Posts Tagged ‘foremother poet’


Tizdal my beautiful cat
Lies on the old rag mat
In front of the kitchen fire.
Outside the night is black.

The great fat cat
Lies with his paws under him
His whiskers twitch in a dream,
He is slumbering.

The clock on the mantlepiece
Ticks unevenly, tic toe, tic-toe,
Good heavens what is the matter
With the kitchen clock?

Outside an owl hunts,
Hee hee hee hee,
Hunting in the Old Park
From his snowy tree.
What on earth can he find in the park tonight,
It is so wintry?

Now the fire burns suddenly too hot
Tizdal gels up to move,
Why should such an animal
Provoke our love?

The twigs from the elder bush
Are tapping on the window pane
As the wind sets them tapping,
Now the tapping begins again.

One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight half dark
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth,
And the twigs tapping quick,
And the owl in an absolute fit
One laughs supposing creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to)his-
Cat, night, fire-and a girl nodding.

Drawing by Stevie Smith for her poem, Nodding

Dear friends and readers,

This is at least my fifth blog on a text about or with cats. Marge Piercy’s memoir, Sleeping with Cats, Doris Lessing’s On Cats, Boswell and Piozzi on Dr Johnson and Hodge, not to omit Temple Grandin who reminded me how much animals love to eat, how happy it makes them (Animals in Translation) and various poems (Elsa Morante’s “Minna the Siamese” comes to mind).

They’ve been multiplying since I adopted two cats, Clary (green-eyed tortoiseshell) and Ian (yellow-eyed male ginger tabby). I’ve learned that one knows nothing about why people like cats until one owns one. Cats are private creatures, showing their selves only to their “persons” or special friend and family. You can’t get to know a cat unless you live with him or her, and then it takes time. They do not perform for strangers. Stevie says we have made them nervous. I know they do not like changes in routine; we should do precisely the same things each day at the same time. If we deviate, they marginalize themselves, watching suspiciously until we all return to our routs again.

I told a friend about the 1978 movie, Stevie, with Glenda Jackson, how quiet and truthful it is about a writing life. My friend had noticed my Lessing and Hodge blogs and told me about a review Stevie Smith had written about a book intended to make as permanent as photos and books can a beauty contest among cats, Cats in Colour. It’s in her Uncollected Writings, Me Again, made up of poems, short prose, pictures by herself. Smith’s several-page review’s delightful, intriguing, melancholy, like her writing, has so many moods all at once, and (most unusual for a review) includes drawings and poems. It’s very hard to do justice to this prose, it’s genius-level, the points of view so much at variance and yet the perspectives all coming together to focus again and again on how there are two worlds here: “the Human Creatuere and the Animal” and how we do not respect “the Animal World.”

This descriptive section will have to do:

It is not only the cats of antiquity that seem so peculiar (3,000 years may allow some difference in form) but … scaled to the size of a thin mouse, as we observe an Egyptian puss, couched beneath his master’s chair? The Grecian cats, though better scaled, seem dull and the cats of our Christian era not much better. There is a horrible cat drawing in Topsell’s The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, dated 1607; there he sits, this cat, with a buboe on his hip, frozen and elaborate. In every line of this drawing, except for the cold sad eyes, the artist wrongs cathood. Quick sketchers do better, by luck perhaps. We all know Lear’s drawings of his fat cat Foss. There is true cathood here, though much, too, of course, of Mr Lear, so ‘pleasant to know’. Quick sketchers too can catch the cat in movement, and, though much addicted to, and fitted for, reclining, the cat moves-gallops, leaps, climbs and plays-with such elegance, one must have it so. Yet only this morning, I saw a cat quite motionless that looked so fine I could not have disturbed it. Hindways on, on top of a gray stone wall, its great haunches spred out beyond the wall’s narrow ledge,this animal was a ball of animate ginger fur; no shape but a ball’s, no head, no tail that was visible, had this old cat, but he caught all there was of winter sunshine and held it.

She leaves the book of glossy photographs, the excuse for her reverie, way behind. It does seem as if this review was actually intended to be printed as the introduction to said book.

She opens by saying cats reflect the egoism and ambition of their owners, even those not engineered into breeds and made expensive because rarer. She just wished this book had had photos of ashcan and ordinary poor and feral and wild cats “alongside” the beauties. Not that misery reveals cat-nature any more than beauty. Its cat-nature, cat-facts, cat-intransigence she’s on about in her review — as these impinge on and affect us. She concentrates and repeatedly returns to cat’s eyes: “blank and shining,” enigmatic, in themselves the eyeball expressionless. Finally or ultimately we can’t reach them nor they us, no matter how hard either side tries. She finds embarrassing and distressing how the cat does try so hard to reach us — it’s yearning gestures, its needs, and she’s more comfortable with its savage ruthless behaviors, predatory, play-bites.

As she launches into her descriptions of cat-lives, she inhabits the same territories as Lessing. She thinks we do cats a disservice by “fixing” them. We are depriving them of a real experience of cat-life — maternal duties, sexual prowess. She does know many live tragic lives, die helplessly. Nervous creatures they are, “like all tamed animals” given reason to be by us, our love as well as easy cruelty, power over them.

The last portion of the review provides what we know of cats in history, from the earliest figures to today, and writes with real plangency when she talks of how cats were burnt with women as witches — their helpers you see (an aspect of misogyny though she does not use such terms since cats are associated with women living alone). Our cruelties to cats:

witchcraft is too grim a story for here and its rites too cruel for our pampered pets. Yet I remembered the witch legends of history, as when the Scottish witches were accused of attempting the death of the King and Queen on their sea-passage home to Scotland. The witches swam a cat off the coast of North Berwick, having first christened it ‘Margaret’, they cast it into the sea to drown and thus-they said-raise a storm-wind to sink the King’s ship. For this they were convicted and burnt, for the Scots law was crueller than ours and sent witches to the stake, while we only hanged them. But in both countries the poor cat that belonged to the witch, if he was ‘apprehended’, might also suffer death by burning or hanging.

She also tells stories of individual cats she has known — like Lessing again. She describes one costuming of a cat as an angel which is really a debased bridal picture and rightly calls it “depraved.” She liked to see galloping cats (and has a poem in her the Collected Poems on “Galloping Cats”). To watch them in movement, streaking, hunting. Apparently she enjoyed teasing her cat. I can’t do that. At the very end there are stories of “good cats” and a poem reminding me of Dr Johnson and Hodge, about “Major” “a very fine cat.”

