Maxine W. Kumin
She was twenty-two. He was fifty-three,
a duke, a widower with ten children.
They met in Paris, each in exile from
the English Civil War. Virginal
and terrified, still she agreed
to marry him. Though women were mere chattel
spinsterhood made you invisible
in the sixteen hundreds. Marriage was arranged
—hers a rare exception. Despite a dowry
a woman never could own property.
Your womb was just for rent. Birth control
contrivances—a paste of ants, cow dung
mashed with honey, tree bark with pennyroyal—
all too often failed the applicant.
If anything went wrong you bled to death.
You bore & bore & bore as you were taught
screaming sometimes for days in childbirth.
To bring forth was a woman’s fate
but not for Margaret Cavendish, childless
Duchess of Newcastle. After the head
of Charles the First had been detached
and the Restoration seated a new monarch,
she and the duke returned to his estate
where nothing discomposed their paradise.
How rare, two lovers scribbling away,
admiring each other’s words in privacy.
He: polymath, equestrian, playwright.
She: philosopher, fantasist, poet.
His the first book on the art of dressage,
till then an untried humane approach
to teaching classic paces in the manège,
the grace of the levade and the piaffe.
Hers the goofy utopian fantasy,
The Blazing-World. The heroine is adrift
with her kidnapper in a wooden skiff.
A storm comes up conveniently, and they
are blown to the North Pole. He freezes to death
but she is carried to a contiguous
North Pole, a new world where the emperor
falls in love with her, makes her his empress
and cedes her all his powers over
clans of wildly invented creatures.
Poems, plays, philosophical
discourses on Platonick love,
a chapter on her Birth, Breeding, and Life
and an Apology for Writing so Much
Upon this Book about herself,
even some inquiries into science…
years in chosen isolation the Duchess
filled with words, and the Duke with reassurance.
Even this outburst did not discomfit him:
Men are so unconscionable and cruel
…they would fain Bury us in their…beds as in
a grave…[T]he truth is, we live like Bats or Owls,
Labour like Beasts, and die like Worms. Pepys
called her mad, conceited, and ridiculous.
Virginia Woolf, in 1928,
found her Quixotic and high-spirited
as well as somewhat crack-brained and bird witted
but went on to see in her a vein
of authentic fire. Eighty-odd years on,
flamboyant, eccentric, admittedly vain,
now she’s a respected foremother among
women of letters. Founded in 1997,
the Margaret Cavendish Society
— “international, established to provide
communication between scholars worldwide”—
is plumped with learned papers, confabs, dues.
She’s an aristocrat who advocates
—words worn across centuries—for women’s rights.
I went to college in the nineteen forties
read Gogol, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert.
Read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
and wrote exams that asked: contrast and compare.
Male novelists, male profs, male tutors, not
a single woman on the faculty
nor was there leaven found among the poets
I read and loved: G.M. Hopkins, A.E.
Housman, Auden, Yeats, only Emily
(not quite decoded or yet in the canon).
Ten years later, I struggled to break in
the almost all-male enclave of poetry.
Here’s a small glimpse in the the hierarchy:
famed Robert Lowell praising Marianne
as the best woman poet in America, put down
by Langston Hughes, bless his egalitarian
soul, who rose at the dinner to pronounce
her the best Negro woman poet in the nation.