Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
To sing of Wars, of Captains, and of Kings,
Of Cities founded, Common-wealths begun,
For my mean Pen are too superior things;
Or how they all, or each their dates have run,
Let Poets and Historians set these forth.
My obscure lines shall not so dim their worth.
From School-boy’s tongue no Rhet’ric we expect,
Nor yet a sweet Consort from broken strings,
Nor perfect beauty where’s a main defect.
My foolish, broken, blemished Muse so sings,
And this to mend, alas, no Art is able,
Here, the young, gentle-born poet introduces herself in a humble and self-deprecating manner, telling her readers that her efforts are not to be compared to the great male poets and historians of great matters. Describing the inability of the poet, her "blemished Muse," and her request for the indulgence of the reader are common tropes in poetry. Having set the bar of expectations low, if the poet can then engage and impress the reader, the impact is all the greater.
Nor can I, like that fluent sweet-tongued Greek
Who lisp’d at first, in future times speak plain.
By Art he gladly found what he did seek,
A full requital of his striving pain.
Art can do much, but this maxim’s most sure:
A weak or wounded brain admits no cure.
Here Dudley speaks of Demosthenes, reputedly the greatest orator among the ancient Greeks, who overcame his lisp by filling his mouth with pebbles to practice his elocution. She is saying that no amount of art or practice can overcome flawed material in her case. Here, she is referring to her sex, from which, by the conventions of the day, no one should expect great art. She is a woman, and that admits no cure. She uses the conventions of the day to subvert them later in the poem.
I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance,
They’ll say it’s stol’n, or else it was by chance.
Here Dudley makes her meaning plain. She is anticipating and addressing her critics. Indeed, her relative who published her poems in London without her knowledge felt obligated to vouch for the character of Ann Bradstreet (born Dudley) as a dutiful wife and mother whose poetry was composed in her spare time. She anticipates that even if her poems are good, her critics will allege that she plagiarized them or that her success was due to chance.
But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,
Else of our Sex, why feigned they those nine
And poesy made Calliope’s own child?
So ‘mongst the rest they placed the Arts divine,
But this weak knot they will full soon untie.
The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie.
Here Dudley cleverly turns the tables on her anticipated male critics by reminding them that the classical Muse of poetry is female, as were the Muses of the other arts. (Touché.) As this is an irrefutable and significant point scored in her favor, the only recourse of her critics will be to say, "the Greeks but play the fool and lie." But this is after the Renaissance, and no learned man or woman would deny the excellence of classical culture and the leadership of the ancient Greeks and Romans in the literary arts. She has her critics cornered!
Let Greeks be Greeks, and Women what they are.
Men have precedency and still excel;
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and Women know it well.
Preeminence in all and each is yours;
Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.
Having made her point, she graciously declines to press the issue. The proof, in any event, lies in her work. She simply asks for just acknowledgment. One has the impression that she is writing not simply on behalf of herself but also on behalf of other women that have talents to offer the world.
And oh ye high flown quills that soar the skies,
And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e’er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or Parsley wreath, I ask no Bays.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glist’ring gold but more to shine.
Asking for thyme or parsley instead of bay laurel would have struck another point of amusement among her educated readers (poets in Greece and Rome were crowned with bay laurel). She addresses the "high flown quills that soar the skies" to beg their indulgence (another amusing image). She is saying that the great poets of yore have nothing to fear from her, as her "unrefined ore" will make their gold shine even brighter. Even in her polite self-deprecation, Dudley is making skilled use of humorous language and erudite classical allusions to engage and amuse her intended audience.