view is how the people surrounding the author feel towards the chores to be done that day. The second is the view from the author when she was a child, observing all that is happening. The idea of the poem is to bring to the readerís attention the joy and innocence of childhood, while at the same time noting the importance of the events of the day. The author accomplishes this by her choice of words used to describe the various tasks.
As soon as the poem begins, the reader detects a feeling of melancholy. The opening line "The Muses are turned gossips" immediately creates a negative tone. Muses (inspirations) are usually thought of as being good and uplifting, here they are being turned into something that is generally thought of as being bad. As the poem continues, a sense of sarcasm can be detected at the end of the authorís reference to this day. She details the way the women ("domestic Muse") come from where they live in a most woeful way "prattling on" and going by mud where there are drowning flies and an old shoe. Then she ends this section by saying, "Come, Muse; and sing the dreaded Washing-Day." If something is dreaded, a person is not going to be singing about it, even though the men would probably like to see that. The description of marriage in the next line is interestingly negative. " Beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,Ö" a yoke is put on an ox which is a beast of burden! I suppose the women feel exactly this way because they seem to have no choice in the matter.
As the women are getting ready the sky looks as though it is going to rain, which makes the task even worse. Barbauldís description of the attitude at the breakfast table continues the melancholy. She uses the word "silent" and "dispatched" to depict breakfast, words that are not associated with an enjoyable meal (line 19). The next few lines illustrate the effect of the rain on such a day. The sopping wet clothes will cause the drying lines to snap and the clothes will get dirty and stained. She states this as being one of the "petty miseries of life"(line 28). Barbauld is again being sarcastic here because what may seem petty to others, is not to these women. The chores that are being done on this day are hard, tiresome and without thanks. Petty, by definition is of little or no importance; if the clothes and linens cannot get done than it becomes something that is important.
Lines 30 to 50 portray the possibility of a husband coming by to ask for something else to be done, that a sock be mended for example, or to go for a walk with his wife. The importance of this line is to represent how the men do not feel that the tasks of the day are that big of a deal, as if the wife has tons of free time to go about these other things to please him. Line 50 tells exactly how he will be treated if he thinks about trying this, a blank look and a short conversation. The women are so busy that a husband, who actually tries to cheer up his wife, is made to eat dinner alone and then leave when he is through. A generally unhappy theme continues for the first two thirds of the poem, but then once the child begins to describe how she sees things, the mood changes.
The child does not remember this day as dreadful and can not understand why the others do not feel the same way. Even though all of this hard work is going on, the child is looking for some loving attention or a treat. This is where the reader can begin to see the innocence of youth. It does not matter to the child what is going on, she still wants what she normally can have when it is not washing day. When she does not get it she just goes on to something else to pass the time. She goes and sits by the fire where her grandmother is. The description of the grandmother begins the uplifting of the mood. She is described as being a dear, caring old woman who is watching the children. The words "little ones" and "anxiously fond" (lines 68,69) again represent the authorís careful choice of words to set the tone. As the child is sitting there, Barbauld reminds the reader of the motherís attitude by the description of her voice. She uses the word "dispatch" again only now to portray how the mother is talking. The mother is giving orders and the women are feverishly working, but the child did not seem to be interrupted by any of this. In fact, the child would sit and wonder why the wash was even being done.
The words used in the last few lines distinctively illustrate the innocence of a child. Floating bubbles, dreaming and clouds are all used to paint a picture of what the child is thinking about. At the very end of the poem the author relates the voyage of a hot air balloon with the task of a child blowing bubbles. The bubbles are a toy, while the balloon becomes something that an adult would stress over. The last two lines tie in the authorís standpoint of sarcasm again. "Earth, air and sky, and ocean, hath itís bubbles, and verse is one of them- this most of all." These lines are saying that all of the major forces in life have things that are worth laboring over. Most of these are associated with the tasks of men. Hot air balloons in the sky, boats on the ocean and mechanical inventions in general, are all things produced by men. These things have obvious importance to people, thus making it acceptable to toil over them. Even poetry is important enough to stress over, but what about doing the wash? In todayís world it is not too difficult a task, but before high tech washing machines it was quite an event. Why is it not a worthy task? Is it because clothes are not something important? Or is it because it is not something that is performed by a man? Is it not worthy for reasons the child pondered- why itís even done at all?
Barbauld, Anna Letitia. "Washing Day." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, 2000.