My research into the role of women in the arts and literature of Regency Britain was triggered by a book. "Women Romantic Poets 1785-1832: An Anthology" is edited by Jennifer Breen and published by J. M. Dent Ltd. The ISBN is 0--460-87078-5, for my paperback copy. I picked the book up at a charity book sale because the dates were 'right'. The more I looked at the book, the more impressed I was by the female poets.
We all know Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, etc. etc. Why, I wondered, had I not heard of any of these authors? Because of the paternalistic, dismissive attitudes to women in the arts in the 19th century came immediately to mind. Also my own lack of intellectual curiosity is obviously at fault. How happy I am to now be enlightened!
The excellent introduction in this book holds a great deal of information about the female poets working at the turn of the 18th/19th century. The author holds that the women fall into one of two categories. Either the poet was a 'woman of letters'--mostly well-educated, mostly well-financed, and devoted to her art, or she was a working-class woman hoping to earn a living with her work.
I was familiar with some of the women of letters: Dorothy Wordsworth, Hannah More, Mary Lamb. Most, however, I had never heard of, and I certainly was unprepared for the beauty of their work.
Helen Maria Williams was born in England but spent much of her life in France, an unconventional, intellectual novelist, poet and translator. I tweeted one stanza of her poem 'A Song' a few weeks ago, here is that verse and a little more:
"No riches from his scanty store
My lover could impart;
He gave a boon I valued more--
He gave me all his heart!
While he the dangerous ocean braves,
My tears but vainly flow:
Is pity in the faithless waves
To which I pour my woe?
The night is dark, the waters deep,
Yet soft the billows roll;
Alas! at every breeze I weep--
The storm is in my soul."
Laetitia Elizabeth Landon was a brilliant child and, fascinated by poetry, was first published at age eighteen. She published her first book soon after and was one of the most popular contributors to the 'Literary Gazette' where she was also a reviewer. Her personal life was troubled however and eventually she committed suicide. Here are some verses from her poem "New Year's Eve":
There is no change upon the air,
No record in the sky;
No pall-like storm comes forth to shroud
The year about to die.
Ah, not in heaven, but upon earth,
Are signs of change expressed;
The closing year has left its mark
On human brow and breast.
But Hope's sweet words can never be
What they have been of yore:
I am grown wiser, and believe
In fairy tales no more.
Carolina Oliphant, later Baroness Nairne, was a Scot named in memory of Prince Charles Edward Stuart--nicknamed the 'Flower of Strathearn'. Rather more conventional than the preceding poets, she undertook the collection of Scottish songs, and was herself a songwriter, using dialect for much of her work. She wrote, in fact, the famous song about the Bonnie Prince--
'Charlie is my Darling':
’TWAS on a Monday morning,
Right early in the year,
When Charlie came to our town,
The young Chevalier.
(refrain) O Charlie is my darling,
My darling, my darling—
O Charlie is my darling,
The young Chevalier!
There are many more wonderful poems by 'women of letters' in this little book. Next time we'll look at the working-class female poets of the Regency.