I AM not prepared with any philosophic justification for the compilation of this book. Poetry is poetry, whoever writes it. But it is a fact, at least so far as my observation goes, that people do feel curiosity about womens contributions to the arts, and that this curiosity is common to all kinds of persons, from those who exaggerate the differences between the sexes, to those who seem to think that they can eradicate them. I myself felt this curiosity when I conceived this anthology: and it would be stupid not to admit it.
It is not the first collection of the sort that has been made, but so far as I am aware it has only one predecessor which can be taken seriously and that is over a hundred years old. The principal collections which have come to my notice may be briefly recorded in chronological order.
(1) Poems by Eminent Ladies, published in two volumes in 1755 and said to have been edited by Colman and Bonnel Thornton. The preface opens These volumes are perhaps the most solid compliment that can possibly be paid the Fair Sex. They are a standing proof that great abilities are not confined to the men, and that genius often glows with equal warmth, and perhaps with more delicacy, in the breast of a female. The intention was generous, but the standing proof does not stand on these volumes. No research had been done for them, and the eighteen ladies represented in them were mainly bad poetastresses of the time. A reprint, with additions, appeared in 1780.
(2) Specimens of British Poetesses, Selected and Chronologically Arranged by the Rev. Alexander Dyce (1827), was the earliest product of the right happy and copious industry of that learned man. It is the only book in the list with any pretensions to scholarship, and any man who follows in Dyces footsteps must be struck both by the range of his research and the judicious manner in which he chose his extracts from the books he found. His work is not beyond criticism. There were poetesses, earlier than himself, whom he missed, of whom Lady Nairne is an outstanding example. He was rather too eager to get in something by any Female versifier whom he discovered, and distinctly over-generous to his own contemporaries. Moreover he gave feminine authorship the benefit of the doubt when the doubt in its favour was very slender. His evidence for the attribution of Defiled is my namefull sore to Anne Boleyn was remarkably slight. There is not much more for the ascription of the celebrated sporting treatises to Juliana Berners. Neither of these reputed poetesses appears in the present volume, for the simple reason that I do not believe in them. Even on his own ground Dyce might have been surpassed by somebody standing on Dyces shoulders. But had his work been perfect, a hundred years, which have seen the prime of the three greatest of English poetesses, have passed since he published it. I may at this point acknowledge my debt to him, although the poems I have taken from him are very few.
(3) The Female Poets of Great Britain, chronologically arranged with copious selections and critical remarks by Frederic Rowton, 1848. To this volume, large as it is, no such debt will be acknowledged. Mr. Rowton, on his title page, claims the authorship of other works entitled The Debater and Capital Punishment Reviewed; if literary piracy were treated as maritime piracy is, one could understand his interest in the death penalty. He was a thief, a hypocrite, a most oily and prolix driveller: a bad specimen of what a modern polemist has called the louse on the locks of literature. This heat against a man long dead may seem excessive; but after all one could not say so much if he were still alive, and his brazenness has probably never been noticed before. Listen to his Preface. Of our male Poets there are (to say the least of it) histories enough. Johnson, Campbell, Aikin, Anderson, Southey, and others, have done due honour to the genius of the rougher sex; and have left usso far as they have gonenothing to be desired. But where are the memorials of the Female mind? One or two small works (among which Mr. Dyces Specimens of British Poetesses is the only one of merit and research) have been devoted to the subject, it is true; but even the worthiest of these productions is at best but incomplete. It cannot surely be pretended that this neglect of our Female Poets is attributable to any lack of genius in the sex. In these enlightened days it may certainly be taken for granted that women have souls we should be deeply ashamed of ourselves for so long withholding from them that prominent place in the worlds esteem which is so undoubtedly their due. What a Chadband! We have here the very accents of that speech about the beasts of the field and the human boy.Are you a bird of the air? No! That prominent place in the worlds esteem! One might imagine he was talking about some obscure and unnoticed tribe of the brute creation: badgers perhaps, or Dartford warblers. He was for the first time calling the attention of the human race to the existence of women, which could only be demonstrated, apparently, by putting their works into anthologies. But the most notable thing is that like all his kind he was not only a humbug but a sly robber. That patronizing parenthesis about Dyce, without a word of acknowledgment, is the one reference in his preface to a man on whose labours he battened. Half his bookit might be very well if he admitted it, for Dyce was competentcame bodily out of Dyce. That was the only part of it worth printing. Dyce did all his research for him; the rest of his huge book was filled with the maundering prettinesses of early nineteenth-century writers. His notes on the old poetesses are Dyces rewritten, often not even that; that he was conscious of his dishonest intent is proved by the way in which here and there, without any sensible reason, he changes with obtuse cunning the order of the transcribed extracts. He had not even the sense to see that at one place he copied from Dyce a highly ridiculous misprint!
