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.
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