The Forsaken Wife

 Overview

This poem is a justifiably bitter and miserable attack on a husband who has been unfaithful. His actions are presented as destroying her emotionally and in society, despite the fact it is the husband who is in the wrong.

The bile in her words reflects her disdain for him and his action, which are presented as being weak and callous. She uses her attack on his actions to highlight the bravery of women who endure this abuse and heartache with silence as the society of the time demanded.

Mini-Glossary
maugre –
in spite of;
rigid – stiff, inflexible;

Methinks, ’tis strange you can’t afford
One pitying look, one parting word;
Humanity claims this as due,
But what’s humanity to you?

Cruel man! I am not blind,
Your infidelity I find;
Your want of love my ruin shows,
My broken heart, your broken vows.
Yet maugre all your rigid hate,
I will be true in spite of fate;
And one preeminence I’ll claim,
To be for ever still the same.

Show me a man that dare be true,
That dares to suffer what I do;
That can for ever sigh unheard,
And ever love without regard:
I then will own your prior claim
To love, to honour, and to fame;
But till that time, my dear, adieu,
I yet superior am to you.

Elizabeth Thomas (1675-1731)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Elizabeth Thomas had a tough life. Born to a lawyer and his young wife in London in 1675, she lost her father at an early age and the family was plunged into financial hardship that Thomas never really escaped. She relied on patronage from an active literary society in London, but never received so much as to be comfortable.

She found love and was engaged to a chap called Richard Gwinnet, but they were both poorly off and stayed engaged for sixteen years while they saved for their wedding! Jesus! However, when they were finally able to marry, she delayed to look after her ill mother and he popped his clogs (in 1717). Although she continued to write (her first publication was in 1700) she was never well off and actually went to debtor’s prison in 1727, emerged ill and didn’t last much longer.

Anyway, much of her poetry centred on women’s rights, particularly in relation to education. This poem, however, focuses on the disparity of marriage. Although women had some rights in eighteenth century England, these were forfeit upon marriage when legally they became powerless due to the Coverture doctrine that left husbands with all the power. An interesting little read here, if you want to know more.

The poem was written in 1722 and self-published in a collection called Miscellany Poetry.

 

 Themes

The thematic links provided by the Songs of Ourselves content page are not particularly helpful here. It is about love only in the sense that it refers to a marriage and the absence of love from it.

Instead the major theme here is gender inequality. We see a wife who has been abandoned within a marriage, but is forced by society to accept her husband’s indiscretions in silence as she has no rights inside of the marriage to complain. It reflects upon the accepted logic of the time that presented men as superior in every way, by showing the strength of one women in contrast with the spineless and heartless actions of her husband.

Content

The title tells us everything we need to know about the context of the feelings within the poem. A wife has been abandoned by her husband. The reality of the time is that she would have had to suffer her heartache and ruination in silence as women, and particularly wives, had little to no voice, rights or power in eighteenth century England.

This poem serves as a way of venting her true feelings that she would not have been able to share in polite society. I must point, however, that the voice of the poem is a construct used to explore this inequity in society (although, I suppose, it could have been on someone Thomas knew, it is more likely that she is using a hypothetical/created situation to highlight her message).

The first stanza is a withering attack on the unfaithful husband. She is amazed that he doesn’t feel any guilt or sympathy toward her as a result of his cheating. In the end she decides that it is because he has no compassion.

She moves on to demonstrate the flaws in marriage rights. First, she reveals that she knows of his unfaithfulness and perhaps suggests that although she doesn’t mention it, this is not as a result of her being ignorant, stupid or blind. She points out that she is the one punished for his failure to stand by the promises of his marriage. Although we may have some sympathy with men at this time who could have to marry on the basis of property or financial need rather than love (and thus maybe strayed to find the latter elsewhere), it is clear that that wives were the biggest sufferers.

Despite the hurt, she promises to remain true, partially because she has no other option, but in the poem she claims the moral high ground by sticking to her promises.

In the final stanza, the poetic voice seems to have become emboldened by her anger and makes a wider declaration about the worth of women in comparison to men. She questions whether men could be so brave in the face of suffering as she has been. Only if she is shown a man who could endure this is she willing to accept their superiority, the common logic of the day. Until then she sees herself as superior.

Language and techniques

We start with the highly emotive title. To be ‘forsaken’ is to be forgotten or ignored and often has even more powerful connotations that suggest something fundamentally wrong with whatever is forsaken. Thomas uses it deliberately to represent this feeling of complete disregard and show that the wife now feels alone and without hope of being… unforsaken (definitely not a word!).