If his earlier notes are certainly pilfered, his later are as certainly his own. Pages of gush are devoted to the numerous geniuses of his time. Of Mrs. Margaret Hodson he says that Her narratives flow on as gracefully and smoothly as Scotts: she closely resembles that great writer, indeed, in many respects, although as regards dramatic skill she is certainly superior One cannot but feel surprised that a lady of our peaceful age should be so thoroughly imbued with the martial spirit of our warlike ancestors. The fact proves not merely the strength of the human imagination, but also that the imagination is not sexual. Of Mary Howitt he says that As a versifier, as a moralist, and as a philosopher, she may safely challenge comparison with any writer of her own sex and with most of the writers of the other sex Mrs. Howitt is indeed a writer of whom England may be, and will be, eternally proud. There is in Miss Cook, he says, that fine eloquence which grows as it advances. But I may be deemed to have celebrated sufficiently the character of this man and I come to the next.
(4) Womens Voices by Mrs. William Sharp, 1887. This is an equally bad compilation in its way, happily a different way. Mrs. Sharp says There has not, so far as I am aware, been any anthology formed with the definite aim to represent each of our women-poets by one or more essentially characteristic poems. She may have been unacquainted with Dyce: at all events she left out half his most interesting things. Her book, terribly dedicated To all Women, looks like a feminist manifesto: it is even more than Mortons crowded with the ephemeral productions of contemporaries. They were only, many of them, of the eighties; but they have faded now.
Possibly there are ephemerides in this volume also. But I have done my best to keep them out. My criteria may be briefly explained. From the moderns I have taken only poems which appear to me meritorious; but in the earlier portion of the work there will be found some poems put in merely as curiosities or because they are the best representatives of their time that can be found. I have left out a great many of Dyces poetesses. I could not bring myself to print Diana Primrose, in spite of her lovely name, or the monstrously ingenious Mary Fage, of the seventeenth century though she was. But I may say quite frankly that if I had come across, say, a poem of Chaucers day indisputably by a woman it would have gone in even though it were the weakest doggerel. But I know nothing as early as that. Professor Gollancz, I believe, thinks Pearl was by a woman; perhaps it was, but we dont know. I have omitted, as I said, verse imputed to Juliana Berners and Anne Boleyn. By the same token I have left out Hardy-Knute, which may or may not have been by Lady Wardlaw. I do not think it a great loss, for it is long and does not live up to its opening. There s nae luck would have gone in had I really felt sure that Jean Adams was a likelier author than Mickle. I should have been glad to have included the beautiful lines attributed to James Is noble and unfortunate daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, if I had seen satisfactory evidence for the attribution. Mrs. Tighes long Psyche, a poem of respectable accomplishment, I searched for quotable extracts, finding none; her poem about a lily I rejected after hesitation. I found myself reluctantly disinclined to include anything by Margaret Fuller or George Eliot. Beyond these and a few moderns I do not believe that I had much hesitation.
There will be found here some authors and some poems which have appeared in no previous anthology of any kind, so far as I know; one or two authors never known, and many who have been forgotten since Dyce dug them up. In all but a very few instances I have procured and searched the original volumes even where I have ultimately selected poems which previous anthologists have chosen before me. They do not always, be it understood, choose the worst and leave the best for other people. But good work is not the only thing to which interest attaches, and while looking for poetesses I have come across many odd things. I may be permitted, while the night is yet young, so to speak, to make a few stray remarks about some of them.
