Showing posts with label money. Show all posts
Showing posts with label money. Show all posts

Sunday, 18 October 2015

'An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich' - Mary Barber

‘His income’s regularly spent,
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’
Mary Barber

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.

Happy reading!!!

You can find this poem:
(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:

(Wikipedia!! On this occasion the only useful online resource I could actually find.  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)

Monday, 6 July 2015

'Soliloquy on an Empty Purse' - Mary Jones

‘Like wax thy silver melted down,
Touch but the brass, and lo! ‘twas gone:
And gold would never with thee stay,
For gold had wings, and flew away.’

Soliloquy on an Empty Purse

Mary Jones
published 1750 in Miscellanies in Prose and Verse

I read this poem a few weeks ago and I have to admit I fell in love with it at once.  It might have been written over two hundred and fifty years ago, but the subject is one that remains poignantly relevant: money, and the lack of it.  By addressing the ‘Empty Purse’ of the title as if it was an actual character (a technique known as personification), Jones is able to diminish the sense of a lonely poverty.  This then contributes to the ultimately positive tone of the whole poem, in which she optimistically looks for the good in her situation.  Now, she realises, she is safe ‘Amidst temptations thick and strong’, and from those who would want to abstract her money, namely the imagined ‘pick-purse’ and ingratiating ‘flatterer’ to which she refers.

There are a couple of unusual words in the poem which it might be helpful to have clarified before reading.  The word ‘disembogue’ means to ‘emerge or be discharged in quantity’; in the poem this refers to the constant emergence of money from the purse (eventually leaving it empty).   ‘Prorogue’ means to discontinue or interrupt something.  Thus Jones writes to the purse that:

‘Yet used so oft to disembogue,
No prudence could thy fate prorogue.’

In other words, the purse is so used to pouring out its wealth that no prudence on her part could have prevented its ultimate, sad fate of emptiness.

 The final image with which she consoles herself is simply masterful with its employment of the traditional image of the poet/artist figure starving in a garret:

Two eighteenth century purses; I found this image on Pinterest,
but I believe it originally derives from a listing on Christies website.
The Pinterest page is here:

'For who a poet’s purse will rob?
And softly sweet in garret high
Will I thy [the purse’s] virtues magnify;
Outsoaring flatterers’ stinking breath,
And gently rhyming rats to death.’

Samuel Johnson (author of the subject of a previous blogpost, The Vanity of Human Wishes, and a tremendously important figure in the eighteenth-century literary scene) approvingly described Mary Jones as ‘The Chantress’. Whether he meant this in terms of poetic ‘chanting’ or as an ‘enchantress’, or both, is perhaps open to debate; what is certain, however, is that this poem is pure eighteenth-century magic.

About today’s author:
Mary Jones would seem to have had a fairly ordinary background.  Born in Oxford in 1707, she lived there all her life, mostly with her brother Revd Oliver Jones (who became senior chaplain of Christ Church College).  The entry for her in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is frustratingly short, and notes that ‘Information on Jones’s life is mostly drawn from her Miscellanies in Prose and Verse’.  Roger Lonsdale (one of the true greats of eighteenth-century literary scholarship) describes Jones as ‘one of the most intelligent and amusing women writers of her period’, a claim more than justified by today’s poem.

You can find this poem:

(a free copy available from the Poetry Foundation)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, new edn. 1990)
(This looks to be an enormously absorbing read: I went looking for its publishing details for the reference here and ended up buying a (delightfully economical second-hand) copy)

Some more of Mary Jones’s poetry has been published in this volume:
(a brand new copy of this book might be a little on the pricey side for modest budgets, but fortunately its incorporation on university reading lists means that there is usually a ready supply of substantially cheaper second-hand copies available from reputable dealers)

You can find out more about Mary Jones:

(this looks to be an enormously absorbing book, and when my own purse is a little less empty I might have to go shopping… In the meantime, this free preview on googlebooks gives access to much of the chapter on Mary Jones)
(not forgetting the ever useful Wikipedia)
(This has nothing to do with Mary Jones, but if you are on Pinterst these eighteenth century purses are well worth looking at.  It should always be kept in mind, though, that it is typically more elaborate/expensive objects that survive through history; the poet’s purse about which Mary Jones writes would probably have been somewhat less glamorous)

Information for this blogpost was derived from these sources:

Richard Greene, & Revd William R. Jones, ‘Jones, Mary (1707-1778)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004-15.  [accessed 3/7/2015]

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, new edn. 1990)
Oxford Dictionaries Online
(a smaller, but free, version of the Oxford English Dictionary; a very useful resource!)

Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, & Elaine Showalter, The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 356 (the reference to the publication date of her poem)