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English Poetesses
by [?]

In 1613 the ‘learned, virtuous, and truly noble ladie,’ Elizabeth Carew, published a Tragedie of Marian, the Faire Queene of Jewry, and a few years later the ‘noble ladie Diana Primrose’ wrote A Chain of Pearl, which is a panegyric on the ‘peerless graces’ of Gloriana. Mary Morpeth, the friend and admirer of Drummond of Hawthornden; Lady Mary Wroth, to whom Ben Jonson dedicated The Alchemist; and the Princess Elizabeth, the sister of Charles I., should also be mentioned.

After the Restoration women applied themselves with still greater ardour to the study of literature and the practice of poetry. Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, was a true woman of letters, and some of her verses are extremely pretty and graceful. Mrs. Aphra Behn was the first Englishwoman who adopted literature as a regular profession. Mrs. Katharine Philips, according to Mr. Gosse, invented sentimentality. As she was praised by Dryden, and mourned by Cowley, let us hope she may be forgiven. Keats came across her poems at Oxford when he was writing Endymion, and found in one of them ‘a most delicate fancy of the Fletcher kind’; but I fear nobody reads the Matchless Orinda now. Of Lady Winchelsea’s Nocturnal Reverie Wordsworth said that, with the exception of Pope’s Windsor Forest, it was the only poem of the period intervening between Paradise Lost and Thomson’s Seasons that contained a single new image of external nature. Lady Rachel Russell, who may be said to have inaugurated the letter-writing literature of England; Eliza Haywood, who is immortalised by the badness of her work, and has a niche in The Dunciad; and the Marchioness of Wharton, whose poems Waller said he admired, are very remarkable types, the finest of them being, of course, the first named, who was a woman of heroic mould and of a most noble dignity of nature.

Indeed, though the English poetesses up to the time of Mrs. Browning cannot be said to have produced any work of absolute genius, they are certainly interesting figures, fascinating subjects for study. Amongst them we find Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who had all the caprice of Cleopatra, and whose letters are delightful reading; Mrs. Centlivre, who wrote one brilliant comedy; Lady Anne Barnard, whose Auld Robin Gray was described by Sir Walter Scott as ‘worth all the dialogues Corydon and Phillis have together spoken from the days of Theocritus downwards,’ and is certainly a very beautiful and touching poem; Esther Vanhomrigh and Hester Johnson, the Vanessa and the Stella of Dean Swift’s life; Mrs. Thrale, the friend of the great lexicographer; the worthy Mrs. Barbauld; the excellent Mrs. Hannah More; the industrious Joanna Baillie; the admirable Mrs. Chapone, whose Ode to Solitude always fills me with the wildest passion for society, and who will at least be remembered as the patroness of the establishment at which Becky Sharp was educated; Miss Anna Seward, who was called ‘The Swan of Lichfield’; poor L. E. L., whom Disraeli described in one of his clever letters to his sister as ‘the personification of Brompton–pink satin dress, white satin shoes, red cheeks, snub nose, and her hair a la Sappho’; Mrs. Ratcliffe, who introduced the romantic novel, and has consequently much to answer for; the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, of whom Gibbon said that she was ‘made for something better than a Duchess’; the two wonderful sisters, Lady Dufferin and Mrs. Norton; Mrs. Tighe, whose Psyche Keats read with pleasure; Constantia Grierson, a marvellous blue-stocking in her time; Mrs. Hemans; pretty, charming ‘Perdita,’ who flirted alternately with poetry and the Prince Regent, played divinely in the Winter’s Tale, was brutally attacked by Gifford, and has left us a pathetic little poem on the Snowdrop; and Emily Bronte, whose poems are instinct with tragic power, and seem often on the verge of being great.

Old fashions in literature are not so pleasant as old fashions in dress. I like the costume of the age of powder better than the poetry of the age of Pope. But if one adopts the historical standpoint–and this is, indeed, the only standpoint from which we can ever form a fair estimate of work that is not absolutely of the highest order–we cannot fail to see that many of the English poetesses who preceded Mrs. Browning were women of no ordinary talent, and that if the majority of them looked upon poetry simply as a department of belles lettres, so in most cases did their contemporaries. Since Mrs. Browning’s day our woods have become full of singing birds, and if I venture to ask them to apply themselves more to prose and less to song, it is not that I like poetical prose, but that I love the prose of poets.