Image of the Montgolfie balloon
Anna Letitia Barbauld's "Washing-Day" and the Montgolfier Balloon [1]

Elizabeth Kraft
University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

           Anna Barbauld's "Washing-Day" is a poem endangered by misreading. It has received three significant critical comments in the past few years, all well-intentioned and all off the mark. The first appeared in 1996 in Ann Messenger's His and Hers. This study includes a rather extensive analysis of "Washing-Day," which forms part of a chapter entitled "Heroics and Mock Heroics." It is Messenger's contention that the satirical thrust of the poem is aimed at "the whole male sex." In "Washing-Day," Messenger asserts, Barbauld "stuck a pin in the balloon of masculine pride and simultaneously glorified the endless drudgery of women." [2] The key to this reading resides in the poem's comparison of the Montgolfier balloon to a soap bubble. According to Messenger, the "greatest exploits" of men are, by this comparison, "reduced to the level of children's games." [3] Thus, she concludes, in "Washing-Day," "[t]he assumption that what men do is important and what woman do is not is turned upside down. The women's washing is heroic; the men's exploits are child's play." [4]
           Donna Landry's 1990 Muses of Resistance faults "Washing-Day" for its failure to give voice to the "red-armed washers," but she follows Messenger in praising Barbauld for her recognition of "washing-day as scene of women's power": "Such male escapades as the Montgolfier brothers' experiments in ballooning are shown to be no greater imaginative achievements than the whimsy represented by women's domestic verse, and achievements of less importance than the material necessity of washing." [5] Again, the balloon is marshalled as evidence of Barbauld's disdain for masculine pursuits, though by Landry's formulation this disdain ultimately fails due to what she sees as Barbauld's inability to recognize that women of all classes share the common plight of cultural oppression.
           For Messenger and Landry, it seems, the sheer physical demand of completing the wash without the aid of machines lends the act heroic dimensions. They cannot imagine that a woman of the past who actually lived the drudgery might not view it as the highest of all possible achievements. Their readings are determined to celebrate "women's work" and determined to find that celebration proffered by the poem in contradistinction to men's work, represented, they assume, by the Montgolfier balloon. The problem with this reading is that the poem does not set the balloon in contrast to women's work. Terry Castle realizes as much; she maintains that at line 58 "Washing-Day"--a poem which has until this point been a "straightforward exercise in domestic scene-setting"--"veers off into pure fantasia." [6] The poet, she says, "enters a space of reverie that culminates in the transformation of [the] child's soap bubble into the silken ball of the balloonist," at which point "the poem lifts off in the stratosphere, a realm of wonder and pure joy." [7] Castle concludes: "The shift in perspective is dizzying--almost playfully post-modern--yet an exquisite testament to the creative imagination." [8]
           Of course, while Castle does not read the poem as an exploration of the masculine-feminine dichotomy, she does invoke a duality of other opposed values, this time between domesticity and creativity. The balloon functions for Castle as a means of escape both from household labour and (post-modernly) from the poem itself. Like Messenger and Landry, Castle reads "Washing-Day" as the positing of exclusive alternatives: masculine or feminine, privileged class or laboring class, drudgery or creativity. The poem indeed invokes these categories, but it is the reader who sees them as choices. "Washing-Day" actually fuses what Messenger, Landry, and Castle regard as irreconcilable dualities, and it does so in the very image they misread: the image of the Montgolfier balloon.
           Before we look at the way the image of the balloon melds the disparate categories invoked in the poem, we must understand just what the Montgolfiers' achievement meant to Anna Barbauld and her contemporaries. For it seems to me that the false dualities that characterize the readings I have outlined above are derived from the twentieth-century view of ballooning as mere recreation. In the eighteenth century, it was much more.
           The Montgolfier hot air balloon was launched successfully for the first time in Annonay, France, in the summer of 1783. At the close of the year, The Monthly Review chronicled a French publication by Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond entitled Description des Experiences de la Machine Aerostatique, i.e. Description of Experiments made with the Aerostatic Machine, invented by Messrs. De Montgolfier, and thereby gave the British reading public one of the first extensive treatments of the year. The aerostatic experiment in France, reports The Monthly Review, "has of late attracted the notice of the whole philosophical world." [9] The article proceeds to report in circumstantial detail the construction of the balloons, the nature of the inflammable air by which they ascend, the early launchings--first of balloons alone, then of a balloon hoisting a wicker cage in which a sheep, a duck, and a cock ascended, then of a balloon which bore a "Triumphant car" in which two passengers rode. From the 5th of June 1783 until the 1st of December, France witnessed half a dozen or more attempts by the primary aerialists--the Montgolfiers, and their competitor J.-A.-C. Charles--and several other secondary attempts by imitators, all of which are chronicled by Faujas de Saint-Fond, and most of which The Monthly Review describes at some length. By the time the first balloon experiments were staged in Britain the following year, the balloon had already made its way into the imaginative life of the English public. The Monthly Review's penultimate paragraph suggests as much:
An anonymous letter to M. de St. F containing a project for steering balloons in every direction, and conjectures on the uses to which they may hereafter be applied, has, we own, given us at least as much entertainment, as we remember to have formerly received from the perusal of the Arabian Fairy Tales. Not that what he says appears to us altogether repugnant to the laws of nature, but that we found our imaginations warmed by the gigantic idea of our penetrating some day into the wildest and most inhospitable regions of Africa, Arabia, and America, of our crossing chains of mountains hitherto impervious, and ascending their loftiest summits, of our reaching either of the two poles and in short, of our extending our dominion over the creation beyond any thing of which we have now conception. We must own that the uses of magnetism and electricity have turned out much greater than the world had in any degree conceived, when those phenomena were first discovered, and that those instances give some countenance to the sanguine expectations formed by the admirers of this invention. [10]
A writer for The London Magazine put it more succinctly: "we live in the age of wonders." [11]
           In general, Britain reacted with keen interest to the first experiments in "aerostation," and British writers were quick to claim part of the glory for England herself. The London Magazine reported in September of 1783 that, although the honours of the first actual flights of the balloon went to France, "the discoveries which have led to them been made by Englishmen," particularly Newton, Cavendish, Priestley, and Boyle. [12] In fact, Charles Coulston Gillispie, the twentieth-century biographer of the Montgolfier brothers, corroborates this claim, noting Joseph Montgolfier's fascination with Cavendish's 1766 isolation of "inflammable air" or hydrogen and with Priestley's discovery of "dephlogisticated air" or oxygen eight years later. After discussing these achievements with a cousin, Montgolfier is to have said "I must make some experiments." [13] Eventually, the English participation in the "discovery" of the hot air balloon became something of a commonplace among the British as witnessed by Elizabeth Inchbald's 1786 farce, The Mogul Tale, in which a balloon is defined as "a Machine of French invention, founded on English Philosophy." [14]
           The launching of a balloon became a cultural event, drawing crowds from all levels of society. [15] The Gentleman's Magazine, reporting on the first balloon ascension in England, did so by recording the responses from the crowd. The "populace," according to this report, "were sure the thing could not be done by daylight, for no Christian could fly through the air, and Goblins and Sprits [sic] were not permitted to ramble abroad till the dead hour of night." The "next class" reacts by invoking the pun that Barbauld later employs in "Washing-Day": "they could not think as how it could be that a bubble could carry a man, and they feared the whole story was but a bubble." The "Middle ranks were doubtful. . .; [t]he more enlightened were anxious" for the safety of the participants; those "of elevated rank who look upon the life or death of an individual, and the good or ill success of an experiment, with equal indifference, . . . calculated only to kill time." The article designates an additional class among the groups attending the event: "Men of real science" who, the author says, "were at rest as to the practicability of the expedition; but . . . could not help expressing, by their looks, the sympathetic concern they entertained, lest some untoward circumstance should intervene, to defeat, or even to delay the execution, either of which would have been equally fatal to the adventurer." [16]
           The balloon provoked philosophical discussion, observations on natural history, plays (one by George Colman in 1784 and one by Inchbald in 1786), poems, epigrams, beast fables, and satire. [17] At the time of its invention and during the years that immediately followed, it represented the folly of man as well as his grandeur; and many commentators could invoke both attitudes at once.
           Anna Barbauld was not among the crowd anatomized by the writer for The Gentleman's Magazine, but she had attended an earlier related event. In January of 1784 a balloon was on display in London at the Pantheon, and Barbauld, who was then visiting the city with her husband, wrote to John Aikin of the exhibition:
Well, my dear brother, here we are in this busy town, nothing in which (the sight of friends excepted) has given us so much pleasure as the balloon which is now exhibiting in the Pantheon. It is sixteen feet one way, and seventeen another; and when full (which it is not at present) will carry eighty-six pounds. When set loose from the weight which keeps it to the ground, it mounts to the top of that magnificent dome with such an easy motion as put me in mind of Milton's line, 'rose like an exhalation'. We hope to see it rise in the open air before we leave town. [18]
