- British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century: An Anthology
For The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1922–1949 (1949), Robert Graves chose, as an emblematic motto, the white-blossomed plant named the common asphodel. It is a tough perennial that grows even in poor soil and brings beauty into ordinary life. At that time, as in many other periods of history, this idea of poetry was hardly more than a piece of wishful thinking. In eighteenth-century England, however, poetry was in fact closely bound up with everyday life. In aristocratic circles, as well as for the middle class and to a certain extent even for the laboring class, it served as a means of self-expression, social self-fashioning, and formal and informal communication. This might be especially true with regard to women, who, generally speaking, have been more immersed in the affairs of common life than men.
Robert Lonsdale, the editor of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989), foregrounded this quality of women’s poetry through his choice of verse. Joyce Fullard’s British Women Poets, 1660–1800 (1990) offered a selection according to a more feminine taste. About ten years later David Fairer and Christine Gerrard, in their Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1999, 2004), brought together the long-familiar male poems with the newly discovered female ones, reconstructing the literary dialogue that took place between the sexes and that, regrettably, is obscured by all collections of women poets only. Backscheider and Ingrassia offer their anthology of British Women Poets—“the largest ever published”—as the more comprehensive alternative to Lonsdale. Lonsdale includes nearly a hundred authors with 323 [End Page 534] poems and excerpts on 555 pages; Backscheider and Ingrassia present 80 authors with 368 poems on 902 pages (in larger print). They leave out about 30 authors present in Lonsdale, whereas they introduce about 20 new poets—a third due to the inclusion of the Restoration era. The new anthology is a valuable companion piece: it gives easy access to more than 270 poems for the period 1700–1800 not found in Lonsdale. They have been selected from eighteenth-century publications of individual poets, miscellanies, periodicals, and poems inserted in prose texts as well as from modern critical editions. Instead of Lonsdale’s chronological organization by authors, the poems are arranged thematically in sections and subsections. This thematic arrangement might be helpful for the preparation of courses, yet it obscures the historical changes that took place between 1660 and 1800, as they have been reconstructed by Margaret Ezell’s Writing Women’s Literary History (1993) and Backscheider’s own Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (2005). It also makes it more difficult for the reader to tune in to the voices of individual authors. The editors avoid Lonsdale’s much-criticized practice of including excerpts. They print some longer poems in full, such as Anne Finch’s poem “The Spleen,” the Countess of Hertford’s verse letter on “Life at Richkings,” and Joanna Baillie’s “A Winter’s Day.” Many others, however—for example, Lady Chudleigh’s “The Lady’s Defence,” Mary Davys’s “The Modern Poet,” Mary Collier’s “The Woman’s Labour,” Anne Ingram’s “Epistle to Mr. Pope, Occasioned by his Characters of Women,” and Mary Scott’s “The Female Advocate”—are totally excluded. The need for a special anthology of longer eighteenth-century poems by women thus makes itself acutely felt.
Lonsdale prefers earthiness and vigor, informality, immediacy, and humor in women’s poetry. His interest in the interrelations of gender and social difference leads to a generous choice of poems by aristocratic ladies, as well as by laboring-class and Scottish authors. He tends to disregard poems featuring high style and idealistic sentiment, regretting the new refinement of taste that took place in the middle of the century (xxxi). Backscheider, on the contrary, has a high regard for women’s contemplative and religious poetry and values sensibility as an...