There never was a time, whatever Mr. Morton may have supposed, when the Female Sex entirely escaped notice, or even esteem. But there was a time when it took no active share in literature. To-day we scarcely bother about the distinction between men and women writers. With thousands of women writing, with womens verses in every magazine and women reporters in every newspaper office, when literary women congregate in clubs, and robust women novelists haggle with editors and discuss royalties with their male rivals, we take composition for granted as a feminine occupation. Even though we may not expect it we should be only mildly surprised if a female Plato or Shakespeare were to appear, and a second of the sort would cause no surprise at all. But it has all occurred very rapidly; it is less than a hundred years since Southey wrote to Charlotte Brontë Literature cannot be the business of a womans life, and it ought not to be. Before the days of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen the woman writer was a lonely figure, however different may have been the ways in which various generations regarded her. One looks back through the centuries and sees these poetesses scattered about in ones and twos, fine ladies, quiet countrywomen with taste and education, blue stockings, pet prodigies brought up in literary circles, stupid women vain of their accomplishments, timid women apologizing for their temerity; almost all of them inevitably and pathetically self-conscious about the opinion of the watching males around them. Nevertheless the degree of that self-consciousness seems to have varied. There was very little poetrythough we do not know about many beautiful anonymous Elizabethan poemsby women in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. One of them speaks to us direct on the subject: Mary Oxlie or Morpet, who wrote a dedicatory poem to her fellow-countryman Drummond of Hawthornden:
Perfection in a womans work is rare;
From an untroubled mind should verses flow;
My discontents make mine too muddy show;
And hoarse encumbrances of household care,
Where these remain the Muses neer repair.
But it did not, I think, occur to many early poetesses to apologize for writing or appeal for masculine mercy. Those who did write, of course, were mainly aristocrats, and whatever the standards of the rest of the population there has always been a good deal of democracy within the aristocracy, and an element of high culture amongst aristocratic women. Even in the eighteenth century, one of Horace Walpoles lady friends might not have apologized for writing verses as humbler contemporaries of his felt impelled to do. But after the Commonwealth we do commonly find apologies or protestations in text or preface.
The authorized folio of Katherine Philips (Orinda) is very enlightening. I have some doubts as to the literary modesty of Orinda: one sees behind her poems a bouncing gushing creature of the kind not usually content to hide their lights under bushels. But she protests enough. The standard edition was published posthumously; there had been in her lifetime a pirated book full of errors which she vehemently repudiated:
The injury done me by that Publisher and Printer, she wrote, exceeds all the troubles that I remember I ever had it is impossible for malice itself to have printed those Rimes (you tell me gotten abroad so impudently) with so much abuse to the things, as the very publication of them at all, though they had been never so correct, had been to me. She was that unfortunate person that cannot so much as think in private, that must have my imaginations rifled and exposed to play the Mountebanks, and dance upon the Ropes to entertain all the rabble; to undergo all the raillery of the Wits, and all the severity of the Wise, and to be the sport of some that can, and some that cannot read a Verse it hath cost me a sharp fit of sickness since I heard it a thousand pounds to have bought my permission for their being printed should not have obtained it.
Sometimes, she says, I think that employment so far above my reach and unfit for my sex, that I am going to resolve against it for ever, but the truth is, I have an incorrigible inclination to that folly of riming, and, intending the effects of that humour, only for my own amusement in my own life. Her editor, however, was proud to publish them: Some of them would be no disgrace to the name of any Man that amongst us is most esteemed for his excellency in this kind, and there are none that may not pass with favour, when it is remembered that they fell hastily from the pen but of a Woman. We might well have called her the English Sappho. She would, he says, have been persuaded to publish a correct impression of herself:
But the small Pox, that malicious disease (as knowing how little she would have been concernd for her handsomeness, when at the best) was not satisfied to be as injurious a Printer of her face, as the other had been of her poems, but treated her with a more fatal cruelty than the Stationer had them; for though he to her most sensible affliction surreptitiously possessed himself of a false Copy, and sent those children of her Fancy into the World, so martyred, that they were more unlike themselves than she could have been made had she escaped; that murtherous Tyrant, with greater barbarity seizd unexpectedly upon her, the fine Original, and to the much juster affliction of all the world, violently tore her out of it, and hurried her untimely to her grave, upon the 22 of June 1664, she being then but 31  years of age. But he could not bury her in oblivion, for this monument which she erected for herself, will for ever make her to be honoured as the honour of her Sex, the emulation of ours, and the admiration of both.
Comment on the beauties of this last paragraph is beyond me. The commendatory poems prefaced to Orindas works echo these lofty strains. Lord Orrery wrote:
And as Our Sex resigns to Yours the due,
So all of your bright Sex must yield to You.
Lord Roscommon pictured himself surrounded by lions on some Lybian plain:
The Magick of Orindas name,
Not only can their fierceness tame,
But, if that mighty word I once rehearse,
They seem submissively to roar in Verse.
A pseudonymous lady, more vehement than her subject, argued that environment (she didnt know the word) made all the difference between the sexes:
Trained up to Arms, we Amazons have been,
And Spartan Virgins strong as Spartan Men:
Breed Women but as Men, and they are these;
Whilst Sybarit Men are Women by their eyes.
