10 November - Margaret Lucas Cavendish (1623-73) May 16, 2008 19:11:16 GMT 2
Post by moira on May 16, 2008 19:11:16 GMT 2
Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73)
I today chose Margaret Cavendish (as she's nowadays named) because of
the passage from her poetry quoted by Germaine Greer in Slip Shod Sybils:
It comes from a description of what war is, something mid-17th
century English women knew upclose:
Some, their legs hang dangling by the nervous strings,
And shoulders cut, hang loose, like flying wings.
Here heads are cleft in two parts, brains lie mashed,
And all their faces into slices hashed,
Brains only in the pia mater thin
Which quivering lies within that little skin,
Their skulls all broke and into pieces burst
By horses hoofs and chariot wheels to dust.
Others, their own heads lies on their own laps,
And some again, half cut, lies on their paps,
Whose tongues out of their mouths are thrust at length,
For why, the strings are cut that gave them strength.
Their eyes do stare, the lids wide open set,
The little nerves being shrunk, they cannot shut,
And some again, those glassy balls hang by
Small slender strings, as chains to tie the eye,
These strings when broke, eyes fall, which trundling round
Until the film is broke upon the ground.
In death their teeth strong set, their lips left bare
Which grinning seems as if they angry were.
(from Poems and Fancies, London 1653)
Her rightly most famous poem is about that other violent bloodlust
The Hunting of the Hare
Betwixt two ridges of ploughed land lay Wat,
Pressing his body close to earth lay squat.
His nose upon his two forefeet close lies,
Glaring obliquely with his great grey eyes,
His head he always sets against the wind:
If turn his tail, his hairs blow up behind,
Which he too cold will grow; but he is wise,
And keeps his coat still down, so warm he lies.
Thus resting all the day, till sun doth set,
Then riseth up, his relief for to get,
Walking about until the sun doth rise;
Then back returns, down in his form he lies.
At last poor Wat was found, as he there lay,
By huntsmen with their dogs which came that way.
Seeing, gets up, and fast begins to run,
Hoping some ways the cruel dogs to shun.
But they by nature have so quick ascent
That by their nose they trace what way he went;
And with their deep, wide mouths set forth a cry
Which answered was by echoes in the sky.
Then Wat was struck with terror and with fear,
Thinks every shadow still the dogs they were;
And running out some distance from the noise
To hide himself, his thoughts he new employs.
Under a clod of earth in sandpit wide,
Poor Wat sat close, hoping himself to hide.
There long he had not sat but straight his ears
The winding horns and crying dogs he hears:
Starting with fear up leaps, then doth he run,
And with such speed, the ground scarce treads upon.
Into a great thick wood he straightway gets,
Where underneath a broken bough he sits;
At every leaf that with the wind did shake
Did bring such terror, made his heart to ache.
That place he left; to champian plains he went,
Winding about, for to deceive their scent,
And while they snuffling were, to find his track,
Poor Wat, being weary, his swift pace did slack.
On his two hinder legs for ease did sit:
His forefeet rubbed his face from dust and sweat.
Licking his feet, he wiped his ears so clean
That none could tell that Wat had hunted been.
But casting round about his fair great eyes,
The hounds in full career he near him spies;
To Wat it was so terrible a sight,
Fear gave him wings, and made his body light.
Though weary was before, by running long,
Yet now his breath he never felt more strong.
Like those that dying are, think healthy returns,
When 'tis but a faint blast which life out burns.
For spirits seek to guard the heart about,
Striving with death; but death doth quench them out.
Thus they so fast came on, with such loud cires,
That he no hopes hath left, nor help espies.
With that the winds did pity poor Wat's case,
And with their breath the scent blew from the place.
Then eveyr nose is busily employed, and
And every nostril is set open wide;
And every head doth seek a several way
To find what grass or track the scent on lay.
Thus quick industry, that is not slack,
Is like to witchery, brings lost things back.
For though the wind had tied the scent up close,
A busy dog thrust in his snuffling nose,
And drew it out, with it did foremost run;
Then horns blew loud, for the rest to follow on.
The great slow hounds, their throats did set a base,
The fleet swift hounds as tenors next in place;
The little beagles they a treble sing,
And through the air their voice a round did ring;
Which made a consort as they ran along:
If they but words could speak, might sing a song:
The horns kept time, the hunters shout for joy,
And valiant seem, poor Wat for to destroy.
Spurring their horses to a full career,
Swim rivers deep, leap ditches without fear;
Endanger life and limbs, so fast will ride,
Only to see how patiently Wat died.
For why, the dogs so near his heels did get
That they their sharp teeth in his brech did set.
Then tumbling down, did fall with weeping eyes,
Gives up his ghost, and thus poor Wat he dies.
Men hooping loud such acclamations make
As if the devil they did prisoner take,
When they do but a shiftless creature kill,
To hunt, there needs no valiant soldier's skill.
But man doth think that exercise and toil,
To keep their health, is best, which makes most spoil;
Thinking that food and nourishment so good,
And appetite, that feeds on flesh and blood.
When they do lions, wolves, bears, tigers see
To kill poor sheep, straight say, they cruel be;
But for themselves all creatures think too few,
For luxury, wish God would make them new.
As if that God made creatures for man's meat,
And gave them life and sense, for man to eat;
Or else for sort, or recreation's sake,
Destroy those lives that God saw good to make;
Making their stomachs graves, which full they fill
With murthered bodies that in sport they kill.