On their European tour in 1785, the Barbaulds presented their first letter of introduction to M. de Morveau, one of the first who "ascended in a balloon." [19] Clearly, if one divided the world of the 1780s (as one writer for The London Magazine did) into balloonists and anti-balloonists, Barbauld belonged to the former camp. Or, if we invoke The Gentleman's Magazine's categories, she would be denominated "a man of real science."
           Certainly, Anna Barbauld's interest in science is well documented. Joseph Priestley was a close friend, having been a colleague of her father at the Warrington Academy during the 1760s; "[it] was there . . . that Priestley blossomed as a scientist." [20] From the beginning he was cited as one of the founding philosophers of air travel, though in fact his work was not primarily concerned with that particular use of air. Still, he did evince interest in the experiments, "which though at present they only amuse the idle, may in time answer some important purposes in philosophy, enabling us to explore the upper regions of the atmosphere." [21] In 1784, he offered the opinion that "sending steam from a separate boiler, thro a hot copper cylinder, containing iron filings, or charchoal" would yield more "inflammable air than . . . when [iron is] dissolved in acids" and offers the cheapest and purest solution to the filling of air balloons. [22]
           Barbauld herself had a dissenter's typical curiosity about natural phenomena. That such subjects formed a part of her discourse is evident from a comment in her Life of Samuel Richardson:
It will scarcely be believed, by this generation, that Mrs. Delany, the accomplished Mrs. Delany, objects to the words intellect and ethics in one of the conversation pieces, in Grandison, as too scholastic to proceed from the mouth of a female. What would some of these critics have said, could they have heard young ladies talking of gases, and nitrous oxyd [sic], and stimuli, and excitability, and all the terms of modern science. [23]
A letter from her nephew, and adopted son, Charles Rochemont Aikin, speaks again of Barbauld's interest in matters scientific: "I do heartily beg leave to recommend to you my dear mother, with due deference, as I know you are fond of ingenious & striking theories, to employ a few hours in perusing the new French theory of Chemistry. It displays such wonderful ingenuity, simplicity & consistency, & is collaterally connected with so many branches of natural philosophy that it is hardly possible to tell where it may not extend to, & to what discoveries it may not pave the way." [24]
           By the 1790s, the doubts that plagued the first balloon experiments seemed to have been borne out, particularly the inability to devise an effective way of steering the machine. When "Washing-Day" was published in December of 1797, the Montgolfier balloon was not the topic of excitement and intrigue that it had been some thirteen or fourteen years before. Difficulties with France had intervened--first the French Revolution and then England's own protracted war with France. A 1785 air balloon flight in Boulogne had ended in disaster--the deaths of balloonist Jean-François Pilatre de Rozier, his assistant Pierre Romain, and onlooker Susan Dyer. [25] In general the 1790s represent a time of greater caution than the 1780s, and the tone of progressive optimism that characterized the earlier decade is muted in the later. Still, liberal journals continued to encourage the scientific spirit of inquiry. The Monthly Magazine in which "Washing-Day" was first published included as a regular feature a list of patents issued, among which in 1797 was one for "Mr. Oxenham's Mangle," "worked by a common lever," easy enough for a child to use. This apparatus, like many of the other inventions listed, may have been intended to benefit industry, but such machines did transform the labour of the household as well, as Caroline Davidson has noted. [26] The impact of progress on the individual life was surely recognized by such an astute observer as Anna Barbauld.
           "Washing-Day" may have been composed in the 1780s; that it was printed in The Monthly Magazine in 1797 does not suggest that composition date, for John Aikin had become that publication's first literary editor in 1796, and as he notes in a letter to the critic John Pinkerton in 1799, "Mrs. Barbauld . . . enriched the miscellany with several contributions which . . . have been of much advantage to its reputation." [27] To help her brother in this enterprise, Barbauld could have allowed him to print a favourite poem over ten years old, or she could have composed a new poem. She could have written her poem while the balloon was considered a "wonderful effort of human invention, a certain means of extending commerce, and even bringing it to the utmost pitch of perfection; and, perhaps, in defiance of apparent impossibilities, afford a practicable method of approaching those immense spheres which are suspended above us." [28] Or she could have written her poem when references to the "aerostatic machine" are virtually absent from the serious journals. Or she could have written her poem in the intervening years. Whatever the date of composition, however, her intent rides largely, as Messenger, Landry, and Castle have said, on the conjunction of a child's bubble and the Montgolfier balloon in the context of washing-day.