The Story of a Good Cat. This was the cat who came to the cruel cold prison in which Richard III had cast Sir Henry Wyatt when young. Because of his Lancastrian sympathies Henry had already beenimprisoned several times, and even put to the torture. The cat saved his life by drawing pigeons into the cell which the gaoler agreed to cook and dress for the poor prisoner, though for fear of his own life he dared not by other means increase his diet. There is a picture of Sir Henry as an old man sitting in a portrait with the prison cell for background and the cat, a peculiar sad-looking little cat, drawing a pigeon through the prison bars. Underneath is
written, but so faintly it is difficult to read, ‘This Knight with
hunger, cold and care neere starved, pyncht, pynde away, The sillie
Beast did fee de, heat, cheere with dyett, warmth and playe.

Remember how Christopher Smart’s cat, Geoffrey comforted him?

We have cat fables and fairy stories where all the characters are cats. And she skilfully recreates the atmosphere of an Algernon Blackwood gothic story whose center is a feel for the presence of cats:

there is a young man of French descent who is travelling in France on holiday. Suddenly the train he is on pulls up at a little station and he feels he must get down at this station. The inn he goes to is sleepy and comfortable,the proprietress is also sleepy and comfortable, a large fat lady who moves silently on little fat feet. Everybody in this inn treads silently, and all the people in the town are like this too, sleepy, heavy and treading softly. After a few days the young man begins to wonder; and at night, waking to look out over the ancient roof-tops, he wonders still more. For there is a sense of soft movement in the air, of doors opening softly, of soft thuds as soft bodies drop to the ground from wall or window; and he sees the shadows moving too. It was the shadow of a human being that dropped from the wall, but the shadow moved on the ground as a cat runs, and now it was not a human being but a cat. So in the end of course the young man is invited by the cat-girl, who is the plump inn owner’s daughter and serves by day in the inn, to join ‘the dance’ that is the witch’s sabbath. For this old French town is a mediaeval witch-town and bears the past alive within it. Being highminded, as most ghost-writers are, Blackwood makes the young man refuse the invitation and so come safe off with his soul, which had been for a moment much imperilled.

Me I like to watch them looking happy and also when they play with one another games which show them capable of semi-planning and tricking one another. I enjoy how they have favorite toys they carry about in their mouths. Ian has a string, Clary a furry looking object once meant for a mouse. Poor pussycats when they get themselves in trouble. I enjoy when they vocalize at me. I say “miaow” back and “I know” and “just so” and “I agree.” They are talking. Smith in Collected Poems has this love lyric to cats, the “eth” verbs turning it into a hymn:

The Singing Cat

It was a little captive cat
    Upon a crowded train
His mistress takes him from his box
    To ease his fretful pain.

She holds him tight upon her knee
    The graceful animal
And all the people look at him
    He is so beautiful.

But oh he pricks and oh he prods
    And turns upon her knee
Then lifteth up his innocent voice
    In plaintive melody.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And to each human countenance
    A smile of grace he bringeth.

He lifteth up his innocent paw
    Upon her breast he clingeth
And everybody cries, Behold
    The cat, the cat that singeth.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And all the people warm themselves
    In the love his beauty bringeth.

Someone said to me when I praised Lessing’s book as non-sentimental, nonsense, it’s all sentiment. Quite right. So too Smith’s essay. We try not to be but do not succeed.

Here’s my free translation of Morante’s poem, applying it to Clary. I told myself I liked the non-sentimental ending but probably I found appealing Morante’s attempt to capture cat-behavior.

Clary the tortie

I’ve a tiny beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, I name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

(from Elsa Morante, Alibi, Poèmes, Édition bilingue, French translations by Jean-Noel Schifano)


A New Yorker cartoon from a couple of weeks ago

I will though end on some unsentimental poetry and warn my reader these demand a strong stomach. They are not by any of the above writers. First up, an post-WW1 & 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74). This Rufus (I allude to Lessing’s Rufus), like some of us when so badly hurt, enraged, could not be brought back:

Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

Smith says it’s better to love your cat to the point of folly than not to love them at all. And she has a passage that takes into account the same insight as Kaschnitz:

We were now swimming above a sandbank some half mile or so out from the shore. Presently the sandbank broke surface and we
climbed out and stood up on it. All around us was nothing but the sea and the sand and the hot still air. Look, I said, what is this coming? (It was a piece of wreckage that was turning round in the current by the sandbank and coming towards us.) Why, I said, it is a cat. And there sure enough, standing spitting upon the wooden spar was a young cat. We must get it in, said Caz, and stretched out to get it. But I saw that the cat was not spitting for the thought of its plight — so far from land, so likely to be drowned-but for a large sea-beetle that was marooned upon the spar with the cat, and that the cat was stalking and spitting at. First it backed from the beetle with its body arched and its tail stiff, then, lowering its belly to the spar, it crawled slowly towards the beetle, placing its paws carefully and with the claws well out. Why look, said Caz, its jaws are chattering. The chatter of the teeth of the hunting cat could now be heard as the spar came swinging in to the sandbank. Caz made a grab for the spar, but the young cat, its eyes dark with anger, pounced upon his hand and tore it right across. Caz let go with a start and the piece of wreckage swung off at right angles and was already far away upon the current. We could not have taken it with us, I said, that cat is fighting mad, he does not wish to be rescued, with his baleful eye and his angry teeth chattering at
the hunt, he does not wish for security.

And second, Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.


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Caterina von Hemessen (1527/8 – ?1566), Portrait of a Lady, 1551

Dear friends and readers,

Six years ago now I finished making this large bibliography page for women’s literature (it’s not limited to women poets), and rejoice to say that Anna Galovich has translated it into Estonian and placed it on her website.

I am planning to take all my foremother poet postings, website additions and (revised) partially poet blogs over the years and place them in a single region on my website this summer; one place where people can come to. This will help encourage me to do it.

The origin of all this was my translations of Renaissance women poets, whence my choice of Caterina for the page and this blog.


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Stevie Smith’s drawing underneath her poem, “My Soul”

Dear friends and readers,

Stevie Smith is one of my favorite 20th century poets. I’ve been wanting to write a foremother poet blog for her, and waiting until I could re-see the movie, Stevie (1978), based on her life, and starring Glenda Jackson (director Robert Enders, writer Hugh Whittemore), but as I’ve discovered now that I can’t obtain a DVD, and tonight read a splendid literary evaluation of her poetry, have decided to go ahead without benefit of the fictional-biographical portrayal.

A second problem for me is since I like her poetry so much, and have 3 books of it (plus selections and prose writing), I just didn’t know which ones to select. But select I must, so I have chosen a mix of longer monologues, lyrical and epigrammatic verses.

To start with the latter, a poem which states simply what makes love worthwhile and lasting:


He told his life story to Mrs Courtly
Who was a widow. ‘Let us get married shortly’,
He said. ‘I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’

move onto the former (long monologue) where we see her overturn conventional identifications and judgemental views:


I wonder why Proust should have thought
The lines from Racine’s Phèdre
Depuis que sur ces bords les deux ont envoyé
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé to be
Entirely devoid of meaning,
To me they seem
As lucid as they are alarming.
I wonder why
The actresses I’ve seen
Playing Phèdre
Always indulge
In such mature agonising.
Phèdre was young,
(This is as clear in Racine as Euripides)
She was young,
A girl caught in a trap, a girl
Under the enforcement
Of a goddess.
I dare say Phèdre
In fact I’m sure of it
Was by nature
As prim as Hipolytus,
Poor girl, poor girl, what could she do
But be ashamed and hang herself,
Poor girl.

