Romantic-Era Irish Women Poets in English: a K-SAA ‘What Are You Reading?’ Special, Part 2.
As a part of our ‘What Are You Reading?’ series on the K-SAA Blog, we’re delighted to present a Q&A with Professor Stephen Behrendt to mark the publication of his new work, Romantic-Era Irish Women Poets in English.
Behrendt’s collected edition is the first to represent a wide range of female Irish poets active during the Romantic period all in one volume. It has been described by critics as ‘a rich treasure-trove of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Irish women’s poetry’. You can read the first part of this special edition post here, where Behrendt discusses his work in more detail. In the second part, we asked Professor Behrendt about archival finds, his interest in Irish female poets, and, of course, what he is currently reading!
What initially sparked your interest in Irish female poets of the Romantic period, and how did the idea for your edited collection of poetry come about?
I’ve been seriously involved in recovery and reassessment of Romantic-era women writers (and the poets in particular) since the early 1990s, when I began including them in significant numbers when I taught “British Romantic Poetry” (as it is usually called). Since I had never made the acquaintance of any of the Romantic-era women poets during my undergraduate courses or in most of my graduate ones, I simply began finding my way to them more or less “on my own,” following hints and suggestions from Stuart Curran and Paula Feldman and Anne Mellor and other early “pathfinders.”
When I began including women poets in my Romantic poetry course I replaced the familiar author-by-author model with an alternative arrangement that placed men and women poets together in virtual “conversation.” I arranged my course by clusters of thematically related constellations: poems on or about: “family and children,” “war and its costs and consequences,” “varieties of heroism,” “the natural world,” “social and economic politics,” “religion and spirituality,” “friendship and love,” etc. This procedure strengthened my conviction that Romantic writers (and artists and thinkers and movers-and-shakers) can profitably be studied as a community of writers – and in fact as multiple communities that overlapped in some cases and diverged widely in others. Students, I quickly learned, were increasingly excited to discover that there was far more to the Romantic poetry scene than just those (very few) male poets who made up the standard course syllabus. And, to my delight, these newly engaged students warmed to the idea of regarding “Romantic poetry” as a diverse and multivocal conversation in print. So that was an exciting time, and I simply kept reading, myself, and expanding and reconfiguring my syllabi.
That’s also when I began to write seriously about the women poets. Like so many of us who followed that path, I was appalled that so much fine poetry had seemingly been lost to the dusty shelves of research libraries and to the reductivist whims of traditional canon-makers. I found myself increasingly committed to convincing students, scholars and “general readers” that the whole landscape of British Romantic literature was much more varied and interesting than most of us had been led to believe. And so – off I went, all the while keeping my “other foot” in the more canonical part of the Romantic field where Blake and the Shelleys and Wordsworth lived. That kept me honest, in many ways, and – more important – it kept me involved and committed.
Why the Irish poets, though? For one thing, I’ve always objected to the fact that anthologies of “British” literature are seldom all that “British” in any literary-ecumenical way: non-“English” writers are few and far between, and when they do get included it’s usually in some slighting fashion akin to the way women poets tended to be consigned to a little section at the end (of course) of the male poets, and lumped under a group heading like “Minor Lyric Poets.” So, again, I set out to see what I could do to counteract this unfortunate pattern of marginalization. I began making a point of exploring with my students the implications of national (and even regional) identities for how we approach and assess the writers we study.
Several years ago I was asked to contribute to a collection of essays on Irish writers. That prompted me to query a number of academic publishers about the possibility of an anthology of Irish women poets of the period, since no such comprehensive collection existed. While several publishers responded with interest, they all suggested volumes of fewer than two hundred pages. That would have meant a very small sampling indeed – and of course no “longer” works (unless I were willing to prune them down to mere snippets). Cork University Press was open to my suggestion of something more ambitious, and they eventually gave me a framework of 150,000 words, which has now translated into the finished anthology, which runs to 614 pages! The press was a joy to work with, from start to finish, and the finished volume is simply a lovely, sturdy and expertly produced one. And the press has priced it remarkably reasonably (at US $45), which is all the more remarkable for a book of such length.
