The Rights of Woman
by Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Analysis: Form and Meter
Um… what? That's right: "The Rights of Women" is written in Sicilian quatrains. Now, before your eyes glaze over, we'll translate that into plain English: a quatrain is just a 4-line stanza. Clear enough. And a "Sicilian quatrain" has a particular meter (or rhythm) and rhyme scheme.
We'll start with the rhyme scheme. A Sicilian quatrain has a rhyme scheme of ABAB. Check it out in the first quatrain of "The Rights of Women":
Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy right
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest;
O born to rule in partial Law's despite,
Resume thy native empire o'er the breast!
We highlighted the rhyming words to make it easier to see—the first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the fourth. You'll see the same pattern in every quatrain. But every now and then, you'll see a pair of rhyming words that look like they should rhyme, but don't quite rhyme perfectly. The final stanza has a good example of this:
Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought,
Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move,
In Nature's school, by her soft maxims taught,
That separate rights are lost in mutual love.
"Move" and "love" look like they should rhyme, but they don't quite. This is called an eye rhyme (sometimes known as a sight rhyme), because it looks, but doesn't sound, like a rhyming pair. Poets always have a reason when they use an eye rhyme—it's never just because they couldn't come up with a perfect rhyme.
Let's see… why might Barbauld have wanted to use an eye rhyme here? Maybe she was trying to suggest that the "conquest" women were looking for in her poem only looks like victory—in reality, that conquest doesn't work out so well for men and women who really love each other. What do you think?
The Rights of Rhythm
The meter is the word we use to describe the rhythm of the poem, or the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Sicilian quatrains are written in what we call iambic pentameter, which is one of the most common meters used in English poetry (Shakespeare was a big fan, for instance).
Allow Shmoop to explain: an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: daDUM. Pentameter means that there are five (penta = five) of those iambs per line. Let's check it out in action:
Go forth arrayed in panoply divine;
That angel pureness which admits no stain; (5-6)
We highlighted the syllables that you'd naturally stress while reading this out loud. There are five of those daDUM units, or iambs, per line. Five iambs = iambic pentameter.
But like the rhyme scheme, the meter is occasionally not quite perfect. Here's an example from near the end of the poem:
Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move (30)
Most of the line is okay, but that first piece is backwards, see? We pronounce the word "conquest" with the emphasis on the first syllable: CONquest. Not conQUEST. Sometimes when a poet wants to draw our attention to a particular word or a line, they'll flip the emphasis around like this. A backwards iamb is called a trochee, so when you flip an iamb for emphasis it's called a trochaic inversion.
It makes sense that Barbauld would want to call our attention to this line—this is leading up to the punch line of the whole poem. This is where she tells us that women don't really want to rule over men, and that we shouldn't take seriously everything that we've read up to this point. So she smacks us in the face with that trochaic inversion. Way to catch our attention.
Can you spot any other places where the meter isn't quite perfect? What's the effect on your reading?