How awful the French actess
Marie Bell
Made her appear.
Poor Phèdre,
Not only to be shamed by her own behaviour
Enforced by that disgusting goddess,
Ancient enemy
Of her family,
But nowadays to have played
By actresses like Marie Bell
In awful ancient agonising, something painful

Now if I
Had been writing this story
I should have arranged for Theseus
To die,
(Well he was old)
And then I should have let
Phèdre and Hippolytus
Find Aricie out
In some small meanness,
Eating up somebody else’s chocolates,
Half a pound of them, soft-centred,
Secretly in bed at night, alone
One after another
Positively wolfing them down.
This would have put Hip off,
and Phaedra would be there too
and he would turn and see
That she was pretty disgusted , too
so then they would have got married
and everything would have been respectable
and the wretched Venus could have lumped it,
Lumped I mean Phèdre
Being the only respectable member
Of her awful family
And being happy.

I should have liked one member
of that awful family
To be happy.
What with Ariadne auf Naxos,
and Pasiphaé and that awful animal
and Minos sitting judging the Dead
In those awful dark halls.
Yes, I should like poor honorable simple sweet prim Phèdre
to be happy. One would have to be pretty simple
to be happy with a prig like Hippolytus
But she was simple
I think it might have been a go
If I were writing the story
I should have made it a go.

Even if altogether too often quoted, Not Waving But Drowning is one of her supreme and characteristic achievements, and for it I have (from a friend on WWTTA) a taped commentary and reading aloud. (I am not sure it will work; I had it on the blog but it was removed for copyright infringement after third parties apparently told someone with the power to block the UTube.) If you can find this UTube recording, you hear her unsettling way of reading aloud, a off-key frank talk that is more haunted and memorable than you at first realize. You also learn that the poem is based on a real incident of someone who really drowned while others thought he was just waving.

She lived her life with women, at one point in a house of aunts, and a sister (when she was young her father went to sea and thereafter never saw his family); this poem testifies to the beauty of the female household:

A House of Mercy

It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him in.

There were also two feeble babes, two girls,
That Mrs S. had by her husband had,
He soon left them and went away to sea,
Nor sent them money, nor came home again
Except to borrow back
Her Naval Officer’s Wife’s Allowance from Mrs S.
Who gave it him at once, she thought she should.

There was also the ladies’ aunt
And babes’ great aunt, a Mrs Martha Hearn Clode,
And she was elderly.
These ladies put their money all together
And so we lived.

I was the younger of the feeble babes
And when I was a child my mother died
And later Great Aunt Martha Hearn Clode died
And later still my sister went away.

Now I am old I tend my mother’s sister
The noble aunt who so long tended us,
Faithful and True her name is. Tranquil.
Also Sardonic. And I tend the house.

It is a house of female habitation
A house expecting strength as it is strong
A house of aristocratic mould that looks apart
When tears fall; counts despair
Derisory. Yet it has kept us well. For all its faults,
If they are faults, of sternness and reserve,
It is a Being of warmth I think; at heart
A house of mercy.

This the anguish of loss of such a friendship in a softly melting lyric:

Pad pad

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

Drawing by Stevie Smith

I like this brilliant art criticism (how imitations tarnish and bring out what’s bad in the better version of something too). I think of Kenneth Clark’s The Nude is after all endless pictures of naked women for men to look at and judge; he is perfectly unconcerned (the phrase is Austen’s about Lydia Bennet) with their circumstances, context, the models themselves.

Salon d’Automne

One thousand and one naked ladies
With a naivete
At once pedantic and unsympathetic
Deck the walls
Of the Salon d’Automne.
This is the Slap school of art,
It would be nice
To smack them
Slap, slap, slap,
That would be nice.
It is possible
One might tire of smacking them In time
But not so soon
As one tires of seeing them.
We too
Have our pedantic and unsympathetic
It used to show
A feeling for animals.
The English are splendid with animals,
There was The Stag at Bay
And Faithful unto Death,
And Man’s Best Friend the horse this time
Usually under gunfire,
The English are splendid with animals.
That older school
Was perhaps
On an intellectual level
With the Salon d’Automne.
Nowadays, of course,
We are more advanced:
The bad modern painter
Has lost the naivete
Of that earlier school
And in its place
Has developed a talent
For making the work of his betters
Seem stale
By uninspired Imitation.
This is more tiring
Than the thousand and one
Naked ladies.

This poem of a dance performance at a school, dated June 1939. The poet is there watching them, and the imagery of a “cold summer sky” and dark hard currents in the air, with something “equivocal” underneath the “veneer” of a “vision of innocence” soon to come to an end connects to the coming war:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses


The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.


Stevie Smith, photograph on the Net

There are a large number of sites for Florence Margaret Smith (1902-71), which retell her life and offer criticism of her poetry and prose and art as well as cite books and articles: see, e.g., wikipedia tells us also that she suffered from depression all her life, a popular biography and bibliography by Anne Bryan

What follows is a summary of Jane Dowson’s critical essay (a rare good one), her introduction to her selection in Women’s Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology, with a few interjections of my own (put in parentheses).

Dowson begins by telling us that Smith was self-educated: she found the environment of the “prestigious North Collegiate School for Girls repressive,” and did not go on to college for she foresaw for herself only a career as a teacher, which she did not want to do. She read on her own and took classes in literature, theology, the arts, classics, history. In 1922 she became a secretary to the publishers George Newnes and Nevil Pearson and remained so for 30 years. She wrote prolifically despite repeated rejections from publishers.

She is “framed as an idiosyncratic spinster” though she was later known also for her theatrical readings of her poems (see above). She makes people uncomfortable with her announced preference for death, and readers have found her poetry “unclassifiable.” Philip Larkin called her work “facetious bosch” (in the UTube she obviously has an over-the-top plummy accent, while mocking all pretension.) , but, as Dowson says, “disregard for convention is … a contrived and political gesture.” She renders class and status distinctions irrelevant by “integrating folk culture, ballds, nusery rhymes, hymn tunes, and proverbial sayings.”

Perhaps most striking is her “irreverence” and “literary referentiality” whereby she produces a kind of “metacommunication” (the poems are self-conscious). Dowson’s themes is the social conscience of her chosen women and Smith has strong “socialist sympathies” with outsiders, “children, women, and the socially disadvantaged.” She “challenges” “groupismus.” She opposes “institutionalized uniformity,” and there is a “dialectic of mass culture versus elitism” (see her “Salone d’Automne” and “Sterilization”).

