Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Tuesday Poem: a Valentine's Day antidote - Margaret Cavendish, 1673

Oh Love, how thou art tired out with rhyme!
Thou art a tree whereon all poets climb;
And from thy branches every one takes some
Of thy sweet fruit, which Fancy feeds upon.
But now thy tree is left so bare and poor,
That they can hardly gather one plum more.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1673



Not a great Romantic, our Margaret.  But then, she had a tough life.  Her family lost everything (including her brothers' lives) in the English Civil War.  She married one of the most famous Cavaliers, the notorious womaniser William, Duke of Newcastle,  and lived in exiled poverty until the Restoration of Charles II.

Margaret spent her time writing books - which was enough in the 17th century to ruin a woman's reputation.  The King is reported to have said of her;  'Her Grace is an entire raree-show in her own person - a universal masquerade - indeed a sort of private Bedlam-hospital, her whole ideas being like so many patients crazed upon the subjects of love and literature . . .'  Known as Mad Madge, or the Whore of Welbeck, she was a spectre to frighten clever, bookish girls with.

But she persevered and ignored her critics.  'It is also a great delight and pleasure to me, as being the only pastime which employs my idle hours insomuch that, were I sure nobody did read my works, yet I would not quit my pastime for all that, for although they should not delight others, yet they delight me.'

I found her a wonderful personality and a great inspiration.  Her views were so ardently feminist, in an age when women had no freedom at all, I couldn't help but admire her audacity.  'True it is,' she wrote, anticipating Germaine Greer by several hundred years,  'that men from their first creation, usurped a supremacy to themselves, although we were made equal by nature, which tyrannical government they have kept ever since so that we could never come to be free, but rather more and more enslaved, using us either like children fools or subjects . . . and will not let us divide the World equally with them . . . which slavery hath so dejected our spirits, as we are become so stupid that Beasts are a degree below us, and men use us but a degree above beasts, whereas in Nature we have as clear an understanding as men;  if we were bred in schools to mature our brains and to manure our understandings that we might bring forth the fruits of knowledge.' 


A Glorious Fame:  The Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle



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