Finally, two other factors: (1) my wife, Patricia Flanagan Behrendt, is (as is evident from her name) of proudly Irish heritage; her ancestors came to Illinois from County Roscommon during the Famine years, and so I have always had an additional personal interest in all things Irish (including Guinness); (2) about ten years ago I served as Interim Senior Editor for my university’s old and distinguished and literary journal, Prairie Schooner. I took that opportunity to create and edit a special expanded issue devoted to contemporary Irish writing, and that project further whetted my appetite for additional work with Irish writers of the Romantic period.
Did any particular female poet or poem stand out for you in your study, and why?
Inevitably, it’s not the familiar poet or poem that turns out to be a special favorite. But they do jump up, unexpectedly, and seize one, don’t they?
For me, two poets (perhaps three) especially engaged me. (1) Catharine Quigley, a cottager from north of Dublin who published two charming little collections during the Regency years and whose long poem, “The Broken Saucer,” is a wonderful, witty rejoinder to Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” and whose poems about her own humble circumstances are eloquent in their straightforward fashion; (2) Eliza Mary Hamilton, whose 1838 poem, “A Young Girl Seen in Church,” is a thing of exquisite beauty and self-knowledge that I find myself returning to again and again; and (3) Ellen Taylor, another cottager and former housemaid whose declining health consigned her to abject poverty and whose simple poems (like “Written by the Barrow Side”) movingly document the painful incompatibility of a sharp mind and a love of poetry with the humblest and most inhospitable of personal circumstances.
When researching for the collection, did you have a particular moment of exciting archival discovery?
What stands out for me is working with Melesina Trench, whose 1816 “Laura’s Dream; or, The Moonlanders” is almost certainly the first work of science fiction in English verse by a woman. After 1814 she generally didn’t “publish” in the usual way but had copies of her books privately printed and then distributed them personally to friends and acquaintances. I discovered that she routinely annotated these copies and made emendations in the texts – and these notes and emendations often vary from copy to copy. Much of her correspondence and other “literary remains” was severely bowdlerized – or simply destroyed – by her straitlaced son, so that what we can learn today about the “real” Melesina Trench has been seriously and almost certainly irreversibly compromised. Perhaps that yet another reason why I’ve gone back to her several times, especially in connection with her friend, the Irish Quaker poet Mary Leadbeater.
Needless to say, I love archival work – hours in the National Library in Dublin or in Trinity College Library or in the British Library have been among the great joys of this project. There’s always that sense of uncertainty – and of imminent discovery – of that as-yet-undiscovered “something” that always seems to lie just beyond one’s reach (and one’s available time for digging) at any given moment.
Can you sum up your edited collection in 10 words? Why should we read it?
NO! But how about 21?
These are really interesting, revealing – and often really good – poems that more people ought to know about. I’ve tried to help.
Which books are in your ‘to read’ pile? What does this tell us about what’s next regarding your research?
I’m fanatically interested in the US Civil War and read as much as I can on that subject. I also greedily devour studies of later 18th-century and Romantic-era material culture. At the moment I’m reading Jenny Uglow’s amazing In These Times:
Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815. After that, I have several books on George III and his family stacked up, as well as some fun reading in the form of contemporary Irish mysteries by Sheila Connolly and others.
But where’s my research going? Who knows? I do definitely want to go back to Blake’s illuminated poems for one more book; vainly enough, I still believe I have something to contribute. And Blake is simply so wonderfully difficult (in almost every way) that returning to him is an ongoing compulsion.
But of course there’s also the new collection of poems I’m working on.
As Blake himself wisely wrote, though: “Enough! Or too much!”
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.
Interviewed by Amy Wilcockson, Communications Fellow.