This is “not light-hearted verse;” there is much “unease” and a use of “psychological realism” (which makes for deep melancholy). Her feminism is in her use of off-beat figures, unusual identifications, and “portraits of powerlessness.” “Betrayal” is a central theme, and we see women “the casualties of men’s freedom to choose (“Marriage I think” has an abandoned wife). She rejects “the discourses of power” (academic or hierarchical, traditional viatic poetry). There’s a “persistent transgression” of “conventional assumptions” of all sorts from many areas of life.

By dismissing the poems as “odd or strange” or “eccentric” readers are trying to undo her desire to upset the security of decorums (a kind of disguise). Dowson ends her introduction by quoting Smith’s answer to some of these critics:

You will say: But your poems are all story poems, you keep yourself hidden. Yes. But all the same, my whole life is in these poems … everything I have lived through, and done, and seen, and read and imagined and thought and argued. Then why do I turn them all upon other people, imaginary people, the people I create? It is because … it gives proportion and eases the pressure.”

I close with these three from Jane Dowson’s anthology:

From Jane Dowson’s anthology:


Carve delinquency away,
Said the great Professor Clay.

A surgical operation is just the thing
To make everybody as happy as a king.

But the great Dostoievsky the Epileptic
Turned on his side and looked rather sceptic.

And the homosexual Mr. Wilde
Sat in the sunshine and smiled and smiled.

And a similarly inclined older ghost in a ruff
Stopped reading his sonnets aloud and said ‘Stuff’

And the certainly eccentric Swift, Crashawe and Donne,
Silently shook hands and thanked God they had gone.

But the egregious Professor Clay
Called on Theopompous and won the day.

And soon all our minds will be flat as a pancake,
With no room for genius exaltation or heartache.

And our children and theirs will preen, smirk and chatter,
With not even the sense to ask what is the matter.

Drawing placed to the side of “Marriage I think”

Marriage I think
For women
Is the best of opiates
It kills the thoughts
That think about the thoughts,
It is the best of opiates.
So said Maria.
But too long in solitude she’d dwelt,
And too long her thoughts had felt
Their strength. So when the man drew near,
Out popped her thoughts and covered him with fear.
Poor Maria!
Better that she had kept her thoughts on a chain,
For now she’s alone again and all in pain;
She sighs for the man that went and thoughts that stay
To trouble her dreams by night and her dreams by day.

A last rejecting any heterosexual relationship as a necessary solution to life’s lack of meaning, a child speaking to her mother:


What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother,
They stand in the doorway to hear what is said,
Waiting and watching and listening and laughing,
Is there no word that will send them away?

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother,
What shall I say to them, must I say nothing?
If I say nothing, then will they not harm us,
Will they not harm us and shall we not suffer?

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother?
See, they are waiting, and will not depart.
Closed are your eyelids, your lips closed in silence
Cannot instruct me, oh what shall I answer?

Dowson cites Seamus Heaney, “A Memorable Voice,” Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London, Faber, 1980, pp. 199-201); Martin Pumphrey, “Play, Fantasy and strange laughter: Stevie Smith’s uncomfortable poetry,” Critical Quarterly, 28:3 (1986):85-96; Francis Spalding, Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (Faber, 1988) and Jack Barbera and Wm McBrien, Stevie: A Biography (Heineman, 1985)

Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith

I add a further selection: Edward Hirsh, “Stevie: the Movie, a Column,” American Poetry Review, 29:4 (2000):32-27, an evaluation of the film (low-budget, low-tech art movie, surprisingly profound and deeply felt”) and poetry, which strongly praises both (“a heartbreaking brightness we needed all along”): he quotes her: “I’m probably a couple of sherries below par most of the time.”

Romana Huk, “Misplacing Stevie Smith,” a review of Catherine Civello’s Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and poetry of Stevie Smith, and Laura Severin’s Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics, in Contemporary Literature 40:3 (1999):507-23.

Sheryl Stevenson, Stevie Smith’s Voices, Contemporary Literature, 33:1 (1992):24-45.

Jack Barbera, “The Relevance of Stevie Smith’s Drawings,” Journal of Modern Literature 12:2 (1985):221-36. The drawings done separately prompted more poems, and they provide specific instances, grim, jokey, of the general assertions or themes of the poems.

The House of OverDew (drawing placed above poem, by Stevie Smith

My books at home are Stevie Smith: A Selection, edited by Hermione Lee (with an excellent introduction, Faber 1983); Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (New Directions, 1962); and Me Again: Stevie Smith: Uncollected Writings, Illustrated by Herself, edited by Jack Barbera and Wm McBrien (Vintage,1983)

See further foremother blogs in Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two


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Henry Robert Morland, A (Later) 18th century female servant

Dear friends and readers,

As the anthology of Scottish woman poets I want to use for blogs on their poetry has not yet arrived, I’ve decided to blog about another poet about whom little is known, but whose poetry is felicitious. (It’s not hard to find candidates who fit this description). Elizabeth Hands, an 18th century Englishwoman had a genius for quietly biting comic satire. She was for a long time a domestic servant in a great house (Mr Huddesford of Allesly and his daughter); in 1785 married a blacksmith at Bourton.

In this two brilliant anapestic tetrameter poems we see the poet having to listen to her poetry derided because she is of low status. The company are imagined as unaware that the author is listening to them, recording their words — and I would say she grants them far more wit than they ever had.

A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid

The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d’ye’s were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceas’d to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence open’d her fan;
And thus the discourse in an instant began:
(All affected reserve, and formality scorning,)
I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning,
A Volume of Poems advertis’d—’tis said
1They’re produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid.
A servant write verses! says Madam Du Bloom;
Pray what is the subject?—a Mop, or a Broom?
He, he, he,-says Miss Flounce; I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?
Says Miss Coquettilla, why ladies so tart?
Perhaps Tom the Footman has fired her heart;
And she’ll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how the last time that he went to May-Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of ginger-bread ware.
For my part I think, says old lady Marr-joy,
A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I’d employ her as long as ’twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night.
Why so? says Miss Rhymer, displeas’d; I protest
‘Tis pity a genius should be so deprest!
What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive,
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laught in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, if servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday the Duty of Man;
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think ’tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere.
Says old Mrs. Candour, I’ve now got a maid.
That’s the plague of my life—a young gossipping jade;
There’s no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I’m out, she is never at home;
I’d rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town ev’ry night.
Some whimsical trollop most like, says Miss Prim,
Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And conscious it neither is witty or pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.
I once had a servant myself, says Miss Pines,
That wrote on a Wedding, some very good lines;
Says Mrs. Domestic, and when they were done,
I can’t see for my part, what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to’ve instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragou,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champaign;
It might have been useful, again and again
On the sofa was old lady Pedigree plac’d,
She own’d that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella,—Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don’t burn.

