Ephelia's Voice: The Authorship of 'Female Poems' (1679)

Article excerpt

In 1679 an enigmatic collection of poems was published under the title Female Poems on Several Occasions, with the author identified only as "Ephelia." Most of the poems in the volume make up a loose sequence, narrating the progress of an unhappy love affair. With rare exceptions, critical accounts of the Ephelia poems have made two assumptions: that they are autobiographical, and that they are indeed "Female Poems," the work of a seventeenth-century woman poet. Neither of these assumptions is justified: both, as I shall show, are based on exiguous evidence, susceptible of varying interpretations.

The position of David Vieth, writing in 1963, and of James Sutherland, in 1969, characterizing the Ephelia poems as "intensely personal" and "based on genuine experience," is essentially that argued by Edmund Gosse in 1883: "It is a sincere page out of the heart of a human being -- a series of confessions so true and so poignant that we seem to hear a living voice across two centuries. In its warmth and vivacity, its womanly passion and subtlety, I know no utterance like it." [1] Despite changes in critical vocabulary -- surely no critic of the 1980s or 1990s would allow "womanly passion" to escape the blue pencil -- most recent studies, even those which are feminist in approach, share the assumption that Ephelia is an amateur poet, young and inexperienced, whose poems are the unmediated, unreflective product of personal experience.

The leading twentieth-century authority on the Ephelia poems is Maureen Mulvihill, whose impressive and valuable edition of Poems by Ephelia appeared in 1992. [2] Highly speculative accounts by Mulvihill in two reference works on women writers published in the 1980s, like the lengthy introduction to her edition, construct imaginary biographies from materials provided by the poems, hunting for a "Bona fide Restoration personality" to whom the poems can be attached.

The poetry suggests that she was born into a well-connected, upper-class London family.... The early death of both parents left her destitute.... Because of E's acknowledged poverty, she may have become involved in the London demi-monde.... Ephelia's employment as a hired hack-writer at the beginning and end of a brief career explains her facility with several genres and subjects.... Her poetic unpretentiousness may derive from her lack of formal education. [3]

Germaine Greer's ingenious attribution of Female Poems to Cary Frazier, the discarded mistress of the Earl of Mulgrave, rests on the same unproven assumption that the poems have a direct autobiographical basis -- in Mulvihill's words, that the sequence "reconstructs with poignant emotional and psychological veracity the romantic crises in the life of a young woman writer." [4]

Mulvihill's edition, for all the valuable information it contains in its introduction and appendices, is dedicated throughout to the proposition that "Ephelia lived a life in London during the 1670s and 80s, and that contemporary references and facts about her life and work attest to this." According to Mulvihill, the many biographical details" in the poems to and about the faithless lover Strephon -- "appearance, age, occupation, movements in and out of London" -- serve to "authenticate him as a real person in my poet's life." [5] Similar assumptions underlie the attack on the author of Female Poems in 1691 by the misogynist author Robert Gould, who had no doubt that Ephelia was a woman writing out of sordid experience. Mulvihill, searching for scraps of evidence to support the hypothesis of a "real" Ephelia, sees Gould's poem as "persuasively truthful" in its "striking details" of a poet's "everyday life." [6] But Gould's poem, one of several satires on women by this prolific, splenetic writer, seeks to blacken the reputation of rival poets in a pamphlet war, and is in no sense reliable as evidence. In Gould's poem, the transgression of authorship by a woman, breaking a silence prescribed by custom, is equated to prostitution: the "Scribling Itch" in Ephelia, Aphra Behn ("Sapho" in the lines that follow), or the "Sylvia" of Sylvia's Revenge (1688), is presented as an assertion of a threatening, indecorous female sexuality:

What has this Age produc'd from Female Pens, But a wide Boldness that outstrides the Mens? …