Saturday, January 05, 2013

"Obvious to sight and touch"



Eighteenth-century Women Poets
, edited by Roger Lonsdale, is an eye-opener. Julia Briggs described it in The Times as "a brilliant and original anthology." Both epithets are just. It is original for no one before Lonsdale thought to look at eighteenth-century poetry by women for anything more than historical interest. The anthology is also brilliant because the discriminating taste of its editor ensured a selection of the liveliest and wittiest poetry of the time. The poetry becomes its own argument for its continued relevance and strength. The voices, from a cross-section of classes, are varied and individual, particularly those of Annie Finch (Countess of Winchilsea), Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mary Jones, Mary Leapor, Susanna Blamire, Anna Lestitia Barbauld, Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, Ann Yearsley, Elizabeth Hands. Even lesser talents are represented by one or two of their most distinctive contributions. 

Lonsdale's informative introduction gives the historical context of this poetry. The eighteenth century, it shows, saw the increasing participation of women as writers and readers in the literary marketplace. Although patronized by some male authors and many aristocractic women, if mostly in a condescending manner, women poets had to negotiate with self-doubt and society's disapproval in order to write and publish. Though the doubt and disapproval waned as the century wore on, they never completely disappeared. Just as women poets were about to consolidate their achievements, they were hit at the end of the century by the phenomenon of High Romanticism. Wordsworth learned much from and praised the poetry of women such as Charlotte Smith, but his ultra-lofty conception of the Poet denied the value of the earthy and humorous domestic poems written by the most interesting women poets of the time. Anna Lestitia Barbauld sensed this when she warned Coleridge in 1797:

... A grove extends; in tangled mazes wrought,
And filled with strange enchantments--dubious shapes
Flit through dim glades, and lure the eager foot
Of youthful ardour to eternal chase.
Dreams hang on every leaf: unearthly forms
Glide through the gloom; and mystic visions swim
Before the cheated sense. Athwart the mists,
Far into vacant space, huge shadows stretch
And seem realities; while things of life,
Obvious to sight and touch, all glowing round,
Fade to the hue of shadows. 

It is striking to me how much this poem anticipates, and cautions against, the language of High Romanticism: adjectives such as tangled, strange, dubious, dim, eager, vacant, huge; verbs such as extends, flit, lure, hang, glide, swim, stretch, seem, fade; and substantives such as enchantments, shapes, ardour, forms, gloom, visions, space, shadows, realities, shadows. The success of Romanticism swept all before it, including poetry that deals--shrewdly, resignedly, contentedly--with the "things of life/ Obvious to sight and touch." Londsdale's anthology returns to us these useful voices of the past.

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