“I Serve a Mistress” – Anthony Munday (1584)


Read the poem here: http://allpoetry.com/poem/8476733-I-Serve-a-Mistress-by-Anthony-Munday

“I Serve a Mistress” by Anthony Munday demonstrates the way that the male speaker views his “mistress.”  The poem begins with a tone of admiration.  The speaker is transfixed by the beauty that he sees in this mistress.  This is demonstrated by lines 4 and 7 which read “More pleasant than the field of flowering grass… / Sweeter than swelling grape of ripest wine” (Munday).  The speaker thinks that she is beautiful and he makes this clear through the comparison sweet words and nature.  However, in the third stanza of the poem, he discusses the fact that he hates the fact that he is “serving” her.  He calls her “fickle,” which means that her interests wane and she is constantly changing her mind.  The last two lines of the poem read, “Lo! My service is a lasting sore; / Yet will I serve, although I die therefore” (lines 17-18).  These lines show that he does not like the fact that she is his mistress, since she is cold-hearted and insincere, and therefore being her lover is tearing him apart.  But, she is very beautiful and “soft,” which is perhaps the reason he continues to “serve” her.  The word “serve” makes it seem like a chore, but since she is beautiful he does it anyway.

By definition, a mistress is somebody who is a lover to someone else for an extended period of time and is usually kept a secret.  In the 16th century, when this poem was written, it was very common for men to have mistresses and it was even expected.  Women were viewed as pretty objects to make men happy.  In this period of time, looks were very important because that was all a woman had to flaunt.  Men looked for the definition of “perfect” at this point in time, and that was what women strove to look like to get men’s attention.  In the poem, these ideas of beauty are shown many times.  Descriptions like “whiter than snow” (line 1), “more stately than the pine” (line 9), and “smaller than my span” (line 10) demonstrate what was though of by men as “beautiful.”  A pale complexion, small waist, and a proper way of carrying herself was what were desired.

This poem portrays how a man views the woman that he is having an affair with.  Mistresses were common and women were expected to look “perfect.”  His view of her accurately describes how women in general were used and viewed in the 16th century.


“Delight in Disorder” – Robert Herrick (1648)


Read the poem here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176697

The next poem is called “Delight in Disorder” and it was written by Robert Herrick.  The poem is about a woman’s clothing and how the man looking at her perceives them.  The poem starts out with the speaker saying “a sweet disorder in the dress” (Herrick line 1).  The first line sets the tone for the whole poem.  This quote tells the reader that the man looking at her finds it attractive that her clothing is out of order.  The way the speaker describes the disorder of her clothing sounds like he is not enjoying it, but at the end of the poem the lines read “A careless shoe-string, / in whose tie / I see a wild civility, / Do more bewitch me, than when art / Is too precise in every part” (lines 11-14).  He sees a “wild civility” in her, which is sort of a contradiction.

This poem is also a great example of a poem that portrays women at the time.  In the 17th century, women were still expected to wear very proper and nice clothing.  In the poem, the author describes the “crimson stomacher,” “tempestuous petticoat,” and “erring lace.”  All of these things give the reader a vivid picture of women during this century.  Like the sixteenth century, women desired a specific type of look.  They wanted a small waist (hence the stomacher) and a lot of accessories to show their social status.  This man is looking at this woman and is noticing small details about her clothing.  He likes the fact that there are small details that are not perfect in what she is wearing, since the idea at the time was for women to look perfect.  He is attracted to the idea that she has a bit of “wild” in her, compared to other women, who were so proper, polite, and reformed.

This poem provides a great example of them culture and women in the 17th century.  The ideals and notions about women did not change all that much from the 16th to the 17th century, but these two poems are very different from each other.  They give a good overview of how women were perceived at this time in history.

