Several years ago, I wrote a poem about Mary Leapor (I’ll paste it to the end of this post). I don’t expect anyone to gasp at this news. It isn’t a particularly stellar poem, nor is it unusual for me to attempt such literary feats. I have written poems about other historical characters. Recently, however, I felt inspired to dig out the Leapor poem and post it on Eratosphere. For those unaware, Eratosphere is a site in which the modern day heavyweights of metrical poetry mingle. I’m not a heavyweight, but that’s all right–anyone who is serious about poetry, and who has a backbone, may post a poem. The critiques can be brutal, so I was pleasantly surprised that several people really appreciated my Leapor poem.
One critique, however, had me wondering about the nature of feminism. To start with, the woman claimed my poem had inspired her to read about Mary Leapor. That’s a good thing, I think. Then, she asked me why I hadn’t focused a little more on Leapor’s feminist views, due to the highly irregular nature of such thinking in Leapor’s time. I scratched my head. Were feminist views really all that uncommon prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?
Sometimes, my brain rolls along like an unfolding scroll with snippets of things read, but this scroll is like the Dead Sea texts–old and damaged (the scroll is, not me!). I don’t want to do any name-dropping, so please believe me when I insist that there are many literary and intellectual women from the 17th and 18th centuries who preceded Wollstonecraft. Mary Leapor is but one who dropped into the world for twenty-four short years and managed, in that time, to leave a wealth of verse that includes these: “Yet, with ten thousand Follies to her Charge, / Unhappy Woman’s but a Slave at large (This, I believe, is from her poem, An Essay on Woman).”
Am I to believe that feminist women of the ilk of Leapor sprung on the scene suddenly, as if they emerged from the great deep in response to God’s voice: Let there be light, and there was? Surely, that can’t be the truth. People–of both sexes–have been known to rise against their oppressors throughout all epochs of history. The fact is, though, that we want to cram the idea of feminisism into one definition–a modern one. In the past, European women of a feminist slant attempted to reconcile their Christian beliefs with their desire for autonomy and independence. It could be a quandary, but not necessarily. Living under various authority figures doesn’t negate the passion of the individual.
Mary Leapor was a servant. Some would say she wasn’t a good servant, but she was one, none the less. Within the confines of her life, she still managed to read copiously and scribble out heroic couplets. For my poem, I focused on her servitude because it’s the basic position that all people find themselves in: male or female, slave or free.
Here’s my blank verse poem, with its lines of trochaic pentameter:
The Short, Sad Life of Mary Leapor
Mary is a watcher without windows,
and I hear that under her disguises
hides a maid that stirs pea soup for servants
in the kitchen with the melted candles.
Who is like you, little Mira-Mary?
Turn the meat; don’t scribble in the shadows,
waiting for Cordia’s greasy clutches.
Stir the pot and stop your constant dreaming!
Out the door with nothing but your verses,
run from her, and leave behind her curses!
Mary runs to Brackley, hiding rashes
where her cap strings meet her woolen layers.
In her broken hands she clutches volumes,
wilted papers streaked with new pastorals.
Who has taught the serving girl her letters?
Better—who has led her to the pastures?
Pope and Swift together could not couple
thoughtful lines like you, my Mira-Mary.
When it’s morning, tend your father’s garden;
in the night, accept his wine and pardon.
Mary faints. She falls by sparking embers;
spots are blazing on her pearly brow bone,
as adornment for her plain complexion,
beauty without gold, nor paint for blushes.
Mary, blind now, where are all your letters?
From your drowsy fever-words, drop riches
never heard from spinster serving ladies
sick at twenty-four with Peter waiting
at the gate–his ear to your oration,
kneeling down with words of your salvation.
**I originally wrote this post for The Female Quixote in the summer of 2009. I haven’t written poetry in years and, consequently, haven’t been over to Eratosphere for several years, either.