The British Female Poets:
with Biographical and Critical Notes.
by Geo. W. Bethune.



Geo. W. Bethune




Literatur: Bethune
Literatur: Anthologie


[III] THE following Volume contains the Editor's gatherings during a leisurely excursion through a most pleasant department of English literature. The manifestation of female talent is a striking characteristic of our age, and a very interesting proof of its moral advancement. Clever and even learned women had appeared in the course of the last century, and a few, "far between," yet earlier; but they were, when at all successful as writers, rather pelted by the gallantry of their contemporaries because of their gentler sex, than admitted to the high society of wits for their actual merits; nor did they, scarcely one excepted, deserve greater consideration. The last hundred, especially the last fifty years, have demonstrated, that as there are offices necessary to the elegant perfection of society, which can be discharged only by the delicate and more sensitive faculties of woman, so her graceful skill can shed charms over letters, which man could never diffuse. In all pertaining to the affections, which constitute the best part of human nature, we readily confess her superiority; it is, therefore, consistent with her character that the genius of woman should yield peculiar delight when its themes are love, child hood, the softer beauties of creation, the joys or sorrows of the heart, domestic life, mercy, religion, and the instincts of justice. Hence her excellence in the poetry of the sensibilities. There are instances of her boldly entering the sphere of man, and asserting strong claims to share the honours of his sterner engagements; but the Daciers, De Staels, and Hannah Mores, are variations from the rule prescribed by a wise Providence. The much-vexed question as to the superiority of male or female intellect, is one that should never be discussed, because the premises are so different that it can never be settled. As well might we compare the vine, with its curling tendrils, its broad-leaved convolutions and delicious clusters, to the oak, that is destined for the architrave or the storm-daring ship. The trees of the forest go down before the tempest; the vine lives on, to cover with foliage the ruin of the shaft around which it twined. We are pained to see a woman toiling in the sun or the cold; but what were man's labour worth, if he had no home where woman reigned in her realm of affection? Yet within that home are trials, cares, duties and difficulties, to which only woman's tact, conscience and endurance are equal. Faith is the highest exercise of reason, hope the best practice of faith; but charity is the greatest of the three; and we do woman honour when we consider charity, in its widest sense, as peculiarly her attribute. The records of literature confirm this position.

[IV] When few women mingled in the circle of authors, the men, however mighty their powers, were often coarse, and their female associates as similated to the general fashion; but now, when they meet in more equal numbers, there is a refinement of feeling and a delicacy of expression unknown to the pages of any former age. What the elevation of woman has done for the reform of social manners, her educated mind is doing for our books.

Nothing shows the superiority of women in our day to those of past centuries, more than a comparison of their writings. For this reason, specimens will be given of their verse, from the earliest known, Juliana Berners, down to the latest issues from the British press: and it will readily be seen how insignificant even "the matchless Orinda" is by the side of those least distinguished among her modern sisters; nor has care been omitted to preserve something from the pens of some who derived celebrity from the mention of their names by the better authors of their day, as the Mrs. Williams of Dr. Johnson, or the Lactilla of Hannah More; since, little merit as their productions may have, they possess an interest from such accidental circumstances, and serve to show how small a portion of talent then made a woman remarkable. In fact, our volume aims at a higher merit than that which belongs to a mere compilation of extracts, and presents a history of female English poetry.

It is painful to observe how many of the writers, sketches of whose lives are hereafter given, have been unhappy in their domestic histories. In what way shall we account for this? Statistical analogy will not suffer a belief that Providence assigns to literary women worse husbands than to those of any other class; yet, certainly a far greater proportion of literary wives have asked our sympathy for their sorrows. Perhaps Æsop's moral, that "the lions have no painters," has some application here; as we usually get but one side of the story; and it is difficult to impeach the justice of complaints breathed forth in eloquent numbers. There are also, doubtless, many cases in which the unhappiness was the occasion of making the authoress. A happy wife and mother, cheerfully busy in her well ordered household, has little leisure and less inclination to solicit the notice of the world beyond her threshold, leaving us ignorant of "the sweet Sappho in a housewife lost." Quintilian says, that the Gracchi "owed their eloquence as much as their birth to their mother;" nor can we doubt that there is many a Cornelia in our own more fortunate times, who can point to her sons and say, "these are my BOOKS;" for few mothers, however successful in its practice, have written upon the theory of education, while scores of unmarried ladies have elaborated tomes to prove the truth of the Scotch proverb: "Maidens' bairns are a' weel guided." Servants may be governed with kindly discretion, and family tables made elegant with savoury viands, by those who have never written essays on domestic commonwealths, like Miss Sedgwick, or a cookery book, like Miss Leslie. Besides, the harmony of married life depends very much upon a due proportion of character in the husband and the wife. A man is ordinarily satisfied with affectionate gentleness from his chosen partner, and, if she makes him happy, asks no more; a woman seeks for similar kindness, but also for distinction in her husband. When, [V] therefore, a woman of talent finds herself linked to a dull, prosaic mortal, incapable of appreciating the high-wrought sentiments which fan the fires of genius, and only known to the world as the one whose name she has dignified with the matronly prefix, it is not difficult to guess that her disgust will soon be manifested and provoke harshness in return, until each sighs for a quiet "dinner of herbs on the housetop." This tendency may be increased by exalted ideas of a husband's devotion, and the paradisiacal delights of wedded love, such as are seldom found except in some sun-lighted mansion of cloud. The gates of Eden are still shut against our Eves and Adams. Dinners do not grow "spontaneous on umbrageous trees," nor flower-beds suffice for comfortable couches; but kitchens and laundries are among the consequences of the fall. The Adam who has been toiling all day, digging the illiberal earth with the sweat on his face, is but too apt, at evening, to crave a refreshment more substantial than fruits of the imagination; and though his Eve be a tenth muse, if she be nothing less supernatural, the chances are that they may both taste the bitter "fruit of the knowledge of evil." Poor Phillis Wheatley, the sable poetess of Boston, after supping with Horace at his Sabine farm, broke her heart because her brute of a husband insisted upon her learning more domestic accomplishments; and it is, doubtless, true, that the restlessness of genius, its impatience of steady rules, its morbid sensitiveness, have unfitted many a literary woman in higher life for the every day and every hour exactions of home. Flattery is as necessary to an author as oil to a lamp; and the contrast between the brilliant conversazione, when she was incensed with applauses, and the dulness of her own fireside, is a severe trial of her domestic virtues. Public exhibition of any kind rarely fails to impair the feminineness, which is the true cestus of woman's power over man's heart; and it were as easy to pass through a furnace seven times heated, without harm, as through an acclaiming crowd. Some there are who have endured the ordeal and not a smell of fire lingered on their garments; but an angel was with them in the flames. These remarks are not made in a spirit of unfeeling censure toward those gifted women, whose trials of heart have been made sadly illustrious by their talent; not a few of whom deserve, as they receive, unqualified sympathy; but it is hardly fair to make their remarkable experience, in every case, the fault only of their husbands. At least we may suspect some of them of imprudence in their choice, or of mismanagement afterwards.

