WOMPO - Women's Poetry Listserv
Elizabeth Hands (fl 1789)
by Ellen Moody and Annie Finch
by Ellen Moody and Annie Finch
This useful sonnet contrasts to the many poems praising domestic bliss.
On an Unsociable Family
O what a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or even agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrained by the weather;
Then one says, ''Tis cold', which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, ''Tis so';
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another's about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.
In readable felicitious couplets (they are not in heroic couplet meter), the poet imagines how her book would be talked about should she manage to get it into print and should some of the people she knows and who know her actually read it:
Elizabeth Hands's "A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read" (1789)
The dinner was over, the table-cloth gone,
The bottles of wine and the glasses brought on,
The gentlemen fill'd up the sparkling glasses,
To drink to their King, to their country and lasses;
The ladies a glass or two only requir'd,
To th' drawing-room then in due order retir'd;
The gentlemen likewise that chose to drink tea;
And, after discussing the news of the day,
What wife was suspected, what daughter elop'd,
What thief was detected, that 'twas to be hop'd,
The rascals would all be convicted, and rop'd;
What chambermaid kiss'd when her lady was out;
Who won, and who lost, the last night at the rout;
What lord gone to France, and what tradesman unpaid,
And who and who danc'd at the last masquerade;
What banker stopt payment with evil intention,
And twenty more things much too tedious to mention.
Miss Rhymer says, Mrs. Routella, ma'am, pray
Have you seen the new book (that we talk'd of that day,
At your house you remember) of Poems, 'twas said
Produc'd by the pen of a poor Servant Maid?
The company silent, the answer expected;
Says Mrs. Routella, when she'd recollected;
Why, ma'am, I have bought it for Charlotte; the child
Is so fond of a book, I'm afraid it is spoil'd:
I thought to have read it myself, but forgat it;
In short, I have never had time to look at it.
Perhaps I may look it o'er some other day;
Is there any thing in it worth reading, I pray?
For your nice attention, there's nothing can 'scape.
She answer'd,---There's one piece, whose subject's a Rape.
A Rape! interrupted the Captain Bonair,
A delicate theme for a female I swear;
Then smerk'd at the ladies, they simper'd all round,
Touch'd their lips with their fans,---Mrs. Consequence frown'd.
The simper subsided, for she with her nods,
Awes these lower assemblies, as Jove awes the gods.
She smil'd on Miss Rhymer, and bad her proceed---
Says she, there are various subjects indeed:
With some little pleasure I read all the rest,
But the Murder of Amnon's the longest and best.
Of Amnon, of Amnon, Miss Rhymer, who's he?
His name, says Miss Gaiety's quite new to me:---
'Tis a Scripture tale, ma'am,---he's the son of King David,
Says a Reverend old Rector: quoth madam, I have it;
A Scripture tale?---ay---I remember it---true;
Pray is it i'th' old Testament or the new?
If I thought I could readily find it, I'd borrow
My house-keeper's Bible, and read it to-morrow.
'Tis in Samuel, ma'am, says the Rector:---Miss Gaiety
Bow'd, and the Reverend blush'd for the laity.
You've read it, I find, says Miss Harriot Anderson;
Pray, sir, is it any thing like Sir Charles Grandison?
How you talk, says Miss Belle, how should such a girl write
A novel, or any thing else that's polite?
You'll know better in time, Miss:---She was but fifteen:
Her mamma was confus'd---with a little chagrin,
Says,---Where's your attention, child? did not you hear
Miss Rhymer say, that it was poems, my dear?
Says Sir Timothy Turtle, my daughters ne'er look
In any thing else but a cookery book:
The properest study for women design'd;
Says Mrs. Domestic, I'm quite of your mind.
Your haricoes, ma'am, are the best I e'er eat,
Says the Knight, may I venture to beg a receipt.
'Tis much at your service, says madam, and bow'd,
Then flutter'd her fan, of the compliment proud.
Says Lady Jane Rational, the bill of fare
Is th' utmost extent of my cookery care:
Most servants can cook for the palate I find,
But very few of them can cook for the mind.
Who, says Lady Pedigree, can this girl be;
Perhaps she's descended of some family;---
Of family, doubtless, says Captain Bonair,
She's descended from Adam, I'd venture to swear
. Her Ladyship drew herself up in her chair,
And twitching her fan-sticks, affected a sneer.
I know something of her, says Mrs. Devoir,
She liv'd with my friend, Jacky Faddle, Esq.
'Tis sometime ago though; her mistress said then,
The girl was excessively fond of a pen;
I saw her, but never convers'd with her---though
One can't make acquaintance with servants, you know.
'Tis pity the girl was not bred in high life,
Says Mr. Fribbello:---yes,---then, says his wife,
She doubtless might have wrote something worth notice:
Tis pity, says one,---says another, and so 'tis.
O law! says young Seagram, I've seen the book, now
I remember, there's something about a mad cow.
A mad cow!---ha, ha, ha, ha, return'd half the room;
What can y' expect better, says Madam Du Bloom?
They look at cach other,---a general pause---
And Miss Coquettella adjusted her gauze.