. . . . . . . .
Nature to Females freely doth impart
That, which the Males usurp, a stout, bold heart;
Thus Hunters female Beasts fear to assail
And female Hawks more mettald than the male.
This feminine anticipation of Mr. Kipling is followed by the assertion that since souls were equal it was obviously not the he or she that wrote poetry.
It is a fine collection of tributes. A poem, with noble passages, by the neglected Flatman comes into it, and there are two interesting Odes by Cowley. One begins:
We allowd you beauty, and we did submit
To all the tyrannies of it.
Ah cruel Sex! will you depose us too in Wit?
The other, full of the oddest tropes, states that:
The World did never but two Women know
Who, one by fraud, the other by wit did rise
To the two tops of Spiritual dignities;
One Female Pope of old, one Female Poet now.
The panegyric was impressive; but it was all somewhat patronizing, addressed as though to a flying pig. There is an air of strain about Orindas nearest contemporary rival. The gifted Anne Killigrew, who, dying young, was the subject of a great ode by Dryden, had to write a long poem protesting against the saying that her verses were made by another:
Like Aesops painted jay, I seemd to all,
Adornd in plumes, I not my own could call.
She produced Orinda as evidence that women could be good poets, and she said quaintly of Alexander the Great:
There is nothing diffident about the attitude of Aphra Behn, the tough, audacious, fearless young widow who forced her way to dramatic success under the Restoration, and who was the first of our professional women writers. She has been rather unfairly treated by historians. It is true that her plays are as gross, in subject and speech, as any of her time: possibly her coarseness was the defect of the quality which enabled her to fight her lone hand in the Grub Street of the day. But there is a hearty straightforwardness about her which is lacking in some of the men of the Restoration, she had a gift for broad, strong characterization, she was honest, rough, kind, affectionate, not at all cynical, and she wrote English of an Elizabethan lustiness. She did not apologize, she counter-attacked. She was not allowed to forget her sex but she soundly thumped those who reminded her that her plays and poems were writ by a woman. Here is a passage from the Epistle to the Reader which introduces The Dutch Lover:
Indeed that day twas acted first, there comes me into the Pit, a long lither, phlegmatick, white, ill-favourd wretched Fop, an officer in Masquerade newly transported with a Scarf and Feather out of France, a sorry Animal that has nought else to shield it from the uttermost contempt of all Mankind, but that respect which we afford to Rats and Toads, which though we do not well allow to live, yet when considered as parts of Gods Creation, we make honourable mention of them. A thing, Readerbut no more of such a Smelt: This thing, I tell ye, opening that which serves it for a mouth, out issued such a noise as this to those that sate about it, that they were to expect a usefull Play, God damn him, for it was a womans I would not for a world be taken arguing with such a propertie as this; but if I thought there were a man of such tolerable parts, who could upon mature deliberation distinguish well his right hand from his left, and justly state the difference between the number of sixteen and two, yet had this prejudice upon him; I would take a little pains to make him know how much he errs. For waving the examination why women having equal education with men, were not as capable of knowledge, of whatsoever sort as well as they: Ill only say as I have to such and before, that Plays have no great room for that which is mens great advantage over women, that is Learning; we all know that the immortal Shakespeares Plays (who was not guilty of much more of this than often falls to womens share) have better pleasd the World than Johnsons works, though by the way tis said the Benjamin was no such Rabbi neither, for I am informd that his Learning was but Grammar high (sufficient indeed to rob poor Salust of his best orations); and it hath been observd that they are apt to admire him most confoundedly, who have just such a scantling of it as he had Then for their musty rules of Unity, and God knows what besides, if they meant anything, they are enough intelligible and as practicable by a woman.
This was in 1673. Forty years afterwards we get a sidelight from the preface to Mary Monks poems, written after her death by her father Lord Molesworth. The preface takes the form of a dedication (fifty pages) to Carolina, Princess of Wales, who is greeted with this ambiguous salutation: The true value, you have for Liberty, is so remarkable, that one woud wonder where your Royal Highness (who has been bred up in a part of Europe, but slenderly furnishd with just notions of that great Blessing) coud have acquired it. Lord Molesworth repeats with approval charges recently made against womenthis was two hundred years ago and on the verge of the eighteenth century!
That the Natural Sweetness and Modesty which so well became their Sex, and so much recommended them to the Love and Esteem of the Men is (by many) exchanged for a Careless Indecent, Masculine Air [imitating] the Rakeish, Milder sort of Gentlemen in the Excess in Love of Gaming, Snuff-Taking, Habit, and a Modish Neglect of their Husbands, Children and Families.