It is certainly remarkable on the other hand, that, when literary women have been united to men of similar tastes (as the everlasting Duchess of Newcastle, delightful Mary Howitt, who calls her husband "my literary associate for more than a quarter of a century, and my best friend," and she, who changed a name which thousands had loved her by, to be the gentle nurse of Southey's declining years), their intellectual pursuits only served to enhance the charms of their homes. Habits of authorship cannot in themselves be unfavourable to women's healthfulness of body or mind, as the extreme old age which many of them, especially those who have been unmarried or a long time widows, show; for example, Miss Carter, Mrs. Grant, Hannah More, the "octogenarian" coquette, Mrs. Piozzi, who passed the mortal limit of fourscore; Miss Edgeworth, [VI] Miss Porter, and Joanna Baillie, who yet live. The moral of the whole is, that genius is not necessarily incompatible with a woman's happiness, particularly if it be governed by common sense.

The prominent fault of female poetical writers is an unwillingness to apply the pruning-knife and the pumice-stone. They write from impulse, and rapidly as they think. The strange faculty, which women have, of reaching conclusions (and, in the main, safe conclusions) without the slow process of reasoning through which men have to pass; the strong moral instincts with which their nature is endowed, far above that of the other sex; their keen and discerning sensibility to the tender, the beautiful and the luxuriant, render them averse to critical restraints. With the exception of Joanna Baillie and Mrs. Tighe, scarcely any of them seem to have inverted their pen. As the line came first to the brain, so it was written; as it was written, so it was printed. Mrs. Hemans's melody was as much improvisation as Miss Landon's; Mrs. Butler disdains to chip off her roughest corners; Mrs. Norton exults in the swiftness of her strength, and Miss Barrett glories in her expedients to save time, though they be false rhymes or distorted syllables. A due degree of condescension to take more pains would have gained for either of these ladies an increase of excellence, which even their genius might covet.

The editor has purposely omitted selections from several of the older female writers of rhyme, and more of the multitude in the present age, taking as he passed along, only those of real merit or accidental distinction, to show the progress of feminine talent; and reserving the bulk of the book for more copious extracts from those whose writings are most Highly appreciated for moral and poetical excellence. Thus, while a due regard has been paid to antiquarian curiosity, our book presents a treasury of well nigh all the best pieces from the pens of the British female poets; which will be more to the general taste. The number of women writing occasionally for magazines or annuals, is beyond count, and an interesting book might be compiled from such sources; but it has been judged most for the reader's benefit that we should confine ourselves chiefly to the list of those whose poems have been published or collected in separate volumes of their own.

In the selection of the pieces, the first object has been to give fair examples of each writer's peculiar characteristics; and, where the rule could be followed without too great loss, those which are more frequently met wich have been put aside for pieces of equal merit less familiar to the reader; and, if they be to his taste, the editor will congratulate himself on his own, since his only claim for thanks, as his only merit, is having furnished the string which binds the flowers together. If any should censure him as being too lenient in his criticisms, and unsparing in his praise, his only excuse is that he has more pleasure in giving credit than in detraction, and gladly suffered the chaff to be blown away, while he secured the golden grains. Finding fault is ever an unwelcome office, but especially distasteful to an American when a lady is the subject.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The British Female Poets:
with Biographical and Critical Notes.
by Geo. W. Bethune.
Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston 1848, S. III-VI.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).





Literatur: Bethune

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Literatur: Anthologie

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer