He scarcely saves to pay his rent.
No man alive would do more good,
Or give more freely, if he could.
He grieves, whene’er the wretched sue,
But what can poor Castalio do?’
‘An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich’
Looks serious, doesn’t it? ‘He scarcely saves to pay his rent’ (line 36). Poor Castalio, you might think. But don’t forget the title; the title gives a huge clue about how this poem is actually meant to be read.
Mary Barber began writing poetry as a way of educating her four children ‘by making precepts easier to memorize’ (Lonsdale, p. 118), and the integral purpose of this verse seems to be to explain how a wealthy man might believe he has no spare income to devote to charity. The ironical approach of the poem lends a humorous touch that makes it enormously memorable, and indeed it is a beautiful example of eighteenth-century satirical social comment.
Throughout the poem, the whole situation is presented from the perspective of our wealthy hero, Castalio (I’m using the term hero very loosely here…). He is praying, imploring heaven to make it possible for him to ‘have the power to bless, / And raise up merit in distress?’ (lines 3-4). In other words, he wants to be able to spread his bounty amongst the deserving poor, the ones whose ‘merit’ deserves raising above the level of ‘distress[ing]’ poverty. So far so good. He seems a fair, moral sort of chap, eh?
The next line is key to the educational value of the poem – ‘How do our hearts deceive us here!’ (line 5). Immediately, the plural pronoun ‘our’ includes everyone involved in this poem within its moral compass: Castalio, the writer of the poem, and most importantly the reader.
‘How do our hearts deceive us here!
He gets ten thousand pounds a year.’ (lines 5-6)
For anyone unacquainted with the glittering merits of ten thousand pounds a year in the eighteenth century, suffice to say that it was a fantastic heap of cash! If you are familiar with Jane Austen’s novels, then you might remember that this is the level of income enjoyed by her extremely eligible hero Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Our Castalio is therefore being placed firmly within the ranks of the landed gentry. To imagine that he has no spare income with which to fulfil his wish of alleviating the sufferings of the poor is, frankly, ludicrous. How can he so deceive himself? the poem asks.
The answer is simple of course: ‘one must live as others do’ (line 15). Castalio is a hypocrite; yet again there is a very strong sense here that he is not alone. He is spending his income in a way that is entirely consistent with the way in which his contemporaries are spending theirs. There are certain luxuries that it is simply expected for a member of the gentry to have, such as ‘A coach-and-six to take the air, / Besides a chariot and chair’ (lines 31-2). (The ‘chair’ most probably referring to a sedan chair; if you’ve never seen one, it’s basically a small portable chair, boxed in on all sides and designed to be carried by two servants). Once again, the point is underlined: these are ‘Calls of necessity, not pride’ (line 34): in other words, these are not extravagant luxuries, but things that every respectable gentleman is supposed to have.
But the final couplet dispels any shred of sympathy that we might still have had for 'poor' Castalio:‘Would Heaven but send ten thousand more,
He’d give – just as he did before.’ (lines 41-2)
That is, not at all. What Castalio is doing is making excuses for himself; what Mary Barber has done in her poem is to take us inside Castalio’s mind, to show us how he has constructed those excuses. The reader is ultimately allowed to laugh with Barber at Castalio’s absurd self-delusion…to laugh but then afterwards to reflect. For had she not been writing about how ‘our hearts deceive us here’?
This is such an intriguing poem, one that makes genuine excuses for morally questionable behaviour, but which also peels aside those excuses to examine the complacent hypocrisy that lies behind. This is a poem which does not so much satirise an individual, but rather human weakness itself.
You can find this poem:http://www.eighteenthcenturypoetry.org/works/pba35-w0070.shtml
(a handy free version of the poem! Useful for those who can’t wait to get reading…)
Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 121-2(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an excellent volume!! Beautifully edited, with brief bios of all the writers included!)
I've uploaded a reading of this poem on youtube. It's not perfect (technical limitations!) but hopefully good fun!
You can find out more about Mary Barber:
If any literary academics are reading this, please feel free to contribute more resources if you know of any!
Lonsdale’s book is also, as mentioned above, an exceedingly valuable resource in this regard.)
Information for compiling this blogpost was taken from:
Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)