We start with the poetic voice bitterly pondering her husband’s actions.  It is ‘strange’ to her that he cannot even give her ‘one pitying look, one parting word’ – in other words, one sign of his sympathy for the pain she must be feeling – for a couple of different reasons. First, she has loved him and as man and wife they must have been through a lot together, thus she cannot understand how this relationship can be treated with such disregard. Surely their relationship means that he should demonstrate that he feels sorry for her and at least offer a word of apology? Note here the harsh repetition and the harsh consonance of the ‘p’s that make us almost spit out the words.

More than this though, she questions how anyone could be so heartless, let alone a husband to his wife. The rhetorical question in the last line of the opening stanza suggests he is without ‘humanity’, which paints his actions as not just those of a lousy husband, but as someone without heart and without any care or consideration for his fellow humans.

Boom! What a bold start to the second stanza: ‘Cruel man!’. The exclamation really confirms her fury at the situation she has been left in. Further, the word ‘cruel’ again presents his actions as something more than simple heartlessness, but as an act of deliberate harm and something he has purposefully done to cause her pain. This is no doubt how it feels, whenever anyone suffers the ignominy of learning their partner has been unfaithful. Fortunately, I’ve never been through this – presumably my wife is good at covering her tracks ;).

When she says ‘I am not blind’, in one sense we could imagine the husband not even owing her enough respect to be careful to hide his affair/s. However, I think Thomas is making a broader point here. In society, wives were expected to tolerate this sort of behaviour from their husbands as they held no rights distinct from their husbands. Thus we would not expect a wife to make her husband’s indiscretions public and cause a stir, instead she would be expected to bear her pain/shame/embarrassment in silent dignity. This line though shows us that although our poetic voice may not mention the affair, it is not due to her ignorance or stupidity, but rather the confines of societal expectation that makes her deal with the pain only internally.

In the third and fourth lines we have the greatest injustice of marriage rights, as she contrasts his ‘broken vows’ with her ‘broken heart’ and ‘ruin’ showing that while men commit the crime it is women who are punished. ‘Ruin’ is such a powerful word that implies that she has lost everything and refers to the fact that his affairs would leave her shamed and unable to recover her position or respect in society. She also confirms here that this is not merely a social inconvenience within a loveless marriage, but his infidelity has actually caused her huge emotional pain. I also sense a hint of personal shame as her ‘broken heart’ reveals her involvement emotionally in the marriage, while on the previous line his ‘want of love’ suggests that he feels he has no connection with her or, alternatively, has not been given enough love from her.

The stanza shifts from the fifth line on to considering her reaction to his unfaithfulness. She has no choice but to ‘be true’ based on the injustice of the marriage system, but she sees this as something she can hold over him, as a way to demonstrate her ‘preeminence’ or superiority. However, she classifies her actions as being taking in spite of his ‘rigid hate’, which shows us that she does not harbour delusions of the relationship being restored. This phrase further suggests that she sees his actions as being premeditated to cause her suffering and ‘rigid’ shows us that she has no expectation of him bending or changing his stance or ending his affairs.

I enjoyed the first two stanzas, but the third is magnificent and includes really firebrand ideas that fly in the face of the expected subservient and submissive role of women. She contrasts her ‘be[ing] true’ with her perceived lack of men ‘that dare to be true’. This moves the poem from the specific to the general; from condemnation of an individual to a clear comment on society. The use of the word ‘dare’ here also turns on the head assumptions that men are brave and protectors as it implies that women face this scary prospect of being faithful and even to ‘suffer’ when they must remain faithful in spite of their husbands’ promises.

While she questions whether any man exists who could face the hardship of rejection, heartbreak and broken promises, she highlights that women are able to and have to bear these things. She uses highly emotive phrases such as ‘suffer as I do’, ‘sigh unheard’ and ‘love without regard’ to show the pain that many wives have to endure. They have to be selfless and silent in their pain (‘unheard’) to meet the expectations of society.

After she has raised this challenge (for a man who could endure as she has) she declares herself ‘yet superior’ to men and her husband in particular in all aspects: ‘To love, to honour, and to fame’. This would have been hugely controversial, but the pain and bitterness of the poem embolden the poetic voice and allow Thomas to reveal the injustice of marriage contemporary to her.

Structure

The important thing here is to get across how the poem’s structure contributes to the sense of anger and bitterness of the poetic voice.

We have the harsh consonance in the opening stanza of ‘p’s that contributes to a heavily stressed bitter tone. Then the repetition of ‘one’ and ‘humanity’ stress the heartlessness of his actions with the deeply sarcastic rhetorical question contribute to this as well.

The monosyllabic and stressed rhyme (couplets throughout the whole poem) also contributes to this tone.

You could also mention the heavy use of first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘my’ that are used to focus the reader on the personal suffering and are contrasted with the selfish and cruel ‘you’ to clearly demonstrate the injustice between men and women.

Tone

Very, very bitter and justifiably so. However, from the sparks of anger comes a fire of superiority and freedom from the confines of expecting to be submissive to men.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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