The tea things remov’d, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies ambitious for each others crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours sat down.


A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read (1789)

The dinner was over, the table-cloth gone,
The bottles of wine and the glasses brought on,
The gentlemen fill’d up the sparkling glasses,
To drink to their King, to their country and lasses;
The ladies a glass or two only requir’d,
To th’ drawing-room then in due order retir’d;
The gentlemen likewise that chose to drink tea;
And, after discussing the news of the day,
What wife was suspected, what daughter elop’d,
What thief was detected, that ’twas to be hop’d,
The rascals would all be convicted, and rop’d;
What chambermaid kiss’d when her lady was out;
Who won, and who lost, the last night at the rout;
What lord gone to France, and what tradesman unpaid,
And who and who danc’d at the last masquerade;
What banker stopt payment with evil intention,
And twenty more things much too tedious to mention.

Miss Rhymer says, Mrs. Routella, ma’am, pray
Have you seen the new book (that we talk’d of that day,
At your house you remember) of Poems, ’twas said
Produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid?
The company silent, the answer expected;
Says Mrs. Routella, when she’d recollected;
Why, ma’am, I have bought it for Charlotte; the child
Is so fond of a book, I’m afraid it is spoil’d:
I thought to have read it myself, but forgat it;
In short, I have never had time to look at it.
Perhaps I may look it o’er some other day;
Is there any thing in it worth reading, I pray?
For your nice attention, there’s nothing can ‘scape.
She answer’d,—There’s one piece, whose subject’s a Rape.
A Rape! interrupted the Captain Bonair,
A delicate theme for a female I swear;

Then smerk’d at the ladies, they simper’d all round,
Touch’d their lips with their fans,—Mrs. Consequence frown’d.
The simper subsided, for she with her nods,
Awes these lower assemblies, as Jove awes the gods.
She smil’d on Miss Rhymer, and bad her proceed—
Says she, there are various subjects indeed:
With some little pleasure I read all the rest,
But the Murder of Amnon’s the longest and best.
Of Amnon, of Amnon, Miss Rhymer, who’s he?
His name, says Miss Gaiety’s quite new to me:—
‘Tis a Scripture tale, ma’am,—he’s the son of King David,
Says a Reverend old Rector: quoth madam, I have it;
A Scripture tale?—ay—I remember it—true;
Pray is it i’th’ old Testament or the new?
If I thought I could readily find it, I’d borrow
My house-keeper’s Bible, and read it to-morrow.
‘Tis in Samuel, ma’am, says the Rector:—Miss Gaiety
Bow’d, and the Reverend blush’d for the laity.

You’ve read it, I find, says Miss Harriot Anderson;
Pray, sir, is it any thing like Sir Charles Grandison?
How you talk, says Miss Belle, how should such a girl write
A novel, or any thing else that’s polite?
You’ll know better in time, Miss:—She was but fifteen:
Her mamma was confus’d—with a little chagrin,
Says,—Where’s your attention, child? did not you hear
Miss Rhymer say, that it was poems, my dear?

Says Sir Timothy Turtle, my daughters ne’er look
In any thing else but a cookery book:
The properest study for women design’d;
Says Mrs. Domestic, I’m quite of your mind.
Your haricoes, ma’am, are the best I e’er eat,
Says the Knight, may I venture to beg a receipt.
‘Tis much at your service, says madam, and bow’d,
Then flutter’d her fan, of the compliment proud.
Says Lady Jane Rational, the bill of fare
Is th’ utmost extent of my cookery care:
Most servants can cook for the palate I find,
But very few of them can cook for the mind.
Who, says Lady Pedigree, can this girl be;
Perhaps she’s descended of some family;—
Of family, doubtless, says Captain Bonair,
She’s descended from Adam, I’d venture to swear.
Her Ladyship drew herself up in her chair,
And twitching her fan-sticks, affected a sneer.

I know something of her, says Mrs. Devoir,
She liv’d with my friend, Jacky Faddle, Esq.
‘Tis sometime ago though; her mistress said then,
The girl was excessively fond of a pen;
I saw her, but never convers’d with her—though
One can’t make acquaintance with servants, you know.
‘Tis pity the girl was not bred in high life,
Says Mr. Fribbello:—yes,—then, says his wife,
She doubtless might have wrote something worth notice:
Tis pity, says one,—says another, and so ’tis.
O law! says young Seagram, I’ve seen the book, now
I remember, there’s something about a mad cow.
A mad cow!—ha, ha, ha, ha, return’d half the room;
What can y’ expect better, says Madam Du Bloom?

They look at cach other,—a general pause—
And Miss Coquettella adjusted her gauze.
The Rector reclin’d himself back in his chair,
And open’d his snuff-box with indolent air;
This book, says he, (snift, snift) has in the beginning,
(The ladies give audience to hear his opinion)
Some pieces, I think, that are pretty correct;
A stile elevated you cannot expect:
To some of her equals they may be a treasure,
And country lasses may read ’em with pleasure.
That Amnon, you can’t call it poetry neither,
There’s no flights of fancy, or imagery either;
You may stile it prosaic, blank-verse at the best;
Some pointed reflections, indeed, are exprest;
The narrative lines are exceedingly poor:
Her Jonadab is a—the drawing-room door
Was open’d, the gentlemen came from below,
And gave the discourse a definitive blow.

I also like this against ambition:

On Contemplative Ease

Rejoice ye jovial sons of mirth,
By sparkling wine inspir’d;
A joy of more intrinsic worth
I feel, while thus retir’d.

Excluded from the ranting crew,
Amongst these fragrant trees
I walk, the twinkling stars to view,
In solitary ease.

Half wrap’d in clouds, the half-form’d moon
Beams forth a cheering ray,
Surpassing all the pride of noon,
Or charms of early day.

The birds are hush’d, and not a breeze
Disturbs the pendant leaves;
My passion’s hush’d as calm as these,
No sigh my bosom heaves.

While great ones make a splendid show,
In equipage or dress,
I’m happy here, nor wish below
For greater happiness.

Her poems include one on her lying in, a beautiful epistle to friendship and particular woman friend, more comic verse (“Written Extempore, on seenig a Mad Heifer run through a Village where the Author lives”), one on courtship (“Lob’s Courtship”), an erotic pastoral between two women (“Love and Friendship”). My favorite is her wry candid sonnet:

On an Unsociable Family

O what a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or even agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrained by the weather;
Then one says, ”Tis cold’, which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, ”Tis so’;
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another’s about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.

Wm Hogarth (1697-1764), Shrimp Girl (c 1745)

Originally founded as an almshouse for men (1509), Fords Hospital, Coventry, is now a home for older women

Elizabeth Hands described herself as “born in obscurity, and never emerging beyond the lower stations of life.” We know she was a domestic servant in a household near Coventry, that she married a blacksmith near Rugby by 1785 (Hands is her husband’s and her married name; we don’t know her birth name); and that she had at least one daughter. The people described in the above poem would be the types of people she would have been surrounded by and had to work for.

