Innovations in Women's Poetry
Co-winner of the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize, Paula Backscheider's Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (Johns Hopkins, 2005) has given scholars and students a much-needed survey of eighteenth-century poetry by women. In the last two decades we have seen a gradual increase in studies of diese poets, including work by Donna Landry, Claudia Thomas, Moira Ferguson, Carol Barash, Ann Messenger, and Susanne Kord.1 Other studies of Restoration and eighteenth-century poetry have integrated women's writing into their scholarship, as in the work of William Christmas, David Fairer, and Christine Gerrard.2 These scholars have used valuable lenses to examine die contributions of women's poetry, but much remains to be understood of their work and its relations to other women writers and to their male contemporaries. Backscheider's detailed account of women poets from the beginning to the end of die eighteenth century offers the most comprehensive survey yet of eighteenth-century women's poetry. Although the dearth of modern critical texts of eighteenthcentury women's poetry would have deterred most critics from attempting a project of this scale, Backscheider has fully met the challenge and performed an extraordinary service to scholars of British poetry and women writers. Although she acknowledges the necessity of treating far fewer poets than she would wish-she does not treat working-class poets in depth because they have "already received sophisticated, recent critical attention" (xix)-she has produced an indispensable guide.
Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry attends to women poets' conscious artistry and agency in articulating their experiences through a variety of forms. Backscheider examines not only the achievements within poetry by women but also the ways mat women's poetic innovations shaped the directions of British poetry. She accomplishes this while also making this poetry highly accessible to nonspecialists: ample quotations, descriptions of poems, and relevant background help bridge the lack of familiarity many readers may have with this poetry. To assist her readers further, Backscheider includes at the end of the volume brief biographies of the poets studied. For readers unfamiliar with these poets and poems, the book's ambitious range may make it difficult to keep track of chronological differences: providing dates for more of the poems discussed would help readers trace chronological sequences and contexts (of course dating poems and tracking their influence can be especially difficult with those texts that circulated in manuscript well before they reached print).
As her title indicates, she focuses on genres mat serve as categories through which women explored and demonstrated their agencies as artists and individuals. Based on her extraordinarily wide reading of women poets, Backscheider selects a few poets in each chapter to analyze in depth. Her analyses of Elizabeth Rowe's and Jane Brereton's poetry are especially fine. The introduction successfully reviews the eighteenth-century material contexts of reading poetry, of poetry's place in print culture, and of the increasing recognition of women poets by eighteenth-century readers. Remaining chapters include topics such as "Women's Poetry in the Public Eye" and chapters on religious poetry, friendship poems, retirement poetry, the elegy, and the sonnet. Backscheider's analysis of religious poems by women demonstrates that these works are often far from "safe" or conservative; radier, they offer bold critiques in language that is "often strikingly 'unfeminine'" (146). Turning to fables and biblical tales, she argues that they are "adapted to allow women to expose the ways power operates and its consequences" and that such poems can be unreservedly critical of men (162). Many of Backscheider's observations convincingly show a gendered particularity in women's poetry, but at times her comments about the particularity of women's poetry could be sharpened by more comparisons with similar poems by men. For example, by comparing women's elegies with certain elegies by men that focus on nature, memory, and individual subjectivity, Backscheider would make more compelling the claim for women's inventiveness in her astute remark that many elegies by women "drew upon nature, memory, and an individual subjectivity that would not become common until the Romantic period" (314).
Backscheider analyzes women poets' contributions to the sonnet in a chapter that complements recent studies showing the centrality of women writers in the rebirth of this form (316). In this chapter's focus on Charlotte Smith, Backscheider reclaims her as an eighteenth-century rather than a Romantic poet by emphasizing Smith's ties to earlier women writers' innovations and to the poetic mood of melancholy in the midcentury (329). Interpretations of Smith's sonnets and other poems exemplify Backscheider's effective demonstrations of how women revised forms to define their artistic and personal agency. This chapter's impressive analysis of eighteenthcentury women's achievements with the sonnet would be even stronger with some additional comparisons (perhaps omitted because of chronological boundaries and page limitations). What Backscheider praises about Smith's achievements could also be claimed for Anna Seward's: Smith's sonnets on the topic of writing "help return the form to its status as a self-reflexive form and the poef s ultimate claim to being a Poet" (324), and "Smith made the sonnet about the state of mind of subjectivity and genius" (350).