As for his daughters verses, of the tone of which he is proud, he says affectingly:
We found most of them in her Scrittore after her death, written with her own Hand, little expecting, and as little desiring, the Publick shoud have any Opportunity of either Applauding or Condemning them.
It might be possible to find some women writers of the age to whom Lord Molesworths strictures might be held, in part, to apply: Mrs. Centlivre, De la Rivière Manly, and Lady Mary Montagu. But it gives us a shock to hear them applied to the generality of early Georgian women, and they certainly would not apply to the poetesses (with whom we are specially concerned) of the rest of the century. Most of them were extremely severe and models of propriety, proud to display what learning they really had, but studious to exhibit a decorous modesty about publication.
The first edition (1696) of the poems of Philomela (Mrs. Elizabeth Singer Rowe) was published pseudonymously: her Name had been prefixed, had not her own Modesty absolutely forbidden it. The preface was written (from Hardings Rents) by Elizabeth Johnson, who stoutly defended her sex:
We are not unwilling to allow Mankind the Brutal Advantages of Strength, they are Superior to ours in Force, they have Custom on their Side, and have Ruled, and are like to do so; and may freely do it without Disturbance or Envy; at least they should have none from us, if they could keep quiet among themselves. But when they would Monopolize Sense too, when neither that, nor Learning, nor so much as Wit must be allowd us, but all over-ruled by the Tyranny of the Prouder Sex; nay when some of them will not let us say our Souls are our own, but would persuade us we are no more Reasonable Creatures than themselves, or their Fellow-Animals; we then must ask their Pardons if we are not yet so Compleatly Passive as to bear all without so much as a Murmur: We complain, and we think with Reason, that our Fundamental Constitutions are Destroyed; that here is a plain and open Design to render us mere Slaves, perfect Turkish Wives, without Properties or Sense or Souls; and are forced to Protest against it, and Appeal to all the World, whether these are not notorious Violations on the Liberties of Freeborn Englishwomen? This makes the meekest Worm amongst us all, ready to turn again when we are thus trampled on; But alas! What can we do to Right ourselves? Stingless and Harmless as we are, we can only Kiss the Foot that hurts us. However, sometimes it pleases Heaven to raise up some Brighter Genius than ordinary to Succour a Distressed People; an Epaminondas in Thebes; a Timoleon for Corinth; (for you must know we read Plutarch, now he is translated) and a Nassau for all the World: Nor is our Defenceless Sex forgotten! we have not only Bonducas and Zenobias; but Saphos and Daciers; Schurmans, Orindas and Behns, who have humbled the most haughty of our Antagonists, and made them do Homage to our Wit as well as to our Beauty.
Forty years passed before her poems were reprinted by Curll with a note from the author desiring him to own, that its his Partiality to my Writings, not my Vanity, which has occasioned the Re-publishing of them. Curll himself wrote the preface, telling the story of Mrs. Rowes life and marriage in the strain of Long had this Lady been the Wish and Hope of many desiring Swains. He addressed himself to Pope; said that Prior had praised Philomela; and quoted Dr. Watts as saying that the Honour of Poetry is retrieved by such Writers, from the Scandal which has been cast upon it, by the Abuse of Verse to loose and profane Purposes. Philomelas diffident reserve was the common thing. Mary Jones, one of the best known, a friend of Dr. Johnson and author of verses respectably polished and pointed, prefaced her fat volume with the apologetic statement that her poems were the product of pure nature only, and most of them wrote at a very early age. She had for long shrunk from publication out of respect for them [her friends], the world and myself and only resorted to it at last (under the patronage of the Dutch Stadtholder) in order to raise money for an aged and indigent relative. She must have raised a good deal: her subscription list (Christopher Smart and Horace Walpole appear in it) is a huge one. Her opening lines are unpromising:
How much of papers spoild, what floods of ink!
And yet how few, how very few can think.
But the rest of the poem (printed in this volume) is amusing and explains her pretty well. Her reluctance to set out a dedication
With lies enough to make a lord ashamd!
was not shared by her contemporary Mary Masters, whose verses (alleged to have been corrected by Dr. Johnson) were dedicated to the Earl of Burlington. She prostrates herself in the most approved Grub Street mode. He is exalted; she lowly and untuneful:
Yet when a British Peer, has deignd to shed
His genrous favours on my worthless Head;
Silent shall I receive the welcome Boon?