Yet man doth think himself so gentle, mild,
When of all creatures he's most cruel wild;
And is so proud, thinks only he shall live,
That God a godlike nature did him give,
And that all creatures for his sake alone
Was made for him to tyrannize upon. (1653)
I like this one too:
A Woman drest by Age
A milk-white hair-lace wound up all her hairs,
And a deaf coif did cover both her ears,
A sober countenance about her face she ties,
And a dim sight doth cover half her eyes,
About her neck a kercher of coarse skin,
Which Time had crumpled, and worn creases in,
Her gown was turned to melancholy black,
Which loose did hang upon her sides and back,
Her stockings cramps had knit, red worsted gout,
And pains as garters tied her legs about.
A pair of palsy gloves her hands drew on,
With weakness stitched, and numbness trimmed upon.
Her shoes were corns, and corns the upper leather.
A mantle of diseases laps her round,
And thus she's dressed, till Death lays her in ground.
As to her life, Margaret was the youngest daughter of 8 children of Sir Thomas Lucas and Elizabeth Leighton. Her father died while she was still very young and the family became money poor. During the civil war two of her three brothers were killed fighting for the king (one shot point-blank in front of a firing squad -- it is extant in Lucy Hutchinson's book) while she became maid-of-honor to Charles I's queen, Maria Henrietta. She had a terrible time at court: she was naive and not savvy at all. She went into exile to Paris with the Queen where she met & married William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle,
wealthy, much older, an ex-tutor to Charles II (I think, not sure, that it was this Duke who advised Charles to be courteous as it cost little and bought a lot). She and William married in 1645. The Duke encouraged her to read and write poetry; he wrote good poetry himself too. She was invited to the Royal Society because of her interest in science and wrote plays (never acted) and long treatises upon "nature." The Duke's grown children disliked her; they were jealous. Paradoxically they made fun of her for not having children (when in reality they were thus not cut off and probably quietly were much relieved). They were not alone in mocking her. Lady Newcastle's solitary lifestyle, odd dress, and friendships with other male scholars made her a laughing stock to her world ("mad Meg"). It was also said she was invited to the Society and had these male friends because they were flattering the Duke. Probably. Her poetry harks back to an earlier time; Milton is at times a model, and also Elizabethan poetry of fantasy and fancy (Queen Mab), but it also has its own quality (as I hope has been seen).
She wrote a fragmentary autobiography which is poignant as in the last line she says she wrote this out of worry lest she be confused with the Duke's first wife and then proceeds to tell us all her names. She also wrote a very readable biography of the Duke; it matches Lucy Hutchinson's of her parliamentarian husband, Colonel Hutchinson in its graphic frankness about battles in the civil war and clique politics. Neither woman was deluded by myths about honor. This biography is still reprinted; for the rest, you have to rely on modern feminist editions to reach some of her poetry and plays and prose. The plays have to be read through to the autobiography as closet expressive dramas or they do seem very silly. The Duke did write a moving epigraph about her life and it's put on her gravestone. Yes he outlived her, but did not remarry.
Responses and my answers:
Date: Fri, 2 Jun 2006 13:11:58 -0400
From: S. . . W. . .
Subject: Re: Foremother: Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of
Ellen -- The hunting poem (so gratifying to get the other side of the equation -- reminds me of Bishop's "The Armadillo") and your earlier question about women poets facing up to life makes me wonder why it's laudatory for (some) male poets to write about the delights of hunting, fishing, football, and those countless poems about playing catch with their fathers, but women's poems on housework and childrearing are considered, if not frivolous, at least not very interesting.
I've been away for a couple of days and that's why I haven't answered. I have the exact words of the Duke's epitaph somewhere in my notes. It would probably be quoted in any good biography of Cavendish. The concluding jist (as I recall) is strong praise for her loyalty or constancy. He was particularly impressed by how faithful she was to him even during their period of exile. He suggests such a nature as hers is rare.
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2006 19:57:03 -0700
From: E. . . T. . .
Subject: Foremother: Margaret Lucas Cavendish,
Dear Ellen & all, How refreshing to peek in and see your doings re Women Writers Through the Ages, Ellen. I am so happy to read your take on Margaret Cavendish, whom I still like to call the Duchess of Newcastle! I want to add that in addition to such serious and beautiful works as you quote, I find her plays (the ones I've read) not so silly but very funny satires of men, literary and other culture, etc. I find them quite feminist, actually. Humanist perhaps. I have a biography of her, which has a silly title, but is very good I think and very readable: Mad Madge: The Extraordinary Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, the First Woman to Live by Her Pen by Katie Whitaker, NY: Basic Books, 2002. I just finished a manuscript called Birds & Fancies, after her Poems and Fancies, which is a lot to do with women writers, history, war, and becoming a mother. Below is a quote from Cavendish which I use in my final poem in the book (which will be published next year by Shearsman if all goes acc to plan):
Just like a Bird, when her Young are in Nest,
Goes in, and out, and hops and takes no Rest;
But when their Young are fledg'd, their heads out peep,
Lord what a chirping does the Old one keep.
-- Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
There is a poem "after" her from the book at
if anyone is interested.
Many cheers to you all, and to our dear foresisters, thank you-- in the words of Matilda Joslyn Gage, "The women of today are the thoughts of their mothers and grandmothers, embodied and made alive."
In a gush, Elizabeth