- Innovations in Women’s Poetry
Co- winner of the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, Paula Backscheider’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (Johns Hopkins, 2005) has given scholars and students a much-needed survey of eighteenth-century poetry by women. In the last two decades we have seen a gradual increase in studies of these poets, including work by Donna Landry, Claudia Thomas, Moira Ferguson, Carol Barash, Ann Messenger, and Susanne Kord.1 Other studies of Restoration and eighteenth-century poetry have integrated women’s writing into their scholarship, as in the work of William Christmas, David Fairer, and Christine Gerrard.2 These scholars have used valuable lenses to examine the contributions of women’s poetry, but much remains to be understood of their work and its relations to other women writers and to their male contemporaries. Backscheider’s detailed account of women poets from the beginning to the end of the eighteenth century offers the most comprehensive survey yet of eighteenth-century women’s poetry. Although the dearth of modern critical texts of eighteenth-century women’s poetry would have deterred most critics from attempting a project of this scale, Backscheider has fully met the challenge and performed an extraordinary service to scholars of British poetry and women writers. Although she acknowledges the necessity of treating far fewer poets than she would wish—she does not treat working-class poets in depth because they have “already received sophisticated, recent critical attention” (xix)—she has produced an indispensable guide.
Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry attends to women poets’ conscious artistry and agency in articulating their experiences through a variety of forms. Backscheider examines not only the achievements within poetry by women but also the ways that women’s poetic innovations shaped the directions of British poetry. She accomplishes this while also making this poetry highly accessible to nonspecialists: ample quotations, descriptions of [End Page 181] poems, and relevant background help bridge the lack of familiarity many readers may have with this poetry. To assist her readers further, Backscheider includes at the end of the volume brief biographies of the poets studied. For readers unfamiliar with these poets and poems, the book’s ambitious range may make it difficult to keep track of chronological differences: providing dates for more of the poems discussed would help readers trace chronological sequences and contexts (of course dating poems and tracking their influence can be especially difficult with those texts that circulated in manuscript well before they reached print).
As her title indicates, she focuses on genres that serve as categories through which women explored and demonstrated their agencies as artists and individuals. Based on her extraordinarily wide reading of women poets, Backscheider selects a few poets in each chapter to analyze in depth. Her analyses of Elizabeth Rowe’s and Jane Brereton’s poetry are especially fine. The introduction successfully reviews the eighteenth-century material contexts of reading poetry, of poetry’s place in print culture, and of the increasing recognition of women poets by eighteenth-century readers. Remaining chapters include topics such as “Women’s Poetry in the Public Eye” and chapters on religious poetry, friendship poems, retirement poetry, the elegy, and the sonnet. Backscheider’s analysis of religious poems by women demonstrates that these works are often far from “safe” or conservative; rather, they offer bold critiques in language that is “often strikingly ‘unfeminine’” (146). Turning to fables and biblical tales, she argues that they are “adapted to allow women to expose the ways power operates and its consequences” and that such poems can be unreservedly critical of men (162). Many of Backscheider’s observations convincingly show a gendered particularity in women’s poetry, but at times her comments about the particularity of women’s poetry could be sharpened by more comparisons with similar poems by men. For example, by comparing women’s elegies with certain elegies by men that focus on nature, memory, and individual subjectivity, Backscheider would make more compelling the claim for women’s inventiveness in her astute remark that many elegies by women “drew upon nature, memory, and an individual subjectivity that would not become common...