He spoke; he praisd, I hearkend with delight
And found a strong Propensity to write.
The humility of the women authors and the implied condescension of the men were at their acutest during the eighteenth century. Poetesses, however, were far more numerous than before. There were (though Scotswomen wrote some immortal songs) no very notable ones; and the spread of authorship did not greatly affect women of the upper classes. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was an exception: but her salutation to the Alps will certainly not be reprinted by me. The cultivated relatives of dons and clergymen, widows driven to a subscription for a living, elderly spinsters, aspiring housekeepers and governesses composed and published volumes of respectable couplets. Now and then a considerable financial success was made. Mrs. Barber, the pushing widow of a Dublin tradesman, published in 1733 a handsome, even luxurious quarto, which is still very common. The most noticeable thing in the book is the prefatory poem by Constantia Grierson: To Mrs. Mary Barber, under the name of Sapphira, occasioned by the encouragement she met with in England to publish her poems by subscription.
Provincial ladies began to have volumes locally printed, and talent by poverty depressed was studiously unearthed. Mary Leapor, who had a strain of genius, was a domestic servant. Stephen Duck, the inspired Thresher, had his analogue, though not his equal, in Mrs. Yearsley, the Bristol Charwoman. This woman ought to be remembered for the most astounding apostrophe on record. She addressed a poem to the Bristol Channel in which she broke forth with
Hail! useful Channel
The phrase, unique as it is, was significant of the age. It might be used as a text for that prevailing (though, of course, not universal) complacency of the middle Georgians, who often seemed to regard the Universe as a laudably well-meaning branch of the lower orders, and were quite capable of Hail, gamesome Thunder and Hail, pleasing Lightning. For prosiness and bathos Mrs. Yearsley was surpassed by another lady whose work will not be found on succeeding pages. This was Miss Jane Cave, whose Poems on Various Subjects, Entertaining, Elegiac and Religious were printed at Winchester in 1783, with a remarkable frontispiece showing the author quill in hand and wearing a sort of beribboned tea-cosy on top of a towering coiffure. Her volume is dedicated to the Subscribers: Ye genrous patrons of a female muse. And with some reason. There were nearly two thousand of them, grouped by localities, Oxford, Southampton, Bath, &c. She, or the family which employed her in some unnamed capacity, must have systematically scoured the South of England for victims. Her character was evidently forcible, if unattractive; but her powers did not justify her evident self-complacency. She was especially fond of writing obituary poems on deceased clergymen. Here are characteristic extracts from two of these:
Hark! how the Heavnly Choir began to sing,
A song of praise, when Watkins entered in.
Let evry heart lift up a fervent prayr,
That old Elijahs mantle may be there,
That God from age to age may carry on
The amazing work which Harris hath begun.
In her dedication she disclaims any pretension to be a Seward, Steele, or Moore. The list is a sign of the times. Well-known poetesses now existed in large numbers, and as the century drew to a close both their fame and the claims to eminence of the best of them steadily increased. There was Helen Maria Williams, whose Ode on the Peace, competently written but now unreadable, was highly praised by Dr. Johnson, and one of whose sonnets was committed to heart by Wordsworth. There was Elizabeth Carter, translator of Epictetus, and a bluestocking whose learning really commanded respect. There was Charlotte Smith, the sonneteer, in whose writing we can still find the vigour and grace that made her celebrated in her own day. Anna Seward was equally well known. She did not deserve it. Occasionally there is a faint trace of reality in her work, as in the Sonnet on a December morning, 1782:
I love to rise ere gleams the tardy light,
Winters pale dawn;and as warm fires illume
And cheerful tapers shine around the room,
Thro misty windows bend my musing sight,
Where, round the dusky lawn, the mansion white
With shutters closd, peers faintly thro the gloom,
That slow recedes;
But most of it is very bad; and I have not considered it necessary to drag her into this book merely because she was once taken seriously. Mrs. Opie, wife of the painter and author of The Blind Boy, was another celebrity. Her Lines Respectfully Inscribed to the Society for the Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts are so characteristic of the time that I wish I had space for them.
There were others even better known. Something of the old strangeness still clung to the woman who wrote. Anna Seward was the Swan of Lichfield and Susanna Blamire the Muse of Cumberland. But the age that produced poets and dramatists of the status and popularity of Mrs. Barbauld, Hannah More and Joanna Bailliethe last a poetess of really considerable talentswas becoming reconciled. For a time the Mrs. Radcliffes might prefer to sign their works whilst the Jane Austens remained anonymous; but with the end of the epoch the old air of peculiarity faded, and with the century of the Romantic Revival came an innumerable host of women writers of some distinction, and three poetesses with claims to rank with all but the greatest men. After Mrs. Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Brontë we hear no more, and could hear no more, of a Female Muse.
