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.)

Not only did women poets of the Restoration and of the various Georgian periods read the male poets: they were among the poets that the male poets read. That Pope adapted a line from Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, when he wrote ‘Die of a rose in aromatic pain’ (Essay on Man) is constantly referred to in footnotes, but editors and critics have generally fought shy of considering the impact on Pope and other poets of his time of Finch’s work as a whole. The work of the women poets became increasingly part of the literary atmosphere; any reader who regularly read contemporary poetry would have read a number of the women’s works. In setting them apart, we still subscribe to the notion that they are a decided subset, a party enclosed in a carriage running on a different if parallel road. Lonsdale himself seems to think at times in those terms, and is not forward to note the effect of women poets upon the major males. To take a single example, in his printing of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s ‘Upon the Death of her Husband’ as taken from the second edition of ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, he encourages the inference that Pope’s ‘Eloisa’ is alluded to in half-quotation in Rowe’s poem. That is a mistaken inference. Pope was quoting Elizabeth Rowe, as Madeleine Marshall makes clear in her book on Rowe, and as even the DNB grudgingly acknowledged. Rowe has a serious claim to be taken as a poet of importance; her work was published and widely read in America, and an influence on American poets, including Emily Dickinson. Lonsdale seems to take no interest in religious poetry, which is under-represented in this volume, and perhaps on that account the selection of Rowe’s poetry suffers, as most of the best of it is religious.

Pope was a problematic figure for the women poets. Lonsdale makes a point of the gratuitous nastiness of his attack on the impoverished Elizabeth Thomas, whose poetic name ‘Corinna’, bestowed by Dryden, is for ever defamed in ‘Curl’s Corinna’. Many women writers refer to the Dunciad, but this satiric epic, which cries out against the phenomenon of the very print culture that made Pope’s success possible, was not as great a choke-pear for women writers as the attitudes of ‘Epistle to a Lady’. Swift proved friendlier to women than Pope. He was of practical assistance to individual women writers – specifically, Irish women such as Mary Barber and Constantia Grierson. More important, Swift’s abjuration of the grand line in favour of the impish, unofficial tetrameter offered a model for ostensibly unassuming verse, a model that the women seized on and turned to their own uses. The use of Swift as a model encourages even a spirited if anonymous retort in 1732 to one of Swift’s most notorious poems; a ‘Miss W—’ presents ‘The Gentleman’s Study. In Answer to the Lady’s Dressing-Room’. Miss W. offers tit for tat, and dirt for dirt:

    For there some stocks lay on the ground,
One side was yellow, t’other brown;
And velvet breeches (on her word),
The inside all bedaubed with t—d.
And just before, I’ll not desist
To let you know they were be-pissed:
Four different stinks lay there together,
Which were sweat, turd, and piss, and leather.

Mary Jones of Oxford, admired by Thomas Warton, shows an almost equally Swiftian boldness in mentioning the unmentionable, describing the General’s distressed stomach and release of wind:

He wisely thinks the more ’tis pent,
The more ’twill struggle for a vent.

This and her urinary poem, ‘Holt Waters. A Tale’, were included in Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755). Eminent ladies (and common women too) were allowed to deal strongly with physical matters, at least until the mid-century.

The poetry of the 18th century is in general very strongly attentive to matter, and to bodies. Even a mid-century poet as noted for attenuated melancholy as Gray deals with bodies and matter, whether the bodies are becoming undifferentiated earthy matter as in the ‘Elegy’ or (more cheerfully) are playing about Eton College and running in the uttering wind. In general, most 18th-century poetry until near the very end of the century (and often even then) might be termed ‘Incarnational Poetry’. It is ‘incarnational’ not merely because it deals very largely in particulars (it was necessary for poets to remind themselves not to number the streaks of the tulip, since, they were inclined to do so), but also because it celebrates, however ruefully, the experience of living a bodily and historical life. That incessant experience was thought the very stuff of verse is one of the triumphs of 18th-century literature which post-Romantic assessment has tended to obscure. Such a sense of the value of the incarnate, the great worth of mundane life in the flesh, informs Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s ‘To a Little Invisible Being who is Expected Soon to Become Visible’. The speaker, the expectant mother, calls upon the baby in her womb: ‘Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow.’ The mother will gladly endure ‘nature’s sharpest Pains ... / That free thee living from thy living tomb’. This poem could not have been written by a man, one feels, not because an 18th-century man would never try to imagine being female and being pregnant (think of Defoe’s Moll and Roxana), but because the male hierarchical world is ignored. The baby’s sex is not mentioned, nor is the father. The subject of the mother’s relationship to the baby is to be developed in a praise of life that does not exclude the pain of labour and the weight of carrying the child:

She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.

