Art in Bloom

I think that Wollstonecraft may have misinterpreted Barbauld’s use of flowers as a metaphor. In Barbauld’s poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”, flowers seem to symbolize art itself rather than an antiquated ideal of feminine virtue and beauty. Time is said to “tear the garland from [England’s] brow” (Barbauld 125). The garland, composed of flowers, here symbolizes England’s supremacy in the arts. In “To a Lady, with some painted flowers”, it is noted that the Graces, a group from Greek mythology associated with human creativity, bind their hair with flowers. This would seem to associate Barbauld’s flower imagery here more with the arts than with women. This becomes more apparent when we consider the fact that the poem in question is written about a painting of flowers. The lady is said to have painted flowers, but it is the poet who “bring[s]” her these flowers. When the flowers are said to be “delicate like [the woman]”, the delicacy referred to may be the ephemeral nature of beauty and art. “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” describes the departure of the arts from England. Perhaps this does the same, revealing that while the art may be in bloom now, it is every bit as mortal as the woman who enjoys it.

Most of the latter half of “To a Lady, with some painted flowers” strongly reminds me of “Adam’s Curse” by William Butler Yeats. While Yeats’ poem was written later, the striking similarities in the poems seem to suggest that the flowers do represent art. Barbauld describes the flowers as “Gay without toil.” This is very similar to the notion in “Adam’s Curse” that a single line of poetry may require much toil, “yet if it does not seem a moments’ thought/ Our stitching and unstitching has been naught” (Yeats 5-6). This apparent effortlessness of beauty in art is an important aesthetic principle espoused by many. It seems significant also that Barbauld says that the flowers grew in “Eden’s pure and guiltless garden.” Adam’s curse, as described in Yeats’ poem, refers to the Adam of Eden, saying “there is no fine thing/ Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring” (Yeats 21-22). The creation of beauty in art is a laborious process after the fall of man. Barbauld seems to say that the places where art flourishes greatly, as England was at the time, are new Edens. Art can be made seemingly effortlessly as it was in Eden, but she warns that, also like Eden (and like “empire[s]” of the past), these paradises are “delicate like you” and just as susceptible to corruption and death.


“Adam’s Curse”

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”
And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, “To be born woman is to know —
Although they do not talk of it at school —
That we must labour to be beautiful.”
I said, “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

-William Butler Yeats


~ by rollingrock33 on September 27, 2012.

One Response to “Art in Bloom”

  1. Very interesting and creative comparison using Yeats. This post might have been more effective had you begun with the poem and only analyzed its relation to Barbauld’s – the first paragraph seems to misdirect a bit, and I came out of this feeling like you had two separate theses. Still a very good post with lots to think about.

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