--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
-- 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
-- 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.
-- "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
-- The first line addresses women, but the whole poem is ultimately addressed to men.
-- Divided into 4 parts:
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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"
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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
-- 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.