           With a sense, then, of the resonance the image of the Montgolfier balloon would have had for a readership who had personally experienced the excitement, awe, fear, disappointments, and victories of the first human flights, we can now turn back to a more thorough examination of the poem itself and the way the bubble/balloon image functions at the poem's end. The first question we should ask ourselves is the following: prior to the appearance of the bubble/balloon image, what has the poem asserted about the nature of washing-day? Is Messenger correct in viewing the poem as a celebration of women's usurpation of the conventionally masculine domain of power and control on this day devoted to cleaning clothes? "Washing-Day" certainly suggests that Barbauld was well acquainted with the process of washing as it was experienced by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, we can well imagine the female reader of the time, overly familiar with the routine, smiling or groaning in recognition as she read Barbauld's lines:
Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; (ll. 9-12)
For the day was indeed a day of great physical hardship, no less abhorred for all its familiarity. [29] The work was difficult, demanding the strength to lift heavy vats of water, the stamina to beat the clothes, or to stir them in sudsy water, the patience to mangle the rinsed linens and to smooth the wash with stones or irons heated over a fire or in boiling water. Barbauld herself rehearses the operation toward the end of her poem: "to wash, to rinse, to wring, / To fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait" (ll. 76-77). Yet "Washing-Day" cannot be read as a didactic attempt to garner sympathy or appreciation for women's work, for Barbauld deliberately places her subject in the mock-heroic tradition by invoking a "slip-shod" muse for the telling of her tale:
The Muses have turned gossips; they have lost
The huskin'd step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day. (ll. 1-8)
Barbauld's "Washing-Day" is a story of low life, a comic subject, not the stuff of tragedy. It is not a day of ordering and cleansing; the poem does not celebrate the sequential nature of the various tasks that comprise the wash nor does it emphasize the contribution to household stability, or the enactment of moral rectitude represented by washing. Instead, throughout the poem it is the chaos, the disorder imposed by washing-day that is stressed, rather than either its own special order or the ordered household that springs from the day's confusion. In Barbauld's poem, it is not only the burdensome task of washing itself that provokes dread, but also the disruption it occasions to the everyday household economy. The women of the house and their maids eat a hurried and silent breakfast "[u]ninterrupted, save by anxious looks / Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower" (ll. 20-21), for rain brings "sad disasters":
. . . dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short--and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life. (ll. 25-28)
And just as the women must cope with the many disasters that could retard the operation, the rest of the household must bear the women's complaints and their neglect of other domestic routines.
           The mock-heroic mode may seem to imbue the poem with a decidedly masculine air; after all, it was the men of the house primarily who were inconvenienced by the day's events. Bad weather, of course, causes all kinds of problems for the women, but as she describes the eventuality, Barbauld seems to sympathize with the men who must "expect to hear" the grumblings that follow:
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Guatimozin smil'd on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing-day. (ll. 24; 29-32)
The reference to the death of the Mexican Emperor clearly trivializes the housewife's concern, and we might well conclude that the poet herself regards the tribulations of domestic life as the less significant because the more retired. Certainly absent from her account is the note of respect, admiration, or commiseration that we find in twentieth-century social histories or in certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century first-hand accounts of the trials of private life. [30]
           Yet the poem's derision encompasses as well the man of the house, "thou / Who call'st thyself perchance the master here" (ll. 33-34). He is presented as alternately the passive beneficiary and the helpless victim of female domesticity, a simpleton whose stockings must remain undarned, whose absent-minded walks about the grounds are interrupted "as the wet cold sheet / Flaps in thy face abrupt" (ll. 45-6). The husband is a hapless fellow, unable even to entertain "the friend / Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim / On such a day the hospitable rites!" (ll. 46-8). This "unlucky guest" dines in ominous silence and early slinks away (ll. 56-57). The master of the family is made ridiculous by the activity of the women of the household, his dignity compromised by "women's work." On washing-day, this work overrides everything else, trivializing men's work and even other kinds of women's work: mending, entertaining--or possibly writing a poem.