That these three were greater poets than any Englishwomen before them goes, I imagine, without saying. Almost all their best predecessors were women who live by one or two poems. Amongst those poems scarcely one is a genuine classic beyond the extraordinary group of great songs written in the eighteenth century by Scotswomen, who seemed to have led more independent lives than the Englishwomen of their time, and certainly sang more boldly, confidently, and musically: the Werena my Hearts Licht of Lady Grisel Baillie, Mrs. Cockburns The Flowers of the Forest and Jane Elliots, the stirring lilts of Isobel Pagan the Ayrshire publican, Lady Anne Barnards Auld Robin Gray, and The Land of the Leal of Lady Nairne.
Until the age of Joanna Baillie, the Matchless Orinda had the greatest repute of them all, but there is more substantial achievement in the work of Lady Winchilsea. The Countess had no fame in her lifetime, she did not (as Orinda did) correspond with the literary men or exchange tributes with the poets of her time. But it was not for nothing that Wordsworth discovered and valued her. She kept her eye on Nature at a time when the world in general had a conventional parti pris about nature, and an impressive power comes with her speech. This slight difference in her is not peculiar to her.
It may be left to others to discuss the particular aggregate value and characteristics of our women poets, to debate the question as to whether the masculine imagination of Emily Brontë was a freak, to look for especially feminine characteristics in the contents of this anthology. They are difficult and subtle questions. But I will call attention to one point, and one only: and that is rather to the credit of the poetesses. That they have, and must have, conformed to succeeding fashions in writing is obviousthe poetic style of an age is a fruit of its general civilization and way of thinking. But there is, I think, evidence that when the convention favours highly regularized speech and restricted choice of image, and when the convention favours a repression of personality, women seem to be less prone than men to complete conformity. Women from 1680 to 1750 may have written obediently in couplets or quatrains, but in those of them who have any merit, personal experience and personal passion are always peeping through, and the smooth surface of the stock diction is always being broken by an unexpected word, betraying obstinately individual taste and observation. Lady Winchilseas cropping horse in the night has often been quoted. But we are equally surprised to encounter the hot passion, the straightforward confessions of suffering, the open autobiography that are exposed in the poems, however technically imperfect, of Ephelia and Lady Wharton. Mary Mollineuxs verses1 (5th edition 1761) were read, no doubt by her fellow Quakers, for generations after her death, but have never, so far as I know, been noticed by any critic.
Mary Mollineux the Quaker died (under fifty) in 1695. She had suffered in prison, and her religious poemsMeditation and Contemplation, though not those on Nadab and Abihu, might almost have been added to the extracts in this bookare the work of a woman who, although very learned, was primarily concerned with the feelings she was registering. Totally indifferent to the manner of the time, she was strongly under the influence of Donne. Mary Leapor and Mary Masters again illustrate the refusal of even the lesser women to remain on the highest levels of masculine stiffness. The detectives who are always chasing, farther and farther back, into the Augustan Age for heralds of Naturalism, scraps of really fresh and enthusiastic description of Nature, could find things in both these poetesses. Mary Leapor (a domestic servant who died of measles at 24 after teaching herself to write some very polished verse) looked at Nature directly and keenly. A mere list of things she mentions (d. 1746) astonishes the reader accustomed, in the minor poets, to nothing more than groves, enamelled meads, bursting grapes, roses and lilies. If you turn Mary Leapors pages you will find kingcups, goldfinches, linnets, thyme, shining cottage tables, primroses, damsons, poppies And how, in this passage of Mary Masters, a knowledge of and love for the country struggles with the hoops and corsets of the mode:
Here the green Wheat disposed in even Rows
(A pleasing view) on genial Ridges grows,
Its clustered heads on lofty Spires ascend,
And frequent with delightful wavings bend,
There younger Barley shoots a tender Blade,
And spreads a level plain with verdant Shade.
The wreathing Pea extends its bloomy Pride,
And flowry Borders smile on either side.
She says, in terms, that whenever she looks at the country it produces an excitement in her which makes her write verse: unfortunately her intelligence was too weak, and only a few lines (not about Nature) were found pointed enough for a representative selection. But she had that touch of informality, and I think that even in the obscurest and worst women poets of the time will almost always be foundwhat in the mens work is only sometimes to be foundexpressions of personal joy and grief, the healthy instinct to write about the things that the writer most intensely feels.
