Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Walter Whyte
Joanna Baillie (1762–1851)
JOANNA BAILLIE—“the immortal Joanna,” Scott called her—was born in the manse of Bothwell, in Lanarkshire, on September 11th, 1762, and was sprung from an old Scottish family. She was educated in Glasgow, and in her girlhood revealed a remarkable literary faculty. Her father died in 1778, and in 1784 her mother took her to London. Her “Fugitive Verses” appeared in 1790, and in 1798 the first series of her “Plays on the Passions” was published anonymously. Samuel Rogers wrote a review of the latter book, in which he spoke of it as undoubtedly the work of a man; and for a time the authorship was ascribed to Sir Walter Scott. “When the true writer’s name was revealed, Sir Walter formed an acquaintance with Miss Baillie, an acquaintance which grew into a lasting friendship. John Kemble thought so highly of one of the plays, namely, “De Montfort,” that he produced it at Drury Lane. The cast included himself and his sister, Mrs. Siddons; nevertheless, the piece proved a failure. On the death of her mother in 1806, Miss Baillie took a house at Hampstead, where she thenceforth lived until the day of her death. In 1804 she published “Miscellaneous Plays,” one of which, “Constantine Palaeologus,” had a fairly good run at various theatres. Miss Baillie was present at the successful production of this piece in Edinburgh in 1820. In 1810, her drama, “The Family Legend,” met with a favourable reception in Edinburgh. A third series of “Plays on the Passions,” was brought out in 1812, and her “Metrical Legends,” a collection of poems dealing with Scottish scenes and characters, appeared in 1821. “The Drama of the Martyr,” appeared in 1826, and was followed by “Witchcraft,” a tragedy in prose, a play suggested by a scene in “The Bride of Lammermoor.” Three volumes of “Miscellaneous Plays” were published in 1836. Miss Baillie continued to write until she was nearly eighty. She died on February 23rd, 1851, at the age of eighty-eight.  1
  Joanna Baillie was as simple and unaffected as she was gifted. Her work—at least her dramatic work—was no doubt overrated in her own day. Scott in particular spoke with characteristic, generous exaggeration of her plays. “The ‘Plays on the Passions,’” he said, “have put me entirely out of conceit with my Germanised brat, The Fall of the House of Aspen, and should I ever again attempt dramatic composition, I would endeavour after the genuine old English model.” He used even stronger terms of eulogy in speaking of her tragedy “Fear.” The language of the play, he declared, was distinguished by a rich variety of fancy which was matched by Shakespeare alone. Again he asserted that she beat “male authors out of the pit in describing the higher passions that are more proper to their sex than hers.” These, of course, are words born of unconscious prejudice; still, the plays with all their defects in no way merit the neglect which has befallen them. They have been described as the best ever written by a woman—and this praise (which is far from inordinate) they probably deserve. They show considerable invention; the blank verse is not without dignity, and the heroines are gracefully drawn. It is not, however, by her dramas that Joanna Baillie will live. It is by her lyrics. Where is the woman-poet of our days who could write such a rousing, hearty lyric as “The Chough and Crow to roost are gone,” the song of the outlaw from “Orra,” Act III., Scene i.

        “The chough and crow to roost are gone,
  The owl sits on the tree,
The hush’d wind wails with feeble moan,
  Like infant charity.
The wild-fire dances on the fen,
  The red star sheds its ray,
Uprouse ye, then, my merry men!
  It is our op’ning day.
Both child and nurse are fast asleep,
  And clos’d is every flower,
And winking tapers faintly peep
  High from my lady’s bower;
Bewilder’d hinds with shorten’d ken
  Shrink on their murky way,
Uprouse ye, then, my merry men!
  It is our op’ning day.
Nor board nor garner own we now,
  Nor roof nor latched door,
Nor kind mate, bound by holy vow
  To bless a good man’s store;
Noon lulls us in a gloomy den,
  And night is grown our day,
Uprouse ye, then, my merry men!
  And use it as ye may.”

Of heartiness, outside of the Elizabethans, and Burns and Scott, there is unhappily but little in the strains of our lyrists. Yet heartiness is one of the gifts most essential to a song-writer. Joanna Baillie had the gift. Of all English women-poets, she speaks in accents least easily distinguishable from a man’s. The songs “Woo’d and Married an’ a’,” and “Saw ye Johnny comin’” (the best of them all), and “Fy let us a’ to the Wedding,” were, in her own phrase, “Auld Songs new Buskit.” But she made them her own—even as Burns made so many an old ditty his own—by skilful verbal changes, by refining their tone without lessening their spontaneity and pith. Her fame has suffered a sad eclipse since Sir Walter deemed her “the immortal Joanna,” and paid high tribute to her in the introduction to the third canto of “Marmion.” But while her dramas are never to be revived and seldom, very seldom to be read, her vigorous, bracing, hearty lyrical work endures, and will endure.

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