           In other words, the mock-heroic conventions by which Barbauld introduces the events of washing-day allow her both to assert the way the day trivializes other activities and to suggest that the activities of the day are themselves relatively trivial. For the poem is not so much a celebration of women's labour as an illustration of the way that the imagination can both flourish in and transcend the domestic context as it does at the end of the poem, which shifts from the mock-heroic to the autobiographical mode. Sitting with her grandmother and the other children "beside the parlour fire," with her mother's voice in the background "urging dispatch," Barbauld tells us, "Then would I sit me down, and ponder much / Why washings were." The bubbles that the children blow "thro' hollow bole / of pipe," filled one supposes with the suds from the day's wash, float as emblems of little Anna Aikin's discontent. This discontent links the child with the exasperated man of the house and the inconvenienced guest; the soap bubbles and the "awe this day struck into me" connect her to the women who wash. And the Montgolfier balloon encompasses both impatience with and indebtedness to the toils of everyday life as it "Ride[s] buoyant thro' the clouds--so near approach[ing] / The sports of children and the toils of men."
           Barbauld may have been familiar with two popular accounts of Joseph Montgolfier's inspiration for the air balloon, both more fanciful than the accepted view that he was inspired by the works of English scientists. One involves Joseph's encounter with "a barefoot orphan girl blowing soap bubbles to waft her sighs and kisses to her mother's soul on high." She asks the passing stranger, according to the legend, to "build her a little boat with wings to carry her to paradise." And some twenty or so years later he did so. The second account "has Joseph drying lingerie . . . over a blaze. The fabric billows and lifts with the heat" thereby inspiring him with the idea of "a large sack" filled with air and "sent aloft." [31] But whether or not she knew these tales, Barbauld's poem attests to the way the creative imagination can flourish in a mundane setting.
           One way it does so is through stories by which one can transcend the ordinary. At the end of "Washing-Day," the poet reveals that such stories were a usual part of her childhood existence; on washing-day, however, the "thrilling tale of ghost, or witch or murder" is not to be heard because the maids who usually tell the stories are preoccupied with the work of the day. Donna Landry bemoans Barbauld's class privilege, her refusal to give voice to the washerwomen, her failure to recognize and legitimate the demands of the laboring poor. It is true that in "Washing-Day" Barbauld presents herself as a spoiled child, excited by the unusual events but also petulant that "usual indulgences; jelly or creams . . . or butter'd toast" were not forthcoming on washing-day, withheld like the stories by maids too busy to attend to "their petted one." But her "privileged" childhood notwithstanding, Barbauld documents in "Washing-Day" an interesting interplay between the women who converged to do the wash.
           Washing-day activity brought together women of three distinct classes--the washerwomen, the mistress of the house, and the household maids. And it is the maids from whom the speaker remembers sensing the import of the day:
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them; (ll. 58-60)
While generally the maids point to the child's own specialness, her identity as household pet, on washing-day they signify the importance of the household itself, and more specifically the duty of the women of the house--she who orders and supervises, the "red armed washers" who labour until their hands bleed, and the maids who must participate as well.
           The maids are also clearly important to the child in another way, however, in that their stories of ghosts, witches, and murder are for her pleasures of the imagination--she has been transported by their tales to worlds that do not exist, places far from the drudgery of household chores. The act of washing, then, displaces the imaginative world, yet, as the initial reference to gossip would suggest, it also provides access to the world outside the home, another source of imaginative stimulation. Washerwomen were notorious sources of gossip--in fact the muse of washing-day might very well be considered the red-armed washer that comes into the house from the outside. But here too the household maids serve an important function, as a 1779 letter from John Aikin to his sister would suggest. In this letter, Aikin refers to the problems the working class were then experiencing. The sailcloth weavers, he reports, had been placed "on a reduction of wages" and had "all left their looms and . . . been idle these six weeks." He continues, "You may conceive the misery of their families." Some riots had broken out in protest of the situation, but Aikin asserts, . . . I have heard of none among us of late but one given by our washerwoman to the maid servants of her acquaintance . . . [32] Gossip and information passed from washerwoman to maid to mistress to household, stimulating the imagination which in turn often engendered the sympathy for the less fortunate others Landry finds so absent from "Washing-Day." It is an absence, however, more perceived than real, for "Washing-Day" clearly celebrates the power of the imagination to conceive of change, to look at a soap bubble and imagine a balloon.
