The Long Nineteenth Century: Where Have the Women Poets Gone?
Posted by Isobel Armstrong
It started in 1994. Catherine Reilly produced an anthology of Victorian women’s poetry, a loving, scholarly, wide-ranging, sometimes eccentric, but always arresting collection of over sixty poets. She went well beyond the routine inclusion of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was the first editor to anthologize Amy Levy, and the first to grasp the extraordinary gifts of a poet still on the margins to this day, Eliza Keary. She needs to be recognized for her achievement. The anthology, interestingly, was published by a small press, Enitharmon, with a foreword by Germaine Greer: the signal was strong; this book was for a niche market of committed feminists. But the audience for women’s poetry of the long nineteenth century was rapidly widening. Jennifer Breen’s Everyman anthology, including thirty or so women poets, also appeared in 1994 and was followed by her collection of women Romantic poets in 1996. Andrew Ashfield’s stunning Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838 followed in 1995. He included some of the beautiful ‘Oceanides’ series by Maria Jane Jewsbury, and his definition of ‘Romantic’ included the Brontes , somewhat surprisingly but to good effect.
After this it seemed that everyone was anthologizing women’s poetry: Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds produced their commanding Victorian Women Poets. An Anthology, with Blackwell in 1995, bringing such poets as Michael Field into visibility. Joseph Bristow and I, with Cath Sharrock, edited Nineteenth-Century Women Poets for Oxford University Press in 1996. In the same year Margaret Higgonet edited Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838 for Penguin USA. This was followed, in 1997, by Duncan Wu’s Romantic Women Poets. An Anthology, making amends for a previous collection that had not included women, and by Paula Feldman’s marvelous, fully annotated collection, British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. An Anthology. To both we owe the inclusion of the work of Anna Batten Cristall. In 2001 Virginia Blain performed the same outstanding service to Victorian women’s poetry as Feldman did to the Romantics, in her meticulously annotated Victorian Women Poets. A New Annotated Anthology. ‘Mainstream’ academic presses published this work – Blackwell, Oxford University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Longmans. Women’s poetry was highly visible.
These disseminating anthologies built on the less conspicuous scholarship of bibliographers and editors. In 1993 Stuart Curran published his definitive edition of Charlotte Smith’s, poems with Oxford, and in the same year J.R. de J. Jackson brought out his Romantic Poetry by Women. A Bibliography 1770-1835, also with Oxford. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft published their definitive edition of Anna Barbauld in 1994 with the University of Georgia Press. Clearly, through the early nineties, scholarly activity had been preparing for the rush of anthologies for some time. Roger Lonsdale’s anthology of eighteenth-century women’s poetry, published by Oxford University press in 1989, clearly inspired interest in the later period. It is a fine case of scholarly work creating a change in the field.
But what happened? In a little over fifteen years all the anthologies I have mentioned are out of print, or virtually out of print. When I last checked this month on Amazon UK, I found that only two or three copies of each were available and at astounding prices. Leighton and Reynolds fetch 124.98 pounds. The single available copy of Ashfield sells at 68.95. There is a single copy of Blain’s 2009 revised edition on offer. There are only used copies of Wu to be had.
Amazon.com fares a little better. Three copies of Higgonet’s admirable anthology are available. Feldman and Blain just get into double figures (11 and 16).
So what did happen? This situation deserves a much lengthier analysis than I can give here, but I’ll sketch out a few suggestions. The obvious market explanation, overkill, with too many similar products struggling for survival, turns out to be superficial. For a start, these collections were directed to very different constituencies – general readers, undergraduates, graduates, and so on. And the commercial explanation does not account for the virtual disappearance of all these anthologies – by the law of competition one would have expected at least one or two to survive.
These works have actually been subjected to a much cruder form of competition – the blockbuster anthology for undergraduates, such as the Norton under the general editorship of Stephen Greenblatt (2006) and the Broadview under the editorship of Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle (1999), compilations I will take as my example in this short piece.
How have these compilations served women’s poetry? With good intentions, but ultimately damaging effects, these collections included some women poets in reparation for the almost complete absence of women poets in such volumes up to that point. But what they have done is to skim off a few supplementary females. Effectively the women are add ons. Norton, for instance, heads its Romantics volume with Anna Barbauld, Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson: a promising start, but that’s more or less it. Compare their collective pages (76) with Blake (around 50) and Wordsworth (around 150). Joanna Baillie, Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon get a look in, with 5, 6, and 4 poems respectively. The Victorian section is dire. Elizabeth Barrett Browning , Christina Rossetti, and Emily Bronte feature, of course. They have long been assimilated into the Victorian studies landscape. But Michael Field gets seven poems, Mary Coleridge two.
As a collection devoted to Victorian poetry alone, Broadview, as one would expect, is more inclusive. Adelaide Anne Proctor is well represented. So is Augusta Webster, and some justice is done to Amy Levy. It’s good to see poems by Eliza Cook, Jean Ingelow, and Dora Greenwell. No doubt the editors congratulated themselves on including (at a rough count) twenty three female and forty seven male poets. But what of Emily Pfeiffer, L.S. Bevington, Mathilde Blind, Violet Fane, Rosamund Marriot Watson, May Kendall? It could be argued that these women poets made less impact than those included. But if this is the case with women should this not be so with men also? Why on earth include the work of Lord de Tabley (because his polite pessimism was untouched by decadence and because he was a toff?), and those of Digby Mackworth Dolben (because Hopkins was in love with him?), and why give 20 pages to Eugene Lee Hamilton to Hopkins’s 13? One can make just the same observations of the women poets who have been included: do Elizabeth Siddal and Lady Wilde, wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and mother of Oscar Wilde respectively, require space in a broad general anthology such as this?
