In his introduction to Romantic Women Poets, Andrew Ashfield traces his own anthology's origins back to the late eighteenth-century national anthologies of British poets, such as those by Samuel Johnson, Robert Anderson, and Thomas Park. These national anthologies excluded women poets and established the canonical traditions that, two hundred years later, all of the volumes in this review are struggling to re-envision. The recent resurgence of critical interest in Romantic-period women writers, particularly poets, however, has materialized in a number of excellent and affordable new anthologies and resources for those who teach, study, or just love to read these remarkable poets.
As anyone who teaches Romantic-period women knows, new editions of forgotten works have been appearing over the last few years in such series as Oxford Women Writers in English, 1350-1850 and Broadview Literary Texts. Unfortunately, many of these editions, such as Oxford's Poems of Charlotte Smith, go our of print before they have a chance to be taught, making some of these modern editions even more ephemeral than their Romantic predecessors (Smith being a perfect example). Undoubtedly all of the anthologies in this review will not survive in the increasingly competitive market of Romantic women's writings, but certainly each contributes a distinct vision of these women writers that deserves to be taken into account. Those interested may browse the table of contents for many of these anthologies on the world wide web at Romantic Circles' Anthologies Page, edited by Harriet Kramer Linkin, Laura Mandell and Rita Railey.
Andrew Ashfield's Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838 Vol. 1 is a revised version of his 1995 first edition, one of the earliest and best editions of Romantic women poets. This collection's greatest virtue is its unabashed Romanticism—the editor "attempts to chart the possibilities of a female sublime or counter sublime" and succeeds wonderfully. While many scholars were developing innovative models of women's poetic identity that emphasized their quotidian subject matter, their emphasis on beauty, not the sublime, and their "anxiety of authorship," Ashfield's 1995 edition quietly asserted a very different vision of women poets' relationship to such canonical Romantic preoccupations as the sublime and the transcendent self. That scholarship has already begun to question these earlier models of women's evocations of the sublime (or lack thereof) no doubt in part reflects the influence of such anthologies and the neglected material they bring to light.
For complete and authoritative full-length texts by women Romantic poets look no further than Duncan Wu's Romantic Women Poets. Of all the anthologies discussed in this review, Wu's is the most useful and impressive as a collection of complete poems and in several cases, complete volumes of poems. For centuries these poems have appeared to us in fragmented, unrecognizable shapes, if at all. Now we can read entire volumes that are rightly given places of honor in their completeness: Mary Tighe's Psyche, Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon, Ann Batten Cristall's Poetical Sketches, to name just a few. Two complete volumes of Charlotte Smith's work are included (The Emigrants and Elegiac Sonnets (3rd edition), as well as the complete poem "Beachy Head"), making this anthology the single-best source for Smith's poetry now that the Oxford edition of her work is already out of print. Granted, some of these complete selections—e.g., Cristall and Robinson—are already available in reliable electronic editions free of charge from the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center, but readers without access to these electronic editions will find this edition invaluable. Wu prefaces each poet with an essay designed to place the works in intellectual, biographical and historical context, and these prefatory essays (re)establish an important new standard in how these often obscure writers are presented to modern readers. The prefatory essays also serve as useful introductions to current debates in the study of Romanticism as a whole, yet another benefit of this edition from a teaching perspective.
Paula Feldman's British Women Poets, like Wu's anthology, is noteworthy alone for the helpful introductory material prefacing each poet. Too often new readers of women's writing from this period are confronted with obscure names and titles, poets and poems adrift without any contextual material. Introducing poetry without its literary and biographical contexts clearly has certain aesthetic and intellectual advantages. However, one is rarely introduced to William Wordsworth's poetry in this way (as perhaps one should be), and the continuing cultural authority of canonical poets such as Wordsworth is found, in part, in the force of their proper name and its author function. It is about time that women's poetry spoke to us in such clear and distinct voices, which emerge from a remarkable range of lived experiences. Feldman's introductions to each writer establish important connections between poets, and her thorough bibliographies offer students and scholars useful directions for further study. This volume is especially rich in regional voices, in particular Scottish poets. Influential Scottish poets such as Anne Grant, Joanna Baillie, Baroness Nairne, and Lady Anne Lindsay are given their due alongside lesser-known figures such as Isobel Pagan, Janet Little, and Dorothea Primrose Campbell. Feldman's care in expanding the poetic genres included (her particular attention to popular forms such as airs and ballads is significant), as well as the range of English spoken, is much appreciated at a time when our understanding of women's poetry from this period is still nascent.