           The affirmative spirit of transcendence with which "Washing-Day" ends, however, does not deny the importance of the ordinary and the everyday, as Terry Castle's enthusiastic celebration of the poem seems to imply. I admit it is perhaps a bit ungenerous of me to take Castle to task for what are essentially passing remarks in a review highly favourable to eighteenth-century women poets in general and Anna Barbauld in particular; yet it must be said that the bipolarizing thrust of her contrast between the domestic and the imaginative emanates not from the poem itself but from a twentieth-century tendency to posit one against the other. It is also telling that this tendency receives its definitive statement in Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex:
Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present. She never senses conquest of a positive Good, but rather indefinite struggle against negative Evil. A young pupil writes in her essay: "I shall never have house-cleaning day"; she thinks of the future as constant progress towards some unknown summit; but one day, as her mother washes the dishes, it comes over her that both of them will be bound to such rites until death. Eating, sleeping, cleaning--the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won. [33]
By de Beauvoir's formulation (as by Castle's, Landry's, and Messenger's) there is no relationship between housework and the imagination; there is instead choice of one or the other. But Barbauld is no more an existentialist than she is a post-modern Marxist feminist. Her poem offers a different insight; her poem argues that there is a relationship, that the imagination can flourish amidst the "endless repetition" of housework, that drudgery itself can be the scene of an inspiration that launches one toward the "mysterious unknown summit" known as the future.
           Granted, the harried workers themselves are not portrayed in the poem as having such insight; reverie seems to be the prerogative of the little girl who blows soap bubbles while others labour. But the childhood dreaminess is a remembered state; the poem is actually spoken by an adult who has participated in her share of tense washing-days. Yet, instead of finding herself burdened by inevitable drudgery, the speaker retains a youthful sense of the possibilities of life. Unlike the child she remembers, the speaker certainly knows why washings are; but she also knows that the naïve question, the proposition contrary to fact, is the essential first step toward positive change. Why do we have to wash? Why can't we fly?
           Barbauld prefaces her poem with a quotation of Jacques' speech in Shakespeare's As You Like It: "And their voice, / Turning again towards childish treble, pipes / And whistles in its sound." [34] This speech rehearses the stages of life, implying a universal cyclical pattern that we can all expect to enact in our time upon the stage of existence. And, of course, the poem invokes the "ages" of woman, the child who wonders why washings are, the mother who supervises the wash, the grandmother who supervises the children. There is a sense of inevitability in the poem, the inevitability of duty. But this inevitability coexists with and indeed forms the condition of the possibility for change.
           Such change seems tied in this poem to the relationship between the imagination, technology, and poetry, a relationship advanced at the end of the poem through a series of analogical or associative changes or transformations. First, as Castle observes, the soap bubble is transfigured into the Montgolfier balloon, a transformation based, of course, on certain properties they share. The balloon, like the bubble, is buoyant; it aspires to higher and higher elevations; it is beautiful and colourful (the balloon by design; the bubble by the play of light). Both operate by the harnessing of air into a spherical enclosure. Philosophically, the two are kin as the upward movement suggests achievement as well as a journey to another and a (presumably) better world--heaven, the moon, the planetary spheres. Yet the balloon is different from the bubble in that instead of a fragile and evanescent ephemera, it is a machine. It is sturdier, more permanent than a bubble; though it, too, can (and does) fall victim to destructive elements such as fire, rain, or wind, its fate is not the inevitable and rapid demise of the bubble.
           But the child Anna Aikin did not look at a soap bubble and imagine a balloon. Barbauld says specifically that she and the other children blew bubbles "little dreaming then" of the Montgolfier's invention. Yet the bubbles do suggest that the child did dream, and the specific nature of her reverie is suggested in the poem's second transformation reported cryptically in the final two lines: "Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles, / And verse is one of them--this most of all" (ll. 85-86). Just as the bubble becomes the balloon, the poem becomes a bubble. Following as it does the whimsical, airy, and graceful description of the balloon riding through the clouds, this sentence may strike us as an abrupt dismissal, an unwelcome invocation of the pejorative meanings of "bubble"--financial ruin, impractical plans, silly chimeras. Further, the lines are prosaic and insistently self-deprecatory. It is not enough to say that verse in general is a bubble; that is true, but this poem more than any other is to be classed with the scams, shams, and fanciful schemes of projectors of all sorts. The reader, caught up in the charm of the poem, cannot help but feel "deflated," a bit betrayed, on first reading these lines. It is quite likely this feeling that prompted Messenger and Landry to devalue both the balloon and the poem. But the bubble is a positive image as well, and while Barbauld would probably agree with Messenger and Landry that bubbles, balloons, and poems such as "Washing-Day" are "child's play" and "whimsy," she would not agree that these are negligible qualities. For her whimsy and play are important manifestations of the creative imagination's transformative power, as further analysis of the last two lines suggests.
