ENL 6236 Eighteenth Century Women Writers                   Spring 2009


March 9           Anna Letitia Barbauld, Selected Poetry and Prose

Jones, chapter 2, “Eighteenth-century Femininity: ‘A Supposed Sexual Character,” by Harriet Guest

Recommended:  Staves Chapter 6 and Backscheider’s treatment of Barbauld’s poems, various pages.

                        Presentations:               Donna French



We have the rare opportunity to discuss a poet in a volume of her own this week.  Consequently, there are a great number of works to read.  I ask you to read the following with particular care and otherwise gather a good sense of the range and artistry represented by the remainder of the volume.  The article by Guest speaks directly to Barbauld’s reception history and so will be of importance for discussion.


***General Note *** if you encounter any names or terms that you do not recognize and that are not adequately rendered in the notes, please do some searching to get the information needed.  The appendix may provide some answers. The OED, Encyclopaedia Brittanica and the Biography Index are all available on-line through the Virtual Library.



Selections to read with care:



To a Lady with some Painted Flowers

To Dr. Aiken…

The Mouse’s Petition

Verses on Mrs. Rowe

Epistle to Mr. Enfield

Epistle to William Wilberforce

The Rights of Woman

To Mr. S. T. Coleridge

Washing Day

To a Little Invisible Being…

Eighteen Hundred and Eleven



An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts

Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation…

From The British Novelists – selected pieces, but especially those on female novelists





Notes and Questions:


Evaluate the edition.  How useful are the selections?  How responsible is the editing?  What are their source texts and methods of modifying the text?  How are the works presented?  Examine the contents of the appendix.  How useful is the information presented here?  What system do they follow for annotation?  How would you rate the quality of the introduction and notes?  What seems to be the aim of the editors?  To what extent do they achieve it?  What are the limitations of the edition – what’s missing?  How might you improve it?


Reviewer’s immediately noticed Barbauld’s (Aiken’s) difference from previous female poets in 1773 (as noted in the introduction and the article by Guest).  In particular they noted her “masculine understanding” and complained that she did not write of feminine sentiment and love.  Of the poems you have read, what strikes you as distinct about her poetry?  What, if anything, is “masculine”? 


In part, the debate around Barbauld’s “femininity” – detailed by Guest – necessitates our careful historicization of the categories of gender.  We can begin with Barbauld’s own writing.  How does she construct the categories of masculine and feminine behavior or character?  To what extent does this change from the time of her 1773 Poems to the political writings of the 1790s?  How?


Many scholars have commented on the apparent conflict between Wollstonecraft and Barbauld begun in the former’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and answered in the latter’s poem “The Rights of Woman”.  To what extent do you believe this poem serves as an answer to Wollstonecraft?  What other possibilities exist?  What is the tone of the poem?  How do you reckon the conclusion:  “That separate rights are lost in mutual love”? (See page 131).


Guest writes: “Barbauld’s ‘Rights of Woman’ is, I think, a troubling text because its use of the language of rights seems to pull it in a different direction to its conclusion, and to emphasise a kind of violence in the language at odds with the praise of mutual love” (51).


How might this poem function as a companion piece to poems by earlier female poets on gallantry and beauty?  Take for example Anne Finch’s “Clarinda’s Indifference at her parting beauty,” LMWM’s “Saturday,” or Leapor’s “An Essay on Woman”?


The editors of the volume provide essential information on the Dissenting tradition to which Barbauld belonged.  What role does Dissent play in the representation of education?  The natural world?  The rights of all living things?  Political issues of the Test and Corporation Acts, slavery and the rights of women?


Education became Barbauld’s vocation in many ways.  How do her writings reflect the function of education?  What type of education does she propose?  What role, if any, does gender play in her representation of education?


Despite her avowed modesty, Barbauld was one of the first and most successful professional female writers.  What evidence for this success does the volume provide?  How would you rate her “professionalism” against that of Aphra Behn (the only other writer for whom we have a devoted volume)?  What historical and political factors affect the difference?  To what extent does she model the life of a professional poet as outlined by Backscheider?


Both the editors for this volume and Guest recognize maternity as important issue in Barbauld’s writings.  How does maternity enter her writings?  To what extent is this a social or political function (as opposed to a purely or merely biological function)?  How does this differ from other writers that deal with maternal issues – one thinks of Barber, for instance?


Discuss Barbauld’s political writings – what impact do they make?  In what ways does her perspective as a “Dissenter” overlap with that of a woman—or not?  What do her political writings have in common – what themes do they share?  What rhetorical strategies?  What differences?


While Doody has emphasized how the eighteenth-century shift in consciousness toward Lockean empiricism favored the reception of domestic poetry by women, critics like Jane Rendall (quoted in Guest) and Naomi Schor (Reading in Detail) have suggested that the aesthetic of the particular, the intimate, the detail and the domestic is equivocally related to the feminine.  This happens at a time when the sublime – invested in the transcendent, the abstract, the unknowable extreme – dominates aesthetic theory.  How does this shift in taste mirror the types of gendered spheres argument represented by Barbauld’s “bounded sphere”?  How does it inform her own use of the particular (as opposed to the abstract) in her poems?


What literary influences can you identify in her work?  For instance, examine the mock-epic of “Washing Day” for its relationship to Milton (blank-verse, Paradise Lost) and Pope (mock-epic, Rape of the Lock).


How would you describe Barbauld’s relationship to and representation of other women authors?  As Backscheider and Staves have said about other authors, Rowe receives conspicuous praise.  Why?


And in tandem with the above, evaluate her literary criticism in the selections from the British Novelists.  Note that these writings are roughly contemporaneous with the poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.”  How do they compare?  Taken together, what do they say about the mind of this accomplished lady of letters?


Based on your readings, evaluate Barbauld’s place in the literary canon.  What are her achievements?  What works deserve anthologizing and teaching?  How would you place her in terms of “schools” or “movements”?  Of finally is there a better way to classify her?