ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                       Spring 09


Feb. 2  Lonsdale:  Introduction and poems by Ann Finch, Mary Barber, Elizabeth Singer Rowe


            Recommended: Jones, chapter 10, “Women Poets of the Eighteenth Century” by Margaret Ann Doody


            Paula Backscheider, "Plan of the Book," "Introduction," and Ch. 2 "Ann Finch and What Women Wrote" through page 79


               ADDITIONAL POEMS TO READ:  please also read the nine poems by Ann Finch on the website Celebration of Women Writers: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/finch/finch-anne.html#to_poems

               “Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with Her Beauty,” attached

               Also read Finch’s “The Spleen” in its entirety; this can be found on the website mentioned above or through the LION database in/on the Virtual Library


Scholarship Presentation:          Lauren Oetinger on Doody’s chapter



This is the first of three classes devoted solely to poetry by women.  With three authors, a scholarship presentation, Doody’s article, and the opening of Backscheider’s work, we will have quite a bit to juggle.  Nonetheless, because these poems are all short (we are not reading Rowe’s epic poem “The History of Joseph,” for example – available on the Celebration website), and because poetry benefits from being read in the context of other poems, I would like for you to read an additional nine poems by Finch from the website noted above and one that I have transcribed and attached to these notes. Also, the text of her published Miscellany Poems, 1713, is available online: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/finch/1713/miscellany-poems.html, and I encourage you to look through this, both to get a sense of the range of poetry Finch published, and because it gives you a sense of the WAY that poetry appeared to the eighteenth-century reader.  You need not read all the poems. There is a scanned image of a sample page from the book that you can look at to get a feel for the font, page layout, etc.  Of course, this should be available through Eighteenth-century Collections Online as well.  Given all this, Finch will be the predominant figure we address, with Barber being second and Rowe third.  The article by Doody relates to the entire century of poetry by women, but she is clearly stronger in the earlier part, and so much of what she writes will aid your understanding of the poetry for this class.  We will, however, return to Doody for the other classes on poetry.



Notes and Discussion:


Reminder:  Poetry needs to be read aloud for full appreciation of the form.  Take the time to read the poems more than once and to read them out loud. It truly makes a difference.


Also get in the habit of observing the following details about the poems you read:

Line length, meter, rhyme scheme, form/genre, voice/persona, diction, use of conventions, metaphors, images, allusions, tone.


As you read more poetry by women, observe what connections can be made among the poems, the poets.  What shared images, tags, stances, complaints, etc., can you find?

(Both Londsdale’s introduction and Doody’s article survey these sorts of connections, and so may aid you.)


The background reading for class, Lonsdale’s introduction and Doody’s article, offer brief histories of eighteenth-century poetry by women, and they share much in common.  In fact, it would be interesting to note in what ways Doody’s article published in 2000 advances the information or state of knowledge established by Lonsdale’s groundbreaking work in 1989.  Further, how does Backscheider’s important 2005 book alter the critical conversation?  We will continue to refer to these sources throughout the semester.  What information do they have in common?  How do they differ?  What emerges as the salient features of this history of women’s poetry?


For example – how does the poetry, in general, from the first half of the eighteenth-century differ from that of the second?  What literary trends distinguish the writers?  What forms or manners shift? 


What both Doody and Lonsdale say about the change in taste at mid-century affects how we appreciate the poetry for this class.  Examine the following observations and answer how they illuminate the poetic styles of our authors.


Lonsdale:  “In the course of the eighteenth century itself ‘polite’ taste had increasingly come to favour a poetry of self-conscious elevation above the facts of the mundane world, which produced much that was insipid and stilted.  Throughout the century, however, there were many writers who expressed, in verse of a sociable, unpretentious, sometimes homely, sometimes idiosyncratic kind interests and experiences which must contradict some of the generalization made about the period” (xliii).