           The bubble that Barbauld's poem becomes in the final lines of "Washing-Day" is dismissed in language that paraphrases Banquo's assessment of the witches in Macbeth: "The earth hath bubbles as the water has / And these are of them." [35] Through this allusion, women washing, in a sense, become witches stirring a cauldron, a transformation that elaborates on the association between the maids and their tales of ghosts and witches established earlier in the poem. Banquo mocks the witches as earlier in "Washing-Day" the mock heroic conventions trivialized the domestic routine. But Banquo's disdain is itself ironic because we know the prophesies of the witches in Macbeth come true. Their words transform Macbeth's imaginative longings into tragic action. Banquo is right in a very real sense, of course: the witches are bubbles. But what the play demonstrates is the transfiguring power of the bubble--that is of the imagination. As it is Banquo's language that dismisses Barbauld's poem as trivial, we must recognize the irony here as well. The poem is about the mundane activity of washing, yet the trivial here becomes both the scene and the source of inspiration. The transformation that "Washing-Day" ultimately celebrates is the transformation of the child who wondered why washings were into the poet who challenges Jacques' assertion of the inevitable, predictable cycles of existence. In the final lines of the poem, through analogy to the witches of Macbeth, Barbauld claims for herself the prophetic insight that recognizes thc transformative power of the imagination.
           The celebration in "Washing-Day" of the creative imagination places the poem firmly in the centre of the late eighteenth century's preoccupation with both creativity and change. As James Engell has said, "by the 1790s the imagination had become, indirectly if not directly, the central theme of poetry itself." [36] Indeed, Engell's argument that the seeds of Romanticism's focus on the creative imagination were planted by the eighteenth century's interest in the association of ideas is an important one for situating Anna Barbauld's work in the canon of English literature. While Barbauld is more usually associated with the Enlightenment than with the Romantic period, she shares with her younger contemporaries, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a conviction that the imagination operates through the association of image and thought to grasp prophetic insight that can transform existence or perception permanently. "Washing-Day" stands with Coleridge's conversation poems as a testament to the power of the imagination as it operates upon the homely occasion--the frost, an enforced solitude in a lime-tree bower, the necessity of washing. It also shares with Wordsworth's Prelude the awareness that epiphanic moments of childhood reverberate through the course of one's life. Anna Barbauld certainly supervised her share of the washing-days she dreaded as a child, but she also grew up to be a poet for whom meditation on washing produced the insight represented by the balloon: the creative imagination, formed by and nurtured on the disparate elements of daily life, is most remarkable for its ability to conceive of a future different from the past.
           We have a corollary responsibility as readers, critics, and scholars to recognize that the past is different from the present. I began this essay by saying that "Washing-Day" is endangered by misreadings. I will now clearly state what I feel this danger to be. To read "Washing-Day" or any other literary work written in the past as an expression of our own values is to rob the past of its integrity. It is--in words more convincing perhaps to a post-modern readership--to deny the past its "otherness," to assimilate it into the hegemony of the present. We should no more tolerate this assimilation than we tolerate the obfuscation of other essential differences, for the past is our collective heritage, related to our present and our future in complex and subtle ways. While, admittedly, we can never be truly successful in our effort to know any "other" on its own terms, it is still important that we try to do so. The Montgolfier balloon was not regarded in its own time as a symbol of masculine dominance, as a mere plaything, or as an escape from harsh reality. Anna Barbauld does not invoke the image to evoke any of these ideas. To assert that she does distorts her poem, for its meditation on the relationship between the past and the future hinges on the recognition of the balloon as a positive achievement, the realization of a dream. If we no longer believe in such dreams, that is our loss. Barbauld did, and "Washing-Day" is a testament to her belief.


