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Poem of the week: Of the Ant by Margaret Cavendish

This week's poem portrays a tiny insect world where 'all is in Common, nothing is forbid'

an ant sits on the bud of a peony flower
'Mark but the little Ant': an ant sits on the bud of a peony flower Credit: Getty Images

The most famous insect in English poetry is John Donne’s “The Flea”. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, read Donne, and was inspired by his intellectual flair. But while his tour-de-force, beginning “Mark but this flea”, is essentially an ornate chat-up line, her “Mark but the little Ant2020欧洲杯体育投注开户” leads into a startling portrait of a communist free-love utopia. She might have been happier as a 1960s hippy than as a 17th-century duchess.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户“Mad Madge” (as contemporaries called her) was a pioneer. In 1653, aged 30, she decided to publish a book of her poems under her own name. She was the first English woman to do so, and the first to attend a meeting of the Royal Society; many of her best-known poems are about atomic science.

She dined with Descartes and showed a keen interest in the latest theories of philosophy and the natural world, as well as classical history. The description of the ant's egalitarian society in this week's poem was perhaps as much inspired by her reading about the "Lacedaemonians" (Spartans) as by her study of insects.

There's a kind of plausible deniability to it. Cavendish isn't actually recommending a society where there are no class distinctions between "Clown" (here used in the old sense of "rural peasant") and "Superiority". She hardly could, given her social station. Instead, she's merely pointing out that ants live that way. It would be hard, though, for any reader to ignore the pointed irony in her observation that for ants – unlike duelling courtiers – the "greatest Honour is to live, not die".

Her versification can be a little rough-and-ready, sometimes casually slipping from pentamenter into hexameter. Cavendish was aware of this unevenness, and wore it as a badge of honour. In another poem she writes of her "wild" and "uncurbed" style: "Give me a Style that Nature frames, not Art:/  For Art doth seem to take the Pedant's part."

She was as famous in her lifetime for her provocative behaviour as for her writing. When she went to the premiere of The Humorous Lovers (a play by her husband, William Cavendish), she is said to have arrived at the theatre with her breasts bared and her nipples painted scarlet. 

Largely unread today, she has long been seen as an awkward outlier in the poetic canon. Virginia Woolf once compared her to a “giant cucumber”, crushing dainty flowers in the garden of English verse. She didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I suspect Cavendish would have taken it as one.

Of the Ant

Mark but the little Ant, how she doth run,
In what a busy motion she goeth on:
As if she ordered all the World’s Affairs;
When ’tis but only one small Straw she bears.
But when they find a Fly, which on the ground lies dead,
Lord, how they stir; so full is every Head.
Some with their Feet, and Mouths, draw it along,
Others their Tails, and Shoulders thrust it on.
And if a Stranger Ant comes on that way,
She helps them straight, ne’er asketh if she may.
Nor stays to ask Rewards, but is well pleased:
Thus pays herself, with her own Pains, their Ease.
They live as the Lacedaemonians did,
All is in Common, nothing is forbid.
No Private Feast, but altogether meet,
Wholesome, though Plain, in Public do they eat.
They have no Envy, all Ambition’s down,
There is no Superiority, or Clown.
No Stately Palaces for Pride to dwell:
Their House is Common, called the Ants’ Hill.
All help to build and keep it in repair,
No special workmen, all Labourers they are.
No Markets keep, no Meat they have to sell,
For what each one doth eat, all welcome is, and well.
No Jealousy, each takes his Neighbour’s Wife,
Without Offence, which never breedeth Strife.
Nor fight they Duels, nor do give the Lie,
Their greatest Honour is to live, not die.
For they, to keep in life, through Dangers run,
To get Provisions in ’gainst Winter comes.
But many lose their Life, as Chance doth fall,
None is perpetual, Death devours all.

Looking for more? Read last week's poem here