Jopson’s Coventry Mercury published Hands’s poem under the pseudonym Daphne. The headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Jones [not one of those in the poem] was impressed, and by 1788 the masters at his school were seeking subscribers to publish a book which appeared in 1789 and was titled The Death of Ammon. A Poem. With an Appendix: Containing Pastorals, and other Poetical Pieces. It appeared in Coventry, printed for the author, had a 28 page introduction, 127 pages of poems, and its thousand subscribers included Anna Seward, Thomas Warton, and Edmund Burke.

Hands was a courageous poet: her Death of Ammon centers on an incestuous rape (as in the Bible); she mocks “English literary tradition, and calls into question social stratification.” Her language is “colloquial, some irreverently comic,” and portrays her working class characters with “dignity.” “Her working poor are independent and capable of finding conjugal happiness without the blessing of institutionalized religion. They also harbor resentments against class oppression.” There is “nostalgia” for supposedly simple earlier village life,” and she is aware of the absurdities of people and life (all from Paula Feldman, cited below). In her pastorals, we have women speaking their minds rather than men (Donna Landry, ditto).

Her poetry at its best is colloquial, contains a prosaic stance, and on the surface light satire. The two famous ones on the publication of her book are about how what we write will be by many or most people judged by our status, and also how people will talk publicly about the act of reading in private (where we may respond very differently as not under social pressure).

As predicted by the author, critical reception of her book was mixed — at least as we can see it in published reviews. The Monthly Review manifests just such snobbery as we find in the after-dinner conversation imagined by Hands, e.g., “we cannot but form the most favourable conclusions with respect to that of the writer, — forming, as we do, most of our judgment from the uncommonly numerous list of subscribers: among whom are many names of persons of rank, and consideration. There could be no motive for extraordinary patronage, but a benevolent regard to merit — of some kind.” There were harsh and nasty sneers for Hands (a housemaid), as in the Analytical Review: “we will let her sing-song die in peace.”

What became of Hands after the publication of her volume no one appears to know. She was buried in Bourton on-Dunsmore.

Hands is said to portray working class people with real respect, giving them dignity: they find conjugal happiness without the blessings of institutionalized religion (i.e., marriage — it was not uncommon not to marry among the working classes in the era). She expresses nostalgia for a village life she thinks is disappearing. Of course she is resentful of class oppression. Donna Landry (who has written a book on laboring women poets of the 18th century) says Elizabeth Hand’s’s poems show an awareness of why a woman needs a reputation for chastity (respectability — or she’ll be at risk for constant harassment and humiliation, or simply not be employed in money-making occupations), and has some strong women at the center.

I took the poetry and information from Roger Lonsdale’s invaluable anthology Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, Paula R. Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology; also Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century; Donna Landry, Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796. I can’t praise Feldman’s and Landry’s books enough.


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Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1907), The Muse of Composition

Dear friends and readers,

My woman poet for this week is someone I came across first as an admirer of Anne Finch’s poetry: “In Memory of the Countess of Winchelsea”, a fine ode where we see how a woman poet can look to an admired predecessor as someone who authorizes her to write too. Elizabeth Tollett maintains a sort of shadow existence in the way poets do who have one or two poems repeatedly reprinted in anthologies. Her “Winter Song” is a favorite for anthologies of women’s verse across the ages and 18th century women’s verse and even of European or English verse across the ages and 18th century verse mostly by men:

Winter Song

Ask me no more, my truth to prove,
What I would suffer for my love.
With thee I would in exile go
To regions of eternal snow,
O’er floods by solid ice confined,
Through forest bare with northern wind:
While all around my eyes I cast,
Where all is wild and all is wast.
If there the timorous stag you chase,
Or rouse to fight a fiercer race,
Undaunted I thy arms would bear,
And give thy hand the hunter’s spear.
When the low sun withdraws his light,
And menaces an half-year’s night,
Thy conscious moon and stars above
Shall guide me with my wandering love.
Beneath the mountain’s hollow brow,
Or in its rocky cells below,
Thy rural feast I would provide,
Nor envy palaces their pride.
The softest moss should dress thy bed,
With savage spoils about thee spread:
While faithful love the watch should keep,
To banish danger from thy sleep.
(wr 1750’s, pub 1760)

It’s not coincidental that this is a rare poem by her to endorse heterosexual romance. I’m not sure she does it anywhere else. I quote from one by her permanently on my website (“I have such parts as we have plaid today”) where she personates Anne Boleyn the night before her execution writing to Henry VIII. Unfortunately she does not truly imagine what that night might have been like: filled with rage, despair, anger, nor make it clear how and why it was unlikely Anne could have written anything that night that would last. But her remembering Anne Boleyn and her fate as important and admiration for a transgressive victim was unusual in her time and helped keep Boleyn remembered (albeit by probably a very few) sympathetically.

Elizabeth Tollett was a learned woman, and lived much of her life with a kindly brother, an antiquarian who is always described as having gone to Cambridge. Only recently I learned for the first time that she was disabled, described as a “little crooked woman.” My choices for today show her variety and power as a poet and love for this brother, also her feminism.

First two poems she would have been proud of: the first tells us why people know her brother was at Cambridge: it’s a moving friendship poem, tender and loving, in the Horatian imitation style, and is influenced by poet.

To my brother at St. John’s College in Cambridge,

BLEST be the man, who first the method found
In absence to discourse, and paint a sound!
This praise old Greece to Tyrian Cadmus gives,
And still the author by th’ invention lives:
Still may he live, and justly famous be,
Whose art assists me to converse with thee!
All day I pensive sit, but not alone,
And have the best companions when I’ve none:
I read great Tully’s page, and wondering find
The heavenly doctrine of th’ immortal mind;
An axiom first by parent Nature taught,
An inborn truth, which proves itself by thought.
But when the sun declines the task I change,
And round the walls and antique turrets range;
From hence a varied scene delights the eyes.
See! here Augusta’s massive temples rise,
There meads extend, and hills support the skies;
See! there the ships, an anchored forest, ride,
And either India’s wealth enrich the tide.

Thrice happy you, in Learning’s other seat!
No noisy guards disturb your blest retreat:
Where, to your cell retired, you know to choose
The wisest author, or the sweetest muse.
Let useful toil employ the busy light,
And steal a restless portion from the night;
With thirst of knowledge wake before the day,
Prevent the sun, and chide his tardy ray,
When cheerful larks their early anthem sing,
And opening winds refreshing odours bring;
When from the hills you see the morning rise, 3
As fresh as Lansdown’s cheeks, and bright as Windham’s eyes.

