Meg Boerema: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Challenging not only men’s authority over poetic discourse, but also dominant narratives of modernism’s break with sentimentalism, Lucia Trent in "More Power to Poets" (see MAPS page "Lucia Trent on Women Poets") argues radically for the sentimental function of poetry and for women’s poetic expertise: "For poetry is essentially the art of sympathy--and sympathy is essentially the province of women." For Trent, women’s claim upon sympathy/poetry, depends upon women’s capacity for motherhood since mothers, as Trent argues, "learn unselfishness--a basic requirement of true poetry as the poet must perceive the unity of all life." Trent’s outward-looking sympathy then is not a personal sympathy of a private domesticity (she despises the "tea-table topics" of many women poets), but a public sympathy of politicized collectivity; it’s the sympathy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not of Hallmark’s greeting cards. Locating women’s poetic authority in an idealization of women’s maternity, Trent in "More Power to Poets" rearticulates sentimental ideals of motherhood to political advantage: to claim women’s poetic expertise. Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" similarly evokes sentimental ideals of motherhood for political purposes. Reducing maternity to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" challenges bourgeois ideals of motherhood to incite readers’ outrage against capitalism and its vulgarized motherhood. Like the politicized sentimentalism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" garners much of its revolutionary political force through its threat to that conservative, middle-class ideal: motherhood.

"Breed, Women, Breed" devastates romantic ideals of motherhood by denying its mothers’ agency and by locating their sexuality in its capitalistic function. Women in "Breed, Women, Breed" have no control over their reproduction (for Trent the "dark side" of pregnancy: "Pregnancy has its dark side when it does not represent voluntary motherhood" (More Power to Poets). Women are compelled to "Breed, breed, breed!" (line 8 and 24) and have no ability to protect their children once born. Moreover, in "Breed, Women, Breed," women’s sexuality is solely (re)productive, imagined as producing "a race of danger-haunted men,/A race of toiling sweating, miserable men," (lines 4-5) "a race of machines" (line 12). Here, women’s sexuality exists not in a romantic relationship with a lover, but in a capitalist relationship with "the owners of mills and the owners of mines" (line 3), "the bankers, the crafty and terrible masters of men" (line 11), "the devouring war lords" (line 23). Reducing women’s sexuality to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" figures maternity as a sort of prostitution, a painful affront to those invested in romanticized ideals of a protective motherhood.

Yet though the poem everywhere denies the existence of a romanticized motherhood, it nowhere denies motherhood as an ideal. Rather, "Breed, Women, Breed" critiques capitalism by appealing to bourgeois ideals of motherhood and by soliciting a sort of maternal sympathy from its readers. Just as Eliza’s son should not be sold to slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sons of the mothers in "Breed, Women, Breed" should not be sold to "the terrible masters of men" (line 11 and 22): the owners, bankers, and war lords. "Breed, Women, Breed" then--much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin wherein Eliza appeals, "’Have you ever lost a child?’" (149)--figures the reader as a sort of surrogate mother. The reader, called upon to perform as that agent mother absent from the poem, cannot possibly continue to allow her children to become "a race of toiling, sweating miserable men" (line 5). "Breed, Women, Breed" then does not contest a bourgeois valuation of the maternal relationship, but depends upon it. The problem, as the poem imagines, is not that motherhood is a false ideal (it’s not that mothers don’t care what happens to their children), but that the ideal is denied by capitalism (it’s that mothers don’t control what happens to their children).

Motherhood then, as it was in much of 19th century American sentimentalism, is central to the political performance of sympathy in "Breed, Women, Breed," and even motherhood’s centrality to the poem’s rhetorical appeals can be read through its political performance. As Jane Tompkins argues of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Sensational Designs:

The brilliance of the strategy is that it puts the central affirmations of a culture into the service of a vision that would destroy the present economic and social institutions; by resting her case, absolutely, on the saving power of Christian love and on the sanctity of motherhood and the family, Stowe relocates the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen. (145)

Jane Tompkins’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be easily read towards Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"; only in "Breed, Women, Breed," I would argue, the center of power rests not in kitchen, but in the bedroom. Power extends even here, and it is here, the poem argues, that women shall exercise their complicity or resistance.

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Title Meg Boerema: On "Breed, Women, Breed" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Meg Boerema Criticism Target Lucia Trent
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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