restricted access Collecting Women: Poetry and Lives, 1700–1780 (review)
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Reviewed by
Chantel M. Lavoie. Collecting Women: Poetry and Lives, 1700–1780. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell, 2009. Pp. 215. $53.

Ms. Lavoie has given us six loosely linked essays treating four very different women poets and the posthumous publication of their work in “collections.” We begin with a reflection on the act of collecting poems in books, variously called anthologies and miscellanies and encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries, variously ordered (chronologically or alphabetically) or not really ordered at all. To what extent are such collections of poems also collections of lives? Does who one is matter for readers of poems? How do poems shape the reader’s perceptions of their author? These are familiar concerns, albeit framed here using critical wordplay of complement and compliment, piling and compiling and filing, and even the anagram of file and life. At its best, the book is a series of ingenious reflections on poems as collectible things, conveying legitimate concern about selection, representation, and categorization.

Many of us also engage in “collecting women.” When we design courses of study, we choose women poets and poems to represent them—or their age or their gender or politics. To make sense, some design is required; some principles. Do we file or pile? Leap from one kind of poetry to another or attempt to impose order? Ms. Lavoie inspires such reflection.

The richly documented volume has an extensive Bibliography. She, alas, makes little attempt to take positions, almost as though the task at hand was a compilation or collection of ideas and observations. The form of the study mirrors its object, with often puzzling results. It is almost as though in her mind choosing or preferring one or another idea, interpretation, poet, or kind of poetry would be a loss.

Her basic text is the two-volume collection of Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755), edited by George Colman and Bonnell Thornton, and arranged alphabetically by eminent author. She chooses four poets for [End Page 86] particular attention: Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674–1737), Philips (1631–1664), Behn (1640–1689) and Finch (1661–1720). Rowe is manifestly a good choice for the overlap of biography and authority. Her carefully controlled, exemplary persona was a basic requirement in an author who mentored the devotional and sentimental lives of her readers. (The books of Moses, the psalms of David similarly invoke the historical personage to legitimize the literature.)

Philips (as the matchless Orinda) stands for the mythicüberpoet, invoked perhaps more often than read. Ms. Lavoie turns away from the Poems by Eminent Ladies to consider the representation of Philips in The Virgin Muse: Being a Collection of Poems from Our Most Celebrated English Poets (1717), a schoolbook assembled by James Greenwood. The startling turn breaks the thematic link among the chapters and also any semblance of chronology. Especially engaging is Philips as the Virgin Muse.

With the essay on Behn, we return to “eminent ladies.” Colman and Thornton altered lines that could be misconstrued in the different political world of midcentury England, emendations that hardly speak to the politics of the entire enterprise. What is more remarkable, if unremarked in this study, is the status of Behn as an “Eminent Lady” in 1755. Indeed, when we stop to reflect, the attribution of eminence to Elizabeth Rowe, a Dissenter, is also striking. That sometime theater people and reclusive Dissenters mix with the likes of the Countess of Winchelsea and Lady Mary Chudleigh in the anthology is arguably its most extraordinary feature.

What of Chudleigh? Why neglected in favor of Behn and Rowe, Finch and Philips, each of whom has a scholarly following? Why were these four chosen and why the peculiar progression from midcentury and back to the teens, then forward to the study of Behn as she appears in Poems by Eminent Ladies, then back again to Philips and Finch? A study so preoccupied with the collection and ordering of poems and women should be more transparent in its own principles of selection and sequence.

Those who, in recent decades, struggled to articulate a feminist literary historical criticism and urged the recovery of women writers—skimming collections and miscellanies in rare book rooms long before anything at all...