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The Unsex'd Females

Richard Polwhele, published 1798


Mary Wollstonecraft - detail from a painting by John Odie, about 1797

Mary Wollstonecraft - detail from a painting by John Odie, about 1797

De Agostini Picture Library/Buyenlarge/Getty Image

The poem "The Unsex'd Females" was a partisan volley against the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other women, and was especially critical of her views on politics, reason, religion, the French Revolution, and gender roles. The poem was first published in 1798 and was written by Richard Polwhele (January 6, 1760 - March 12, 1838), a British curate whose mother had associated with such writers as Hannah More and Catherine Macaulay. Polwhele published a number of reactionary political poems critical of the French Revolution and its values in the Anti-Jacobin Review, and also published other historical and political essays and books.

Polwhele, in "the Unsex'd Females," sees Mary Wollstonecraft's writings as anti-Christian and pro-revolutionary, and also attacks her personal life. He sees her -- and others he names whom he sees as like Wollstonecraft -- as "unsex'd" meaning violating what he defines as women's proper role. He sees these women as insubordinate, immoral, and not feminine, even though not all of them share the revolutionary ideas of Wollstonecraft. Other women writers, including Hannah More whose voice he imagines as the voice of the poem, he recommends as being more respectful of what he defines as women's proper role.



"Our unsex'd female writers now instruct, or confuse, us and
themselves, in the labyrinth of politics, or turn us wild with
Gallic frenzy." -- -- -- -Pursuits of Literature, Edit. 7. p. 238.


1: THOU, who with all the poet's genuine rage,
2: Thy "fine eye rolling" o'er "this aweful age,"
3: Where polish'd life unfolds its various views,
4: Hast mark'd the magic influence of the muse;
5: Sever'd, with nice precision, from her beam
6: Of genial power, her false and feeble gleam;
7: Expos'd the Sciolist's vain-glorious claim,
8: And boldly thwarted Innovation's aim,
9: Where witlings wildly think, or madly dare,
10: With Honor, Virtue, Truth, announcing war;
11: Survey with me, what ne'er our fathers saw, `
12: A female band despising NATURE's law,
13: As "proud defiance" flashes from their arms,
14: And vengeance smothers all their softer charms.

15: I shudder at the new unpictur'd scene,
16: Where unsex'd woman vaunts the imperious mien;
17: Where girls, affecting to dismiss the heart,
18: Invoke the Proteus of petrific art;
19: With equal ease, in body or in mind,
20: To Gallic freaks or Gallic faith resign'd,
21: The crane-like neck, as Fashion bids, lay bare,
22: Or frizzle, bold in front, their borrow'd hair;
23: Scarce by a gossamery film carest,
24: Sport, in full view, the meretricious breast;
25: Loose the chaste cincture, where the graces shone,
26: And languish'd all the Loves, the ambrosial zone;
27: As lordly domes inspire dramatic rage,
28: Court prurient Fancy to the private stage;
29: With bliss botanic as their bosoms heave,
30: Still pluck forbidden fruit, with mother Eve,
31: For puberty in signing florets pant,
32: Or point the prostitution of a plant;
33: Dissect its organ of unhallow'd lust,
34: And fondly gaze the titillating dust;
35: With liberty's sublimer views expand,
36: And o'er the wreck of kingdoms sternly stand;
37: And, frantic, midst the democratic storm,
38: Pursue, Philosophy! thy phantom-form.

39: Far other is the female shape and mind,
40: By modest luxury heighten'd and refin'd;
41: Those limbs, that figure, tho' by Fashion grac'd,
42: By Beauty polish'd, and adorn'd by Taste;
43: That soul, whose harmony perennial flows,
44: In Music trembles, and in Color glows;
45: Which bids sweet Poesy reclaim the praise
46: With faery light to gild fastidious days,
47: From sullen clouds relieve domestic care,
48: And melt in smiles the withering frown of war.
49: Ah! once the female Muse, to NATURE true,
50: The unvalued store from FANCY, FEELING drew;
51: Won, from the grasp of woe, the roseate hours,
52: Cheer'd life's dim vale, and strew'd the grave with flowers.