The Rector reclin'd himself back in his chair,
And open'd his snuff-box with indolent air;
This book, says he, (snift, snift) has in the beginning,
(The ladies give audience to hear his opinion)
Some pieces, I think, that are pretty correct;
A stile elevated you cannot expect:
To some of her equals they may be a treasure,
And country lasses may read 'em with pleasure.
That Amnon, you can't call it poetry neither,
There's no flights of fancy, or imagery either;
You may stile it prosaic, blank-verse at the best;
Some pointed reflections, indeed, are exprest;
The narrative lines are exceedingly poor:
Her Jonadab is a---the drawing-room door
Was open'd, the gentlemen came from below,
And gave the discourse a definitive blow.
Little is known about Elizabeth Hands. We know she was a domestic servant in a household near Coventry, that she married a blacksmith near Rugby by 1785 (Hands is her husband's and her married name; we don't know her birth name); and that she had at least one daughter. The people described in the above poem would be the types of people she would have been surrounded by and had to work for.
Jopson's Coventry Mercury published Hands's poem under the pseudonym Daphne. The headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Jones [not one of those in the poem] was impressed, and by 1788 the masters at his school were seeking subscribers to publish a book which appeared in 1789 and was titled The Death of Ammon. A Poem. With an Appendix: Containing Pastorals, and other Poetical Pieces. It appeared in Coventry, printed for the author, had a 28 page introduction, 127 pages of poems, and its thousand subscribers included Anna Seward, Thomas Warton, and Edmund Burke.
As predicted by the author, critical reception of her book was mixed -- at least as we can see it in published reviews. The Monthly Review manifests just such snobbery as we find in the after-dinner conversation imagined by Hands, e.g., "we cannot but form the most favourable conclusions with respect to that of the writer, -- forming, as we do, most of our judgment from the uncommonly numerous list of subscribers: among whom are many names of persons of rank, and consideration. There could be no motive for extraordinary patronage, but a benevolent regard to merit -- of some kind." There were harsh and nasty sneers for Hands (a housemaid), as in the Analytical Review: "we will let her sing-song die in peace."
What became of Hands after the publication of her volume no one appears to know.
The above poem is said to be typical in prosody and mood: colloquial language, prosaic stance, satire. It's about how what we write will be by many or most people judged by our status, and also how people will talk publicly about the act of reading in private (where we may respond very differently as not under social pressure). Both are quiet satire.
Hands is said to portray working class people with real respect, giving them dignity: they find conjugal happiness without the blessings of institutionalized religion (i.e., marriage -- it was not uncommon not to marry among the working classes in the era). Like Goldsmith, she expresses nostalgia for a village life she thinks is disappearing. Of course she is resentful of class oppression. Donna Landry (who has written a book on laboring women poets of the 18th century) says Elizabeth Hand's's poems show an awareness of why a woman needs a reputation for chastity (respectability -- or she'll be at risk for constant harassment and humiliation, or simply not be employed in money-making occupations), and has some strong women at the center.
I also took the above poem and information Roger Lonsdale's invaluable anthology Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and from Paula R. Feldman's British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology. I can't praise the latter enough.
From Annie Finch:
Thank you so much!!!! These are fascinating to me for many reasons. In the long poem, the unusual kind/level of detail (the use of "haricots" for green beans" (funny how we have only kept the privileged French names for meat--veal, pork, beef--but not for veggies) the full, accurate list of topics of gossip; the Rector's bad grammar (his snobbish affectation, I wonder, or a satire on her part of his lack of true education?) is priceless, and makes me sense more exactly how much we have all been missing by keeping the women's, and the working class, p.o.v. so persistently out of so many centuries of canonical poetry. This poem gives so much more accurate a picture of what life might really have been like for real women at that time, what women, perhaps women of any class, would have been surrounded by, noticed, been aware of in daily life, than, oh, a poem like Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst," with its perspective only of the lofty consumer of lofty food and lofty topics of conversation. . . and that it is in couplets makes it close enough to be that much more useful a voice in the same conversation, maybe paired with something like Swift's "Description of a City Shower." That Hands is not even trying to be part of what-we-now-consider-the-canonical-tradition, as the upper-class women poets of the time were, but aiming for something different is so refreshing and valuable.
Poetically, it also raises important issues. I knew from Laura Mandell's work that iambic pentameter was pretty much not used by working-class women poets of the 18th-19th century, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as only iambic pentameter was considered appropriate for "major" poetry. Mandell thinks this is because they didn't have access to the time and education to learn i.p., and were relying on a more orally-transmitted metrical tradition instead. But Hands' skill with her anapestic tetrameter is so pronounced-- the couplet rhymes handled just as skillfully as Pope's i.p. couplets, only with emphasis on the ear for ordinary conversation rather than syntactic complexity--that it really seems clear that Hands is making a deliberate aesthetic choice, allying herself with a certain poetic tradition through her choice of meter, and aiming to address a certain kind of reader--not simply "making do" with an inferior meter. In other words, a poet of this metrical skill level could easily have written i.p. had she wanted to.
Thanks for adding this wonderful new poet to the wompo constellation.