- Rowson's Poetics:Dialog, Discord, and Debate in Miscellaneous Poems
The basic facts about Susanna Rowson's poetic career are as follows. In 1788, she published the long dramatic poem, A Trip to Parnasses, as well as the collection, Poems on Various Subjects. She published Miscellaneous Poems in 1804, a book comprised in part of poems originally included in Poems on Various Subjects, as well as poems previously published in periodical form. From the 1790s to the 1820s, many more of Rowson's poems were printed in American broadsides or periodicals and often her poems were reprinted multiple times over a span of years. In addition, most of her novels and plays include poems or songs that serve as critical inter-texts, punctuating or contributing to the central narrative.
As this summary suggests, Rowson was an active poet throughout her life, a fact conventionally overshadowed by her other writing and particularly her novelistic productions. Undoubtedly, the tepid reception of Rowson's poems has contributed to the sense that her poetry was a secondary and lesser occupation. Since the eighteenth century, neither Rowson's critics nor her advocates have quite known what to make of her poetry. In 1795, her most infamous critic, William Cobbett, designated her "the poetess laureate of the Sovereign People of the United States," but based this mocking epitaph primarily upon her dramatic and novelistic writing—her popular songs and poems escaping his withering critique.1 Elias Nason, who reprinted over thirty poems in his 1870 laudatory biography of Rowson, nevertheless acknowledged that, when compared to other female poets of the time, "these poems of Mrs. Rowson would hardly seem to merit the attention I have bestowed on them"; yet, he averred, "they seem to be worthy of a place in some small corner in the library of every one interested in the early history and progress of [End Page 115] our literature."2 Feminist critics of the 1970s and 80s somewhat apologetically described her poems as "timid and formal" or "dull" and Rowson herself as "a poet of moderate abilities."3 For the most part, Rowson has not been granted even the smallest corner within the history of American poetry, but has been excluded from the library altogether.
This essay intends to introduce a new generation of readers and scholars to Rowson's poetry by moving beyond these aesthetic evaluations towards a more comprehensive examination of her poems. Specifically, I provide a context for reading the poems that emphasizes not merely their value to the history of early American poetry but also to interpretations of Rowson's body of writing more generally. As I demonstrate, Rowson's poems should not be viewed as secondary texts but as a primary means of understanding the conversations that occur between and within her disparate literary works. I argue that Rowson's poems invite a strategy of reading that crosses literary boundaries of text, genre, style, and subject matter, one that follows from eighteenth-century reading practices formed by the heterogeneous formats of the periodical and the commonplace book, as well as within the performative social environments of the literary salon, schoolroom, and theater. Drawing upon history of the book scholarship, periodical criticism, and feminist recovery work, I place Rowson's Miscellaneous Poems within a wider practice of literary reprinting in order to suggest that Rowson's poems are engaged in dialog, debate, and dissent rather than in promoting consensus or authority.
My analysis begins by examining the material circumstances surrounding the publication of Rowson's poetry and particularly the fact that many of her poems were reprinted multiple times and in different literary formats. Exploring specific instances when Rowson's poems were published in book and in periodical form, or when they were re-circulated within her other works, including her plays and novels, I suggest that these publication contexts are key to interpreting the individual poems, even as they highlight the influence of a culture of reprinting upon Rowson's poetic career. This opening discussion of print contexts and publishing practices sets up an analysis of Rowson's Miscellaneous Poems, a volume long critiqued for its internal contradictions and incoherence. My reading proposes instead...