This is a poem about a particular housewife who is very different to the other women we have seen so far in the poems. The housewife seems a jaunty, jolly woman even though she ‘loved the sink least in all the lands’. She also gives the townspeople reason to be shocked; she openly smokes cigarettes of the common brand Woodbyne, she has dyed her hair blonde with peroxide and the mention of ‘red lippes’ may indicate the use of lipstick. We get the impression that she goes out quite a bit for she loves Bingo, enjoys chatting to people and likes singing. However we are also told that before she goes to play bingo she prepares her husband’s tea- this indicates that she still accepts that she has certain responsibilities before making time for herself.
Although there is no specific pattern, there is a distinct rhyming scheme throughout the poem. It is written in rhyming couplets- all except line thirteen, which is:
“Hastily sped she hither to the toun”
Maybe the poet did this intentionally so as to underline the unconventional nature of this particular action.
There is rhymed iambic pentameter in the first six lines and last three lines of the poem yet the lines in between vary between eight and nine syllables per line.
The form relates to the housewife for she also has a set pattern to her life- she seems very confident. Maybe the lines in the middle are purposely not in the iambic pentameter to show that actions taking place in this time are out of character of the housewife. The last 3 lines explaining how she hurries to bingo are in distinct iambic pentameter to underline that this is her choice of life and what she really is doing for herself quite assuredly.
Similar to the concept of the style of the poem being adapted from fourteenth century English, we could say that the form has also been adapted in this way to a certain extent. On first glance the poem seems to be a sonnet, which was a common form of poems in the medieval ages. However on closer study we see that instead of the customary fourteen lines, there is an extra one making fifteen. Usually in sonnets one can find an octave and a sextet underlining the distinct change of subject or atmosphere. Although this poem contains no octave or sextet there is a definite difference in pace between the first ten lines where we are given a description of the housewife, and the subsequent five lines of the poem which involve physical activities.
The last line consists of only monosyllabic words. This serves as an effective way to end of this poem which is quite rich in descriptions as the shorter words are very easily understood and can remain longer in the minds of the readers. A distinct rhythm is also produced in the last line which helps to summarize the character of the housewife and emphasizes it as a final statement.
‘Ye Housewyf’ is a parody. It is a literary, comic take-off and mimicry of Chaucer’s language style and content. It is written in ‘mock’ fourteenth century English. The housewife could almost be one of the characters in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (The Wife of Bath).
The poet assumes that her reader will recognise that she is parodying Chaucer and this is part of the fun of the poem. The fake fourteenth century English is littered with many words and phrases which refer to things that simply would not have existed in the Middle Ages. These images are very ironic i.e. fish fingers, woodbyne etc.
The title immediately prepares the reader for the type of language and the poem starts with a classic narrative beginning, ‘There was a…’
Although this imitation of style is humorous, there is a deeper underlying meaning to the poem. The language, style and form have been imitated from the Middle Ages however the subject matter i.e. the housewife herself is modern. So the author has achieved an almost absurd effect by combining an aspect of one period of time with an aspect of another period of time. The old-fashioned style serves to underline literary tradition, of how women have been struggling over the centuries to be able to lead a life of their own. The housewife in the poem does manage to do things which she enjoys after fixing dinner for her husband and this is again ironic because in those times women were completely subservient and had no right to do anything without their husband’s permission. However the housewife only does go out after making the dinner which is a sign of the continuity of the roles of women; how even an independent woman like the housewife has to complete her responsibility first before making time for herself.
As the poem is a parody, we can say that the poet mocking the society in the medieval times. She mocks Chaucers form, style and characters- she takes the conventional character ‘the housewife’ and transforms it completely into a more modern day character. This increases the absurdity of her writing in the style of a poet of the Middle Ages because, taking a character with modern ideas together with a range of modern images and concepts, and placing them centuries behind has a great effect. Underlying this scorn there is a tone that is quite satire of the way women were treated in those times and there is extreme irony in the use of such an extreme case. It begins to show how women continue to be oppressed and, although we may find this poem funny, we need to examine our position in modern society and remove some of the suppression that may still be lingering.
There are a multitude of images which are evoked in our minds.
In the first line we are told that the housewife was:
‘strong and coarse of hande’
This gives us a very masculine and macho image which accentuates her independence as we usually associate men with independence.
There is a detailed description of her cigarette, which creates a visual image in our minds. Once again this shows her right to choose and independence.
Constant references are made to the colour red; her scarf is red and her lips are red. Red in modern society is usually associated with boldness and danger tying in with the image of independence.
Another visual image is created in the readers’ minds when we are told about how she prepares her husband’s meal. It is very particular as the chips have to be finely cut and there have to be three fish fingers. Perhaps this is done to stress the selfishness of men- how they are specific in their orders and expect things a certain way. Fish and chips are a common meal in England and the husband has probably always had his tea in this way, therefore he wants to carry on this habit. Maybe this shows how men want to also carry on the tradition of women being subservient and having no voice.
The housewife is fairly stationary in the beginning of the poem however we are told that:
‘Hastily sped she hither to the toun’
This shows how quickly she wants to go out and we can easily visualise her hurrying to town, especially after the detailed description given in the first part of the poem.
The poet uses a popular game ‘Bingo’ which is quite a social game. It may explain where the housewife meets all her friends. It is a sign of independence.
In the last line we are given some aural images:
‘carp and synge’ (talk and sing)
which we can clearly imagine the housewife doing. In the same line, all the actions mentioned before the talking and singing are called ‘faults’. It is questionable whether these are really faults.
A lot of assonance is used. In the first line:
‘…was a housewyf, strong and coarse of hande’
there is a strong ‘o’ and ‘a’ sound which emphasise the strength of her hands.
Another example is on line 13:
‘…sped she hither to the toun’
in which there is a sharp ‘e’ and ‘o’ sound which underline her determination to go out.
Alliteration is used a lot. In the second line there is a repeated ‘l’ sound:
‘loved the sink the least in all the lands,
which emphasises her dislike for the sink.
In the third line there is a strong ‘h’ sound, in line ten a constant ‘f’ sound, line fourteen a repeated ‘g’ sound and in the last line a distinct ‘s’ sound. All these fairly powerful consonants being repeated strengthen the toughness and determination of the character.
I think the poet emphasises that women had no voice in the medieval times by using a modern day character in that period to illustrate how ridiculous it seems. It is very ironic, as the images are also not medieval. Maybe she is trying to tell us to accept responsibilities and fulfil our own wishes only after doing our duties no matter how independent we are. Although the housewife’s actions may be acceptable in modern times they are not in the Middle Ages and this suggests progress.
However there is a strong message also of the succession of oppression; she is trying to say that by writing in the style of a different period of time she cannot change the role of women. The style is used as a vehicle of expression for the poet’s intention.
It shows that women are not necessarily restricted- they can be a housewife (as the title confirms that the subject woman really is a housewife) yet also lead their own lives and be independent.