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University of Toronto Quarterly 75.4 (2006) 979-983

Reading Early Modern Women
Margaret Reeves
Sessional Assistant Professor, York University
Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson, editors.; Early Modern Women Poets (1520–1700): An Anthology.; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001

     'Tis true I weepe, I sigh, I wring my hands,
But thou, o love, hast yet no cause to laffe:
     For whilst I wring my hands, I thence shake off
What I once held for ornaments thy bands.
     And those deepe sighes to fanne the fire that serv'd,
     To blow away the stormes are now reserv'd.

(c. 1619)

This verse – signed simply 'E,' attributed to Eleanor Wyatt Finch and preserved in a manuscript in the British Library – forms part of the collection of 294 poems entitled Early Modern Women Poets (1520–1700): An Anthology, edited by Jane Stevenson and Peter Davidson. The most comprehensive collection of early modern women's poetry to date, this anthology presents the verse compositions and historical backgrounds of 159 women poets, as well as more than five dozen additional poems by writers known or judged to be female, but positioned within varying degrees of anonymity. Some of the latter are identified merely by class, as in the 'Gentlewoman' who has inscribed on her sampler the character of a 'subtile persinge changinge constant' young man who forsook her after their marriage (155–56). Several other songs and charms conveyed through oral traditions extend the range of this anthology, as do authors whose identity is marked pseudonymously. The selection is comprehensive because it offers representative samples by as many poets as possible, with little duplication between this and previous anthologies of women's poetry. Although poems by Isabella Whitney, Aemilia Lanyer, Katherine Philips, and Aphra Behn, to name a few, are available in modern, single-author editions, and verse by these and other women writers appears in several recent collections, only thirty of these poems appear in the volume's main predecessor, Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women's [End Page 979] Verse (Greer et al), and only a handful in other anthologies published during the last decade.

An impressive contribution to this growing field of study, Early Modern Women Poets should now rank as the principal text for teaching early modern women's poetry. Ample documentation of background, names, dates, and family relations locates each named poet within highly particular social and historical frameworks. In remarkably detailed biographical introductions, emphasis is placed on the poet rather than her writing. Less attention is given to contextualizing the poems themselves within various poetic traditions; the editors might have given more direction in this regard. For example, a brief comment in a footnote places Lanyer's country-house poem 'The Description of Cooke-ham' within the emerging line of poems in English written in praise of places and estates (104–8), but makes no reference to Ben Jonson's 'To Penshurst,' the nearest and most contemporaneous example of the genre. Placing that comment within the introductory section on Lanyer would have given the editors more scope to situate the poem within a longer tradition of epideictic poetry and allowed them to define its relationship to Jonson's as well as to a generically similar poem in this anthology, Anne Kemp's 'A Contemplation on Bassets down-Hill by the most Sacred adorer of the Muses Mrs. A. K.' (359–60).

Not less important than its value as a text suitable for both graduate and undergraduate teaching is the anthology's usefulness as a scholarly resource. The extensive biographical and historical apparatus supporting each named poet serves as a starting place for scholarship on these writers. The detailed documentation of sources in the endnotes extends the book's value as a reference tool. For most of the poems, as the introduction to the anthology indicates, the editors or contributing editors have examined at least one, and sometimes more than one, original source in selecting copy-texts for this collection, with all of these sources – including both early printed editions and, when applicable, modern single...


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