Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.1 (2000) 61-91
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Not Originally Intended for the Press": Martha Fowke Sansom's Poems in the Barbados Gazette
Phyllis J. Guskin
"A Letter to my Love.---All alone, past 12, in the Dumps."
. . . Or to the Pen and Ink I haste,
And there a World of Paper waste.
All I can write, tho' Love is here,
Does much unlike my Soul appear.
Angry, the scrawling Side I turn,
I write and blot, and write and burn; . . . 1
The combination of sexual longing and witty self-presentation in these lines by a hitherto unidentified woman writer calls into question many generalizations about the decorum and timidity of eighteenth-century women writers; its uncharacteristic tone of anger and frustration raises our curiosity. "A Letter to my Love" was printed in June 1734 in one of the first newspapers published in the West Indies, the Barbados Gazette. The poem was reprinted a few months later in The London Magazine as by "A West Indian Lady" and more recently it has figured in Lonsdale's Eighteenth-Century Women Poets as anonymous or by "The Amorous Lady."
In his recent attempt to recuperate for critical attention the poetry of sentiment, Jerome McGann discusses in detail this poem and two others by the same woman printed in the Barbados Gazette. McGann draws attention to the [End Page 61] skill of the writer, her "delicate eroticism," and "her full and vital expressiveness." He emphasizes the performative quality of the writing, its immediacy, its fusion of physical sense experience and emotional passion: "The poem evolves by feeding on its own circumstances." 2 The physical act of writing for this powerful woman writer is so eroticized that it becomes equivalent to the desired total immersion in the being of the loved one. Word and body seem to become one.
The trio of poems reprinted by Lonsdale and discussed by McGann did not stand alone. They were part of a group of over forty poems printed in the 1730s in the Barbados Gazette, most of them personal love poems. A number of these were identified editorially as from a stock of manuscripts by a woman writer; although neither the author nor her addressee is named, the editorial introductions to the poems provide various hints as to their identities. External and internal evidence substantiate these poems, not as the productions of an anonymous "West Indian Lady," but as the work of Martha Fowke Sansom, well known in London literary circles around 1720 as "Clio." 3 They constitute an extensive, valuable, and distinctive addition to Fowke's established body of writing; furthermore, by situating them in their original context of the 1720s, we can reestablish social, emotional, and stylistic links with literary circles of that period, and suggest illuminating perspectives on intimate relationships between the sexes during the early eighteenth century. 4 Their specific characteristics and the process of their survival shed light upon the interface of oral and written, of traditional and innovative, of spontaneous and polished, which the more usual transmission of works in and through the cultural canon does not always foreground. 5 These poems survived because of a quirky chain of events, in which emotional relationships, political processes, publishing demands, critical values, and individual personality traits interlock in a complex pattern.
Thus it is now possible to give this "amorous Lady" a local habitation and a name, and to trace in her special case the steps whereby emotion embodies itself in words and manuscript scrawl moves into the permanence of print. In so doing, we can explore both a poetic genre and a social context that privilege spontaneity and expressiveness, and investigate some of the implications of "social authorship," as recently discussed by Margaret Ezell. Ezell's work challenges the traditional critical dismissal of manuscript material as being aristocratic, amateur and vulnerable, and argues instead for a more nuanced perspective on "a history of the social text, as it existed in its original context and social moment and then as it moved into print culture." 6 Fowke's poems as they...