53: But lo! where, pale amidst the wild, she draws
54: Each precept cold from sceptic Reason's vase;
55: Pours with rash arm the turbid stream along,
56: And in the foaming torrent whelms the throng.

57: Alas! her pride sophistic flings a gloom,
58: To chase, sweet Innocence! thy vernal bloom,
59: Of each light joy to damp the genial glow,
60: And with new terrors clothe the groupe of woe,
61: Quench the pure daystar in oblivion deep,
62: And, Death! restore thy "long, unbroken sleep."

63: See Wollstonecraft, whom no decorum checks,
64: Arise, the intrepid champion of her sex;
65: O'er humbled man assert the sovereign claim,
66: And slight the timid blush of virgin fame.

67: "Go, go (she cries) ye tribes of melting maids,
68: "Go, screen your softness in sequester'd shades;
69: "With plaintive whispers woo the unconscious grove,
70: "And feebly perish, as depis'd ye love.

71: "What tho' the fine Romances of Rousseau
72: "Bid the flame flutter, and the bosom glow;
73: "Tho' the rapt Bard, your empire fond to own,
74: "Fall prostrate and adore your living throne,
75: "The living throne his hands presum'd to rear,
76: "Its seat a simper, and its base a tear;
77: "Soon shall the sex disdain the illusive sway,
78: "And wield the sceptre in yon blaze of day;
79: "Ere long, each little artifice discard,
80: "No more by weakness winning fond regard;
81: "Nor eyes, that sparkle from their blushes, roll,
82: "Nor catch the languors of the sick'ning soul,
83: "Nor the quick flutter, nor the coy reserve,
84: "But nobly boast the firm gymnastic nerve;
85: "Nor more affect with Delicacy's fan
86: "To hide the emotion from congenial man;
87: "To the bold heights where glory beams, aspire,
88: "Blend mental energy with Passion's fire,
89: "Surpass their rivals in the powers of mind
90: "And vindicate the Rights of womankind."

91: She spoke: and veteran BARBAULD caught the strain,
92: And deem'd her songs of Love, her Lyrics vain;
93: And ROBINSON to Gaul her Fancy gave,
94: And trac'd the picture of a Deist's grave!

95: And charming SMITH resign'd her power to please,
96: Poetic feeling and poetic ease;
97: And HELEN, fir'd by Freedom, bade adieu
98: To all the broken visions of Peru;
99: And YEARSELEY, who had warbled, Nature's child,
100: Midst twilight dews, her minstrel ditties wild,
101: (Tho' soon a wanderer from her meads and milk,
102: She long'd to rustle, like her sex, in silk)
103: Now stole the modish grin, the sapient sneer,`
104: And flippant HAYS assum'd a cynic leer;
105: While classic KAUFFMAN her Priapus drew,
106: And linger'd a sweet blush with EMMA CREWE.

107: Yet say, ye Fair, with man's tyrannic host,
108: Say, where the battles ye so proudly boast,
109: While, urg'd to triumph by the Spartan fife,
110: Corporeal struggles mix'd with mental strife?

111: Where, the plum'd chieftain of your chosen train,
112: To fabricate your laws, and fix your reign?

113: Say, hath her eye its lightnings flash'd to scath
114: The bloom young Pleasure sheds on Glory's path;
115: Her ear, indignant as she march'd along,
116: Scorn'd every charm of soft lascivious song?
117: Say, hath she view'd, if pass'd the mourner by,
118: The drooping form, nor heav'd one female sigh;
119: Arm'd with proud intellect, at fortune laugh'd,
120: Mock'd the vain threat, and brav'd the envenom'd shaft?
121: Say, hath your chief the ideal depths explor'd,
122: Amid the flaming tracts of spirit soar'd,
123: And from base earth, by Reason's vigor borne,
124: Hail'd the fair beams of Mind's expanding morn?