Doody: “A poet such as Leapor benefits from the eighteenth century’s openness to the physicality of experience.  The empiricism of Locke placed sensory experience at the root of consciousness, and thus of all knowledge and all forms of self-consciousness.  Consciousness is formed through experience and through reflection on experiences.  If that is so, then the role of authority – already rendered politically suspect in the Revolution and the Restoration – becomes less important.  A combination of political and philosophical views gave more opportunity for women and the poor to enter the literary arena, to create works that would be heard, than they ever had before.  In order to understand their own society, and the world in which human beings really do live, men and women of the eighteenth century could believe it would be valuable to understand the experiences of others.  We can know another person, or persons, or even perhaps class, by entering imaginatively into their sensations” (227).


“The early eighteenth century is an era of creative ferment, both in fiction and in poetry.  Poets test the limits of ‘the poetic’, surprising us with the unexpected, taking a cue from the satiric and conversational poets such as Horace, and women writers participate to good effect” (227).


On form, Lonsdale observes that women poets tend to lag behind the times in terms of the poetic styles they choose.  “The fact that, until the later decades of the century, women poets usually adopted styles that were being replaced by new fashions … means that it was all the easier to underestimate their achievements” (xxv).


Lonsdale also observes that “women poets, like their unfashionable male contemporaries, were often intimidated by or indifferent to the loftier poetic genres and worked most happily in less self-conscious, social forms:  most notably, throughout the century, in the familiar verse epistle, in which generic expectations were minimal, polished diction inappropriate, and the writer would be confident of her ability to amuse a friend whose interest was guaranteed” (xlv).


Compare Dorothy Mermin (regarding Philips, Behn, and Finch):  “Their poems are made to appear spontaneous and artless, as if disavowing competition with men.  They generally avoid the solemnity of iambic pentameter, formal odes or epics, exalted diction, or (with a few significant exceptions) classical allusions.  They prefer lyric, occasional poetry, relatively simple narrative forms such as the fable, an understated, conversational tone, and small and ordinary themes, constructing comfortably unpretentious edifices from what seems a very small stock of materials, making do in a kind of cosy frugality with whatever is at hand” (“Women Becoming Poets:  Katherine Philips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch” ELH 57.2 (1990): 336). 


Finally, Doody on Finch: “Like many women poets (and some male poets, such as Swift) Finch is often found using the four-beat line, a measure less official, more comic, more pungent, than iambic pentameter with it history of gravitas and public responsibility.  But Finch experiments with different forms, and can use the long line to great effect.  She also borrows the irregular ‘ode’ form developed by Abraham Cowley – as in her often reprinted and often quoted poem ‘The Spleen’” (223).


In what ways does Backscheider’s attention to form and broad field of female poets challenge these claims?  According to Backscheider, which forms are women writing and how are they making them their own?


Thoughts and Questions on the poems




The most anthologized and discussed poems by Finch are “The Introduction,” “Nocturnal Reverie,” and “The Spleen.”  Speculate as to why.  What about these poems stands out as appealing to our contemporaries?  What do we miss if we focus on these writings?  If you were to substitute a poem or some poems, what would take pride of place for you and why?


Finch has lately been credited with a much wider range of poetic interests and achievements than might be suggested by the comments cited above.  She has been claimed as a political poet (Barash) and an extraordinary translator (Moody).  How would you describe her range?  Where do her strengths as a poet lie, based on your reading?


How does Finch represent herself as a writer?  What images or metaphors does she use throughout her poetry to represent art or poetry?  To what effect?


Consider her use of bird imagery – To the Nightingale, The Bird and the Arras – others.  What do these birds signify for Finch?  To what extent does Finch use animals, as Doody suggests, as external representations of the self by which the poet can objectively assess the situation of the woman (writer)?


Progress poems were a popular genre in the early eighteenth-century – see for example Swift’s “Progress of Beauty,” “Progress of Marriage.”  Compare Finch’s “Progress of Life” in terms of form and content.  How does the poem represent aging?  How does this compare with other representations in Finch’s works (i.e. Clarinda’s Indifference...”)?


