Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle Essay - Critical Essays

Margaret Lucas


Seventeenth century volumes of poetry as diverse as George Herbert’s The Temple (1633), Mildmay Fane’s Otia Sacra (1648), and Robert Herrick’s Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (1648) have general but significant organizing principles. This is quite clearly the case with Poems and Fancies, despite its being very poorly printed by a craftsperson who was puzzled by the state of the manuscript and was pressed to get the book out before Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, left England to rejoin her exiled husband. Cavendish intersperses, throughout the book, transition pieces called clasps, intended to join one section to the next. As for “Poems,” these are verse treatises on the atomistic structure of matter that establish the writer as a female virtuoso (one conversant in a disinterested, amateur way with the sciences and fine arts), followed by moral discourses including complaints about humans’ misuse of the world that God has placed under their stewardship, and descriptive pieces on, for example, dispositions to mirth and melancholy. Halfway through the work, the heading “Fancies” ushers in verses on fairies and elegiac pieces. The “claspes” do more than divide the volume into sections. Their main function is to allow the duchess to explain her poetic temperament or cast of mind, her reasons for writing, her disdain for niceties of poetic style, and the primacy of the intellectual content of her own verses.

In her solitary apartment, where few were brave enough, in 1652, to visit the wife of a royalist general, she wrote quickly as the thoughts were generated in her original, thoroughly idiosyncratic, and nimble intellect. Some of her explanations are attempts to justify a woman’s audacity in writing poetry. Cavendish is primarily concerned, however, not with what others think of her but with contemporary notions of poetry, particularly philosophical verse, narratives, and lyrics. One must focus not only on her “claspes” but also on the prefatory matter to Poems and Fancies to understand the diverse body of poetry that she produced.

Commendatory poems by her husband and his brother Charles Cavendish (her companion in London in 1652) are on the surface fulsome praises but really “harmless mirth”: lighthearted punning and sprightly humor. The cavalier and his lady do not take themselves so seriously as to pose as national heroes or great poets. For a fit audience of like-minded readers, affable modesty and whimsical self-deprecation mark the prefatory verses. In what other spirit could one take the duke’s assertion that his wife’s writings will set the ghosts of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson into fits of jealous weeping? The duchess does indeed lay claim to fame, which she frankly desires for the variety of her fancies, her manifold curiosities about the workings of nature, and the scope of her subject matter. As a female writer, she is very much aware of her uniqueness. She notes that ordering fancies is a similar kind of economy to that which women need to run households, and that verse, being fiction, is recreative to the spirit, wholesomely entertaining, and ingenuous. One part of a poetess’s contribution to her readers is in defeating male stereotypes regarding female propensities to idleness, gossip, and slander.


“Fancies” is an important word to the duchess; her usage of the word can be understood in relation to the Baconian contrast between imagination and reason. The former produced pleasant delusions, sprightly ingenuity, and alacrity of imaginings. Francis Bacon gave poetry faint praise, and the notion that fancy must be disciplined by judgment was a strong one. Cavendish’s own version of this dictum, stated in the “claspes,” may be her emphasis on matter as opposed to niceties of style. In general, however, she is content with her fancies as a kind of self-improving, “harmless mirth,” a magnanimous way for a studious and shy woman to pass the time. The duchess had a reputation (see Samuel Pepys and Dorothy Osbourne) for eccentricity and arrogance.

The prefatory materials in Poems and Fancies, however, suggest a writer who makes no great claims for her own poetic abilities. As with the Cavalier poets whose conventions she borrows and with whom she shares political and social as well as aesthetic values, a mind-muse analogy develops. The poetry provides recreation and reflects the amiable, benevolent disposition of the writer. In this spirit, the duchess follows Herrick and Mildmay Fane with a whimsical allusion to her book as her child. As an introduction, the conceit is in her case as apt as it is conventional.


The duchess’s treatment of atoms is somewhat indebted to Bacon’s new rationalism and to the encyclopedic categorizing of the phenomenal world by Guillaume du Bartas and Sir William Davenant. The latter’s metaphors from applied and theoretical sciences are similar to some of Cavendish’s “similizing.” Her diction and iambic pentameter rhymed couplets provide a sensible framework for discursive exposition, but she does not indulge in much analysis. Atomism is merely the trapping for fanciful description, which in itself is similar to du Bartas’s quaint and fantastic compilations.

For example, she avers that plants are made up of branched atoms, with hooks that pull the tendrils upward from the roots. Healthy atoms are in tune with one another, like people dancing to harmonious music. Aged atoms slow down and finally move no more; this is the state of death. Sharp, arrow-like atoms make up fire; they can soar upward, while the atoms that cohere to form earth are flat and square, heavy and phlegmatic. Thus the duchess mixes an ancient notion (the four elements) with the modern, empirical one of Hobbes (a personal friend of the Newcastles with whom Sir William held lengthy discussions).

Cavendish lived in the “divided and distinguished worlds” of which Sir Thomas Browne wrote. John Donne and John Milton lived there too, but while their inconsistencies involved seeing God’s signatures in the real world (however empirically, up to a point, they were willing to observe it), the duchess’s inconsistencies concern not nature and spirit, but nature and fancy. She ingenuously tells the reader that she has not read much Hobbes, Descartes, or Bacon, that her poems were written hastily and not revised to conform with what she read or recalled from her reading. She was fascinated with atomism, however, and was concerned with it throughout Poems and Fancies. In one place, she uses a “claspe” to explain that various atoms acting at cross-purposes within the human body are the work of mischievous fairies. The body’s animal spirits can be similar tiny creatures working in nerves, muscles, and organs as the various races of humankind do in different parts of the earth, trafficking with one another through veins and arteries.

“A World in an Eare-Ring”


(The entire section is 2909 words.)