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  • Elizabeth Thomas and the Two Corinnas: Giving the Woman Writer a Bad Name
  • Anne McWhir

In life as in fiction, names help to fix and prescribe character — thus offering opportunities for liberation as well as constraint. Sometimes, for example, poets assume literary names so that they can construct a position from which to speak: so, Dorothy Mermin argues, do “Orinda,” “Astraea,” and “Ardelia” in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. 1 The poet Elizabeth Thomas (16751731), however, did not name herself. She was known as “Dryden’s Corinna,” an identification she herself encouraged and publicized, but one that has plagued her subsequent reputation. Dryden called her Corinna to indicate his approval of two poems: “Since you do me the Favour to desire a Name from me,” he wrote to her in 1699, “take that of Corinna if you please.” But his letter goes on to cast doubt on the kind of admiration it professes: “I mean not the Lady with whom Ovid was in Love, but the famous Theban Poetess, who overcame Pindar five Times, as Historians tell us. I wou’d have call’d you Sapho, but that I hear you are handsomer.” 2

Having defeated Pindar, the famous Theban (or Boeotian) poet Corinna is said to have advised him to cut down on mythological allusions in his verse; in retaliation Pindar, in a version of the familiar name-calling of the schoolyard, called her “Boeotian sow.” 3 Dryden gives Thomas a bad name in a far more subtle sense. His flattery obscures the poet of history and legend, drawing attention instead to the more famous Ovidian courtesan: Dryden had translated parts of Ovid’s Amores and Ars Amatoria (not published until 1704); he would certainly have remembered not only Corinna in the Amores, and her English descendants in such poems as Campion’s “When to her lute Corinna sings” and Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” but also Rochester’s 1680 versions in “The Imperfect Enjoyment” and in “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.” 4 Rejecting Ovid’s courtesan, Dryden inevitably directs attention to her. His personal and literary flattery of Thomas seems faintly satirical, for the rejected signification — “the Lady with whom Ovid was in Love” — complicates the spirit of the compliment. [End Page 105]

Here and elsewhere, names signify not only the people or objects they are meant to identify, but also ideas, including literary and cultural clichés about women. Ever since Adam named “all cattle, and... the fowl of the air, and... every beast of the field” (Gen. 2:20), the giving of names has been a way of asserting dominance. Names can therefore be clues to the complex operations of power — in the case of Dryden’s Corinna, power within the world of letters, defined by a classical and literary learning that excluded most women. Drawing on the kind of classical education denied to writers like Elizabeth Thomas, Dryden refers to two distinct Corinnas. The first is the woman-as-poet, the Corinna of history and legend whose poems survive only in fragments and who inspired Madame de Staël’s Corinne (1807). The second is the Ovidian Corinna, the object of male desire that obscures the poet. Commenting on “When to her lute Corinna sings,” Thomas Campion’s editor, Walter R. Davis, notes that even before the Amores, in Propertius’ Elegies, “a woman arousing her lover by her lyre playing is assimilated to the Boeotian poetess Corinna.” 5 Rochester’s notorious use of Corinna’s name provides ironic context and intertext for John Gay’s coquettish, Belinda-like Corinna in The Fan (1713) or for Swift’s Drury-lane prostitute in “The Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (1731?). The woman poet of Boeotia is obscured in men’s texts by less elusive, more controllable conventions of representation.

The Library of Congress catalogue provides for Thomas, in mistaken recognition of her pseudonym, a cross-reference to D. L. Page’s edition of the fragments of Boeotian Corinna’s verse. Literary history has, however, usually associated Thomas with the courtesan, not the poet: “An author who uses a name that can mean either Poetess or Slut,” Lawrence Lipking reminds us...

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