1. "Washing-Day" by Anna Letitia Barbauld. Citations from the text of the poem will be noted parenthetically by line number.
Return to text.

2. Messenger, His and Hers: Essays in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature (Lexington, KY, 1986), 136.
Return to text.

3. Messenger, l92.
Return to text.

4. Messenger, 192.
Return to text.

5. Donna Landry, Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (Cambridge, 1990), 273.
Return to text.

6. "Unruly and Unresigned," Times Literary Supplement (10-16 November 1989): 1228.
Return to text.

7. "Unruly and Unresigned,", 1228.
Return to text.

8. "Unruly and Unresigned,", 1228.
Return to text.

9. M. Faujas de St. Fond, "Description des Experiences de la Machine Aerostatique; i.e. Description of Experiments made with the Aerostatic Machine, invented by Messrs. De Montgolfier, &c", Monthly Review 69 (1783): 551.
Return to text.

10. M. Faujas de St. Fond, 560.
Return to text.

11. "Postscript," London Magazine 1 n.s. (December 1783): 567.
Return to text.

12. "An Account of the Aerostatical Ball Which has Lately Been Made to Ascend Up into the Air at Paris, and the Principles on which it is Constructed; Together with a Short History of the Discoveries that have led to Them," London Magazine 1 n.s. (September 1783): 264.
Return to text.

13. Charles Coulston Gillispie, The Montgolfier Brothers and the Invention of Aviation 1783-1784: With a Word on the Importance of Ballooning for the Science of Heat and the Art of Building Railroads (Princeton, N.J., 1983), 15.
Return to text.

14. Elizabeth Inchbald, The Mogul Tale, in Vol.1 of The Plays of Elizabeth Inchbald, ed. Paula R. Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century English Drama, gen. ed. Paula R. Backscheider (New York, 1980), 19.
Return to text.

15. See Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1982), 289.
Return to text.

16. "Historical Chronicle," Gentleman's Magazine 54, pt. 2 (September 1784): 711.
Return to text.

17. See The London Magazine for 1784 for examples of the last four genres.
Return to text.

18. Anna Letitia Barbauld, Works, ed. Lucy Aikin (London, 1825), 2: 22-3.
Return to text.

19. Barbauld, 29.
Return to text.

20. Robert E. Schofield, A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestly (1733-1804): Selected Scientific Correspondence Edited with Commentary (Cambridge, Mass, 1966), 8. See also, Betsy Rodgers, Georgian Chronicle: Mrs Barbauld and Her Family (London, 1958), 41, 57.
Return to text.

21. Schofield, 229.
Return to text.

22. Schofield, 241.
Return to text.

23. Life of Samuel Richardson, with Remarks on his Writings, in The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson (London, 1804), Vol.1, clxiv.
Return to text.

24. Rodgers, Georgian Chronicle, 217.
Return to text.

25. Lennant Ege, "Balloons and Airships: 1783-1973," The Pocket Encyclopaedia of World Aircraft in Colour, ed. Kenneth Munson, trans. Erik Hildesheim (London, 1973), 105-6.
Return to text.

26. The Monthly Magazine (1797), 156; Davidson, A Woman's Work is Never Done: A History of Housework in the British Isles 1650-1950 (London, 1982): l56-7.
Return to text.

27. Rodgers, Georgian Chronicle, 221.
Return to text.

28. "A Description of Two Machines Proper to be Navigated Through the Air. Translated from a Pamphlet lately Published at Paris, by Mons. B---," London Magazine, 2 n.s. (January 1784), 13.
Return to text.

29. Davidson, 136-63.
Return to text.

30. See, for example, Mary Collier's The Woman's Labour, in The Thresher's Labour and The Woman's Labour, ed. Moira Ferguson, (Los Angeles, California: The Augustan Reprint Society, Publication Number 230, 1985).
Return to text.

31. Gillispie, 15.
Return to text.

32. Reprinted in Rodgers, op. cit., 205.
Return to text.

33. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (London, 1960), 170.
Return to text.

34. As Messenger notes, this is a slight misquotation: Shakespeare's "big, manly voice" becomes Barbauld's "their voice." His and Hers, 192-93.
Return to text.

35. Macbeth (I.i.78-9).
Return to text.

36. The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), 265.
Return to text.