To Virginia Woolf, she was “a giant cucumber” choking the roses and carnations in an otherwise orderly garden of seventeenth-century literature. Several of her contemporaries felt similarly. Samuel Pepys found her “dress so antick, and her deportment so ordinary, that I do not like her at all.” Dorothy Osborne said of her that “there were many soberer People in Bedlam,” while Mary Evelyn was “surprised to find so much extravagancy and vanity in any person not confined within four walls.”
This was the Margaret Cavendish I first encountered, through Woolf’s exquisitely savage portrait in The Common Reader:
Nevertheless, though her philosophies are futile, and her plays intolerable, and her verses mainly dull, the vast bulk of the Duchess is leavened by a vein of authentic fire. One cannot help following the lure of her erratic and lovable personality as it meanders and twinkles through page after page. There is something noble and Quixotic and high-spirited, as well as crack-brained and bird-witted, about her. Her simplicity is so open; her intelligence so active; her sympathy with fairies and animals so true and tender. She has the freakishness of an elf, the irresponsibility of some nonhuman creature, its heartlessness, and its charm.
And, later, in A Room of One’s Own: “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind!”
Margaret Lucas was born in 1623 to a wealthy Essex family. After the outbreak of civil war in 1642, the royalist Lucases joined the King’s court at Oxford, where Margaret became a maid of honor to Queen Henrietta Maria, accompanying her when she fled with her court to Paris in 1644. There she met and married William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle, a royalist general thirty-one years her senior whose estates had been confiscated by Parliament. They lived in exile until the Restoration, when they returned to England and William regained his estates. He was created Duke of Newcastle in 1665.
Cavendish dined with René Descartes (Hobbes could not come) and, in 1667, was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society (which would not admit women as members until 1945). She was, Lara Dodds writes, “the first woman to publish a collected volume of dramatic works.” Her philosophical and scientific views—regarding such matters as the lives of animals and the materiality of the mind—challenged those of the most renowned thinkers of her day. If she occasioned scandal, perhaps it was because she said what she thought, dressed as she pleased, and insisted on publishing her multifarious writings in her own name (“a provocative step for a woman” in seventeenth-century England, as Richard Holmes notes). For Charles Lamb she was “that princely woman … thrice noble and virtuous but somewhat fantastical and original-minded.”
My main thought on reading of this aristocratic milieu is that I had much rather spend time with some Diggers. And though not herself a radical, the Duchess of Newcastle offered remarkably fair précis of radical positions. In Orations of Divers Sorts, she ventriloquizes various representative social figures. “As for our Profits,” a peasant says, “though we Labour, yet our Landlords have the Increase.” A lawyer defends a thief by arguing that
he appeals to Nature, who made all things in Common, She made not some men to be Rich, and other men Poor, some to Surfeit with overmuch Plenty, and others to be Starved for Want: for when she made the World and the Creatures in it, She did not divide the Earth, nor the rest of the Elements, but gave the use generally amongst them all.
Her “Female Orations” present feminist arguments of surpassing power:
Men are so Unconscionable and Cruel against us, as they Endeavour to Bar us of all Sorts or Kinds of Liberty, as not to Suffer us Freely to Associate amongst our Own Sex, but would fain Bury us in their Houses or Beds, as in a Grave; the truth is, we Live like Bats or Owls, Labour like Beasts, and Die like Worms.
True, the Orations counter such sentiments with speeches that propound opposing views, and it is left to the reader to imagine Cavendish’s own views.
Less doubt accrues to her first book, Poems and Fancies, published in 1653. Here mingle a sympathy with the nonhuman world and a fascination with other worlds, linked by a dim view of human—specifically, male—power and arrogance:
No Creature doth usurp so much as Man,
Who thinks himself like God, because he can
Rule other Creatures …
Poems and Fancies opens with a series of poetic explorations of the current atomistic theory, including the spirited “A World in an Earring,” which imagines a fecund microscopic world, complete with a miniature solar system like our own: “An Earring round may well a Zodiac be, / Wherein a sun goeth round, and we not see.” It is one of several poems examining natural phenomena that reveal Cavendish’s interest in the scientific discoveries and speculations of her day and that, in their figurative voyaging, prefigure her proto-science-fiction novel, The Blazing World.
Both Cavendish’s preoccupations and her conceits can recall those of John Donne, whom she read and gently chastises in “Of Light and Sight.” But where Donne can seem all corners, Cavendish favors a directness of statement that redoubles the force of her ironies:
And from Men’s Brains such fine Inventions flow,
As in his Head all other heads do grow.
This anticipates Emily Dickinson’s “The Brain—is wider than the Sky,” but, as frequently in Cavendish’s considerations of the actions of men, seeming praise turns sour:
What Creature makes such Engines as Man can?
To traffic, and to use at Sea, and Land.
To kill, to spoil, or else alive to take,
Destroying all that other Creatures make.
Not that anyone ever thought Cavendish the equal of Donne or Dickinson. She lacks the tropological velocity of the former, the cognitive dynamism of the latter, and the formal dexterity of both. She will pad out a line, as if in a rush to get everything said. She was a writer of “spontaneous composition and vitality,” as Alice Fulton puts it, one of the “feral poets whose work Robert Lowell characterized as raw rather than cooked.”
But she has a fineness of observation and execution, particularly in her astounding animal poems. Wat, the leporid of “The Hunting of the Hare,” is brightly alive before he is brought down by hunters’ dogs:
On his two hinder legs for ease did sit,
His Forefeet rubbed his Face from Dust, and Sweat.
Licking his Feet, he wiped his Ears so clean,
That none could tell that Wat had hunted been.
Fulton writes that “The Hunting of the Hare” moved her and her husband to tears. I suppose I cannot understand the person who could read of the harrying of this creature for men’s entertainment without experiencing that “feeling-into” for which Edward Titchener coined the English term “empathy”:
For why, the Dogs so near his Heels did get,
That they their sharp Teeth in his Breech did set.
Then tumbling down, did fall with weeping Eyes,
Gives up his ghost, and thus poor Wat he dies.
It makes one wish this Wat could have belonged to William Cowper, whose “sheltered hare” in The Task “Has never heard the sanguinary yell / Of cruel man, exulting in her woes.” One hundred thirty-two years before Cowper blasted the “Detested sport, / That owes its pleasures to another’s pain,” Cavendish envisioned the stomachs of hunters as “Graves, which full they fill / With Murdered Bodies, that in sport they kill.”
In her letters, Cavendish compared herself to a hare, hounded by contemporaries who dismissed her as “Mad Madge.” Her letter “To Poets” is Cavendish’s retort: “all is not Poor, that hath not Golden Clothes on, nor mad, which is out of Fashion.” Fulton has suggested that what Woolf’s vulgar cucumber so vividly snuffs out are the “genteel flowers” of “acceptable feminine behavior.” “In fact ‘outness,’ ” Fulton continues, “seems to have been her salient trait. On the page she is not only outspoken but, it seems to me, out of her epoch … Margaret Cavendish has more in common with Whitman’s hankering, gross, mystical nudity than with Milton’s sonorous depths.”
Here, then, is an exemplary poet of outness, one who could write without hyperbole: “Give Me the Free, and Noble Style, / Which seems uncurbed, though it be wild.”
Michael Robbins is the author of two books of poetry and the essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Bookforum, The Nation, and several other publications. He is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Montclair State University.
Excerpted from the introduction to Margaret Cavendish, edited by Michael Robbins, published by NYRB Poets. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Michael Robbins.