Washing Day

The poem, Washing Day,  by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, was written well over a century ago. It describes perfectly that frisson of irritability that invades a household on a wet washing day. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, was a remarkable woman who  wrote, poetry, essays and text books for children as well as writing pamphlets of serious social and political issues of the day. She was strongly in favour of the abolition of slavery and  was highly critical of the war between England and France. She predicted that England would not maintain its position of dominance in the world, a very unpopular view which resulted in her rejection by the establishment and abandonment by many literary friends who were initially great admirers of her writing.

Washing Day (partial)
by Anna Lætitia Barbauld 1743–1825

Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded washing day.

Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,

With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day

Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on

Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs,

Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,

The red-armed washers come and chase repose.

Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,

Ere visited that day; the very cat,

From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,

Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.

The silent breakfast meal is soon despatched,

Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks

Cast at the louring, if sky should lour.

From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!

For should the skies pour down, adieu to all

Remains of quiet; then expect to hear

Of sad disasters — dirt and gravel stains

Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once

Snapped short, and linen-horse by dog thrown down,

And all the petty miseries of life.

Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,

And Montezuma smiled on burning coals;

But never yet did housewife notable

Greet with a smile a rainy washing day.

But grant the welkin fair, require not thou

Who callest thyself, perchance, the master there,

Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,

Or usual ’tendence; ask not, indiscreet,

Thy stockings mended, though the yawning rents

Gape wide as Erebus; nor hope to find

Some snug recess impervious. Shouldst thou try

The ’customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue

The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,

Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight

Of coarse-checked apron, with impatient hand

Twitched off when showers impend; or crossing lines

Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet

Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend

Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim

On such a dav the hospitable rites;

Looks blank at best, and stinted courtesy

Shall he receive; vainly he feeds his hopes

With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,

Or tart or pudding; pudding he nor tart

That day shall eat; nor, though the husband try —

Mending what can’t be helped — to kindle mirth

From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow

Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest

In silence dines, and early slinks away.

I well remember, when a child, the awe

This day struck into me; for then the maids,

I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;

Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope

Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,

Relic of costly suppers, and set by

For me their petted one; or buttered toast,

When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale

Of ghost, or witch, or murder. So I went

And sheltered me beside the parlour fire;

There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,

Tended the little ones, and watched from harm;

Anxiously fond, though oft her spectacles

With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins

Drawn from her ravelled stocking, might have soured

One less indulgent.

At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,

Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,

All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,

Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.

Then would I sit me down, and ponder much

Why washings were; sometimes through hollow hole

Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft

The floating bubbles; little dreaming then

To ee, Montgolfier, thy silken ball

Ride buoyant through the clouds, so near approach

The sports of children and the toils of men.

Earth, air, and sky, and ocean hath its bubbles,

And verse is one of them — this most of all.


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