Work and Contemplation

Table of contents

1. Work and Contemplationa

The woman singeth at her spinning-wheel
A pleasant chant, ballad, or barcarole.2
She thinketh of her song, upon the whole,
Far more than of her flax; and yet the reel
Is full, and artfully her fingers feel
With quick adjustment, provident control,
The lines, too subtly twisted to unroll,
Out to a perfect thread. I hence appeal
To the dear Christian church—that we may do
Our Father's business in these temples mirk,10
Thus swift and stedfast,11—thus, intent and strong;
While, thus, apart from toil, our souls pursue
Some high, calm, spheric tune,13 and prove our work
The better for the sweetness of our song.

2. Note on the text

If “Work” speaks to EBB's agreement with Carlyle's gospel for his age, this sonnet speaks to her differences with Carlyle's views that the English are “a silent people,” not a nation of poets and singers (BC 7:100). “And does Mr Carlyle tell you that he has forbidden all ‘singing’ to this perverse and forward generation, which should work and not sing? And have you told Mr Carlyle that song is work, and also the condition of work?,” she later asked RB after Carlyle wrote praising “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” and urging her to use “‘speech’ rather than ‘song’ in these days of crisis” (BC 10:81, 9:122). Spinning as a traditional figuration for women’s industry traces back to medieval literature, where it expressed a gendered division of labor based on the biblical figures of Adam and Eve. b

3. Explanatory Notes

Untitled when first published in Graham's Magazine.

barcarole song (originally a Venetian gondolier’s song).

mirk variant of murk.

stedfast steadfast.

spheric tune relating to music of the spheres, a concept tracing back to Plato and widely adopted by poets. It held that in revolving, the eight concentric spheres of the universe each produced a note, the notes all combining into a single beautiful harmony, celestial music manifesting perfect concord.

The pious formulation of Richard Rolle of Hampole (1290?-1349), “When Adam dalfe [delved] and Eve spane … Whare was than [then] the pride of man,” became a disruptive interrogation of class privilege in the revolutionary sermon of John Ball at the outbreak of the Peasants’ Revolt (or Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, 1381): “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?”

EBB Archive HomePoemsAbout the EBB Archive

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: July 16, 2009
This page is copyrighted by the EBB Archive