The issue of female beauty (and as Doody notes mirror-gazing) recurs in the poetry by Finch and Barber.  Examine the different representations (as in “A Pastoral Dialogue between Two Shepherdesses” or Clarinda or “Adam Posed” and “Stella and Flavia” and “To Mrs. Frances Arabella-Kelly”).


The joys or rural retreat or descriptions of the countryside often enter into Finch’s poems.  What literary traditions do they belong to?  (Ex. Carpe diem poetry of the cavaliers?)  What literary trends do they anticipate?  To what extent does this matter?


Mary Barber


What is the role of humor in Barber’s poetry?  How does she achieve it?  Take for example, her poetry written for her son.


Note how Barber creates a variety of poetic personae.  Describe these different personae and the effects in several poems: her son, the belle, the matron, the writer.


What is the target of social criticism in the poem “On Seeing an Officer’s Widow Distracted”?  In “An Unanswerable Apology for the Rich”? How do these poems complicate notions of public/private or political/domestic gender divides?



Elizabeth Singer Rowe


All of Rowe’s poems concern love.  What are the different dimensions of love described?  How are they connected by language and the conventions of poetry?  What does her poetry of devotion gain from its proximity with courtly love poetry?  How does her love poetry differ from, for example, that of Behn or that of Finch?


Further questions on Backscheider, Introduction and Chapter Two


What does Backscheider’s first chapter – about the function of poetry and its many forms – tell us about the significance and role of poetry in eighteenth-century British culture?  Why or how is this important for understanding women’s poetry?


Examine the premise that “the canon is formed around authors who are granted agency” and the implications this has for women writers. What implications does it have for Bachscheider’s project in this particular book?


Backscheider claims that Finch “adeptly solves the problem of how women might appropriately write satire” (40).  How does Finch do this?  What evidence do you find in her poetry?


Discuss Finch’s use of the fable and Backscheider’s assessment of her fables.  Do the same for the pastoral.


In what sense is poetry about poetry – whether by Finch or Rowe or Barber – a reflection of poetry as a profession?


What is the legacy of The Spleen?  How important is this poem?



Don’t forget to start reading The History of Betsy Thoughtless!!!





Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with Her Beauty


Now, age came on, and all the dismal train

That fright the vitious, and afflict the vain.

Departing beauty, now Clarinda spies

Pale in her cheeks, and dying in her eyes;

That youthful air, that wanders o’er the face,

That undescrib’d, that unresisted grace,

Those morning beams, that strongly warm, and shine,

Which men that feel and see, can ne’er define,

Now, on the wings of restless time, were fled,

And ev’ning shades began to rise, and spread,

When thus resolv’d, and ready soon to part,

Slighting the short reprieves of proffer’d art

She spake ---

And what, vain beauty, did’st thou e’er achieve,

When at thy height, that I thy fall shou’d grieve,

When did’st thou e’er successfully pursue?

When did’st thou e’er th’appointed foe subdue?

‘Tis vain of numbers, or of strength to boast,

In an undisciplin’d, unguided host,

And love, that did thy mighty hopes deride,

Wou’d pay no sacrifice, but to thy pride.

When did’st thou e’er a pleasing rule obtain,

A glorious empire’s but a glorious pain,

Thou art indeed but vanity’s chief source,

But foil to wit, to want of wit a curse,

For often, by thy gaudy signs descry’d

A fool, which unobserv’d, had been untry’d,

And when thou doest such empty things adorn,

‘Tis but to make them more the public scorn.

I know thee well, but weak thy reign wou’d be

Did none adore, or prize thee more than me.

I see indeed, thy certain ruin near,

But can’t afford one parting sight, or tear,

Nor rail at Time, nor quarrel with my glass,

But unconcern’d can let thy glories pass.

(1689)                                      1713


Taken from British Women Poets 1660-1800: An Anthology ed. Joyce Fullard, (Troy, NY: Whitson Publishing, 1990).