"On Sir J- S- saying in a Sarcastic Manner, My Books would make me Mad. An Ode"

--This poem arises out of the circumstances of the state of women's education in the early 17oo's-, which was basically that they weren't allowed one of any real consequence. (Although during the course of the century it improved somewhat.)

-- Most educated women of the time were either self-taught or educated by their fathers.

-- Even when schools were offered to girls, the education was meager. They were taught only a little reading and writing, a little figuring, penmanship, bible study, sewing and other domestic skills, for the purpose of being good Christians and housewives.

-- For females, literacy was never as important as the acquisition of manual skills.

-- ELIZABETH THOMAS was self-educated.

-- Thomas knew Mary Astell who was an early feminist and advocate of reforms in female education. This acquaintanceship appears to have specifically influenced Thomas's thinking and this poem in particular.

-- Mary Astell- viewed women's inferior education as well as the institution of marriage as the prime cause of women's secondary status.

-- In Some Reflections on Marriage (1706) Astell wrote: "If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?" She called for the establishment of a spiritual and intellectual retreat for unmarried women and widows, which would give them freedom to study away from male society.


-- "On Sir J. S." is an angry statement about the state of women's education and women's general subjection under men and is a challenge (but not a plea, though disguised as one) to men to let women be properly educated.
-- The first line addresses women, but the whole poem is ultimately addressed to men.

-- Divided into 4 parts:

  1. 1. Sets stage-states state of affairs of education
  2. 2. Supplication for female education (with lots of sarcasm)
  3. 3. Arguments for supplication (anger increasing)
  4. 4. Challenge to men to let women be education (taunt/dare)

-- Poem gets progressively angrier-moves from "unhappy" to sarcastic to accusing bitter taunting.

-- Thomas builds men up using the sustained metaphor of their sovereignty (albeit sarcastically) only to tear them down later with imagery that will associate men with beasts (lacking reason).

-- The rhyme and meter of poem is off. The discord in poem equals the discord Thomas feels about the state of women's education.

-- Title---Thomas is being sarcastic in saying that this poem is an ode. "Sir J.S." is a generic man that Thomas is addressing her poem to (men in general). Thomas is the one being sarcastic. "Mad" is a pun because this is an angry poem.


-- "Unhappy sex!" (1)-first two words sum up the entire work. Women are unhappy with the state of affairs.

-- The placement of the word "prerogative" (14) as the last word of the stanza emphasizes men's exclusive privilege in regards to education.


-- The tone is very sarcastic. Sarcasm masks the intense anger the speaker feels towards the patriarchy. Sarcasm is more socially acceptable than straight-out ranting.

-- There is a sustained metaphor of men as sovereigns: "mighty sovereigns" (15), "ye monarchs of the realms of Wit" (16) [ironic because the female poet is being witty in her sarcasm], etc, lines 15-20, especially.

-- The poet is building up men in this stanza only to knock them down later.

-- The use of the word "slave" (17) reminds us of Astell's quote about all women being slaves.

-- Since the stanza is very patronizing towards men, it is almost a reversal of the first stanza in which women were patronized (although the poet was being somewhat ironic in what she was saying in the first stanza).

-- The last line, "That those who know not why they're so, can ne'er be wise or good" (35) hearkens back to the concept that women wanted an education to better themselves and to be better Christians.


-- In this stanza, the poet continues her argument for female education. The word "book" is mentioned five times. "Books" are an icon for knowledge. The poet is arguing for female attainment of knowledge. She points out that the bible is a book and it has important things to teach that women should know. ("Is't not by books we're taught to know/ The great Creator...?" [41-2]. I think "we" in this instance refers to humankind, not just women.)

-- The lines "well chosen books do show/ What unto God, and what to man we owe" (48-9) make the distinction that men and God are not the same thing. Thomas is working to dethrone men in this stanza.

-- Although there is essentially no sarcasm in this stanza, the phrase "Good lord!" (52) could be considered a sarcastic pun denouncing male sovereignty.

-- Thomas uses the simile that men are "Like wondering birds, about an owl" (56). If the men are the birds, then women are owls, which affiliates women with both wisdom and being predatory. Thomas is suggesting that women could 'tear men apart' intellectually, if given the chance, which she will elaborate on in the next stanza. (This is the beginning of her taunting). Furthermore, birds often symbolize transcendence and so this simile could be suggesting that the present situation (of the state of women's education and men's attitudes towards it) must be transcended.

-- By the end of this stanza, Thomas is angry with men directly. Men look with "spite" (54), they "scowl" (55) and they have a "malicious sneer" (57).

-- The last word of the stanza is "howl". Men have now been transformed into animals (this transformation began last stanza when they were compared to birds) that do not have the capacity for reason. (They haven't listened to the poet's earlier reasoning.) They have been dethroned from being the kings to being merely the beasts. Men (like Sir John in the next stanza)- can't rationalize women's learning so they condemn women who wish to learn by calling them mad. It is men's beast nature that has got the stranglehold on higher education, not their reasoning nature.


-- In this stanza, the poet's anger comes to a crescendo.

-- Lines 58-59 are hyperbole that is intended to mock men.

-- Line 61, where female desire to read is called a "curse" reminds the reader of Eden and how the desire to eat from the tree of knowledge caused the Fall (according to the male/predominate version of the story).

-- Lines 62-3 contain the sentiment that the title originates from. On one level, the sentiment is meant to be ironic. On another, it is true because the speaker is angry ("mad").

-- In line 64, men are venting "spleen". The spleen is usually associated with women, so that we have another inversion in the poem. (Other inversions: men are the little birds while women are the owls, the female poet is the witty one instead of men, etc.)

--In line 70, the word "ape" is used for imitate. This is a revisiting of the men as beasts imagery.

-- The word "monsters" (73) connotes Aristotle's sentiment that 'a woman is a monster of nature'. Aristotle's misogynist thinking had tremendous repercussions on the thinking of western humankind--in particular, the perpetuation of the patriarchal system.

-- In the next line, Thomas comes right out and accuses men of fearing female intellect.

-- The use of war imagery in lines 75-6 implies that if men are the monarchs, then women (the 'slaves') are revolting. (Indeed, the entire poem is a revolt.)

-- Lines 78-9 are extremely patronizing towards men-again, inverting the positions of men and women.

-- By the end of the poem, the speaker comes right out and accuses men of being "greedy" (81) and "selfish" (82) for keeping knowledge to themselves. The implication is that men are afraid of women being educated because then they would no longer be our masters.

-- The final two lines, which are spoken with sarcasm, express intense bitterness. "Laws" and "liberty" revisit for the last time the position of men as rulers over women emphasizing the grave injustice of the state of female education. (The laws of society keep women in bondage.)

-- Nothing has changed for women by the end of the poem. They are still confined by tyranny of men, but at least one woman has expressed her anger and displayed her wit-a small but significant step towards the revolutionary change that society is in need of, according to the poet.

-- In the end, the poem is an 'anti-ode' condemning men.