How can I scan the poem "To the Ladies"?
The poem "To the Ladies," by Lady Mary Chudleigh, is essentially a poem that addresses the problem of gender equality during the latter part of the 17th century and early 18th century in England. To adequately understand what the speaker is trying to convey to the reader, we need to look at the historical and political situation of women during this time period.
To begin, women of this era were expected to know their place in society. This means that a woman is likened to an ornament in the parlor room, which we will discuss in a moment, or to an asset for her parents to marry off in a preferably advantageous marriage. This would mean that a good marriage would elevate the woman and/or her family in a financial or political way. A women, therefore, was expected to be schooled solely in the light subject matters of history, geography, and literature in order to entertain in drawing room conversations. She would also be likely to be knowledgeable in music, dancing, and singing (again, another form of entertainment for the sake of the others in the room). A woman also would sew or embroider linens as a form of both entertainment and a skill set.
Lady Mary Chudleigh was quite a pioneer in the area of gender equality during a time when women's rights were barely being seen as something of importance. She was self-educated, and took her worth as an individual, rather than simply what was expected, to a new standard. In her poetry and additional writings, Lady Mary championed women as more than mere chattel to be controlled by their superior male counterparts.
In "To the Ladies," the speaker is saying right away in the very first line of the poem, "Wife and servant are the same..." The speaker likens marriage to a master-servant relationship, where the woman is expected to bow to the husband's orders and demands. The speaker continues to state throughout the poem that the bond of marriage is simply a cover for the actual relationship of master and servant.
In the following lines, the speaker insists that marriage is a man-made construct, designed to keep a woman in her place. In other words, the speaker is saying to ladies that marriage is a sham. Do not expect the pleasantries, or gallant behavior of the man during the engagement period to follow through to the marital relationship. The lady is now the property of the man, and shall follow through with her obligations whether she wants to or not. It is his duty and his right, as a husband, to exploit her in any manner that he deems fit in "the fatal knot" of marriage.
The speaker warns the reader that any attempt to disobey her husband will end in futility or a breakage of the promise of marriage, or in other words "...the nuptial contract break." The speaker even goes so far as to liken man to the sublime nature of God, maintaining all control over the woman. The speaker goes on to encourage women to fight these constructs, as they are debasing and demoralizing to women.
In the last lines of the poem ("Value your selves, and men despise, You must be proud, if you'll be wise"), the speaker is pleading with the audience, which can be understood as the "Ladies," arguing that the women must value themselves above all else, thereby shunning the institution of marriage.
I do apologize that I failed to mention scansion of the poem "To the Ladies" which I will absolutely address now. The poem is beautifully written in a couplet rhyme scheme, appearing as AA, BB, CC, DD, and so forth throughout the entire twenty-four lines of the poem. It should therefore end with the rhyming couplet of JJ. That is in addition to using end rhyme, wherein the last words in each line rhyme with one another.
The more complicated part to explain is iambic tetrameter. This means that, like iambic pentameter (for example in Shakespeare), some syllables are stressed and unstressed alternately. To be absolutely non-confusing, the best way to describe iambic tetrameter is to look at the base word of "tetra," meaning four. It contains four iambs of unstressed/stressed syllables. I hope that isn't too confusing. If you practice reading the lines out loud and counting the stressed and unstressed sounds, then you will start to hear a pattern of alternate stress patterns. Try clapping or snapping to the rhythm, and you'll be able to see the meter much more clearly.
Lastly, this poem is in monologue form with the speaker alone addressing a group of the intended audience, which is the ladies.