The implication of social and political hierarchies and their relation to audience in Barbauld's "The mouse's petition"


The most immediate question that rose to my mind after reading Barbauld's "The Mouse's Petition" was: "for whom did she write this poem?" Despite the poem's ostensible addressee--Doctor Joseph Priestly--I sensed an underlying complexity surrounding the issue of intended audience. Is it an allegorical and didactic poem written for children? Or rather, is it a petition against rigid eighteenth century social and political hierarchies targeted at a mature and intellectually sophisticated audience? The answer perhaps lies midway these two hypotheses in the recognition that, according to Mitzi Myers in her essay "Of Mice and Mothers . . ." "the mouse's tale is child's talk and woman's art, a tiny masterpiece with multiple meanings for multiple audiences" (277). Upon careful consideration, the reader may be surprised to perceive that the poem is not solely a contribution to juvenile pedagogical literature but also makes implicit political and social statements in an attempt to educate and reform the adult as well.

The poem as intended for children:

-it conforms to the criteria that characterize most of Barbauld's prose works for children--Barbauld's educational writing is "concerned with every day child life, not romantic myth making" (Myers 278)
-the poet gives a voice to the mouse who then employs intelligent rhetoric in order to persuade his captor to set him free.
-he strikes an empathetic chord in the reader in lines 9-12.
-the mouse thus appeals to infantile sentiment and sensibility and expresses himself in simple language: the syntax is uncomplicated and the even and melodious rhythm is reminiscent of nursery rhymes.
-the genre of writing about victimized little animals is consistent with ancient fable traditions aimed at children.(Myers 275)

The poem as intended for adults:

-the inscription "Parcere subjectis, & debellare superbos" (McCarthy and Kraft 36)at the head of the poem can be translated as "spare the vanquised and subdue the proud" (Myers 275)
-Barbauld prepares the reader for the implicit critique of social hierarchies that is communicated through the voice of the captive mouse.
-it is hardly reasonable and characteristic of juvenile literature to presume a child would be able to read and understand latin therefore one can only assume that Barbauld intended her audience to be comprised of adults as well as children.
-another reason why the poem seems to be addressed to an adult audience is the implicit political undertones that seep through the lines and words of the text.
-Barbauld was known in her time, not only for her educational works for kids but also for "the several vehement and forthright political tracts that she wrote" (Haynsworth 8).
-she was an advocate for civil and religious liberty since she herself was a religious dissenter. it seems possible that he may have found a haven for the expression of her political opinions within the unobtrusive parameters of kid's lit. This is particularly evident in lines 21-24 where according to Marlon B. Ross, there is a trace of "liberal political language" (35) in the phrase "nature's commoners"

CONCLUSION: By attacking and re-working conventional ideas about the socially and politically constructed hierarchy b/w humans and animals and even between humans themselves, Barbauld's poem implicitly targets an adult audience since it is addressing issues and modes of thought that would surpass the knowledge and comprehension of any child reader.



INTRODUCTION:At first glance, the last four stanzas of Pope's poem appear to be eulogistic. Following a rather harsh and critical depiction of female folly, these concluding verses offer a contrast and convey the praise Pope bestows upon the addressee of the epistle--his historical lady-friend Martha Blount. However, upon closer examination we are quickly perplexed and disturbed at how problematic Pope's depiction of his lady-friend truly is There are many critical implications that surround her depiction as the goddess Diana which are not entirely accidental or unintentional. They stem from the fact that the poem extends beyond the artificial realm of literature into the realm of Pope's personal world. This sort of meta-fiction inspires the antithetical use of myth that ultimately undermines any pretext of a platonic relationship b/w Pope and his Lady.

-in lines 253-56 the goddess Diana isn't mentioned explicity yet the allusion to her is made by Pope's description of the moon. Pope appears on the surface to be praising her chastity since this analogy suggests her link to Diana, the goddess of chastity.
-however, in the figure of Diana there is a paradox: nakedness is an image that revolves primarily around the image of Diana or the moon.
-Pope's preoccupation with nakedness is present in lines 185-188. This image of nakedness is a metaphor that works on two levels: 1) to be painted in words by a critical artist is to be stripped of one's superficiality and false pretensions.Pope accomplishes this in his severe criticism of female folly and of the problematic praise of Martha Blount's virtues 2)nakedness operates on a mythical level where the erotic undertones present within Martha's analogy to Diana are disguised.
-according to a myth that involves the goddess Diana, Actaeon sees her naked by the fountain. He is in turn transformed into a deer andis then attacked by his hounds (Smith 430-31). Pope is implicitly linking himself to the ill-fated Actaeon who is punished to the goddess' determination to preserve her purity since he himself suffered from unrequited love. (Martha rejected his feelings towards her)
-in simultaneously praising and cursing her moral resolve and chastiy, Pope is creating antithesis. This antithesis is the poetical expression of his inner complexity and the contradictions that exist in his feelings for Martha.
-the presence of antithesis in the analogy b/w Martha and Diana also calls into question the very form of Pope's poem. An epistle is usually addressed to a friend or an adversary (Miller 158)and it is clear that Marhta represents neither one. Instead Pope is addressing an unattainable lover, the lady to whom he feigns friendship in order to guise and keep at bay his much stronger and illicit desires.