“The Lady’s Dressing Room” – Jonathan Swift (1732)


Read the poem here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180934

In Jonathan Swift’s poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” he describes the repulsiveness of the woman and her dressing room.  It is about a man who goes into a woman’s dressing room to discover all of the uncleanliness that is in there.  In lines 3-4, Swift writes, ”The goddess from her chamber issues, / Arrayed in lace, brocades and tissues.”  These lines show that she is viewed as a “goddess” and is very beautiful, but this is before the man, Strephon, goes into her dressing room.  Once inside her dressing room, he finds all of her makeup and cleaning items and is disgusted by them.  The way he describes them makes the woman, Celia, seem absolutely grotesque.  For example, lines 23-26 read, “A paste of composition rare, / Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair; / A forehead cloth with oil upon’t / To smooth the wrinkles on her front” (Swift).  By using the word “rare” he explains that since he is a man, he does not know much about what sot of things women go through to make themselves look good, but as he finds more and more things in her dressing room he learns.  This poem could also be saying that since men did not have to go through what women did to make themselves look beautiful, the thought of the makeup and oils made him disgusted.  After he sees everything that is in Celia’s dressing room, he cannot look at women in the same way.  He knows how they look on the outside when they are in public, but he also knows how they get to look that way.  He now knows how “artificial” women are on the outside.

In this period of time, women were still expected to look very presentable and as best as they could at all times.  Looking good was what women wanted, because what was most important in their lives was finding a good husband.  This poem also describes some of the clothing of the time, like “lace,” “brocades,” and “petticoats.”  Another important thing that this poem does a good job portraying is the fact that it was still very taboo for men and women to be very close to one another if they were not married.  This poem describes a man’s perspective on a women who others found to be lovely, but when he found out how much was disgusting about her in private, he no longer thought so.

“She Was a Phantom of Delight” – William Wordsworth (1803)


Read the poem here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174819

“She Was a Phantom of Delight,” by William Wordsworth is the next poem.  This poem is about a man’s perception of his wife.  He goes through the stages of their fist meeting, to when they get to know each other better, and then to when they are married.  The poem’s overall tone is of admiration and respect.

The first lines of the poem read “She was a phantom of delight / When she first gleamed upon my sight; / A lovely apparition, sent / To be a moment’s ornament” (Wordsworth lines 1-4).  This demonstrates that she was very beautiful to him, and the first time he saw her she enchanted him.  The use of the words “phantom” and “apparition” show that he, at first, thought she was too beautiful to be real.

The next stanza describes how the speaker sees her as he gets to know her better.  He describes her in a way that portrays her as very sweet but not the brightest.  Wordsworth writes, “ A creature not too bright or good / For human nature’s daily food” (lines 17-18).  She is a pretty average woman, but he still thinks she is beautiful and very sweet.

The third stanza is about how he views her when they know each other well and they are most likely married.  He refers to her as a “machine” and “a perfect woman, nobly planned” (line26).  Although her social status was still very important, this stanza exemplifies the respect that he has for her.  He sees her more as a companion than a beautiful ghost.  He also knows more about her and knows her personality.  This poem shows how their relationship grows and how he comes to appreciate her for many different reasons.

In the 19th century, the roles of women were starting to change.  Although women still did not have control of what happened (like who they married or how many children they had) they did get to spend more time with their children.  The average woman also still had a lot of “housekeeping” responsibilities.  Her role was still to be an obedient wife.  The clothing in the 19th century also changed.  Clothes became more “revealing” in the sense that breasts and hips were becoming more accentuated.  Corsets were also still a staple in clothing to make their waists look as small as possible.  A lot of things were still happening that had happened in previous centuries, but some aspects of life for women in the 19th century were beginning to change.

“When Stretch’d on One’s Bed” – Jane Austen (1811)


Read the poem here: http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/jane_austen/poems/3468

Another poem that highlights life in the early 19th century is Jane Austen’s “When Stretch’d on One’s Bed.”  The poem is about a woman who is bed-ridden because of a bad headache.  It describes the things that she is missing out on because of her headache.  Austen writes, “For the waltzes and reels / Of our Dance-loving friends at a Ball!” (lines 8-9) and “O’er the Sauces and Stews / Or the guests, be they Beggars or Lords (lines  17-18).  These lines give examples of the activities that women attended as well as their responsibility to make sure everything was just right when they hosted an event.  As described in the last poem’s analysis, women had household responsibilities and they wanted to keep their social status as high as they could.

