Literature of the Romantic Period I
January 28 2013
Lecture by Megan Taylor:
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)
Barbauld‘s Reputation & Her Place in Canon
- she was an accomplished poet who was well regarded in her day
- published first collection of poems when she was 30: a critical success.
- called a ―genius and talent‖, Monthly Review (1773)
- she was very quickly established as excellent writer
- she continued to write for next 50 years: reviews, pamphlets, critical essays, children‘s
literature and pedagogical writing. Those works thought to have influenced Blake‘s Songs of
Innocence and Experience
- her reputation suffered in the 1790s, when she starting writing her political tracts. She was
critical of government.
- in 1812, she published the poem ―Eighteen Hundred and Eleven‖, which was critical of
England‘s role in the war. There was public outcry about this poem: it was considered
‗unfeminine,‘ ‗unpatriotic‘. After this she stopped publishing mostly. The poem ultimately
tarnished her reputation with contemporaries.
- her reputation was also destroyed by other poets of her time. She knew both Wordsworth and
Coleridge. For unknown reasons, both men distanced themselves from her. Coleridge attacked
her publically and disparaged her privately.
- intellectual women are ―impudent, forward, unfeminine, and unhealthy in their minds‖, Lamb.
- Lamb‘s quote says much about attitudes towards women
- while Barbauld‘s other work, political works and poems, were overlooked, her pedagogical
tracts and children‘s literature were well known. This made her overlooked as a serious writer,
especially in modernist tradition. She was dismissed as unimaginative, conservative.
- this view fit with generally dismissive view of women‘s writing (esp. Victorian).
- her reputation as serious writer gained traction in the 80s (feminist theory took interest)
- since the 1990s: regarded as one of most important writers in Romantic period, widely regarded
for her critical and editorial work.
- in 1810 she produced a 50 volume work called 28 novels. She wrote an introduction and critical
essays. Work comprised of critical theory on the novel.
- first major ventures arguing for validity of women‘s contributions to literature.
Biographical Points: Education, Religion, Liberal Politics
- came from a well educated middle class family. Her father was a master at a well regarded
- she was very bright, rumored to be reading at an adult level before the age of three.
- her father taught her French, Italian, Latin, and some Greek. Not normal acquirements for
women at the time. - at 15, she attended lectures at the Warrington Academy, a prestigious Dissenter‘s school
(thought she couldn‘t formally attend because she was a woman). There she met: Joseph priestly,
Joanna Bailie, George Dyer, Maria Edgeworth, William Godwin, Elizabeth Montagu.
- her writing reflects her education/intellect.
- familiarity with everything from literature to science.
- born into family of Presbyterian Dissenters (Non conformist Christians who separates himself
from the communion of the Established Church).
- forbidden from voting, holding office, attending university. Dissenters had to establish her own
schools, developing reputation as
- due to religion that she received the great education that she did
- she remained a dissenter all her life. Poster child for ‗rational dissent‘, which connects faith and
intellect. Faith & science: to be connected to natural world was to be closer to go.
- rational dissenters: freedom of conscience.
- 1790: published a pamphlet denouncing discrimination faced by dissenters
1791: published epistle to William Wilberforce on the rejection of the bill for abolishing the
- 1792: published Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation:
individuals are responsible and have to take responsibility for actions of their state
- commitment to freedom of faith and of thought; made up basis of her political views.
- very much due to her part in politics that her reputation turned against her. (Not a woman‘s
- her feminism not always overt, but apparent in the kind of work she wrote. Freedom applied to
everyone (women, children, slaves). Her writing of these works assert her position about women
writing such discourse.
- approach: look at its form/genre.
begins with an invocation to the muse:
an Epic. – a mock epic: popular form of satire used in 17C and 18C. Applies all classical
trappings of classical poetry to an inappropriately inepic subject (high/low contrast to make fun)
(example: Pope‘s Rape of the Lock. It begins too by invoking the muse—invoking the muse in
the 3 line. )
―The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost/…
- muse invoked to empower the speaker with creativity.
- Barbauld starts with that right away
- *domestic Muse
- rainfall: something as everyday as rain treated as a calamity.
- word choice: uses self consciously antiquated or overblown diction line 15: ―quaint device of mirth‖
line 33: ―welkin‖
line 55: ―consort‖
Classical imagery employed in the poem?
line 36-38: speaker addressing the husband, and is commanding him to ―…‖
Erebus—the dark cavern through which….
What is the effect of starting with the mock epic style? What do we make of the ending: does it
fit with the rest of the poem?
- a common reading of the poem is that it celebrates women work by celebrating women‘s
domestic duties, like washing day. The mock epic not to insult it but to dignify what is not
normally considered dignified or important. At the end of the poem women‘s work contrasted
with men‘s work, and men‘s work is deemed unimportant.
- last seven lines: scientific feat linked to something as unimportant as bubbles. Women‘s work
useful versus impractical work of men.
- but there are important aspects of this poem that complicate this reading. Seems unlikely that
she would take this kind of attitude to scientific creativity. She did after all consider science
important, and was friends with scientific people. Is she denigrating poetry as well?
Seems unlikely that she would take this view as a serious and dedicated writer.
- evidence within the poem that contradicts the common reading as well (of women‘s work
versus men‘s work).
-*Nature of the description of the women in this poem.
men do not come off very well in the first part of the poem: lines 33-46
these men are being made fun of: have no control over domestic space.
The poem is not teasing or celebratory when it describes the women of the poem.
clear in lines 13-21 (description of women washers)
Poem isn‘t teasing them, but the language is very plain and it‘s not painting them as heroes.
Then, how do we read this poem? If it looks like a mock epic, but isn‘t purely celebrating or
making fun of domesti