The most engaging chapters are those on friendship poems and retirement poems. Of friendship poetry, she argues that it is "the only significant form of poetry that eighteenth-century women inherited from women" (175). At first glance appearing decorous and tame, the theme of friendship is, radier, a foundation for bold imagination (176) and social commentary (184). Backscheider sees friendship poems as a kind of life writing where "poets weave the poems into women's lives" (176) and where women poets form their identity (231). In her chapter on women's retirement poetry, she develops intriguing connections between this poetry and the development of nature poetry (234). As opposed to retirement poetry by men, where the speaker typically retires from a public, political life and the city, retirement poetry by women shows the very différent duties and domains from which they retired. Backscheider explores this in part with an important observation: in contrast to the recurrent emphasis in canonical retirement poetry by men on themes of ownership (whether owning property, the imagination, or one's self), women's retirement poetry reveals that "what women own in retirement poems is not an estate but time" (261). Backscheider 's analysis of tonal differences in retirement poems also offers significant conclusions: to the melancholy tone she identifies in many retirement poems by men, she contrasts the more optimistic tone, especially one advocating the use of reason, in retirement poems by women (241). She keenly observes Elizabeth Carter's "association of evening and even night with reason" in her retirement poetry (251).
Connecting the theme of agency with the power of genre, Backscheider's work will spur further research based on this intersection. Her emphasis on understanding "the way a genre functions in a culture in numerous, important, revisionary ways" (2) adds to the ongoing scholarship on the implications of poetic form in the eighteenth century.3 In aiming to integrate women's poetry into the history of eighteenth-century poetry, Backscheider argues that "we need to work through each poetic kind," and she identifies "four lines of inquiry": "'masculine' forms that women influenced profoundly," "genres mat women shaped and developed," "genres associated with female writing in earlier centuries," and "genres now usually excluded from literary study" (xviii). One of the difficulties raised by her use of genre, poetic kind, and form is how flexibly we can use these terms and still preserve their clarity. Precisely by expanding the notion of different kinds of poetry to include thematic categories such as friendship poetry, Backscheider makes room for nontraditional groupings that illustrate women's poetic achievements. But while genre and kind can by some definitions be the same, the notion of poetic kinds was a different matter for eighteenth-century writers, as Backscheider notes. Further definition or redefinition of genre, poetic kind, and form would clarify the parameters of her approach and yield even richer results in this already rich study. Nevertheless, it is by using the categories of genre and form mat Backscheider dislodges other frameworks that give little room to women's poetry and corrects traditional views that have dismissed women's poetry as derivative.
As with her attention to genre, Backscheider's attention to agency takes her readers to one of the cruxes of understanding the innovations of women's poetry. Her emphasis on agency often turns on valuing women's poetry as forms of self-expression and life writing (101). This criterion of value helps us understand many poems by women, but it depends on the notion of a unitary self increasingly disputed today, a dispute Backscheider responds to when she urges that agency and the awarding of agency are issues mat "must be problematized and newly theorized" (27). She notes that critics in the past have awarded agency to support the canonization of writings by men (22). Thus, her focus on women poets' agency justly identifies this element as part of how we value writers and acknowledges how eighteenth-century women articulate the ways in which they have been deprived of material agency. Balancing her attention to individual agency, Backscheider reminds readers of the contemporary communities (social and artistic) in which diese women wrote. Throughout this study she pointedly rejects the tendency to value women poets under Romantic rubrics and instead restores their relation to the eighteenth century: "to survey the critical literature suggests how completely these women poets are being embraced by Romanticists and largely ignored by eighteenth-century critics and scholars" (372).4
Scholars in the future may fruitfully pursue the central question Backscheider raises about how and why eighteenth-century women poets have been neglected. In what ways, for example, is the critical neglect of women poets the same as or different from the relative critical neglect of eighteenth-century canonical men poets? In recent decades scholars of this period have given far more attention to genres other than poetry. In spite of their differences, poems by women and men in this era pose several challenges that deter present-day readers, challenges ranging from explicit political content, to the couplet form, to didacticism, to personified abstractions. At a time when many critics have eschewed the evaluation of literary works, Backscheider boldly calls for the necessity of practicing evaluation while revising the ways we assess eighteenth-century poetry. By attending to formal effects and innovations, critics such as Backscheider have revivified an interest in evaluating eighteenth-century poetry, opening up new discussions of the pleasures, obstacles, and strangeness of eighteenth-century poetry by women and men. By developing more explicit analyses of value we will arrive at new insights into the poetry, as Backscheider argues. By analyzing the dialectic between poets' individual techniques and the communal and social qualities implied in shared genres and forms, she has shown how deeply form functions for women poets and has indisputably demonstrated the value and complexity of their artistic choices.
