Acknowledging a debt to anthologies edited by Germaine Greer, Roger Lonsdale, Joyce Fullard, and Paula R. Feldman, Ms. Backscheider and Ms. Ingrassia assert that their text of 368 poems by eighty women is the first comprehensive collection of eighteenth-century British women’s poetry in roughly twenty years. The editors address “a persistent need to document the history of women’s poetic expression” in the period and to rewrite literary history, “from which women have been largely excluded or, in effect, ghettoized.” So, rather than “ghettoize” women’s poetry yet again, Ms. Backscheider and Ms. Ingrassia wish to use their anthology to challenge the traditional, gendered ways of reading that previously hindered women writers from being accepted as objectively “good.” By choosing only women writers in their anthology, the editors aim to show that women are important to literary scholars for representing “biographical, historical, and social evidence” organically as authors just as men have been, and not merely as women. The editors do that by ensuring that they include a range of authors who employ various poetic genres and who represent diverse political, class, educational, and religious values.
Not only were women poets active during this period—often publicly so—but they were also writing in styles and venues that have come to be considered the purview of men. The editors have excerpted poems from letters and plays as well as from collections by single authors, miscellanies, periodicals, and manuscripts. The organization is thematic and generic, and the editors rightly mention that some readers will be unhappy with their choice of an atemporal structure. This arrangement is reminiscent of how the thematic Longman Anthology of British Literature became a serious rival to the chronological Norton Anthology. For that reason, this text would work very well in course design, as eighteenth-century courses are already temporized. Its three main parts—”Poetic Kinds and Genres,” “Poetry as Life Writing,” and “Writing on Writing”—are divided into thirty-two subsections, such as “The Sonnet,” “Satire,” “Pastoral Poetry,” “Friendship [End Page 64] Poems,” “Love Poems,” “Poems on Nature,” “The Muses,” “The Experience of Writing,” “The Nightingale in Poetry.” Some subsections consist of only a few poems. While it is useful to see how women wrote very different poems on similar themes, it is not always easy to understand how political or social movements affected women’s writing during the 170 years covered by the editors. And while it is important to recognize that women had a variety of literary interests and wrote in several genres, it is also helpful to see what individual women wrote by using the alternate table of contents at the back.
The variety of categories provides a fascinating view into the current public interests as well as the private concerns of the women poets. For example, Ms. Backscheider and Ms. Ingrassia create subtle variations in the section on love poems: Jane Cave Winscom’s “Written About a Month after the Birth of My Son” and Charlotte Smith’s “Reflections on Some Drawings of Plants” are among the poems on children. “Poems on Marriage” is not included in the section on love poems, while same-sex poems are; and the editors differentiate “Poems on Nature” (Jane West’s “Spring: An Ode” and Ann Thomas’s “On Birds, Butterflies, a Deer, &c.”) from “Poems on Ecology” (Behn’s “On a Juniper-Tree” and “To a Cricket”). Many poems could easily work in more than one section. While the editors provide an alternative table of contents by author, others by chronology and genre also would have been useful.
For each section, the editors’ introduction to each type of poetry provides a framework for the poems and poets included, and a brief survey of current criticism; these introductions could have been longer than their average two pages, and should have provided more historical context. Their brevity suggests the editors are directing the anthology toward knowledgeable readers, and it is true that this text would be most useful in an upper-level undergraduate...