March 25, 2006

Here You Go, Yolanda.

I adapted the expression about a servile womb not breeding free men from the closing stanza of this poem:

Advice to Young Ladies

A.U.C. 334: about this date
For a sexual misdemeanor, which she denied,
The vestal virgin Postumia was tried.
Livy records it among affairs of state.

They let her off: it seems she was perfectly pure;
The charge arose because some thought her talk
Too witty for a young girl, her eyes, her walk
Too lively, her clothes too smart to be demure.

The Pontifex Maximus, summing up the case,
Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
To wear less modish and more pious frocks.
She left the court reprieved, but in disgrace.

What then? With her the annalist is less
Concerned than what the men achieved that year:
Plots, quarrels, crimes, with oratory to spare!
I see Postumia with her dowdy dress,

Stiff mouth and listless step; I see her strive
To give dull answers. She had to knuckle down.
A vestal virgin who scandalized that town
Had fair trial, then they buried her alive.

Alive, bricked up in suffocating dark,
A ration of bread, a pitcher if she was dry,
Preserved the body they did not wish to die
Until her mind was quenched to the last spark.

How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
Spirited girls who would not know their place;
Talented girls who found that the disgrace
Of being a woman made genius a crime;

How many others, who would not kiss the rod
Domestic bullying broke or public shame?
Pagan or Christian, it was much the same:
Husbands, St. Paul declared, rank next to God.

Livy and Paul, it may be, never knew
That Rome was doomed; each spoke of her with pride.
Tacitus, writing after both had died,
Showed that whole fabric rotten through and through.

Historians spend their lives and lavish ink
Explaining how great commonwealths collapse
From great defects of policy—perhaps
The cause is sometimes simpler than they think.

It may not seem so grave an act to break
Postumia's spirit as Galileo's, to gag
Hypatia as crush Socrates, or drag
Joan as Giordano Bruno to the stake.

Can we be sure? Have more states perished, then,
For having shackled the inquiring mind,
Than those who, in their folly not less blind,
Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?

—A.D. Hope

More thoughts on the current pertinence of the poem here, and another site reproduces it with footnotes to explain the historical references.

When I was young I always assumed the poem was written by a woman, because men were too busy thinking of new ways to oppress us. Wrong.

Posted by Attila Girl at March 25, 2006 12:00 AM | TrackBack
Comments

WOW!!!

What a blast to the brain on a lazy Saturday morning before the end of spring break.

Thank you!

I’ve never paid much attention to poetry before, but this one will make me a fan.

It should be translated into Arabic. So that the next time I read on a blog how Israel is at fault for the depressed state if the Muslim world, I have material for a reply.

Posted by: Yolanda at March 25, 2006 10:45 AM


I know i spend most of my waking days thinking of ways to better oppress women.

Posted by: Averroes at March 25, 2006 08:16 PM


I don't mind being oppressed, as long as it's done with a little class and verve.

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 25, 2006 11:13 PM


Somehow this reminds me of the old mpot:

"Hurt me," says the masochist, and the sadist says, "No!"

Posted by: Averroes at March 27, 2006 03:52 PM




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