1. See Donna Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry (Cambridge, 1990); Claudia Thomas, Alexander Pope and his Eighteenth-Century Women Readers (Carbondale, 1994); Moira Ferguson, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: Nation, Class, and Gender (Albany, 1995); Carol Barash, English Women's Poetry, 1649-1714: Politics, Community, and Linguistic Authority (Oxford, 19%); Ann Messenger, Pastoral Tradition and the Female Talent (New York, 2001); and Susanne Kord, Women Peasant Poets in EighteenthCentury England, Scotland, and Germany (Rochester, 2003).
2. See William Christmas, The Lab'ring Muses: Work, Writing, and the Social Order in English Plebeian Poetry, 1730-1830 (Newark, Del., 2001); David Fairer, English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century. 1700-1789 (London, 2003); and Blackwell's Companion to EighteenthCentury Poetry, ed. Christine Gerrard (Oxford, 2006). Several collections of essays focusing on eighteenth-century women poets have been published: Donald C. Mell's Pope, Swift, and Women Writers (Newark, Del., 1996); Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain's Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment (New York, 1999); and Sarah Prescott and David E. Shuttleton's Women and Poetry, 1660-1750 (New York, 2003). Prescott brings together the work of women poets and novelists in her analysis of nonmetropolitan literary production in Women, Authorship, and Literary Culture, 1690-1740 (HoundmilLs, 2003). Recent monographs on women poets include Barbara McGovern, Anne Finch and Her Poetry: A Critical Biography (Athens, 1992); Richard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in EighteenthCentury Women's Poetry (Oxford, 1993); Charles H. Hinnant, The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation (Newark, Del., 1994); Carrol L. Fry, Charlotte Smith (New York, 1996); Loraine Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography (I loundmills, 1998); Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (Oxford, 1999); Messenger, Woman and Poet in the Eighteenth Century: The Life of Mary Whateley Darwall (New York, 1999); Kathryn R. King, Jane Barker, Exile: A Literary Career 1675-1725 (Oxford, 2000); and Jacqueline M. Labbe, Charlotte Smith: Romanticism, Poetry, and the Culture of Gender (Manchester, 2003).
3. Outstanding studies on the implications of form in eighteenth-century poetry are too numerous to list some recent studies include Jayne Lewis, The English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1740 (Cambridge, 1996); Suvir Kaul, Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville, 2000); Dustin Griffin, Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2002); Rachel Crawford, Poetry, Enclosure, and the Vernacular Landscape, 1700-1830 (Cambridge, 2002); and Fairer, English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century (London, 2003). David B. Morris and J. Paul Hunter have written important essays on the ideological, emotional, and social significance of the couplet: see especially Morris, "Wit Rhyme, and Couplet: Style as Content in Pope's Art," Approaches to Teaching Pope's Poetry, ed. Wallace Jackson and R. Paul Yoder (New York, 1993), 25-32; and Hunter, "Formalism and History: Binarism and the Anglophone Couplet" Modern Language Quarterly 61 no. 1 (2000): 109-29.
4. Backscheider notes that "critics from Samuel Holt Monk in 1939 to Anne Mellor in 1995 have pointed out how, in their criticism, these women replicate the thought and opinions of the eighteenth century" (372-73).
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Jennifer Keith is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her publications include Poetry and the Feminine from Behn to Cowper (Delaware, 2005) and essays on eighteenth-century poetry. She is completing a critical edition of Anne Finch's poems.…