In British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community, author Stephen C. Behrendt dates the Romantic period from 1770 to 1830 and labels it “a poetry-mad era” (13). Poetry was widely read and published by both women and men, with over ten thousand volumes printed in that span of sixty years. According to Behrendt it was “a period of conspicuous consumption in which seemingly everyone could participate both as consumer and creator” (13). This sentiment is echoed by Paula R. Feldman, editor of the anthology British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. She writes “Poetry pervaded everyday life then in a way we can barely begin to comprehend today” (xxvi). This period as one of prolific poetry consumption is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and discussion of Romantic poetry is often limited to what is referred to as the “big six” – Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
The lack of mention of women poets during the Romantic period might cause one to conclude their contributions were insignificant, or perhaps that most women published their work anonymously in order for it to be viewed on an equal status with men. But neither was the case. According to Feldman, “women poets were, as their contemporary John Hamilton Reynolds nervously acknowledged, a force to be reckoned with in early-nineteenth-century Britain” (xxv). Feldman calls them major players and serous competitors whose “poetry was reviewed in the most prestigious journals, respected by discerning readers, reprinted, imitated, anthologized, sung, memorized for recitation, copied into commonplace books, and bought by the public” (xxv). These women poets were from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, but most printed their work under their real names. In the article “Women Poets and Anonymity in the Romantic Era,” Feldman notes “during the period 1770-1835, women rarely published books of verse anonymously” (279). Feldman notes that sometimes a new writer would publish anonymously to test the waters and wealthy, aristocratic women often did not print their names in their books “for fear of diminishing their social status by appearing to be ‘in trade’” (279). Even those women often signed copies for friends and family, thus breaking the anonymity of the work.
It would also be remiss to conclude that women poets centered the subject of their work around their personal sphere of the home. Behrendt quotes Anne Mellor’s view that “women writers participated in the same discursive public sphere and in the same formation of public opinion as did their male peers” (9). According to Mellor, women writers felt a responsibility “for defining the future direction of public policy and social reform” and “asserted both the right and the duty of women to speak for the nation” (9). Of course, this doesn’t mean all women shared the same views. Some were conservative, others liberal; some pro-feminism, others anti-feminism; some pro-war, others against it. Writer Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825) declined an invitation in 1804 by Maria Edgeworth to help her start a periodical of literature by women. Barbauld offered to contribute but stated “there is no bond of union among literary women, any more than among literary men; different sentiments and different connections separate them much more than the joint interest of their sex would unite them” (British Women, 54). Feldman agrees that there is no common ideology among these women authors, but states it is useful to study them as a group because all of their varied perspectives of the world were shaped by a personal struggle with patriarchal constraints (British Women, xxviii). These constraints are still apparent today as evidenced by the lack of representation these women poets have in the literary canon.
Behrendt, Stephen C. British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community. Johns Hopkins UP, 2009.
Feldman, Paula R., editor. British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
Feldman, Paula R. “Women Poets and Anonymity in the Romantic Era.” New Literary History, vol. 33, no. 2, 2002, pp. 279-89.
Links are provided for other websites as they are referenced
In addition to the lack of representation in the literary canon, there is also a lack of availability when it comes to accessing electronic texts of British women poets from the Romantic period. This became a challenge both in focusing this essay and then building a corpus. Feldman’s anthology features sixty-two poets. Building a corpus with a decent representation of each poet is too time-consuming for this project, especially as the anthology is not available in an electronic format. The British Women Romantic Poets Archive, an electronic collection of texts from the University of California, Davis is currently being transitioned to a new home and is unavailable. One thought was to choose the top ten most prolific/popular of the women poets from the anthology and work to build a corpus which could be analyzed for comparisons and contrasts in areas such as subject matter and vocabulary. This was problematic because some of the women only had a limited amount of their texts available online and creating an equal representation of each woman proved too difficult.
In reading some of the women’s work, war poems stood out as one subject common among many of them. A corpus was then built in the following manner.
The list of poems, the authors, and dates written/published can be downloaded below.
The remainder of this essay will focus on how digital tools can both enhance the research and provide new areas of study.
This timeline provides a brief overview of Britain at war from 1793 to 1815. Wars included are the French Revolution, The Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Each spot on the timeline links to a Wikipedia page for more information. Tools such as this can be used in a multi-modal essay to add visuals, like the war paintings included here. It is also a way to link to larger amounts of information for readers interested in learning more.
As noted on the story map, only a few of the women writers are included. A picture has been provided of each poet and they have been placed at or near their places of birth just to be consistent with a location. Some of the women lived in the same place their entire lives, while others traveled and moved extensively. A link has been provided to learn more about each woman. With more time, additional authors could be included and a bio written for each one in addition to the links.
The word cloud displays the frequency of words in the corpus, with the more frequent words appearing larger. The view can be changed to look at the terms in list form. After uploading the corpus and viewing the terms, I edited the stop-words to include the following: ev'ry, ye, shall, o'er, oh, ah, tis, like, thine, th, lo, and tho.
The Top Twenty Words
heart - 32
war - 30
soul - 28
fame - 26
light - 26
death - 24
eye - 24
peace - 24
fair - 23
sons - 22
van - 22
high - 21
let - 21
life - 21
long - 21
blood - 20
hand - 20
bright - 19
earth - 19
eyes - 19
Generating a list of the most frequent terms can guide new areas of study. Although the corpus is limited, the dates of the poems represent the range of the war years. It is not surprising that war, peace, death, and blood are prevalent. Heart is the most frequent word at thirty-two occurrences, but if you added “eye” and “eyes” together, it would top the list with forty-three. It is an unexpected word that could warrant further investigation. Fame is not as unexpected because during war it is some men and leaders seek (fame and glory), but it is an interesting theme that may not have been noticed before. A similar corpus of men’s war poems could be created to compare frequent words. It would be interesting to note where words such as heart, soul, and sons would be on their list, if at all.
The above table offers a list of terms that appear more frequently in proximity to keywords across the entire corpus. This can be useful in helping to quickly understand the context in which a word is used. For example, heart is connected to fear four times and eye is connected to tear and glance three times each.
Again, a larger corpus would make for a more complete study, but even a small sampling like this can provide a researcher with new ideas.
The use of digital tools in the research and presentation of women poets of the British Romantic era is beneficial, but overall this is a large-scale project. Building a corpus that equally reflects the talented and prolific women of this period would take much more time than allotted for this essay. It would also be beneficial to keep data as an available open-source. The brief look given by this essay could have likely been enhanced if the archive from the University of California had been available. Overall, this work is necessary and would be beneficial towards creating a canon more reflective of the time period.