Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford paperbacks) Paperback – 31 Mar 2000
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a delight to read, an almost entirely unfamiliar collection of poems, commenting on a wide range of human feelings and experience with outstanding wit, humour and honesty (Julia Briggs, The Times)
Lonsdale has resurrected more than a hundred witty women and set them glistening and pulsing with life and spirits before us. (Claire Tomalin, Independent)
About the Author
Roger Lonsdale is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and Fellow of Balliol College. His publications include Dr Charles Burney: A Literary Biography (1965), The Poems of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith (1969), and The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (1984).
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If you read this book for no reason other than curiosity, you too will find satisfaction: the poems in this anthology were not chosen merely for the sake of inclusivity; they are brilliant, funny, honest, tragic, witty, philosophical, gentle, and sharp. You will find scissor-like pairs of couplets and blank verse as high and stately as Milton's. There is a great deal of poetic originality, and a great deal of the neoclassicism that was almost the currency of the period's poetry--often, however, used in an unexpected way one would never think to find in one of the canonized male poets of the century.
These poems are so far from being the dregs of 18th-century literature that my only serious complaint about the anthology is that it is too short. A number of important poems, for instance Mary Collier's "The Woman's Labour" and Mary Leapor's "Crumble-Hall," have been abridged, very regrettably as they are well worth reading in full.
The mainly biographical introductions to each poet are satisfactorily lengthy (when one considers how little information is readily availble about many of the more obscure writers) and, I feel, make up for the lack of annotation to the poems themselves, an addition which would have made the book much longer and surely far pricier.
I'll leave you with two quotations from poems in the anthology. First, from Elizabeth Hands (a servant and later a blacksmith's wife), part of her 1789 "Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid":
The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d'ye's were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceased to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence opened her fan,
And thus the discourse in an instant began
(All affected reserve and formality scorning):
'I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning
A volume of Poems advertised---'tis said
They're produced by the pen of a poor servant-maid.'
'A servant write verses!' says Madam Du Bloom:
'Pray what is the subject---a Mop, or a Broom?'
'He, he, he,' says Miss Flounce: 'I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout---what else can it be?'...
And secondly, from Sarah Egerton, the unhappily married daughter of a landowner, part of her 1703 poem "To One who said I must not Love":
Bid the fond mother spill her infant's blood,
The hungry epicure not think of food;
Bid the Antarctic touch the Arctic pole:
When these obey, I'll force love from my soul.
As light and heat compose the genial sun,
So love and I essentially are one:
Ere your advice, a thousand ways I tried
To ease the inherent pain, but 'twas denied,
Though I resolved, and grieved, and almost died.
Wearied at last, cursed Hymen's aid I chose,
But find the fettered soul has no repose.
Now I'm a double slave to love and vows:
Distorted Nature shakes at the control,
With strong convulsions rends my struggling soul;
Each vital string cracks with th' unequal strife,
Departing love racks like departing life;
Yet there the sorrow ceases with the breath,
But love each day renews th' torturing scene of death.
How wrong I was!
As Claire Tomalin, reviewer for the "Independent" summed up:
"..Lonsdale has resurrected more than a hundred witty women and set them glistening and pulsing with life and spirits before us.."
The 323 Poems are arranged chronologically, each with a biography of its author, and appear to have been be selected for their political and social comment, and for their "cleverness" rather than for the lovesick sentiments I had anticipated...
In fact , one at least "The Gentleman's Study,in Answer to(Swift's) The Lady's Dressing Room ", is startingly horrible, reminding us that these were earthy, somewhat bawdy times,with a use of imagery so repulsive that I was quite nauseated, as the background notes duly advise us:
"..The Gentleman's study is not recommended to readers of a nervous disposition. Laetitia Pilkington states that her mother , "upon reading the Lady's Dressing Room, instantly threw up her dinner' and the following rejoinder might well have the same effect."
The majority of the writers are leisured class and titled ladies, with much irony of the Jane Austen style in evidence, as the exaqmine the popular male opinions of lady poets, or middle and upper class reaction to servants turning their hand to poesy..housemaids writing poetry? What next?
And there are rebellious poems and humble poems; poems that decry woman's lot in life, and poems that claim contentment, poems on the love of children, and mourning the loss of children, poems about marriage, and widowhood, and poems about the single life...
I suppose it must be said that the style of many of the poems is dated, though there is some blank verse in the collection, and some appear too deliberate, too artfully contrived for our modern approach. And if you would look for romantic poetry of the wistful, lovesick kind, this is NOT the anthology for you!
But if you are a searcher for the soul of woman through the ages, if you would look for the brainpower and wit of women, and if you are a student of feminism, this would be a worthwhile addition to your reference shelf.
As "The Independent on Sunday" summed up:
"....sparkling collection of more than 100 witty women..."
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