Although this poem does not describe how a woman looks, it is important because it shows the lifestyle of the women at the time.  Even though it is told from the point of view of a more upper class woman, the reader still gets a feel for how busy a 19th century woman was.  This poem is also interesting because it was written by a woman, so it shows the woman’s perspective on her life.  From the poem, the reader gets a sense of how demanding her life would have been.  Women at this time were always trying to please people and uphold their status and this poem is a great example of what upper or middle class women actually did.

“Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots” – Mina Loy (1914)


Read the poem here: http://brbl-zoom.library.yale.edu/viewer/1197357

In Mina Loy’s poem, “Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots,” she highlights the thoughts between “virgins” and their lives.  The poem describes how marriage is something that is not what it is said to be.  Loy writes, “Virgins without dots / Stare beyond probability / See the men pass” (Loy lines 5-7).  In this poem, “dots” are what is referred to as “marriage portions,” or the money that women have to be married off with.  The poem then goes on to talk about time and how there is so much of it and it is spent “offering” themselves to the mirror and not to the confessional.  Since they have no “dots” they will not get married, so they spend their time without anything to do.  Another important quote is “We have been taught / Love is a god… Yet where are our coins / For buying a purchaser” (lines 28-29, 33-34).  The virgins have been told that marriage is all about love and happiness, when in reality it is about how much money they come with.

This poem makes a strong statement about the role of women in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The idea of “feminism” started to become more widely popular and this poem shows that.  The speaker is bitter about the fact that the women are being “sold off” to the men.  Marriage was still not done for the aspect of love – it was done because men wanted a high-class woman and without a husband, a woman was looked down upon.  The fact that they are “virgins” is also important because that is what men wanted at the time.  Ideas began changing rapidly during this period of time and the roles of women were about to shift dramatically.

“Standing Female Nude” – Carol Ann Duffy (1985)


Read the poem here: http://lacymarschalk.blogspot.com/2012/04/napowrimo-poem-carol-ann-duffys.html

The last poem is called “Standing Female Nude” and it is by Carol Ann Duffy.  It is about a nude woman (who is a prostitute) being painted by a man.  She writes, “Six hours like this for a few francs / Belly nipple arse in the window light, / he drains the color from me” (Duffy lines 1-3).  First of all, this is obviously much more “risqué” than any of the other portrayals of women in the poetry so far.  The woman whose point of view the poem is from is poor, so she is letting herself be painted in order to make some money.  The woman is obviously not thrilled about standing around and being painted to make money, but the fist part of the poem makes it seem like she has just accepted it.  The poem goes on to say, “I shall be represented analytically and hung / in great museums. The bourgeoisie will coo / at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art (lines 5-7).  These lines have a tone of mockery – the people looking at the painting will not know anything about her and will think that it is beautiful.  The poem ends with the lines, “When it’s finished / he shows me proudly… I say Twelve francs and get my shawl.  It does not look like me” (lines 26-28).  These last lines demonstrate the view that she, as a woman, is more than just a pretty face.  She knows that she does not fit the perfect concept of beauty that he has put onto the canvas, and in this she knows that it is not “her” they want to see.  Since the painting does not look like her, it is very clearly the painters’ portrayal of her.  The woman in the painting is not who she actually is.

Although this poem obviously does not portray the common woman at the time, it is an interesting way to portray a woman.  The poem has a strong feminist tone and it makes a statement about how woman are viewed, even still.  Another way that this poem does a good job at highlighting how women acted is shown in lines 25-26: “At night I fill myself / with wine and dance around the bars.  Again, this is not to say that all women at the in the 1980s acted this way, but these lines show how times have changed.  Women had much more freedom and could express themselves in society.  The expectations and perceptions of women had changed drastically in the last century. Although, there were still areas in which women were looked at as lesser, the idea of women had changed a lot.  This poem highlights the ways in which women thought more of themselves than just a “piece of art.”