Anna Letitia Barbauld's Washing Day
In "Washing Day" Anna Letitia Barbauld has done what Romantic poets can do best. She writes of an event that occurs periodically in every-day life, but she elevates the washing day chore to a challenge of epic proportions. Barbauld views the experience of wash day from the perspective of the woman she is and the child she was. At all times she is the poet who relates the Muses' song as a medieval minstrel might. Her skillful use of irony and hyperbole allows this poem to convey to contemporary readers the same humor and insight that an eighteenth-century audience would have appreciated.
Barbauld uses classical references and a few archaic words to give the poem an epic feeling. However, since the subject is a rather mundane one, the poem has an ironic mood throughout. The muses of literature and art are now absorbed in the domestic gossip of housewives at work. All the petty subjects of daily life, the delights as well as the annoyances, are replacing the tragedies of the Greek Pantheon. She has the muses trade their buskins (boots worn in Athenian tragedy) for slippers. Their language is no longer "high-sounding" phrases spoken by the gods, but it is idle chitchat "loosely prattling on." The poet uses the word "welkin" for the overturned bowl that is the sky. It is a word that would not be in common use in everyday speech, but it is a word typical of epic poetry, and it helps to make the subject seem far more important than it is.
When the poet speaks about the wifely duties that will be ignored on wash day, she not only uses a classical reference, but also an extreme exaggeration. The lady of the house is unavailable to darn her husband's stockings even if the hole "gape wide as Erebus." The yawning entrance to the underworld...