I am not trying to score points in a numbers game: my argument is that these anthologies have drastically narrowed the range of women poets available to readers now and distorted their work. In Romantic poetry Amelia Opie and Caroline Bowles, both fine poets, have dropped away. Among the Victorians, the group of innovative poets I named above (and we could include Margaret Veley and Vernon Lee, the latter on the cusp of the long nineteenth century and modernism) do not form part of these volumes’ poetic landscape.
But as well as narrowing the range of women poets, creating a minority group, these anthologies have also drastically narrowed down the oeuvre of each poet, foreclosing on the range of their work, and establishing a premature canon. In some cases it seems as if the selectors have looked for a consensus among the path-breaking anthologies of women poets published earlier, and thus we have selections from what was already a selection. For example, Norton goes for the Barbauld poems generally anthologized, but excludes her great poem of 1812, Eighteen hundred and eleven; a poem. At the other extreme, on the other hand, selections vary so radically that we might be dealing with different poets. To take Michael Field, the Broadview anthology and Leighton and Reynolds have only two poems in common – and each reprints a substantial number of poems.
Does this matter? After all, women’s poetry continues to be slowly edited. Broadview is steadily bringing out a range of good selections of women’s poetry from the long nineteenth century (though none in its 2011 catalogue) – recently (2009) Ana Vadillo and Marion Thain have edited a large selection of Michael Field’s work: Simon Avery has just edited a selection of Mary Coleridge’s work for Shearsman (2010); Oxford has recently issued the magnificent Collected Poems of Amelia Opie, edited by Shelley King and John B. Pierce (2009). Nevertheless, the spate of criticism on women’s poetry initiated by Marlon B. Ross (The Contours of Masculine Desire, 1989), Anne Mellor (Romanticism and Gender, 1992), and Angela Leighton (Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart, 1992), has died down. With the retreat of feminism publishing has changed.
And of course this matters. It matters because these anthologies’ narrow representations set up an unhistorical, one-sided reading of the long nineteenth century, and it matters for larger cultural reasons, because both male and female students and readers need to be able to recognize women’s creativity in this century.
I don’t underestimate the backbreaking work of compiling an anthology or the agonies of choice. There are no venal intentions behind the choices made in these anthologies. Rather, I think they emerge from real uncertainty about the place of women’s poetry in 19th century culture and its value today – and deep unfamiliarity with it. It is partly a matter of history. After a long assimilation of male writing, people feel comfortable with the contours of male poetry. They know their way around it. Even when these contours are disputed, there is still a stable paradigm to depart from. Consequently we know Dolben better than Dora Greenwell in the sense that we know where he fits in. Interestingly, the woman poet most established in the Romantic period is Charlotte Smith. Her core work has resolved itself, with whatever sacrifice of complexity, into the ‘Elegiac Sonnets’ and Beachy Head, with a glance at ‘The Emigrants’ – a good, clear recognizable shape. The same can be said of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning among the Victorians. Whereas, to take a tricky example, for Letitia Landon, on the borderline between Romantic and Victorian periods (a poet whose status is still debated), there is no established central core of work and consequently no strong reading of it. Except perhaps for ‘Sappho’s Song’, ‘The Factory’, and ‘Revenge’, shared by one or two anthologies in each case but not by all, there is almost no overlap between the selections of Landon in Norton, Broadview, Feldman, Wu, Leighton and Reynolds, Higgonet, and Armstrong and Bristow. Leighton and Reynolds prefer short fragments. Armstrong and Bristow go for the later work (in which I’d include ‘The Fairy of the Fountains’, which we did not publish), whereas the other anthologies make different selections from the early published collections, and none at all from the late ‘Subjects for Pictures’, which has affinities with Felicia Hemans’s Records of Woman.
I once believed that until the genres, languages, forms, poetics and politics of women poets had been established, it would be right to study them discretely without reference to their male peers, and not to yoke them precipitately to male figures. I was wrong. Most female poets have returned to the niche. Yet only by total immersion in both male and female poetry will we see a new historical landscape emerge – new formations, groups and relationships – that genuinely includes both genders: Wordsworth and Hemans, Landon and Keats, Michael Field and Wilde. This saturation will be slow. After all, it took a generation for Barrett Browning and Rossetti to emerge from their wait in the margins. There will be miles to go before we wake up – and see differently.
- Isobel Armstrong, January 14, 2011
- Anthologies of Women’s Poetry
Catherine Reilly, Victorian Women’s Poetry and Verse, London: Enitharmon, 1994.
Jennifer Breen, ed., Victorian Women Poets 1830-1900, London and Vermont: J.M Dent and Charles E. Tuttle, 1994. (Romantics followed, 1996)
Andrew Ashfield, ed., Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838, Manchester University Press, 1995.
Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, Victorian Women Poets. An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, eds., Nineteenth-Century Women Poets, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Margaret Higgonet, ed., Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838, New York: Penguin Books USA, 1996.
Paula R. Feldman, ed., British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. An Anthology, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Duncan Wu, Romantic Women Poets. An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
Virginia Blain, ed., Victorian Women Poets. A New Annotated Anthology, London: Longman, 2001.
- General Anthologies
The Broadview Anthology of Poetry and Poetic Theory, ed. Thomas J. Collins & Vivienne j. Rundle, Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 1999.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edn., Vol 2, General Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
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