The quatrain stanza is used here to reflect, and to reflect upon, the interfolding of the mother and her womb-child, their own relation an intimate paradox of the kind more usually celebrated in hymns. This world – which does include pain and tedium – is nonetheless a world worth asking a person to inhabit:

Nature for thee displays her various stores,
Opens her thousand inlets of delight.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld is certain that bodily life is valuable life. (Contrast the sentiments of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’.) A similar sense of the value of bodily experience to poetic expression informs a poem very different from Barbauld’s, ‘Address to a Bachelor on a Delicate Occasion’ by the blind poet Priscilla Pointon. On a visit, the narrator had experienced an emergency more pressing than surprising:

But say, how can my Muse declare
The situation of the fair,
That full six hours had sat, or more,
And never once been out of door?
Tea, wine, and punch, Sir, to be free
Excellent diuretics be.

Visiting the addressee, the narrator needed to visit the privy, but to her dismay all the female servants were out, and there was no woman to help her. The gentleman host joked in an unfeeling way about her plight, though another gentleman with a kinder heart offered to conduct and assist her. This ‘Address’ is a dignified rebuke that makes the reader (of any century) freshly aware of the humiliating circumstances a blind woman may encounter in ordinary life, but the verse carries out its mission with sharpness, speed and playfulness. The verse ‘Address’ is itself the best proof that the blind poet is not depressed about her physical life. The piece celebrates delicacy through decided frankness, and redefines delicacy by so doing. If we expect reticences from 18th-century women poets (and there are reticences), we shall be the more surprised at the writers’ speaking out. A certain sense of triumphant release accompanies such moments, a triumph like that of an outspoken Elizabeth Bennet turning the tables while keeping just within the (movable) boundaries of a propriety that works often to the disadvantage of the female sex.

The women poets could be rebuked for not writing enough about love, much as Walter Scott rebuked Jane Austen. Women are often accused of fuddling their minds with romantic love, but men seem very disconcerted if they find that romantic love is not on the female agenda. Lonsdale’s collection has very little ‘love poetry’ in the conventional sense, and I believe that absence represents the facts. It was thought modest women should write love poems only to a husband (dead or alive). Love of mother for child was an acceptable topic.

Lonsdale is not much interested in women’s poetic expression of the love of God, nor does he include many poems of affection directed to other women (his chief exceptions are the mother-daughter pair, the Breretons). There, I think, his collection is not representative. ‘Orinda’ had maintained perfect respectability while writing very ardent poems about her friendships for other women, and female friendship offered an outlet for poetical passion that would not have been seemly for a woman of reputation to express to males. The modern categories ‘lesbian/straight’ do not work very well for other cultural periods. Female reference to females is generally dull to the male reader’s eye, when it is not invisible. Wordsworth thought the two lines praising the Countess of Salisbury were a blemish in Anne Finch’s ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’, and an editor reproducing her poems in the 1920s took Wordsworth’s comments seriously and cut out the offending lines.

If there is a shortage of love poems, there are a good many poems on marriage – most of them against it. Esther Lewis’s ‘Advice to a Young Lady lately married’ repeats all the conventional wisdom for the benefit of the speaker’s friend Peggy, ‘metamorphosed to a wife’. The maxims are predictable: be clean, be charming, be obedient, be cheerful. But these chips of safe advice pile up with an alarming mechanical regularity that seems to become subtly parodic as the advice becomes more difficult to follow. The poem topples over with an abrupt lurch at the end. The adviser imagines her best friend crying out her vanity for giving advice ‘Who never was herself a wife’. Shamed, she gives up:

I own you’ve ample cause to chide,
And blushing throw the pen aside.

The glib authority was falsely assumed, and the adviser is herself safe from the cramping life she can prescribe for another. Many of these writers are more blunt in advice to avoid the married state, as Mary, Lady Chudleigh is in ‘To the Ladies’: once the woman has pronounced the fatal word ‘Obey’, she must

    still be governed by a nod,
And fear her husband as her god.

She goes on to urge: ‘Then shun, oh! shun that wretched state.’ A number of later female poets are in agreement.

The happiest picture of the relation between the sexes in this anthology arrives with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s rakish and urbane ‘The Lover. A Ballad’. The speaker proclaims to her female friend her desire for a lover. The ideal man for the role is one who ‘would value his pleasure, contribute to mine’, a sensuous man who is also sensible, discreet and observant of ‘the decorums’. The fun of the imaginary affair in Montagu’s poem resides partly in the delicious knowledge of the slippage between public self and private. The couple will behave with distant propriety to each other in public, sharing the secrecy of their consciousness of private gratifications:

But when the long hours of public are past,
And we meet with champagne and a chicken at last,
May every fond pleasure that hour endear.

This stanza is one of the 18th century’s most successful poems about successful sex. Not every bosom, perhaps, will return an echo, but many bosoms may. The poem was popular and well-known. Hester Lynch Piozzi remembered it in Venice, where the many opportunities for assignations brought to mind what she considered the almost oriental luxury of Montagu’s stanza. Yet it is noticeable that Montagu’s is optative throughout: it presents not a languor of satiation but a consummation devoutly wished.

