Question 2: Would it be correct to call Ada Cambridge a feminist poet? Illustrate your answer with examples from her poems.
Ans: Ada Cambridge was a prolific novelist and poet. She was born in Norfolk in 1844 and many of her works were published in serial form in Australian and British newspapers.
Cambridge did not receive adequate recognition for her poetry during her lifetime.
Her poetry has been reassessed much later, and the importance of her feminist
protest against patriarchal domination has been recognized only towards the end of the twentieth century. She began her writing career proper in 1875 to, as she put it, “add… to the family resources when they threatened to give out” , when she published the novel Up the Murray as a serial in the Australasian newspaper. She had previously had a foray into the literary world with the publication of a tract inspired by her devotion to Anglicanism, titled Hymns on the Litany and Two Surplices. A Tale, in London in 1865. Up the Murray heralded a different direction for Cambridge: her later work, which comprises fiction, poetry and memoir, was much less religiously inclined and takes as its subject matter, instead, social and cultural expectations for, and behaviours of, men and women.
In 1887, Cambridge anonymously published an anthology of poems titled Unspoken Thoughts. The sentiments expressed in Unspoken Thoughts are, for the most part, radical for the moment of their publication and represent the interests of her oeuvre at their most intense. Persistent themes in the collection include a questioning of religion which amounts, in some cases, to a denouncement of organised religion, praise for earthly pleasures, pursuits, and love, a concerned consciousness of social ills including the conditions of the impoverished working class, the social condemnation of prostitution and the bodily tyranny exercised by men over women in marriage, and the right to choose to end one’s own life. Cambridge reworked a number of the poems for inclusion in a collection she published in 1913, The Hand in the Dark.
Unspoken Thoughts, as its name suggests, offers poems in which Cambridge has expressed her original radical anti-establishment ideas which could not be expressed in public life in those days. Hence the poems in the volume affirm Cambridge’s literary and intellectual courage. There is no doubt that there is a Victorian mould of poetic expression in her poetry but iconoclastic ideas find a direct hand-hitting projection that must have shocked the patriarchal society of the day. Patricia Barton finds out the themes dealt with by
Cambridge and the tone in which she articulates the themes:
Unspoken Thoughts expresses indignation at social and sexual injustice,
longings for love and sexual expression, explorations of motherhood, fear of
death and the agony of illness, and a challenging of convention and orthodox
beliefs. Emphasis on the physical, especially bodily effects of injustice and
oppression serves to earth the more abstract musings in many of the verses,
particularly in the poetry of sexual protest. This feature of her work coupled
with the prevalent custom of reading women’s writing autobiographically
may have led to unwarranted and/or unwelcome assumptions being made
about Cambridge’s private life, especially in poems such as ‘ A Wife’s Protest’
and ‘Vows’ which cry out against the ‘relentless bonds’ of loveless marriage.
Bradstock and Wakeling present in lucid details a list of the themes dealt with by Cambridge in her poetry. Cambridge’s subversive approach is manifest in all the themes as listed below:
Among the themes she explores are doubts about the consolations of religion and the nature of god, and elevation, instead, of the values of this world, especially earthly love; hypocrisy connected with the observance of many of the tenets of organised religion; the viability of vows of fidelity in marriage; the emergence of a strong and compassionate social conscience in connection with such issues as drunkenness, prostitution, free love, poverty, euthanasia and suicide. Cambridge sees wives in loveless marriages as prostitutes, commiserates with the plight of the Old Maid ( without, however,
recognising this state as valid alternative), and champions the cause and
originality of those who stand outside the rest of their society -the seekers.
the strivers, the questioners.
Cambridge expresses her perception of the anti-establishment nature of her thoughts and themes in the poem ‘Influence’:
So do our brooding thought!; and deep desires
Grow in our souls, we know not haw or why;
Grope for we know not what, all blind anti dumb.
When the time is ripe, and one aspires
To free his thought in speech, ours hears the cry,
And to full birth and instant knowledge come.
Thus the unspoken thoughts find articulation through the poems of Cambridge. Cambridge becomes outspoken in asserting the demands of flesh, the urgencies of the earth, and primacy of the here and human above the piety of the imagined heaven in the poem entitled ‘The Shadow’:
No tale of alms and crowns my dull heart stirs,
That only hungers for a woman’s kiss
And asks no life that is not one with hers.
Not such Hereafter can I wish to see;
Not this pale hope my seeking soul exalts;
I want no sexless angel -only thee,
My human love, with all thy human faults.
Bradstock and Wakeling point out with illustrations how Cambridge protested against moral impositions from above :
Not only does Cambridge express fears about the possibility of heaven and the nature of god, but she is forthright in her exposure of the pitfalls of organised religion. ‘The physical Conscience’, a brief poem of two stanzas, suggests that the word of god, ‘the moral conscience’, ‘has lost its sacred fire.. .has become the slave/of all-compelling custom and desire’. That is, it observes the letter and not the spirit. By contrast, ‘the conscience of the body’ admits true passion and rejects the merely legal. Here, Cambridge would appear to be talking about marriage, which legitimates the sexual exchange whether love is present or not. This is a topic she picks up on again later in the collection.
Cambridge put a challenging question in a poem entitled ‘Fallen’, where she conmiserates with the prostitutes, while critiquing the socially accepted marital relationship :
And who condemns? She who, for vulgar gain
And in cold blood, and for love or need,
Has sold her body to more vile disgrace-
The prosperous matron with her comely face-
Wife by the law, but prostitute in deed,
In whose gross wedlock womanhood is slain.
Cambridge questions all hypocrisies that are practised through the institution of marriage. Bradstock and Wakeling analyse two poems on this topic:
The following poem, of twenty four stanzas, ‘A Wife’s Protest’, is the tale of a young woman enslaved in an arranged and loveless marriage. She was no child to validate the unholy union, and sees the ‘love child’ as more blessed by nature. In particular, the poem is quite explicit about the physical side of such an unwanted union :
I lay me down upon my bed,
A prisoner on the rack,
And suffer dumbly, as I must,
Till the kind day comes back.
Listening from heavy hour to hour
To hear the church-clock toll-
A guiltless prostitute in flesh,
A murderess in soul.
The wife points out that she did not feel this way at first but that, as her husband’s ‘slave’, victim of his loveless lust, she has been shamed. Yet society will not recognise this :
I go to church ; I go to court ;
No breath of scandal flaws
The lustre of my fair repute ;
For I obey the laws.