A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Imagine a conventional literary scene: men and women writing, arguing, publishing, in ‘creative dialogue’ with each other, as the textbooks have it, and selling well, or less well, or struggling. Some get high praise and public acclamation, others are ignored and can’t really find an audience. These 18th-century poets wrote in a milieu which would later get labelled as Romantic. They wrote their poetry, and about poetry, in simple language, easy forms, and talked about society and idealism and revolution. The really successful ones were not, however, the ones we were all taught about at school or university as ‘the Romantics’. We were all taught that William Blake, William Wordsworth, that Coleridge bloke, Shelley the Bysshe, poor tragic John Keats and mad and bad Lord Byron were the big names, the leaders of this group, and that’s all we needed to know. OK, perhaps John Clare too, if you insist. And maybe Robert Burns. But they were peasants: whereas the Six Big Men were the real poets.
When we were at school, nobody mentioned the women of this group, unless it was to laugh at how awful their poems were. Anna Laetitia Barbauld was an important woman of letters and a literary critic, whose selections of poetry for anthologies pretty much established the list of poets we study today from that period. Her most famous poem caused her undoing, a satire on the Napoleonic Wars in 1811, which did not go down well with a virulently patriotic public, and she never wrote another one. We don’t hear much about her after that.
Felicia Hemans is now only known for her poem ‘Casabianca’, which was a set piece for memorising in the Victorian period, loathed by school children ever after, and satirised and sneered at by 20th-century writers keen to condemn her Victorian piety and imperialist views (Arthur Ransome was one such snooty author). But Felicia Hemans was the most noted poet of her day, graciously visiting Sir Walter Scott with her august presence in 1820, publishing over 400 poems in magazines and newspapers, and was a clear influence on Wordsworth et al. So why don’t we hear more about her as an innovative and influential figure?
Joanna Baillie was a seriously famous playwright and poet in the same circle, considered by her contemporaries to be equal only to Sappho and Shakespeare. She was also a dramatic theorist and a critic, and supported her less successful peers with sponsorship and mentoring. Funny that we weren’t taught much about her influence on the Romantics either.
I could bang on and on about the women Romantics who were swept under the carpet by the dictators of literary taste from the last century and a half, and were forgotten for generations before modern feminist critics began to wonder why all the Romantics appeared to have been born wearing trousers. But I shan’t: I shall confine myself to two examples from women Romantic poets to encourage you to give them a try.
My favourite title for a Romantic poem is by Charlotte Smith, whose sonnet, ‘On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic’ (note the italics: very 18thC) is a great one to read and teach, full of sound and fury and pity for the foolishness of the world’s assumptions.
My favourite poet from this group is Mary Robinson, because she’s a lovely writer. I like her directness, her sharp eye and her focus on the detail of living. Two of her really well-known poems are all about the observation of life, and because of this, again, they’re both good to teach and delightful to read. ‘London’s Summer Morning’ is about just that, a description of daily life on the shopping streets of London. Here’s a bit from the middle.
Now every shop displays its varied trade,
And the fresh-sprinkled pavement cools the feet
Of early walkers. At the private door
The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,
Annoying the smart ‘prentice, or neat girl,
Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun
Darts burning splendour on the glittering pane,
Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
On the day’s merchandise. Now, spruce and trim,
In shops (where beauty smiles with industry),
Sits the smart damsel; while the passenger
Peeps through the window, watching every charm.
Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute
Of humming insects, while the limy snare
Waits to enthral them.
This reminds me so much of walking to work in London in high summer, when the street-cleaners have swabbed the pavements ready for the day’s tourists and the air is still a tiny bit cool. The cleaners are wiping down the doors and windows and busy girls are rushing to work in a hurry. Pretty busy girls working in shops attract the eye from outside, which is caught by their looks much as an insect is caught in the blue zapping trap.
Here’s part of another one, called ‘January, 1795’.
Wives who laugh at passive spouses ;
Theatres, and meeting-houses ;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish ;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.
Arts and sciences bewailing ;
Commerce drooping, credit failing ;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal ;
Separations, weddings royal.
Authors who can’t earn a dinner ;
Many a subtle rogue a winner ;
Fugitives for shelter seeking ;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.
Taste and talents quite deserted ;
All the laws of truth perverted ;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring ;
Merit silently deploring.
Ladies gambling night and morning ;
Fools the works of genius scorning ;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.
It’s packed with opposites and social commentary, and laced with satire, nicely dense with meaning, like a rather good cheesecake full of rum-soaked currants. The thing I particularly like about Mary Robinson is not just that she was a poet and a very successful one (she earned her living and supported her family by it for years, and was called ‘The English Sappho’). She was also one of the most famous actresses in England, particularly for her ‘breeches parts’, playing Shakespeare’s girls-dressed-as-boys roles. This naturally led to a good deal of male attention (she was married but not at all happily), and the Prince of Wales offered her £20,000 to become his mistress. She thought about this for ages, but just as she capitulated, the offer was withdrawn, and she was abandoned, without any chance of returning to the stage. So she turned to writing again, became phenomenally famous, but died at 42 in poverty. She wasn’t talked about much in the poetry textbooks either, until recently. I wonder why? Perhaps success in breeches parts was only for the stage.