On "I Sit and I Sew"
Georgia Douglas Johnson and Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935) were the elder mentors mentors of the renaissance generation of black women poets. Wary of combining racial issues with poetry, Dunbar-Nelson wrote some of her best-known poems protesting other ills than racism; "I Sit and Sew" is the dramatic monologue of a woman stifled by the "pretty futile seam" she works on, conscious of "The Panoply of war, the martial tread of
Men" outside her "homely thatch." (Dreams, 74). The poems "impassioned commentary on the narrowness of culturally defined sexual roles" (Hull, 80) is clear, as is the connection it draws between those sex roles and militarism. In "The Proletariat Speaks" (Dreams, 75), Dunbar-Nelson challenges the period's stereotypical leftist image of the proletarian as a burly, half-naked industrial worker. Her proletarian is a woman, an office worker whose daily confinement is painfully at odds with her yearning for "beautiful things"--the consolations of art and the sensual pleasures of a middle-class dream-life. Like her poetry, Dunbar-Nelson's political activism encompassed many forms of oppression: as public speaker and writer of fiction and journalism as well as poetry, she worked for women's suffrage, in peace organizations, and in anti-lynching campaigns.
From Experimental Lives: Women and Literature, 1900-1945. Copyright © 1992 by Twayne Publishers.
Gloria T. Hull
Written for the 1921 Philadelphia Public Ledger "Woman in History" contest, Dunbar-Nelson's Italian sonnet "To Madame Curie" is notable for its brilliant allusiveness to Keats's famous "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and its fine literary style. "To the Negro Farmers of the United States" baldly announces its topic--a tribute to these peaceful "brave ones of the soil" for their agrarian simplicity and their "gift supreme to foil / The bare-fanged wolves of hunger." This sonnet is reminiscent of Georgia Douglas Johnson's honorific race poems in Bronze. Last among this group of works is "I Sit and Sew," which has recently been revived for its feminist spirit. A war poem published in 1920, it is spoken by a woman who chafes against the "useless task" of sewing while more important fighting is needed. . . .
A sharp distinction is made between the world of men (which is referred to in a heavier diction: "martial tred," "grim-faced," "stern-eyed") and the slighter, confined world of women (typified by the repetitive sewing). Rhythmic disjunctions in the poem's iambic meter reflect this distinction, as well as the speaker's resulting agitation. The question of war's desirability aside, one woman's complaint about her specific "uselessness" becomes an impassioned commentary on the narrowness of culturally defined sexual roles.
From Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Copyright © 1987 by Gloria T. Hull.
The politicized and gendered dimensions of Dunbar-Nelson’s poem are quite explicit, and the poem resonates with the speaker’s frustration and pathos. What I would like to examine in this analysis is the irony implicit in the exhortations of the speaker – whose gendered labor allows her both comfort and safety as well as irritation and discontent – to allow her to escape her bourgeois existence and exchange this comfort and safety with the horror and destruction experienced by the male soldiers she describes. The speaker, by virtue of her gendered nonparticipation in actual battle, enjoys a freedom or exemption from such traumatic experiences, but this very freedom becomes a restriction throughout the movement of the poem.
In the first line of the poem, the speaker introduces her primary activity – sewing – as a “useless task,” immediately invoking an evaluation of work and activity that operates upon distinctly gendered distinctions: sewing is commonly seen as a domestic art, associated with femininity and passivity, producing merely fanciful embroidery or embellishment instead of meaningful action (1). However, within the same line, readers are also invited to reconsider such a socially-constructed evaluation of sewing, since the action is fully identified as “a useless task it seems,” the latter qualification offering the possibility of questioning the gender norm (1). The poem as a whole is defined by this kind of seemingly contradictory conflict over the meanings and associations of gender, waging an internal battle over gender stereotypes that resonates with the more external or “real” battles occurring on the battlefields of Europe.
As the poem progresses, the speaker describes how the work of sewing, like most other forms of perfunctory labor, keeps her hands busy and “tired” but her mind free to roam widely enough to be “weighed down with dreams” of the bloodshed and destruction being waged far beyond her own bourgeois domestic setting (“my homely thatch”) (2, 16). She even imposes a value judgment regarding her own lack of direct participation in the experience of battle, identifying herself as one of the “lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death / Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath” (5-6).
This value judgment seems to invoke a kind of hero-worship tradition by establishing a dichotomy of inferiority and superiority that, when combined with the speaker’s frustration over gender, falls within seemingly familiar gender roles whereby those who fight are considered masculine and superior, while those exempt from battle are feminized and denigrated. The repeated final line of the first stanza (“But – I must sit and sew”) marks the speaker’s dissatisfied acceptance of her gendered role as ineffective and inconsequential (7).
As much as the speaker appears to fall into this familiar pattern of warrior-idolization, the second stanza destabilizes both the gender dichotomies and the speaker’s resignation to her bourgeois domestic fate, as she evokes a dystopian battlefield populated by “writhing grotesque things / Once men” (10-11). Not only does the carnage of war dehumanize these soldiers, but the pointless slaughter, staged on the “wasted fields” of war, deflates the hypermasculine claims of heroism and superiority suggested in the previous stanza. Here the poem opens a space for the reader to interpret a further level of irony, which recognizes the illusiveness of such vaunted masculinity even while the poem honors and even envies such figures of abject defeat. This ambivalence toward the masculine role offered in wartime (dehumanizing self-destruction) echoes the speaker’s ambivalence toward her own feminine role (passive inefficacy), revealing that neither gender role offers much gratification or opportunity for social change.
Despite the ironic critique embedded in the poem, it still appears that the speaker actually does desire to experience war firsthand, for whatever reasons. She says her “heart aches with desire” to endure the same tortures that men must endure, and the extreme language she uses to describe that experience – “yearning only to go / There in that that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe” – indicates that this is more than just sympathetic rhetoric; she really does want to go out to the battlefields (12-13). But what good could the speaker bring to the suffering men on the battlefield? The emphasis of the sewing motif and the “useless,” “futile,” and merely decorative (“roseate”) seams to which the speaker is condemned to attend all point toward the possibility of turning this useless sewing into a recuperative purposes, perhaps literally as in suturing the soldiers’ wounds (15, 20, 19). This possibility, however, seems somewhat unlikely, as the speaker recognizes some of the futility of such an old-fashioned technique amid such terrible carnage of modern warfare, which is capable of literally disintegrating a man’s body into barely recognizable masses.
Tragically, the speaker’s frustrated compassion and conscience can find no outlet for action, and she feels claustrophobically “stifled” by her gender’s compulsory exemption from experience and action (even when such experience and action turn out to be not very enviable at all). In a final expression of her frustration with her limited effectiveness, the speaker revises the repeated declaration “I must sit and sew” into an angry challenge to the stultification of gendered roles and norms: “God, must I sit and sew?” (21).
Copyright © 2006 Joseph Peeples
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