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Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry

Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre

Paula R. Backscheider

Publication Year: 2005

This major study offers a broad view of the writing and careers of eighteenth-century women poets, casting new light on the ways in which poetry was read and enjoyed, on changing poetic tastes in British culture, and on the development of many major poetic genres and traditions. Rather than presenting a chronological survey, Paula R. Backscheider explores the forms in which women wrote and the uses to which they put those forms. Considering more than forty women in relation to canonical male writers of the same era, she concludes that women wrote in all of the genres that men did but often adapted, revised, and even created new poetic kinds from traditional forms. Backscheider demonstrates that knowledge of these women's poetry is necessary for an accurate and nuanced literary history. Within chapters on important canonical and popular verse forms, she gives particular attention to such topics as women's use of religious poetry to express candid ideas about patriarchy and rape; the continuing evolution and important role of the supposedly antiquarian genre of the friendship poetry; same-sex desire in elegy by women as well as by men; and the status of Charlotte Smith as a key figure of the long eighteenth century, not only as a Romantic-era poet.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

How long this book has taken to research and write can be measured in the wonderful student assistants who have worked on it with me. Kim Snyder was the first, and she left a legacy of research notebooks and finding aids that never failed us. Melissa Roth became an expert on several poets, and her insights and lively advocacy for them improved the book. Jessica Smith Ellis, Jessie Jordan, Elizabeth...


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pp. xi-xii

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Plan of the Book

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pp. xiii-xxx

Rather than a systematic introduction to eighteenth-century women’s poetry, a history of their poetry, or a unified, progressive argument, this book is an exploration of the forms in which women poets wrote. It recognizes some of their contributions to evolutions in poetic form and to changes in the work poetry...

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Chapter One: Introduction

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pp. 1-27

The eighteenth century was a time of tumult and revolutionary change in the public and private spheres. Scarred at the beginning by the Interregnum, regicide, and the Glorious Revolution, it concluded with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The British learned to justify empire building, a parliamentary monarchy, and the transportation of its citizens to America and Aus-...

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Chapter Two: Anne Finch and What Women Wrote

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pp. 28-79

Although earning the right to be identified as a poet is something like becoming recognized as a novelist or a playwright, writing poetry is not like writing a novel or a play—not now and especially not in the eighteenth century. Poetry has always been associated with the expression of individual feeling, often strong and personal feeling. In the eighteenth century it was sacred ground—the field on...

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Chapter Three: Women and Poetry in the Public Eye

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pp. 80-122

The women poets of the first decades of the eighteenth century were a diverse group, but one characterized by having leisure to write and early access to fine libraries. Even more than Finch, her contemporaries set the stage for the first flowering of British women’s poetry. Some of them knew and encouraged one another. Mary Chudleigh and Elizabeth Thomas were friends, and several, in-...

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Chapter Four: Hymns, Narratives, and Innovations in Religious Poetry

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pp. 123-174

Jane Cavendish’s lines describe a woman writing, not reading. Moreover, she is writing ‘‘expresses,’’ urgent or urgently felt forms of writing,1 and so, in someway, the Bible has fired her composition. Of all of the eighteenth-century poets, male or female, Elizabeth Singer Rowe left the best and most diverse body of religious poetry, and Jane Cavendish’s image brings Rowe to mind. As a religious...

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Chapter Five: Friendship Poems

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pp. 175-232

The subject of this chapter is the only significant form of poetry that eighteenth-century women inherited from women: the friendship poem. Rather than a static, antiquarian curiosity, it became a major, flexible kind—a world of originality, personal expression, and exploration. Friendship poems reveal women’s longings for beautiful poetry, for the opportunity to characterize experiences,...

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Chapter Six: Retirement Poetry

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pp. 233-267

The poetry of the mid-eighteenth century is often characterized as poetry of retreat—from politics, from cities, from social engagement. Evening becomes the preferred time of day, and melancholy the mood. As Raymond Williams noted, ‘‘There is a use of the country, of ‘nature,’ as a retreat and solace from human society and ordinary human consciousness.’’1 John Sitter goes further in...

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Chapter Seven: The Elegy

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pp. 268-315

The poets of the last quarter of the eighteenth century included women whose literary achievements are still recognized, even if their works are seldom read. A few critics call their time, as Paula Feldman and Daniel Robinson do, ‘‘the first period of literary history in which women poets showed that they could match skills with male poets in an arena earlier closed to them.’’1 Among the women are...

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Chapter Eight: The Sonnet, Charlotte Smith, and What Women Wrote

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pp. 316-375

Scorn Not the Sonnet, London, 1802, Nuns Fret Not—among William Words-worth’s nearly five hundred sonnets are these three incomparable ones on the form itself. The grounds for them were laid in the eighteenth-century sonnet revival, and women were major participants in it. In the last few years women’s contributions have received justified attention, but they are still far from being...

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Chapter Nine: Conclusion

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pp. 376-402

Much has been made of the barriers to women’s writing poetry. Catharine Trotter Cockburn, one of the most intelligent, educated, and well read, wrote in 1737, These lines, published in 1737, capture almost all of the barriers women them-selves felt, and most of them were conventions before and after Cockburn wrote them. Two on her list are commonplaces today, but although she was married...

Biographies of the Poets

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pp. 403-412


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pp. 413-466


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pp. 467-498


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pp. 499-514

E-ISBN-13: 9780801895906
E-ISBN-10: 0801895901
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801887468
Print-ISBN-10: 0801887461

Page Count: 544
Publication Year: 2005