Presentation 3: Hands' Represenation of the Female Labouring Poet in "...mad heifer..."

Originally presented January 24, 2000

Elizabeth Hands viewed herself as a lkind of literary underdog as a result of her less than affluent station in life and indicate what she sees as the inherent prejudice of polite society towards the poetic works of the labouring class. As Richard Greene writes in his book, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry, "Despite the significant number of labouring poets who published throughout the century, Hands assumed that her social position would constitute an obstacle to the acceptance of her work." (Greene 98)

The main analogy of the poem can be readily mapped from source to target. As a heifer that strays from her herd, the subject of this poem illustrates the social plight of the female labouring poet. A heifer is a young female cow that has had up to one calf. She plays the roles of mother, milk-provider, and eventual source of beef. Straying from the herd is therefore doubly unthinkable as a result of these responsibilities; the heifer's freedom carries with it a heavy burden of neglect. The woman labouring poet is equally weighed down in her literary aspirations, for by straying from her own herd of class and occupation, she not only neglects her domestic and serving responsibilities, but as Greene writes,

Despite the success of Stephen Duck, the status of labouring poets was never equal to that of writers from polite society. Labouring poets carried a stigma comparable to that of women writers. Therefore, women poets from the labouring class, such as Jane Holt Wiseman, Constantia Grierson, Mary Collier, Mary Masters, Mary Leapor, Ann Yearsley, Elizabeth Bentley, and Elizabeth Hands, (etc) were doubly disabled. (Greene 110)

Through the images of the "heifer" poem, Hands draws out the comparison between the farm animal and the woman poet while commenting on the irrationality of labouring-poet stigma. For example, the weapons of the villagers are incomplete -- the rakes broken, the stakes rotten, the whips without lashes. The imperfection and fragmentation of the weapons represents at once the lack of preparedness of the villagers, the madness of the heifer, missing however much sanity with which a heifer is equipped, and perhaps, in turn, the missing rationality or compassion of the villagers. There is a glaring contradiction between the "peaceful village" (Londsdale 424, line 6) and the "villagers, alarmed,/ Come rushing forth, with various weapons armed;" (lines 9&10) In a two line span the villagers shift from peaceful to armed, reacting swiftly and perhaps rashly, resorting to violent means immediately. Among their arsenal, the whips are missing lashes, their flexible ends. The exclusion of the lashes from the structure of the whips of the villagers echoes their own inflexibility.

The heifer "spurns the ground with madness as she flies" (line 7) rejecting the ground level on which she treads and creating an elevation through her kinetic madness. This nicely parallels the motivations of the female labouring poet who seeks financial and intellectual elevation through her literary pursuits. Her movement forward creates "clouds of dust, like autumn mists" (line 8) in the summer, which indicated on line 1; the heifer, like Hands, by creating a seasonally anachronistic mist is ahead of her time. The villagers represent oppressive society, working together to prevent both her movement and its direction: "`Stop her,' one cries; another, `Turn her there'"(line 18)