Saturday, January 2, 2010

Female Poets of the Regency II -
Working Class Authors

In my last post I was talking about the overlooked female poets of the late Georgian/Regency era. The 'women of letters' were largely well-educated ladies of some leisure, though there were also professional writers amongst their number. As Jennifer Breen, author of "Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832" puts it: "...all these women moved in literary, artististic or educational circles, had access to publishers and literary contacts, and devoted a substantial part of their time to their writing." But there was another, entirely different, group of female poets as well.

These were the working-class women who came to poetry as a means of extending their income. They generally published their work by subscription--that is they developed a network of patrons who paid for the book in advance. Their themes tended to be domestic and their work was considered to be more accessible to the general reader.

Ann Yearsley was a Bristol woman, active in the campaign against the Bristol slave trade. She was of humble birth, but managed to learn to read and from then on was unstoppable. Eventually she published three books of poetry, a drama and a novel before dying early in the 1800s. Here are the first and last stanzas of her poem "The Indifferent Shepherdess to Colin":

"Colin, why this mistake?
Why plead the foolish love?
My heart shall sooner break
Than I a minion prove;
Nor care I half a rush,
No snare I spread for thee:
Go home, my friend, and blush
For love and liberty.

I stray o'er rocks and fields
Where native beauties shine:
All fettered fancy yields
Be, Colin, ever thine.
Complain nore more! but rove--
My cheek from crimson free,
Within my native grove
I'll guard my liberty." 1796

Christian Milne was a Scottish writer with very little schooling. Nevertheless she published a book of poetry by subscription, and though it was her only book she wrote poetry throughout her life. Her work has a humourous bent, with a strong ironic edge.

To a Lady Who Said It Was Sinful to Read Novels

"To love these books, and harmless tea,
Has always been my foible,
Yet will I ne'er forgetful be
To read my Psalms and Bible.

Travel I like, and history too,
Or entertaining fiction;
Novels and plays I'd have a few,
If sense and proper diction.

I love a natural harmless song,
But cannot sing like Handel;
Deprived of such resource, the tongue
Is sure employed--in scandal." 1805

Elizabeth Bentley, though of humble birth, was educated by her father and undertook to write poetry at age eighteen, without expectation of publication. But subscribers were found to publish her collection "Genuine Poetical Compositions", some of them well-known such as William Cowper. Her subjects ranged from the pastoral to issues of abolition and education. Her poem 'On Education' illustrates the importance of learning for all children:

"When infant Reason first exerts her sway,
"And new-formed thoughts their earliest charms display;
Then let the growing race employ your care
Then guard their opening minds from Folly's snare;
Correct the rising passions of their youth,
Teach them each serious, each important truth;
Plant heavenly virtue in the tender breast,
Destroy each vice that might its growth molest;
Point out betimes the course they should pursue;
Then with redoubled pleasure shall you view
Their reason strengthen as their years increase,
Their virtue ripen and their follies cease;
Like corn sown early in the fertile soil,
The richest harvest shall repay your toil."

These poems are impressive works by women familiar with the harshest trials of life; Elizabeth Bentley died in an almshouse in the 1830s.

The world deserves to have the richness of women's artistic efforts known. Now that we are reaching our full potential, we must celebrate the work of past women, so that they can be remembered and enshrined as our fore-mothers.

I wish you all the happiest of new years,


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