But when you leave your books, as all must find
Some ease required, t’ indulge the labouring mind,
With such companions mix, such friendships make,
As not to choose what you must soon forsake:
Mark well thy choice, let modesty and truth,
And constant industry, adorn the youth.
In books good subjects for discourse are found;
Such be thy talk when friendly tea goes round.
Mirth more than wine the drooping spirits cheers,
Revives our hopes, and dissipates our fears;
From Circe’s cup, immeasured wine, refrain:
Start backwards and reject th’ untasted bane.

Perhaps to neighbouring shades you now repair,
To look abroad and taste the scented air;
Survey the useful labours of the swain,
The tedded grass, and sheaves of ripened grain;
The loaded trees with blushing apples graced,
Or hardy pears, which scorn the wintry blast;
Or see the sturdy hinds from harvest come,
To waste the setting suns in rural mirth at home.
Now on the banks of silver Cam you stray,
While through the twisted boughs the sunbeams play,
And the clear stream reflects the trembling ray.

Think, when you tread the venerable shade,
Here Cowley sung, and tuneful Prior played.
O! would the Muse thy youthful breast inspire
With charming raptures and poetic fire!
Then thou might’st sing (who better claims thy lays?)
A tributary strain to Oxford’s praise:
Thy humble verse from him shall fame derive,
And graced with Harley’s name for ever live.
First sing the man in constant temper found,
Unmoved when Fortune smiled, undaunted when she frowned,
A mind above rewards, serenely great,
And equal to the province of the state.
Thence let thy Muse to private life descend,
Nor in the patriot’s labours lose the friend.

As opposed to men of the era whose poems in this mode address public political questions, Tollett’s poem, like those by women of the era, present her innermost ideals for living. She says her brother is so much was luckier than she because he could go to Cambridge. He was learned, an antiquarian, many friends, and she is grateful to him for sharing his life with her.

A recent photo of Cambridge, Wimpole Hall

She tended to write in heroic couplets, grave and ultimately Popian in style (polished) but she also has merry and witty stanza poems. like the following:

A New Ballad To the Tune of All You Ladies now At Land &c [by Mrs Eliz Tollet.] To all you sparkling Whiggs at Court, p68v – 69v

To all you sparkling Whiggs at Court
We Torys in the Tower
Declare we mean to Spoile your Sport
By Mustring up our Power.
For tho’ you’vre laid us fast in hold
Yet Beauty bids defiance bold with a fa la &c

And first the fair of Villiers Race*
A Race to Beauty borne,
The freshest bloom, the Sweetest Grace,
Her Matchless face adorne
Our Land no Poet can afford
To praise Her justly but her Lord with a fa la &c

The Neighbouring Realm for beauties fame
Her Antient Right revives,
Nor can She plead a Stronger Claime
Than what Emilia gives,
For Artless Charmes & Native Mirth
Records the Bonny Maids of Perth with a fa la &c

Tho thus Maintain’d with Native Arms,
We call in foreign Aid,
May he be blind to British Charms
That dares resist the Swede
United forces Arm the fair,
Her Lovely Shape & Charming Air with a fa la &c

Fair Blackler Conquers by Surprise
And double Arms She bears
For while her form invades our Eyes
Her Musick Charms our Ears
Nature in her has Joyn’d to please
Good Natur’d Witt & Gracefull ease with a fa la &c

Tho Lovely Harley’s early Ray**
Now Shine in Youthfull bloom,
The Genial Influence of the Day
Shall brighen Charms to Come
So does the smiling morne arise
And Radiant Glories paint the Stars with a fa la la &c

Such force drawne up at our Command
We bravely take the feild
Whoever does our Arms withstand
Prepare to dye or Yeild.
Do you Appoint the Time & Place
We dare you bring a better face with a fa la &c

There are problems with the attribution on several grounds and I used to be sure it was by Finch, but no longer am and surmize it’s by Tollett, partly on the strength of the manuscript I found it in which is usually accurate in its attributions where I could check it.

It is, however, far more common for Tollett to write grave and melancholy verse, satire, and serious imitations. I chose her for today because of this and a poem by her I recently read in which she reveals she suffered from depression: it’s one of her Horatian imitations. Samuel Johnson would have liked this one. Horace seems to have authorized all kinds of subversive unacceptable feelings.

This particular imitation is one of the Pindaric kind and thus probably not one which will get much readership, but it’s superb, austere, controlled, filled with strong sad feeling. She would be preceded by Anne Finch, whose pindaric “Spleen” is in a similar vein and is perhaps one of the first or earliest poems where a poet comes out openly as suffering depression and analysing it in front of us.

Imitation of Horace, Lib II Ode 3

/Equam memento rebus in arduis/Servare mentem


Why thus dejected? can you hope a Cure
In mourning Ills which you endure?
Without Redress you grieve:
A melancholy Thought may sour
The Pleasures of the present Hour.
But never can the Past retrieve.
Who knows if more remain for Fate to give?
Unerring Death alike on all attends;
Alike our Hopes and Fears destroys:
Alike one silent Period ends.
All our repining Griefs and our insulting joys.

Not thy Expence, nor thy Physicians Skill
Can guard thee from the Stroak’ofFate:
Thou yield’st to some imaginary Ill
Thy very Fears of Death create.
With the fantastick Spleen26 oppress’d,
With Vapours wilder Indolence possess’d,
Thy stagnant Blood forgets to roll,
And Fate attacks thee from thy inward Soul,
Vain is Resistance, let’s retreat
To some remote, some rural Seat;
Where on the Grass reclin’d we may,
Make ev’ry Dayan Holy-day:
Where all to our Delights combine,
With Friendship, Wit, and chearful Wine.

Where the tall Poplar and aspiring Pine
Their hospitable Branches twine:
Among their Roots a silver Current strays,
Which wand’ring here and there, its Course delays,
And in Meanders forms its winding Ways,
Perfumes, and Wine, and Roses bring!
The short-liv’d Treasures of the Spring!
While Wealth can give, or Youth can use,
While that can purchase, this excuse,
Let’s live the present Now!
‘Tis all the fatal Sisters may allow,
Tho’ thou should’st purchase an immense Estate,
Tho’ the clear Mirror of the rolling Tide
Reflect thy Villa’s rising Pride,
And Forest shading either side;
Yet must thou yield to Fate:
To these shall thy unthankful Heir succeed;
And waste the heapy Treasures of the Dead.


Nor shall it aid thee then to trace
Thy Ancestors beyond the Norman Race:
Death, the great Leveller of all Degrees,
Does on Mankind without Distinction seize.
Undaunted Guards attend in vain
The mighty Tyrant to repel;
Nor does his Cruelty disdain
The lab’ring Hind! and weary Swain,
Who in obscure Oblivion dwell.
When from the fated Urn the Lot is cast,
The Doom irrevocable past,
Still on the Brink the shiv’ring Ghosts wou’d stay:
Imperious Fate brooks no Delay;
The Steersman calls, away! away!

