Terri La Rue
December 1, 2015
On Bayfield’s “The Danger of Discontent”
During the Romantic period, many female poets addressed the common Romantic theme of love and marriage. Given the different dynamics and inequalities between men and women of the time period, many also chose to look deeper into more complex related themes of unfaithfulness and betrayal. While Mrs. E.-G. Bayfield’s poem “The Danger of Discontent” is a less recognizable Romantic poem than others in the canon, it shares clear similarities indicative of the period. “The Danger of discontent” addresses the common Romantic themes of naivete, infidelity, and disappointment in love and marriage, all framed in the popular style of a warning to the reader. Alongside the additional theme of filial respect and loyalty, these factors together serve to give unique insight into the plight of young women of the Romantic era.
Throughout the poem, Bayfield’s poetic speaker works hard to emphasize the extent to which Mary is read as naïve, wishful, and unrealistic, often through careful word choice and emphasis. The character is referred to as “simple Mary” in line fourteen as a way to discredit her sense of judgment and make her appear inexperienced and foolish. The way she refers to her parents also adds to this aspect of Mary’s character. She uses the traditionally childish “Mama” and “Papa”, which gives the reader the impression that this is a little girl with the fantasies of a little girl, rather than an adult woman who is any position to be getting married or making mature choices. What’s more, certain phrases, including home of my own, lover, and man of my heart are printed in italics. These read with an almost dreamy sound and serve to give the reader a heightened sense of the wishful, idealized feeling described. The italics also give the sense that the things they describe are abstract, possibly unreachable concepts. With these calculated words and italics placed throughout the poem, it becomes easy for the reader to see Mary as more of a daydreaming child than a grown woman. This kind of “self delusion” is a common trend in among Romantic women poets, particularly in such examples as the “Faithless Knight”, “The Month’s Love”, and “The Spider and the Fly”. Like Mary, the female characters featured in these related pieces read as foolish and pitiable, a popular theme in the canon.
Like many other poems of the period, “The Danger of Discontent” also addresses themes of male betrayal and infidelity and, consequently unhappy marriages. These are echoed in poem’s like Heman’s “Indian Woman’s Death Song”, the Countesses of Morley’s “Epilogue” and Little’s “The Month’s Love”. As in “The Month’s Love” Bayfield’s poetic speaker addresses women as a group, allowing the poem to come across not so much as the tale of one naive young woman but as a warning to all women. Specifically Mary tells us “no keener anguish can sorrow impart,/Than that which is caus’d by the man of your heart (32-33).” This theme of warning seems to be a popular one for our Romantic women poets, giving the reader a more universal feel of the female experience for women of this class and status. One noteworthy line is the one in which our poetic speaker laments that “tho’ much she [Mary] respected her conjugal vows,/They were held very light by her profligate spouse (12-13).” This is clearly a critique on the different standards and expectations for husbands and wives. Mary’s lover is obviously unfaithful, and the reader gets the sense that this is seen as something to be expected. Despite all her dreams of the “man of her heart,” she was clearly unable to find a man capable of that same devotion. What’s more, her husband is described as rude and tyrannical, a word whose force drives the point of the power dynamics and inequality between the husband and wife (16). Many poems have earned a place in the canon through their critique of the different roles and expectations of the sexes, something which comes through clearly in “The Danger of Discontent.”
While this poem does have some things in common with more obviously feminist-leaning poems like “Epilogue”, it remains, to a degree, problematic. The speaker insists on infantilizing Mary and showing her as being incapable of making her own choices, and repeatedly ridicules her for her hopes. In addition to the persistent mocking of Mary, we can also see her as having a lack of agency through the surprising theme of filial respect. In addition to being naïve and wishful, Mary actively snubs her parents advice and warnings, dismissing them as “severe” and “austere”. The poetic speaker seems to suggest that this is something the reader should be condemning Mary for. Mary herself says “Dear parents… oh! forgive/The ingrate, who would not your maxims receive (24-25).” She sees herself as deplorable for her attempts to leave her childhood home and to make her own path rather than listen to her mother and father. Therefore, while this poem could be read through a feminist lens given that it warns women against placing their happiness in the hands of men and husbands, it’s also important to note the more dangerous aspect of this warning. Mary is still a character without agency, having gone directly from the care and ownership of one man, her father, to being subservient to another. Moreover, the reader may note that Mary’s wish is never one of independence or freedom. Even when she realizes her mistake in trusting a man to make her happy and content, she still laments “Fain, fain would she now to your mansion repair,/And, press’d to your bosoms, forget ev’ry care (26-27).” The reader sees Mary as wanting to return to her childhood and to the care of her parents rather than to any real home of her own or life of her own. In the end, the character only seems to exist in the context of her relationship with others and their positions of power. Whatever happiness or success a woman in Mary’s position achieves is ultimately granted by someone else
Given what has been read so far for this class, this poem deserves a place in the canon because it provides a clear portrayal of societal roles and expectations for most women of Romantic period. Moreover, it is an excellent example of those common themes of naivete and childishness, warning, and heartbreak, and gives readers a new and interesting insight into the role of family ties and their powerful effects on young women during this time period.
Word Count: 1075
Feldman, Paula R. British Women Poets of the Romantic Era an Anthology. Baltimore (Md.):
Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.