125: Alas! in every aspiration bold,
126: I saw the creature of a mortal mould:
127: Yes! not untrembling (tho' I half ador'd
128: A mind by Genius fraught, by Science stor'd)
129: I saw the Heroine mount the dazzling dome
130: Where Shakspeare's spirit kindled, to illume
131: His favourite FUSELI, and with magic might
132: To earthly sense unlock'd a world of light!

133: Full soon, amid the high pictorial blaze,
134: I saw a Sibyl-transport in her gaze:
135: To the great Artist, from his wondrous Art,
136: I saw transferr'd the whole enraptur'd Heart;
137: Till, mingling soul with soul, in airy trance,
138: Enlighten'd and inspir'd at every glance,
139: And from the dross of appetite refin'd,
140: And, grasping at angelic food, all mind,
141: Down from the empyreal heights she sunk, betray'd
142: To poor Philosophy -- a love-sick maid!
143: -- But hark! lascivious murmurs melt around;
144: And pleasure trembles in each dying sound.
145: A myrtle bower, in fairest bloom array'd,
146: To laughing Venus streams the silver shade:
147: Thrill'd with fine ardors Collinsonias glow,
148: And, bending, breathe their loose desires below.

149: Each gentle air a swelling anther heaves,
150: Wafts its full sweets, and shivers thro' the leaves.

151: Bath'd in new bliss, the Fair-one greets the bower,
152: And ravishes a flame from every flower;
153: Low at her feet inhales the master's sighs,
154: And darts voluptuous from her eyes.
155: Yet, while each heart-pulse, in the Paphian grove,
156: Beats quick to IMLAY and licentious love,
157: A sudden gloom the gathering tempest spreads;
158: The floral arch-work withers o'er their heads;
159: Whirlwinds the paramours asunder tear;
160: And wisdom falls, the victim of despair.

161: And dost thou rove, with no internal light,
162: Poor maniac! thro' the stormy waste of night?

163: Hast thou no sense of guilt to be forgiv'n,
164: No comforter on earth, no hope in Heaven?
165: Stay, stay -- thine impious arrogance restrain --
166: What tho' the flood may quench thy burning brain,
167: Rash woman! can its whelming wave bestow
168: Oblivion, to blot out eternal woe?

169: "O come (a voice seraphic seems to say)
170: "Fly that pale form -- come sisters! come away.
171: "Come, from those livid limbs withdraw your gaze,
172: "Those limbs which Virtue views in mute amaze;
173: "Nor deem, that Genius lends a veil, to hide
174: "The dire apostate, the fell suicide. --
175: "Come, join, with wonted smiles, a kindred train,
176: "Who court, like you, the Muse; nor court in vain.

177: "Mark, where the sex have oft, in ancient days,
178: "To modest Virtue, claim'd a nation's praise;
179: "Chas'd from the public scene the fiend of strife,
180: "And shed a radiance o'er luxurious life;
181: "In silken fetters bound the obedient throng,
182: "And soften'd despots by the power of song.

183: "Yet woman owns a more extensive sway
184: "Where Heaven's own graces pour the living ray:

185: "And vast its influence o'er the social ties,
186: "By Heaven inform'd, if female genius rise
187: "Its power how vast, in critic wisdom sage,
188: "If MONTAGUE refine a letter'd age;
189: "And CARTER, with a milder air, diffuse
190: "The moral precepts of the Grecian Muse;
191: "And listening girls perceive a charm unknown
192: "In grave advice, as utter'd by CHAPONE;
193: "If SEWARD sting with rapture every vein,
194: "Or gay PIOZZI sport in lighter strain;
195: "If BURNEY mix with sparkling humour chaste
196: "Delicious feelings and the purest taste,
197: "Or RADCLIFFE wrap in necromantic gloom
198: "The impervious forest and the mystic dome;
199: "If BEAUCLERK paint Lenora's spectre-horse,
200: "The uplifted lance of death, the grisly corse;
201: "And e'en a Princess lend poetic grace
202: "The pencil's charm, and breathe in every trace.

203: She ceas'd and round their MORE the sisters sigh'd!
204: Soft on each tongue repentant murmurs died;
205: And sweetly scatter'd (as they glanc'd away)
206: Their conscious "blushes spoke a brighter day."

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