Something More Has Haunted Prudence
The middle thirty years of the nineteenth century were a revolutionary time, and one longs for a taste of that in the poetry — for a poem that goes beyond piecemeal criticism to denounce the entire shape of life as laid out by society.
Lucy Larcom’s “Prudence” is one such poem — one of the more devastating feminist critiques of the time. So much of the nineteenth-century women’s poetry now anthologized is subtle in its critique; persuasively so when one reads a single poem slowly. But the cumulative effect of many read quickly is the opposite. One feels engaged in a process of adjustment, with outrage muted. Anti-slavery poetry is of course an exception.
Larcom was as well prepared as any freeborn American poet to grasp the import of the ideas we now associate with 1848. She was 24 years old that magic year, and had already given up work in the Lowell mills to become a schoolteacher. She later edited the children’s magazine Our Young Folks and wrote several books in poetry and prose, including A New England Girlhood Outlined from Memory. That memoir contains a beautiful description of revolutionary desire, in the chapter entitled “Beginning to Work,” under the guise of millennialism. “The thought of it,” she writes, “was continually breaking out, like bloom and sunshine, from the stern doctrines of the period.”
1848 was the year of the Communist Manifesto, but also the Declaration at Seneca Falls. I like to think that “Prudence” (published two decades later, in 1869) is echoing both, the first in the line “Something more has haunted Prudence” — I don’t need to say why, right? — and the second in its title, which echoes the following lines from Seneca Falls, an exact repetition of the Declaration of Independence save for the final sentence:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
In later printings, “Prudence” was called “A Little Old Girl,” but this gives away the story too quickly, as I have done too — sorry!— with this prefatory note. Without that preparation, you would think, stopping at stanza one, that the poem is a pedagogical exercise intended to prepare young girls for marriage. Exactly the sort of thing that Larcom condemns. In retrospect, one can see that she has given an inkling of her intention in line four, in the unromantic activity of sweeping floors, but we are so trained to read knitting and baking — also mentioned — as good things, that it takes the killer eighth line to make us see where we are. Or rather, where Prudence is: in a world of incessant labor undertaken for men. As we come to learn, this imprisonment is maintained by women; could not be maintained without them.
It is the entirety of the girl’s context that demands change, not just her immediate predicament, and this is what makes Larcom’s poem revolutionary. Imagine “Prudence” in one of McGuffey’s Readers, or read aloud in a classroom today:
What is this round world to Prudence,
With her round, black, restless eyes,
But a world for knitting stockings,
Sweeping floors, and baking pies?
’Tis a world that women work in,
Sewing long seams, stitch by stitch:
Barns for hay, and chests for linen; —
’Tis a world where men grow rich.
Ten years old is little Prudence;
Ten years older still she seems,
With her busy eyes and fingers,
With her grown-up thoughts and schemes.
Sunset is the time for candles;
Cows are milked at fall of dew;
Beans will grow, and melons ripen,
When the summer skies are blue.
Is there more than work in living?
Yes; a child must go to school,
And to meeting every Sunday;
Not a heathen be, or fool.
Something more has haunted Prudence
In the song of bird and bee,
In the low wind’s dreamy whisper
Through the light-leaved poplar-tree.
Something lingers, bends above her,
Leaning at the mossy well;
Some sweet murmur from the meadows;
On the air some gentle spell.
But she will not stop to listen: —
Maybe there are witches yet!
So she runs away from beauty;
Tries its presence to forget.
’Tis the way her mother taught her;
Prudence is not much to blame.
Work is good for child or woman;
Childhood’s jailer, — ’tis a shame!
Gravely at the romping children
Their grave heads the gossips shake;
Saying, with a smile for Prudence,
“What a good wife she will make!”