In praise of unknown metre maids

July 21, 1995

David Charter reports on the critical rediscovery of long-neglected women poets.

Wordsworth's wandering lonely days are over. The image of the solitary Romantic hero, busy communing with nature and osmoting verse from the clouds, can never be the same again. The women poets are coming.

Actually they have been re-emerging at an increasing pace for the past decade, a development marked by seminal anthologies (such as Roger Lonsdale's 18th-Century Women Poets) and, more recently, single-author volumes reviving the forgotten female voices from three centuries. According to one of their most dedicated advocates, Birkbeck professor of English Isobel Armstrong, no one will ever be able to read Wordsworth, or Coleridge, or Keats, in quite the same way.

The revolution in reading Romantic and Victorian verse enters a new phase this week with Rethinking Women's Poetry, the first international conference of its kind (at Birkbeck College, London). Its origins lie in Armstrong's visit to Australia in 1992 where she met co-organiser Virginia Blain from Macquarie University. Its development has run in parallel with Armstrong's own project to mine forgotten literary gems from British Library archives for her own anthology. Once she had started, a rich seam of work emerged. So it was with the call for conference papers. The organisers expected 30 but were deluged with more than 120, trimmed to 72 for the three-day event.

Armstrong is zealously enthusiastic about the work, both contemporary and rediscovered. "The past decade has seen a complete transformation, not just of the study of the 18th and 19th centuries, but really a complete transformation of English studies. It is not just a question of adding an extra 100 writers into the canon, it is really a sense of restructuring what one's sense of literary history has been."

A new way of reading this work is necessary, says Armstrong, and this is the great aim of the conference. "They don't read like male Romantic poets. They have a different diction, they have different preoccupations, they have a different politics."

Theories for the disappearance of female authors centre on the canon being created by the male establishment and the fact that the sentiment and sensibility associated with women's writing simply went out of fashion.

Armstrong adds: "The temptation of many people before this exciting decade was to say that this is just sweet-scented gush really, it is not serious like male Romantic or Victorian or Modernist poetry. I am sure that what will come out of the conference are radical new paradigms for thinking about poetry and poetic language."

Just one example of the "lost" writing, "Old Age" by Eliza Keary from her 1874 collection, might serve as a metaphor for the emancipation of all this work from its prison of ancient archives. "Such a wizened creature,/ Sitting alone;/ Every kind of ugliness thrown/ Into each feature./ 'I wasn't always so,'/ Said the wizened/ One; 'sweet motions unimprisoned/ Were mine long ago.'" And again, "'I shall be/ At least something/ Out of this outside me, shall wing/ Itself fair and free.'" The revived female portfolio has tended either to face assimilation by the traditional male canon or to be read in the vacuum of a "women's tradition", both approaches likely to be challenged this week. "What this conference is going to do is negotiate between these two strategies and find new ones," says Armstrong.

Valerie Rumbold, senior lecturer at the University of Wales at Bangor, who is presenting a paper on 18th-century Irish poet Mary Barber, believes the rediscovered women's work destroys any notion that there can or should be a poetry canon. "I don't think the issue is about trying to find some big female stars," says Rumbold. "It could be argued the study of male writers has been damaged by a canonical process which seems to be obsessed with finding stars and hailing them as geniuses."

Again, Rumbold feels no special pleading is needed for the rediscovered work. She says undergraduates are "rapturous" about the Lonsdale anthology. "One student really touched me when she said that if it were not for that book she would have left," says Rumbold.

Admittedly gender-centred studies can face the charge of ghettoisation but there is a genuine sense of inclusiveness and genre rethinking going on at the Birkbeck conference. One of the seven male contributors (out of 79), David Shuttleton from Aberystwyth, says: "I find that increasingly it is a matter of inclusion. Men are being asked to change and alter their perceptions and I hope they are doing that. The old view was that women poets were simply emulating the masculine tradition but we now find they were doing exciting things themselves."

Shuttleton's own paper identifies ways in which Bath-based poet Mary Chandler seems to have influenced Pope's Essay on Man, specifically through her poem On Solitude. Armstrong adds: "It is always taken to be the case that male poets had a profound philosophical project - and they did - coming out of the revolutionary changes and late Enlightenment politics. That is instanced in particular by the crises of The Prelude and yet Wordsworth was not alone in writing this amazing philosophical poetry."

She believes undergraduates will not in future be able to read The Prelude without considering Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head (published posthumously in 1807). Both lived through disappointment with the French Revolution.

Wordsworth's epic spiritual autobiography (1805 version) opens with the lines: "O there is blessing in this gentle breeze,/ That blows from the green fields and from the clouds/ And from the sky; it beats against my cheek,/ And seems half conscious of the joy it gives."

Smith's magnum opus begins: "On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!/ That o'er the channel reared, half way at sea/ The mariner at early morning hails,/ I would recline; while Fancy should go forth,/ And represent the strange and awful hour/ Of vast concussion; when the Omnipotent/ Stretched forth his arm, and rent the solid hills . . ."

Armstrong comments: "Smith is considering this towering rock and its dominions whereas Wordsworth's is all about his own psychological emancipation and its complexities. Her imagination moves beyond itself into the primeval geological upheaval. It is about shock and catastrophe in a way that Wordsworth is not.

"They think differently. I think the two have to be seen in conjunction, partly as Wordsworth knew Smith and knew her work. It as if we have been reading a kind of amputated tradition when half the available textual relationship has disappeared.

"I hope a result of the conference will be to start something new. I realise it is hubristic, but this is important because literary studies is about being fully human."

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