Montagu presents a constant self-assurance even as her persona ironically awaits this ideal lover, this ‘astonishing creature’ who probably does not exist and will never come. The sort of assurance Montagu projects is quite rare. Lonsdale observes with puzzlement the female poets’ ‘liking for not always flattering self-depiction’. Their (physical) ‘self-depiction’ is practically never flattering, in fact. Interest in incarnation encourages ironic self-awareness of the gap between that cultural icon, the beautiful female, and the strange physical self. Frances Amherst (sister of Lord Amherst of Montreal) writes, in ‘A Prize Riddle on Herself when 24’:

My visage is round, just the shape of a bowl,
With a great pair of grey eyes resembling an owl.

Elizabeth Teft, in ‘On Viewing Herself in a Glass’, wonders:

Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?
Or, urged by haste to finish, could not stay?

One of the most effective and interesting of these poets, Mary Leapor, presents a comic grotesque of herself as she might be described by two neighbouring ‘swains’; only part of this incisive mock-pastoral is included, unfortunately – see ‘Mira’s Picture: A Pastoral’. She is one of the many 18th-century poets from the lower classes. If we badly need a new complete edition of Anne Finch’s poems, we really should have an edition of Leapor’s poems, and of the works of Ann Yearsley. Yearsley, the milk-woman of Bristol, is one of the very best poets of the latter end of the 18th century, just before Romanticism takes over. Lonsdale suggests – rightly, I think – that Romanticism put an end to women’s hopes for success in poetry, at least while the Romantic age lasted. It was easier for a woman to learn something about Virgil and to acquire something of the cultural vocabulary of the Augustans (even by drawing upon the print-shop windows, as Yearsley did) than for her to assume to herself a mighty and transcendent Ego and expect the world to buy it. The traditions the women poets had been most at home with in the 18th century were, by and large, the traditions most uncongenial to the voicing of transcendant egos – Swift’s poetry was not the poetry of the Romantic age either. The change in taste did more than disable younger generations of women poets: it entailed the erasure of the women poets of the 18th century from official memory.

What I have written has the customary defect of treatments of the work of little-known women writers: it has dealt too much in description of the subjects, and has left the poetry largely untouched. Some of these poets are truly fine in command of voice, rhythm and line. Their fineness is felt usually more in short lines than long, though some, such as Yearsley and Charlotte Smith, are successful in iambic pentameter blank verse. Poets from Rowe through Yearsley sometimes express an impatient sense of the limitations of language itself, ‘the human line/ Of alphabets (misused)’ (Yearsley), even while they express pleasure in language and linguistic play. These poets write not so much with grace as with an active pungency that makes us aware of the pressure of voice, and of the curves from release to reticence and back again. They are stylistic innovators; if iambic tetrameter in the Swiftian mode plays a leading part, there are many voices, many musics, and Coleridge rightly credited Charlotte Smith with reviving the sonnet tradition. (I have long thought that when Anne Elliot in Austen’s Persuasion turns her melancholy musings to ‘some tender sonnet’ during her autumnal walk, she may have been thinking of some pieces by Smith, including the sonnet printed here as No 237.)

The Scottish poets, well represented by Lonsdale, often exhibit the verve and rhythm caught from folk-songs; some of them themselves contributed what we tend to think of as folk-songs, like Jane Elliot’s ‘The Flowers of the Forest’. Susanna Blamire reminds me not only of Burns but more strangely and insistently of Tennyson, as in her dialect poem ‘Wey, Ned, Man!’ Blamire offers a remarkable piece of cynicism with a lilt in ‘I’ve gotten a rock, I’ve gotten a reel’. The palm for sheer delightful rhythm, however, should go to Elizabeth Frances Amherst, for ‘Welford Wedding’, in which the lines imitate the sound and feeling of the dance.

    Susan and Charlotte and Letty and all
Jump and skip and caper and brawl
    Frisk in the drawing-room, romp in the hall,
Susan and Charlotte and Letty and all.
    Hark! the fiddle each gay spirit moves;
See, the beaux have all drawn on their gloves.
   Mr Archer will dance,
   And Jack Hobland will prance,
   And Jack Shirley’ll advance,
   If my Lady approves.
Chorus: Susan and Charlotte and Letty and all &c.

Read this aloud, and see if you do not go about murmuring in delight: ‘Susan and Charlotte and Letty and all ...’ This is one of the many pleasures afforded us by this remarkable anthology, in which the women poets in general may be said to be released to jump and skip and caper and brawl – and to laugh, preach, pray and sing too. I see I have written in the margin of Amherst’s poem in Lonsdale’s book ‘Edith Sitwell-ish’, and it is, but without the mystifications. Like all the best of 18th-century poetry by men or women in all its variety, Amherst’s piece meets us on common ground.