As for the text, there are a few poems which I have cut. Two of Lady Chudleighs are cut and one of Katherine Philipss, two by Mary Masters and the second of Mary Mollineuxs. The first poem from Lady Mary Montagu is compressed, and Fanny Grevilles Indifference and Mrs. Hemanss Dirge are truncated as they are in Sir A. Quiller-Couchs Oxford Book of English Verse. I have modernized the spelling and typography of most of the older poems, but have here and there kept it because I didnt like the look of some poems when I had modernized them.
There are, finally, a few problems to be cleared up on which I should be glad of light. The identity of Fanny Greville, whose Indifference is one of the most poignant lyrics of the eighteenth century, has always baffled historians. Who was Mrs. Taylor who appeared in Drydens Miscellany and also in Mrs. Behns Miscellany of 1683? Who was Ephelia, first given her due in a charming essay by Mr. Gosse? There were two editions of her poems. The first of 1679 is complete, the edition of 1682 being padded out with poems, mostly good, by Rochester and others, including even Come Lasses and Lads. A question of even more interest to me personally is, who was Ann Collins? and one of more interest still, where are Ann Collinss poems? Her Song I found in Dyce (I recommend the reader to refer to it, remembering its date) and the other poem I got out of a forgotten but good anthology of religious verse compiled by James Montgomery. Dyce refers to her Divine Songs and Meditations (1653). Lowndess Bibliographers Manual states that the copy of the first edition sold at the Sykes and Heber Sales a century ago was said to be unique; but he records also an edition of 1658. I can find no further information, and neither edition is in the British Museum. I should be glad of light on this and also on the other compositions of Mary Oxlie, the friend of Drummond of Hawthornden.
For permission to reprint copyright works I owe thanks to Mrs. de Bary, Miss Eva Gore Booth, Mrs. Cornford, Mrs. Tynan Hinkson, Mrs. Violet Jacob, Miss Macaulay, and Mrs. Meynell: to Messrs. Wm. Blackwood & Sons (Moira ONeill, Songs of the Glens of Antrim); Mr. R. Cobden-Sanderson (Sylvia Lynd); Mr. John Lane (Mrs. Woods); the Hon. Frederick Lawless and Sir Issac Pitman & Sons (Emily Lawless); Messrs. Macmillan & Co. (three copyright poems by Christina Rossetti); Sir Henry Newbolt and Mr. Elkin Mathews (Mary Coleridge); Mr. John Murray and Mr. A. C. Benson (two copyright poems by Charlotte Brontë); Mr. Clement Shorter (Dora Sigerson Shorter, and one copyright poem by Emily Brontë); Messrs. Sidgwick & Jackson (Miss Macaulay); Mr. T. Fisher Unwin (Amy Levy, A London Plane Tree).
With this I may conclude the preface to a work which has occupied much of my spare time for seven years. I may echo the words of Dyce in his preface of 1827: The inglorious toils of compilation seldom excite the gratitude of readers, who only require to be amused, and are indifferent as to what passed behind the scenes in the preparation of their entertainment: but we feel an honest satisfaction in the reflection, that our tedious chase through the Jungles of forgotten literature must procure to this undertaking the good-will of our countrywomen.
Note 1. They were published by her husband, with prefatory notices by him, by her cousin Frances Owen, and by one Tryal Ryder. She was a saint and a scholar, wrote Horatian Latin lyrics on religious subjects, and suffered imprisonment for her faith in company with her husband. I cannot forbear quoting from his account of her death: The next Morning, about the ninth Hour, I again thought she had been departing; but after a little Time, somewhat recovering her Breath, and seeing me express, to Friends that were present, something of my Concern for her, she said to me Ne nimis sollicitus esto; that is, in English, Be not thou overmuch careful, or troubled; which Advice took Impression in my Heart: And that was the last Latin Sentence that she spake, that I know of, and she never spake in Latin, in this Illness, that I remember except when Company was present, that she would speak only to me: A little after, most of the Company being gone out, I asked her, How she was? She answered, Drawing nearer and nearer. And many sweet and loving Sentences she spake to me that Day, and the Day next after; but afterwards was scarcely able to answer to any Question, but continued mostly sleeping as it were, sweetly and quietly: And on the third Day of the Eleventh Month, 1695, in the Evening, she departed without the least Sigh or Groan. [back]