Women's Writing of the Romantic Period, 1789-1836, edited by Harriet Devine Jump, is commendable both for its diverse range of writers, and its range of genres, particularly prose genres such as diaries and journals, criticism, political essays, and travel writings. Many such writings in prose by women are rarely anthologized, and rarely taught, with the exception of such favorites as the political essays and travel letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, and the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. Devine Jump's introduction, selections, and chronological organization emphasize these writings' historical origins and concerns in the Romantic period, distinct from "Romanticism" as a critical construct. The chronological structure of this anthology, as of Jerome McGann's landmark New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, suits the editor's critique of Romanticism's centrality to the period as a whole, and it simultaneously resists the Romantic model of the author as autonomous, solitary genius. Despite Devine Jump's resistance to canonical Romantic expectations in her organization, she nevertheless identifies two generations of women writers: the first ten years, i.e., 1789-1799, characterized by radical and overtly politicized writings, followed by a rather vague "hiatus," and then a second wave in the 1820s, represented chiefly by Letitia Landon and Felicia Hemans, whose "poetry idealised domesticity... as central to a wide range of social and political conflict." As in so much recent work on women writers of the Romantic period, the temptation to develop such generational models, or gender-complementary models (e.g., "Feminine Romanticism"), or other such master narratives (e.g., the fall from political prose into "domestic" poetry) to encapsulate women's writing, seems irresistible. But that is precisely why we should resist. All such master narratives fail, in my opinion, because they are premature (the desirability of such narratives in general is another question entirely). We simply have not read enough of these texts in full, and have not generated enough scholarship, in order to claim, as Devine Jump does (following the groundbreaking work of Homans, Mellor, Curran, and Ross), that "women in this era lacked the leisure and above all the confidence needed to deal in transcendental absolutes" (xvi) such as "the cult of nature, the transcendental self, and the sublime" (xv). Foreclosing the examination of women writers' relationships to "Romanticism" by declaring that they were not and could not be Romantic does not seem like a genuinely useful suggestion at present. Ashfield's excellent Romantic Women Poets, to give but one example, focuses precisely on women's evocations of the sublime and of transcendence, absolutes which many women did in fact pursue and contemplate. Devine Jump's anthology is genuinely useful, in contrast, because it presents an alternative vision of women's writing from this period, a decidedly unRomantic one. We need both visions, and many more besides.Beyond its tendency to impose limiting models onto these women's writings, this volume's main shortcoming is the brevity of its extracts. Very few selections are complete, so that longer poems such as Charlotte Smith's "Beachy Head" or Mary Tighe's Psyche are unrecognizable in their anthologized form. This anthology is useful if one wanted to browse through a diverse selection of prose, but it is not recommended for teaching, or for its poetry in general, because its selections are so few and brief.
Teaching these writers is always an adventure, perhaps more so for Romanticists who must unlearn canonical assumptions than for our students, whose "sometimes maddening innocence," as Stuart Curran puts it, "may recapture the actual state of affairs of the period we purport to teach." Approaches to Teaching British Women Poets of the Romantic Period, edited by Stephen Behrendt and Harriet Kramer Linkin, from which Curran's quote is taken, is an excellent resource for teaching and thinking about these poets. This volume in the MLA's teaching series is both highly practical and imaginative in its approaches. Many of these short essays discuss medium as well as method: essays by Paula Feldman and Glenn Dibert-Himes, for example, stand out for their attention to the "multimedia" aspects (i.e., illustrations and music) of the poetry published in the giftbooks and annuals of the 1820s and 1830s. Other essays, such as those by Stuart Curran, and Jane King and Kari Lokke, survey the poets available in electronic databases such as the Brown University Women Writers Project and the British Women Romantic Poets Project at the University of California-Davis. In his essay on hypertext and Romantic women poets, Joel Haefner offers a brief and accessible overview of the benefits hypertext promises: its digital form and accessibility undermines the hegemony of the canon; it emphasizes the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of writing by establishing links between divergent texts; it is accessible to students and lends itself to interactive teaching; finally, its most Romantic attribute: "hypertext may reinforce two closely connected aspects of romanticism: associationism and the aesthetic of fragmentation" (48).
Canonical concepts such as Romantic subjectivity, the role of the poet, and the sublime are thoroughly covered in many essays designed to place these women poets in more familiar Romantic contexts: Catherine Burroughs on Joanna Baillie and the "plain order of things," Madeline Kahn on Anne Yearsley's model of the poet, and Nanora Sweet on Felicia Hemans and Romantic beauty and sublimity are three notable examples. Other essays draw important connections and distinctions between women poets. Anne Mellor's essay, for example, on the distinction between the "female poet" and the "poetess," departs in a new direction from her previous work by examining not the differences between male and female poets, but the equally important differences among women poets of the Romantic period. A consistent thread throughout some of the essays ( i.e., Nanora Sweet's and Susan Wolfson's) connects these poets to De Staël's Corinne, an intertextual tradition that will one day hopefully yield a separate volume of essays.
Looking beyond the Romantic period, Nineteenth-Century Women Poets, edited by Isobel Armstrong, Joseph Bristow, and Cath Sharrock, sees women's poetry along a continuum that spans several "periods." This collection provides a rich variety of women poets, who range from increasingly well known ones such as Hemans, Landon, Augusta Webster, and "Michael Field," to lesser known Victorian poets such as Dora Greenwell (who wrote poetry at once passionate and religious), Emily Pfeiffer (a feminist poet who enjoyed popularity in her lifetime), Maria Jane Jewsberry (author of the exquisite Oceanides, included in part here, as in Ashfield's volume), and Janet Hamilton (a self-taught Lanarkshire poet). The poets are arranged chronologically, which aids in breaking down the boundaries between the Romantic and Victorian "periods," boundaries which typically serve the male poets they were designed to accommodate, but not female poets, who often wrote across such generational lines. Although slanted slightly toward the latter part of the century (with fewer poets represented from the Romantic period), this anthology is an excellent resource for examining the rich interconnections between nineteenth-century poets, and for examining the (often gendered) issues central to periodization. Such impressive and distinctive archives of women's writings from the Romantic period are certain to inspire even more interest in these writers and in the remarkable time in which they wrote.