A Critical Introduction to Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Hymns in Prose for Children” by Alyssa Grammer and Becca Craigen

Author Biography

Born in Leicestershire, England on June 20th, 1743, Anna Laetitia Aiken, or “Nancy,” grew up in a home with easy access to education, as her father was a dissenting minister and schoolteacher for an all boys’ school.  It was the male influence that caused Nancy to later adopt a masculine voice when writing poetry.  Her father went on to teach at Warrington Academy, a dissenting college, and Nancy’s experiences there inspired her to begin writing poetry.  She published Poems (1773) and later, she joint published a book with her brother, John Aiken, called Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (1773)On May 26, 1774, shortly after her success, Nancy married Rochemont Barbauld, a theatrical man that was considered by her close friends to be “instable due to his excitable nature” (Wakefield 31).  Together, Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld went off to Palgrave to teach at a school for boys.

It was her relationship with Charles, her adopted son from her brother John, and her experiences as a dissenting schoolteacher that inspired her to write Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children (1781).  The latter was a change from poetry to prose, much to her readers’ dismay; her critics thought it to be a waste of talent and time.

After retirement, Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld sought a home Stoke Newington, and it became the end for a lot of things in Barbauld’s life.  Her husband was on a fast track towards insanity, and in 1808, Mr. Barbauld drowned himself.  Three years later, Barbauld published her last piece Eighteen Hundred and Eleven; criticisms of the poem were harsh, and Barbauld wished to never publish her work again.  And, on March 9, 1825, in Stoke Newington, Anna Letitia Barbauld passed away of old age.  After her death, her niece, Lucy Aikin, published two pieces of Barbauld’s work, The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, with a Memoir by Lucy Aiken (1825), and A Legacy for Young Ladies (1826).

Cultural Context

Dissenter Education

Dissenters were a religious group of Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England, which included Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and others (Olsen 287-288). Stunted by intolerance, they opened their own academies, which covered topics of a broader range, although still learned by the rote memorization characteristic of the time (Olsen 225). This is true even in Barbauld’s revolutionary children’s literature, as it was written with the intention that it would be memorized and recited (Barbauld iv).

Attitudes Towards Children & Parenting

During the early 18th century, children were seen by adults as “small, unruly adults” who were meant to be frightened into submission. However, these ideas began to change. Childhood became a time with “a special state of innocence, during which children could be molded and shaped by love and education” (Olsen 52).  This led to the founding of children’s literature by John Newberry, who published Mrs. Barbauld’s works (Plumb 35). Barbauld experimented with a new style of writing that did not frighten children in her works Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children, among others. Her writing “revolutionized the culture of childhood, spreading a new way to teach literacy, a new religious mood, and the idea of associating childhood with rural life” (McCarthy ix).

Bluestocking Gatherings

In the 1750’s some society women such as Elizabeth Montagu hosted informal gatherings which were not characterized by the traditional gossip, but instead by intellectual conversation. This group, nicknamed the Bluestockings, came to be known for their dedication to freedom of expression and “the promotion of scholarship, literature, and culture” (Eger Introduction x). These women sought to protect female intellectuals, poets, and painters, while treading carefully to protect their social status. (Eger and Peltz 16-17). Barbauld was involved in this group, and the discussions that took place at these meetings certainly influenced her greatly.

Textual Analysis

Venturing from the literary realm of verse and into the literary realm of prose, Anna Letitia Barbauld wrote Hymns in Prose for Children to stimulate the “spirit of social worship” and to “impress devotional feelings […] on the infant mind” (Barbauld iv).  Assuming she would get criticism for writing in prose, Barbauld states in the Preface that her intention was to make it easier for children to recite the hymns from memory.  Barbauld justifies her decision on the basis that verse is “elevation of thought and style above the common standard” (vii).  Poetry would not be conducive in educating young infants.

In Hymns in Prose for Children, the reader will immediately notice the many biblical allusions that Barbauld introduces children to. The rhythmic cadence of the writing will immediately remind them of songs or psalms, as is appropriate for a “hymn” book.  It makes sense that Barbauld would choose to write in this fashion, as she intended for the children to learn as she did in school, through memorization and repetition.

Throughout her book of hymns, Barbauld addresses society’s hierarchy in her time. She first starts with the comparison between humans and animals.  Humans are able to speak and animals are not, so Barbauld wants the children to know that humans rank higher than animals. Her emphasis on obedience throughout the hymns stresses the values of her dissenting faith.  Literary critic, Lisa Zunshine, says Barbauld is “socializing children to the ideological creed of bourgeois society” by including a hierarchy within her work.

In addition, Barbauld also addresses slavery in society.  Hymn VIII emphasizes the role of the servant within the household; servants are treated like every other member of the household. While others would argue that Barbauld is justifying slavery as God’s divine plan, Barbauld’s dissenting faith is most important when trying to interpret this hymn.  It was such an integral part of her life; Barbauld grew up in a dissenting home and later married a dissenting minister.  It would be difficult for Barbauld to separate what she believed in when writing this work.

In the entirety of her writing, Barbauld ensures that the literature will be very accessible. She pioneers the decision to make both the book size small enough that children can hold it and the text size large enough that they will have no trouble reading it (McCarthy ix). She uses a combination of simple words the children will have learned in everyday life and new, more complex words for them to learn. Barbauld makes many comparisons that children will easily understand. The writing is also filled with springtime nature imagery and birth, inspiring a tone of hope and joy.

As the reader examines the text of Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children, he or she should keep in mind the innocent perspective of the intended audience.  Feel wonder at the beauty of the earth, marvel at the incomprehensible scope of the creator, and celebrate the life given to them.

Works Cited

Barbauld, Anna Laetitia (Aikin). Hymns in Prose for Children. 4th ed. N.p.: Norwich and Trumbull, 1786. OneSearch. Web. 06 Dec. 2014.

“Children’s Literature.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Credo Reference. Web. 8 December 2014.

Eger, Elizabeth. General Introduction. Bluestocking Feminism: Writings of the Bluestocking Circle, 1738-1790. Ed. Elizabeth Eger. Vol 1. Brookfield, Vt.: Pickering & Chatto, 1999. ix-xi, xxvii-xxix. Print.

Eger, Elizabeth and Lucy Peltz. Brilliant Women18th Century Bluestockings. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.

McCarthy, William. Preface. Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment. By McCarthy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008. ix-xii. Print.

Olsen, Kirstin. Daily Life in 18th Century England. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.

Zunshine, Lisa. “Rhetoric, Cognition, and Ideology in A.L. Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781).” Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 123-39. OneSearch. Web. 6 Dec. 2014

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