Tit for Tat

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology edited by Roger Lonsdale
    Oxford, 555 pp, £20.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 19 811769 8

The publication of this anthology is an important event – as significant as the appearance of Roger Lonsdale’s earlier Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse, that unmarmoreal volume. As our battle of the books is waged, and canons to the left and right volley and thunder, this dignified Fellow of Balliol has done more to change our view of the 18th century than many avowed canon-chargers with more ostensibly up-to-date artillery. In the production of these two anthologies Lonsdale changes, not just a book list, but our view of the nature of poetry-writing and reading in ‘the Augustan Age’. Earlier in this century it was customary to praise the 18th century as the last bastion of the old order which referred itself to a Divine system of things. To emphasise the Providential and hierarchical aspects of the period is to overlook the important fact that men and women of the late 17th and 18th centuries were the first who knew themselves to be of ‘a period’, belonging to ‘an Age’. To regard oneself as inhabiting a local, human-made and changeable realm may in some respects be disconcerting: it can also be exhilarating. The very instability presented in acknowledging that one lives at a particular period offers hope for future change, and encourages changes of focus in the present. The mobilities and uncertainties of the 18th century were co-opted by emergent capitalist theory and practice, and by the powerful intellectual movements we collectively term ‘the Enlightenment’. Philosophers and gentlemen sought to identify universal ‘human nature’, and to identify the modes of social operation that would best enable the fulfilment of the aspirations of both groups and individuals – best bring ‘happiness.’

All of these Enlightenment terms of reference are at present under heavy philosophical battering, including the very idea of a stable inner ‘self’ and of a universally knowable ‘human nature’, and they deconstruct quite nicely under the Derridean wrecking ball. The Enlightenment was undoubtedly a mode of control, with its own orthodoxies. What needs to be emphasised at the moment, however, is not so much the value of the newly orthodox solutions and propositions as the value of the questions the 18th century asked itself. The quest for ‘human nature’ stimulated artistic and intellectual activity. Locke’s emphasis on the unique value of ‘experience’ led to a new interest in hearing a variety of voices, in pursuing a variety of experiences across the social spectrum. Women and the poor could write and might be heard from (by gentlemen), and, more important, they could hear each other. Lonsdale trenchantly if briefly points out that ‘any discussion of women writers in the 18th century will – or should – always find issues of gender entangled with those of class.’ This is true not only because of the important class differences between women writers, but because women and poor men are alike ‘unlettered’ – Defoe and Haywood alike come under the lash in the Dunciad.

To think of either group as ‘lettered’ is to think of the other group as ‘lettered’ also, and to pose a threat to the social edifice. Yet the Lockean project demands discovering and imagining the experiences of others, experiences that could be conveyed in print. Women and poor men participate in a ‘literature’ no longer contained within class or academic boundaries but exchangeable in the marketplace. It has lately become somewhat fashionable to lament the commodification of literature, but such laments have a dangerously nostalgic aristocratic tinge, and point ominously to a near future in which a communications élite in front of state-of-the-art computers may exchange information for ever withheld from hoi polloi. Only with print and with the exchange of printed works did new groups have a chance of active cultural participation, operating across time as well as across space. When William Cowper (who was related to two poets in this volume) contrasts the wicked Voltaire (publishing and public) with the virtuous country dame, ‘she never heard of half a mile from home’, he really wishes that women and the virtuous poor remain icons of virtue, unpublished and unpublic. But a great many women of the 18th century, including some like Mary Collier and Ann Yearsley who were poor, were heard of many miles from home.

Roger Lonsdale gives us a collection of 95 poets (including a fair sprinkling of the inevitable ‘Anonymous’). With each new writer he offers densely packed informative headnotes. The biographies alone are a valuable supplement to Janet Todd’s (invaluable but spotty) Dictionary of British and American Writers 1600-1800. Under the terms of Oxford Books, Lonsdale is bound to modernise his texts, and to include only writers publishing in the 18th century, although, as his Preface notes, women found inspiration in the work of female predecessors. Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of 17th-Century Women’s Verse (1988), edited by Germaine Greer and others, an anthology which does not modernise the ‘incidentals’, is a valuable supplement to Lonsdale’s collection. To begin in 1700 is to begin in the midst of things, an abrupt start that cuts off the vision of connections between the new poets and ‘Orinda’ (Katherine Philips), Aphra Behn and Jane Barker, as well as their connections to the work of Rochester and Dryden. (Women wrote elegies for both of these earlier ‘Augustans’: in 1700 The Nine Muses, a collection of poems entirely by women, laments Dryden’s death.)

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