Victorian Poetry Network "much to do with Victorian poetry"

Scottish Women Poets
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Joanna Baillie (engraving after a portrait by William Newton, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

How many teachers of Victorian poetry ensure they represent Scottish poetry in their syllabus? Probably women feature heavily on course reading lists, but what about Scottish women poets? And how to define Victorian Scottish women writers in any case?

My friend and former colleague Dorothy McMillan edited (with Michael Byrne) the definitive edition of Modern Scottish Women Poets. But their sense of “modern” begins with the Gaelic poet Oighrig (nÃŒ ‘Illeasabaig) Dhòmhnallach (Euphemia MacDonald) (1842-1936) and Violet Jacob (1863-1943). This anthology is bursting with a huge variety of Scottish women’s poetry, but most of the poets flourished in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. What about poets writing in the previous century?

Catherine Kerrigan’s Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, published in 1991, has a broader historical sweep, and includes a particularly interesting selection of anonymous folksong, but the material from the nineteenth century makes up only a fraction of the overall poems.

What would a canon of Victorian Scottish women poets look like?

This is the first of two years as UVic’s Faculty Fellowship in Scottish Studies Fellow, and part of the requirements of the fellowship is to put more Scottish courses on the books. This semester I’m teaching a course on Scottish women’s poetry from the early nineteenth century to the present (the website for the course, currently in-progress and created by my enthusiastic and diligent students, is available here). This course has made me think more closely about what it means to identify a poet as Scottish, about the construction of Scottish nationhood (especially post-Union), and whether there are identifiable traditions of Scottish women’s poetry across class and regional boundaries. But, perhaps even more pressingly, there are clear lines of contact between women’s poetry in Scots, Anglo-Scots, and Gaelic, and women’s poetry considered canonical in Victorian Britain, especially in relation to issues of voice, community and orality (in particular as Scottish women’s poetry negotiates the heavy shadow of Burns and Scott).

The nineteenth-century poets I’m including in my course are Joanna Baillie, Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne), Janet Hamilton, Ellen Johnston,  Mairi Nic A’ Pheasrsain (Mary MacPherson), Eliza Ogilvy, Isa Craig, Marion Burnstein, plus periodical poets who published in Good Words and Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. But there were many more I was tempted to squeeze in. (The digital resource Scottish Women Poets of the Romantic Period, for example, illustrates the richness of the pre-Victorian era; I wish there was an equivalent for the Victorian period).

Creating a comprehensive anthology of Victorian — or indeed of nineteenth-century — women poets would, however, be challenging. Firstly, many women published songs and ballads (key genres for the period and part of the post-Union Scottish literary revival) as anonymous or pseudonymous writers, often passing their texts to collectors and antiquarians through a third party. In addition, many poems based on oral poetry involve sometimes complex re-tellings, revisions, and additions to traditional folk ballads and songs, which makes tracing authorship a tricky business (many of these poems are collaborative and collective, in fact). Finally, with the rise of periodical titles in the nineteenth century as a major venue for poetry publishing and consumption, many Scottish women poets took advantage of serial titles as an avenue for publication, and most of these women never published in volume form and often published unsigned periodical poetry. Creating a full and complete sense of poetry by Scottish women writers (say, tentatively, those born in Scotland, those who moved to Scotland, those who wrote in Scots dialects/Anglo-Scots/Gaelic) may be impossible.

But that’s not, of course, a reason to ignore them in research and teaching. The poetry of Scottish women is fascinating, and forces us to rethinking Victorian British poetry in terms of the four nations, concurrent with the push to consider international and colonial Victorian poetry in English.

Works Cited

Catherine Kerrigan (ed.). An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

Dorothy McMillan and Michael Byrne (eds.). Modern Scottish Women Poets. Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 2003.


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