Romantic-Era Irish Women Poets in English: a K-SAA ‘What Are You Reading?’ Special, Part 1.
We’ve been delighted to have so many wonderful contributors to our ‘What Are You Reading?’ series on the K-SAA Blog. We’re very excited to present the first of two posts by Professor Stephen Behrendt to mark the publication of his edited collection of poetry, Romantic-Era Irish Women Poets in English.
Behrendt’s collection publishes a range of understudied poems written by Irish women throughout the Romantic period. This is the first collection focusing on these forgotten poets, and demonstrates the importance of their work in broader contexts, including Irish literature, female writing of the Romantic period, and gender studies.
Described by critics as ‘ambitious’ and ‘impressive’, and lauded as ‘a rich treasure-trove of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Irish women’s poetry’, the collection will undoubtedly be used by students, scholars, and read for pleasure for many years to come.
Below, Behrendt discusses further the reasons for his creating this edition, alongside details a few of the women and their works who are contained within his collection. The second part of this special ‘What Are You Reading?’ will be published on April 26.
Contemporary Irish women poets are widely known and highly regarded on today’s international literary scene – and rightly so. Interest in both mainstream and avant-grade women poets isn’t confined merely to literary scholars, either, but includes those “general readers” anxious to explore these poets’ diverse and eloquent voices and their unique perspectives on Irish women’s individual and collective experience.
But what about their early foremothers, poets who were publishing actively some two-plus centuries ago, in the heady age of Romanticism and a rekindling of Irish nationalism. While some names – like Mary Tighe and Mary Leadbeater – remain well known, most have been largely lost, even though nearly fifty Irish women poets published in book form between 1775 and 1835. Their poems reveal both their remarkable poetic versatility and their conspicuous activism on diverse political, religious and socio-economic themes, and on subjects ranging from intimate domestic affairs to broadly public scientific, civic and cultural matters.
For those who associate Irish women’s poetry with the later nineteenth century and beyond, my edited and carefully annotated collection, Romantic-Era Irish Women Poets in English, the first such gathering of women’s poetry from the period, is that proverbial eye-opener that reveals a vibrant community of poetic voices engaged in a lively conversation in print. I am both a poet myself and the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. For many years I have been engaged in the recovery and reassessment of historically marginalized Romantic-era women poets and have published widely on them.
While working on my acclaimed 2009 book, British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community, I was struck by the absence of commentary or even historical records concerning all but a few Irish women poets and I undertook to set the historical and literary-critical record straight. The present book, just published by Cork University Press, presents a particularly generous selection of these poets’ works, including numerous longer poems, that have in most cases gone virtually unseen for some two centuries. The poems are carefully annotated and introduced in accessible fashion, together with an equally accessible general introduction that sets the poems and their authors within a variety of historical, cultural and poetic contexts.
Included are long poems like Melesina Trench’s extraordinary Laura’s Dream; or, The Moonlanders (1816), the first science fiction poem in English by a woman, published two years before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appeared, and Mӓon: An Irish Tale, a long narrative in the style of “antique” Irish bardic verse, written by Charlotte Brooke, the antiquarian scholar and linguist whose Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789) was a key document in the recuperation of a native Gaelic poetic tradition. Included, too, are explicitly political long poems like The Lemon (1797), the Irish nationalist Henrietta Battier’s rousing Swiftian satirical attack on the Protestant Ascendancy’s colonialist oppressions. These poets’ socio-political activism is evident elsewhere: in Mary Alcock’s “The Confined Debtor” (1775), for instance, and the young Mary Birkett’s powerful abolitionist Poem on the African Slave Trade, Addressed to Her Own Sex (1792); or in Anne Bristow’s harrowing tale of Bethlem Hospital, “The Maniac” (1810) and Mary McDermott’s “Our Sister Land” (1829).
Other poems adopt the lyrical mode to explore interpersonal relationships within the circles in which these authors moved, often tracing the culture of gift-giving: Mary Balfour’s two poems about the gifts of plant seedlings, for example, or Charlotte Dixon’s poem on giving a Patrick’s Cross to a friend who is leaving Ireland. Other, more poignant, poems mark that all-too-common phenomenon of the death of children, as Hannah Morison and Melesina Trench do, while still others like Mary Leadbeater and Eliza Ryan remember the horrors of the 1798 rising. Nor are the voices of laboring-class women absent. Poets like the impoverished elderly Irish cottager and former housemaid Ellen Taylor and the transplanted Irishwoman Frances O’Neill working in domestic service in London ruefully – and movingly – record the disparity between their poetic aspirations and their humbled circumstances, while others like the Ulster spinner Sarah Leech celebrate wee creatures like a cricket and a mouse in idiomatic verse reminiscent of Robert Burns.
These names are undoubtedly unfamiliar to most readers. The “greatest hits” mentality of anthologizers and academics alike inevitably reduces and constrains the lively diversity of the world of poetry, erasing more and more poems, silencing more and more voices. In reality, though, the poets whose works appear in Romantic-Era Irish Women Poets in English never entirely “disappeared”: they were always “right there,” along with their works, hidden in plain sight. How and why they came to be “hidden,” “overlooked” or “marginalized” is part of the larger story of women, art, history and culture that remains central to the writing of Irish women and their communities still today – a story whose irreversible evolution thrives in the voices of the descendants of those extraordinary Romantic-era Irish women poets. This timely new collection helps us to rediscover and revisit what has seemed to have been lost but what has really only been just beyond our sight.
Stephen Behrendt is George Holmes Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, USA. He has published widely on women’s writing of the Romantic period, Scottish and Irish Romanticism, and radical politics.