Julia Ward Howe’s ‘A Thought for Washing Day’ takes something simple, hanging clothes out to dry on a clothesline, and turns it into something far more meaningful. She uses simple language throughout the poem, allowing readers of all ages to read the lines and appreciate the story she’s trying to tell about her life and that of her family. Due to the fact that she includes no names or specific details, it’s quite easy for readers to hear these lines and consider their own “Mother” or garden in its place. The world of the poem turns into that which the reader is most familiar with.
Explore A Thought for Washing Day
The speaker describes her clothesline as a rosary in the first lines of the poem. Just as one would roll the beads in their hands and pray, acknowledging one saint or another, the speaker’s mother moves the clothes, caring for the family. It’s a center point of their lives, one that the speaker sees representing the ups and downs, the sorrows and joys. She “smiles” when she thinks of how closely weaved together toil and peace are.
In ‘A Thought for Washing Day,’ the poet engages with themes of family and life. In the short lines of this poem, the speaker describes life through the image of a clothesline and a family’s belongings strung upon it. It represents the sorrows, joys, toils, and peaceful moments of life, all wrapped together. This brings the speaker happiness when she can look out at their lives and her mother caring for the individual piece of them. As the items of clothing are hung up and taken down, the mother engages in an act that the poet compares to rolling the beads of a rosary.
Structure and Form
‘A Thought for Washing Day’ by Julia Ward Howe is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. They also conform to what is known as a ballad stanza or hymn stanza. This means that in addition to the ABCB rhyme scheme, the lines alternate iambic tetrameter in the odd-numbered lines and iambic trimeter in the even-numbered lines. This refers to the number of beats, either four sets of two or three sets of two, and the position of the stress. In this case, the first of the two beats is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
Howe makes use of several literary devices in ‘A Thought for Washing Day.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and a metaphor. The latter is a comparison between two seemingly unlike things that does not use like or as. In this case, readers can look to the first lines for an example. Howe writes that the “clothes-line is a Rosary / of household her and care.”
Alliteration is a common type of repetition. It occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “household help” in line two of the first stanza and “stranger” and “salute” in line one of the third stanza. Enjambment occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as three and four in stanza one.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The clothes-line is a Rosary
Of household help and care;
Each little saint the Mother loves
Is represented there.
In stanza one, the speaker begins by comparing a clothesline in her yard to a “Rosary.” It’s one of “household help and care.” The clothesline represents something similar in habit, importance, and worship as a rosary does. The mother returns there, caring for her family’s belongings day after day. All the saints, the “mother loves,” the speaker says, are “represented there.” It’s clear that the speaker sees the clothesline as one of the most important spots of the home, as one might consider the living room or the hearth.
And when across her garden plot
She walks, with thoughtful heed,
I should not wonder if she told
Each garment for a bead.
In the second stanza of ‘A Thought for Washing Day,’ the speaker continues to describe the “Mother.” She considers the time this woman walked across the garden plot thoughtfully. She moved with grace and deep consideration. The speaker continues the extended metaphor of the clothesline and the rosary by suggesting that the mother considered each piece of clothing to be a “bead” on a rosary strand.
A stranger passing, I salute
The Household in its wear,
And smile to think how near of kin
Are love and toil and prayer.
In the final four lines of the poem, the speaker describes a smile moment when a stranger passes by the home, and the speaker acknowledges them. The “Household” is there as she knows it, represented by its “wear.” When she looks out over her personal world at home, she appreciates the closeness of happiness and sorrow. It’s all wrapped together in the home and depicted on the clothesline. Throughout the lines of ‘A Thought for Washing Day,’ the speaker has used language that allows the reader to consider their own life overlaid in that which the poem describes. What would the clothes represent one’s own clothesline? What sorrows and joys would one see depicted there?
Readers who enjoyed ‘A Thought for Washing Day’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Family House’ by Gillian Clarke – This poem explores the narrator’s cherished memories of childhood and her feelings of nostalgia. Eventually, she comes to the conclusion that her memories are not the same as the experiences, and she’s never going back there again.
- ‘Human Family’ by Maya Angelou – This poem describes the human family, everyone from the serious and the comedic to those of different colors.
- ‘Home and Love’ by Robert Service – This is a simple poem in which the poet describes the perfect happiness that can be found at home.