For the Good of the Sex

Susan Eilenberg

Once regarded as among the most distinguished poets in England, admired by Johnson, envied by Goldsmith, praised by Wordsworth, and read by everyone, Anna Letitia Barbauld has this last century or two thoroughly sunk into oblivion. Until recently, all that was remembered about her was an anecdote in Coleridge’s Table Talk, in which she figured, ingloriously, as the stooge whose miscomprehension of The Ancient Mariner provoked his comparison between that poem and the tale in the Arabian Nights of the genie, the merchant and the date shells. Even this anecdote was more likely to inspire debate about whether dates have shells than about the identity of Mrs Barbauld.

Mrs Barbauld was born Anna Letitia Aikin in 1743. She was educated at home, mostly by her mother and mostly in seclusion from the schoolboys her father taught. She learned Latin and some Greek despite her father’s reluctance to teach her, but never overcame an uneasiness about the unwomanly impropriety of erudition. The example of her father’s colleague Joseph Priestley first encouraged her to write verse, but she published no poetry until she was aided (indeed, virtually compelled) by her brother, who sponsored her first prose publications as well. When a volume appeared bearing both their names but containing not a hint about who had written what, she was delighted to find that readers confused her brother’s productions with hers. Thus began what was to become a life of publication. Unchecked by her marriage at 30 to Rochemont Barbauld, a schoolmaster and former student of her father’s, her writings streamed forth: poems, casual essays, hymns, lessons and stories for children, dialogues, literary criticism, political commentary and editions of Richardson’s letters, of the great 18th-century essayists and of fifty volumes’ worth of novelists.

It is hard at first to see what could have made her work vulnerable to disfavour. The handful of her poems recently printed in Roger Lonsdale’s 18th-Century Women Poets were very favourably received. In ‘Washing-Day’ the ‘domestic Muse’ abandons ‘Language of gods’ for gossip.

In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face.

My own favourite is ‘A Schoolboy Eclogue’, in which neo-Theocritean schoolboys boast and haggle, taunt and threaten, tease and ask ludicrous riddles of one another, never quite getting around to the rhyming contest for which they have staked a toy ship and half a cake not yet received from home:

Well does the gift thy liquorish palate suit,
I know who robb’d the orchard of its fruit ...
And, where the hoard you kept, I know full well;
The mellow gooseberries did themselves produce,
For thro’ thy pocket oozed the viscous juice.

I scorn a tell-tale, or I cou’d declare
How, leave unask’d, you sought the neighbouring fair;
Then home by moon-light spurred your jaded steed,
And scarce returned before the hour of bed.
Think how thy trembling heart had felt affright,
Had not our master supped abroad that night.

On the smooth, white-washed ceiling near thy bed,
Mixed with thine own, is Anna’s cypher read;
From wreaths of dusky smoke the letters flow;
Whose hand the waving candle held, I know.
Fines and jobations shall thy soul appall,
Whene’er our mistress spies the sully’d wall.

Almost as engaging is ‘The Caterpillar’, a creature the poet finds she cannot kill, for she has

Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,
Precipitous descent! with stretched out neck,
Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
To ask protection.

There are fine, vivid passages on nearly every page. In ‘Ode to Spring’, on the spring:

Sweet is thy reign, but short; The red dog-star
Shall scorch thy tresses, and the mower’s scythe
Thy greens, thy flow’ rets all,
Remorseless shall destroy

In ‘Hymn I’, on the sun, that

Shall in his silent, dark pavilion rest,
His Golden urn shall broke, and useless lie,
Amidst the common ruins of the sky ...

In ‘The Epiphany’, she describes the spiritual disquiet of the Magi passing over ‘billowy waves of loose, unfaithful sand’.

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