Anna Barbauld’s “The Mouses Petition”: by Meg Wilder and Grayson Wolf

Anna Barbauld was a pronounced English poet and essayist, bringing light to political, scientific, and gender issues in her society.  Unfortunately, her works were disregarded after her death and were not resurfaced until the feminist movement in the 1970s. Until this moment, her political works were mostly forgotten, and she was remembered for her work with children literature.

Barbauld’s contemporary society is best understood through the Enlightenment. Society observed great advances in areas such as natural sciences, art, and philosophy.  Proponents of the movement could not agree to what degree reason should be taken. Likewise, Romantics and other figures opposed the Enlightenments supposed neglect of the human spirit. Just as it dominated the contemporary society, the Enlightenment framed the literary scene in which Barbauld worked.  The Enlightenment era brought about radical changes to literature due to the need to fund a proper medium through which to impart knowledge.

Literature may have been enormously influenced by the Enlightenment, but it also was a medium through which many resisted stark empiricism.  Many writers proposed that there was more spiritedness to humanity than rationalism admits. “Although rationalizing philosophers repeatedly declared that superstitious customs had been eradicated, traditional practices were not eliminated but rather concealed” (Fara 490).  Letters, diaries and other personal writings reveal that traditional spiritualism (i.e. practices such as witchcraft and astrology) had not been supplanted by empiricism and was actually experiencing an underground revival.  Many mainstream writers were influenced by this resurgence; its mystical aspects allowed for a greater infusion of humanity’s mysterious qualities into literature.   These “essentialist views of language were inimical to scientific writers seeking to strip their prose of metaphorical allusions, but these views enriched the poetry of Romantic authors” (Fara 506-507).  Literature thus drew on both Enlightenment ideals and irrational sentimentalism.  As a publicly renowned writer, Barbauld had the unusual task of catering to both diametric ends of the Enlightenment literary scene.

Barbauld’s poem, “The Mouses Petition”, was written in response to her friend, Dr. Priestley’s animal experimentation.  Concerns for animal rights first appeared in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods.  A very literal reading of “The Mouse’s Petition” denounces the experimentation on animals for scientific development. Allegedly, she found a mouse in a cage and placed this poem inside the cage for Dr. Priestley to read.  Although Barbauld denies the meaning of her poem was a condemnation of Dr. Priestley’s inhumanity, her contemporary readers misread the poem as a judgment upon Dr. Priestley.  She explains, “her poem was about ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’” instead of humanity and cruelty (Ready 92). Barbauld’s status as woman in the Eighteenth Century caused the public read her poem wrongly by adding a great deal of sensibility to the piece, assuming she became emotional due to the cruelty imposed upon the animals and due to her gender.  In reality, Barbauld was attempting to make a political statement as well as a gender statement proving that women can be a part of the scientific realm.

The use of first-person narration from the perspective of the mouse gives the animal the ability to “suffer, feel, and reason” (Ready 97).  The mouse begs his captivator to “hear [his] pensive prisoner’s prayer,/For liberty that sighs” (Barbauld 1-2).  The personification of the mouse by making the “wretch” “tremble at th’ approaching morn” waiting for his fate evokes the image of the impoverished and enslaved (Barbauld 4, 7).  Upon first reading, one may assume Barbauld refers to women and gender inequality, but the mouse is more easily related to the poor (Ready 108). The mouse appeals to liberty and inane rights by telling his reader to “cast round the world an equal eye,/ And feel for all that lives” (Barbauld 27-28).  As a woman, Barbauld struggled to break through the gender molds society imposed upon women.  Barbauld used her poem to critique the treatment of the enslaved and impoverished, as well as critique the inequalities thrust upon women within the realm of science.

Barbauld’s writings allowed her to make unique critiques of culture.  Through her poetry, Barbauld could make claims concerning scientific endeavors without relinquishing sentimentalism.  The second stanza of “Mouse’s Petition” reads:

For here forlorn and sad I sit,

Within the wiry grate;

And tremble at the’ approaching morn,

Which brings impending fate. (Barbauld 5-8)

In this passage, Barbauld exhibits familiarity with the workings of a laboratory, perhaps due to her close relationship with Dr. Priestley’s personal experimentations.  Nevertheless, scientific understanding doesn’t negate sensibility.  The use of first person narrative and  melancholic diction evokes sympathy; the reader is supposed to identify with the mouse.  Thus, “Two hundred years on, at the end of a century that institutionalized the separation of art and science into what C. P. Snow called `the Two Cultures’, Barbauld’s work reminds us that science had not yet become a specialized activity” (Saunders 503).  Critique in the form of a poem serves as reminder that science cannot be pursued with reason alone.  Furthermore, Barbauld made an effort to emphasize Priestley’s “scientific and moral greatness, linking his discoveries to political freedom” (Saunders 504).  Scientific endeavors are intrinsically linked to the political sphere. Poetry thus became Barbauld’s medium to relate morality and rationality.

Coincidentally, poetry not only enables Barbauld to speak to the relationship between science and sensibility but also gives her a voice in a patriarchal society.  Historically, poetry was peculiar in that authority saw in it no threat to the status quo.  Kathryn Ready asserts, “writing about animals provided women— whatever their intended audience — with a socially accepted medium ‘for engaging in discussions of political ideas, national identity, and foreign policy’” (Ready 108).  Anything offensive could simply be dismissed as mere figurative language found in literature.  Julia Saunders notes:

Her use of scientific imagery demonstrates that women writers were also able to use the potentially explosive combination of verse mixed with chemistry in the cause of radical politics.  At the same time, she provides a critique of the activities of late eighteenth-century radical scientists, bringing a woman’s voice into a debate that has too long been assumed to be only for men. (Saunders 502)

As seen in the preceding paragraph, “even as a young woman Barbauld did not believe that her sex excluded her from using scientific language and ideas to express a political stance” (Saunders 505).  It was the medium of poetry that enabled this expression.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld balanced many opposing ideals through her work.  Her poetry gave her an outlet to denounce flaws in society. In doing so, she resisted society’s overbearing standards of femininity.  Despite the cultural pressure to either adopt or reject Enlightenment, she proclaimed sentimentalism is crucial to scientific endeavors.   Finally, she was capable of critiquing a close friend while still highlighting his noble characteristics.  Therefore, “The Mouse’s Petition” illustrates the multiple forces that influenced Barbauld.




Barbauld, Anna. “The Mouse’s Petition.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Eighth ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1389-390. Print.

 Bellanca, Mary Ellen.  “Science, Animal Sympathy, And Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition’.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.1 (2003): 47-67

Fara, Patricia. “Marginalized Practices.” The Cambridge History of Science. Ed. Roy Porter. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 485-508. Print.

Hamm, Enrst. “Enlightenment.” Reader’s Guide to the History of Science. London: Routledge, 2000. Credo Reference. Web. 4 December 2014.

Ready, Kathryn J. “”What Then, Poor Beastie!”: Gender, Politics, and Animal Experimentation in Anna Barbauld’s “The Mouse’s Petition”” Eighteenth-Century Life 28 (2004): n. pag.Web.

Saunders, Julia. “‘The Mouse’s Petition’: Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Scientific Revolution.”

The Review of English Studies 53.212 (2002): 500-16. JSTOR. Web. 23 Nov. 2014.

Siskin, Clifford, and William Warner. “If This Is Enlightenment Then What Is Romanticism?” European Romantic Review 22.3 (2011): 281-91. Web.

Wordsworth, William. “Letters of the Wordsworth Family.” Letter to Alexander Dyce. 10 May 1830. MS. N.p.

Wordsworth, William. “The Tables Turned.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.

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