We can see her feminism in the choices she makes to translate: from Virgil’s Aeneid, these lines:

From Virgil [Aeneid III. 321-4 Adapted]

How hard a fate enthrals the wretched maid
By tyrant kindred bartered and betrayed!
Whose beauty, youth and innocence are sold
For shining equipage, or heaps of gold;
Condemned to drag an odious chain for life,
A living victim and a captive wife!
More happy she, and less severe her doom,
Who falls in all the pride of early bloom,
And virgin honours dress her peaceful tomb!

and her


WHAT cruel laws depress the female kind,
To humble cares and servile tasks confined!
In gilded toys their florid bloom to spend,
And empty glories that in age must end;
For amorous youth to spread the artful snares,
And by their triumphs to enlarge their cares.
For, once engaged in the domestic chain,
Compare the sorrows, and compute the gain;
What happiness can servitude afford?
A will resigned to an imperious lord,
Or slave to avarice, to beauty blind,
Or soured with spleen, or ranging unconfined.
That haughty man, unrivalled and alone,
May boast the world of science all his own:
As barb’rous tyrants, to secure their sway,
Conclude that ignorance will best obey.
Then boldly loud, and privileged to rail,
As prejudice o’er reason may prevail,
Unequal nature is accused to fail.
The theme, in keen iambics smoothly writ,
Which was but malice late, shall soon be wit.

Nature in vain can womankind inspire
With brighter particles of active fire,
Which to their frame a due proportion hold,
Refined by dwelling in a purer mould,
If useless rust must fair endowments hide,
Or wit, disdaining ease, be misapplied.
‘Tis then that wit, which reason should refine,
And disengage the metal from the mine,
Luxuriates, or degenerates to design.
Wit unemployed becomes a dangerous thing,
As waters stagnate and defile their spring.
The cultivated mind, a fertile soil,
With rich increase rewards the useful toil:
But fallow left, an hateful crop succeeds
Of tangling brambles and pernicious weeds;
‘Tis endless labour then the ground to clear,
And trust the doubtful earnest of the year.
Yet oft we hear, in height of stupid pride,
Some senseless idiot curse a lettered bride.

On her long Heroides to Anne Boleyn: If you can bypass the self-blinding presentation of her as somehow penitent and excusing herself to the king (instead of bitter, enraged, hurt, and probably rightly duplicitious — read Retha Warnke’s accurate biography of Boleyn), the poem is striking. It’s long and you can probably find it in Chadwyck-Healey. This is a remarkable and unusual poem because she does not present Boleyn as this lurid victim; it’s not an iconography of glamorous victimhood, but a somber portrait where she defends Boleyn through notes (which shows she read up on the subject and didn’t like the common portrayals in the media then, which I suppose correspond to similar lurid iconographies today). It’s very revealing to go into the way actresses in the 18th century and these tragedy queens (Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, and then Antoinette) were represented; you can find that modern “glamor” types are closely similar (for example, the way Mary Queen of Scots was represented reminds me of the way Princess Diana is presented; Hillary Clinton, Marie Antoinette; Mary Robinson, Madonna). Plus ca change ….

This one precedes Wordsworth’s famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge:

On the Prospect from Westminster Bridge,
~March 1750

CAESAR! renowned in silence as in war,
Look down a while from thy maternal star:
See! to the skies what sacred domes ascend,
What ample arches o’er the river bend;
What vill[a]s above in rural prospect lie,
Beneath, a street that intercepts the eye,
Where happy Commerce glads the wealthy streams,
And floating castles ride. Is this the Thames,
The scene where brave Cassibelan of yore
Repulsed thy legions on a savage shore?
Britain, ’tis true, was hard to overcome,
Or by the arms, or by the arts, of Rome;
Yet we allow thee ruler of the Sphere,
And last of all resign thy Julian year

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Holywells Park

Elizabeth was the daughter of George Tollet, Commissioner of the Navy in the reigns of William II and Queen Anne; she lived in his home in the tower of London; her father who was friendly with Sir Isaac Newton was encouraged by Newton to give her an excellent education (she translated some of the psalms into classical Latin): she read history, understood mathematics, was fluent in French, Italian and Latin. Like Margaret Cavendish and a number of the later 17th century English women poets who are in print today and still valued, she never belonged to a social circle, and not much is known about her beyond the kinds of facts found in registry documents about her male relatives; she never married. But she was addressed in verse by one John Hanway and perhaps Aaron Hill. She is said to have left property to her nephew, George Tollett (1725-79), a lawyer and critic of Shakespeare. She was buried in West Ham Church, where her epitaph says “Religion, justice, and benevolence appeared in all her actions; and her Poems, in various languages are adorned with the most extensive learning, applied to the best purposes.

She did publish her poems more than once (one edition is dated 1724), and there was a posthumous edition of her poetry (1755; it was in the second edition that her poem as Anne Boleyn was printed). She wrote poetry in praise of the poetry of other women: beyond Annr Finch, the Countess of Winchilsea, she loved the poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu — who she in effect addressed as her foremothers, or as writing in a worthy tradition of poetry by women.

She comes across to me as a likable woman, really generous and kind, with decent values, living a quietly semi-fulfilled life.

I like to think this is to her best friend — who the poem tells us predeceased Tollett — and whom she identifies with:

Adieu my Friend

Adieu my Friend! and may thy Woes
Be all in long Oblivion lost:
If Innocence can give Repose;
Or gentle Verse can please thy Ghost.
No pious Rite, no solemn Knell
Attended thy belov’d Remains:
Nor shall the letter’d Marble tell
What silent Earth the Charge contains.

Obscure, beneath the nameless Stone,
With thee shall Truth and Virtue sleep:
While, with her Lamp, the Muse alone,
Shall watch thy sacred Dust and weep.

Blue Violets, and Snow-Drops pale,
In pearly Dew for thee shall mourn:
And humble Lillies of the Vale
Shall cover thy neglected Urn.

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-84), Autumn

The information here comes from many sources; two useful anthologies which contain some of the above poetry are Rogers Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (Oxford); and Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century.


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Francis Power Cobbe, her own illustration for a travel piece, “A Lady’s Ride through Palestine”

Dear friends and readers,

This is another in my series of foremother poet blogs — whence the label “poet” when it should really be writer and splendid human being, for if the world were filled with people like Cobbe what a better place it’d have been and be. It’s also a follow-up to my blog on the killing of Marie Trintignant by her boyfriend and thus Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse.

This week I’ve been reading a long splendid (overdue) biography of a woman all other women around the earth ought to celebrate and commemorate, Francis Power Cobbe — take flowers to her grave if you are inclined to Virginia Woolf gestures. If Cobbe didn’t achieve in her legislation all she went for (she was told why should Parliamentarians bother, after all women didn’t affect their position in the Commons and their cause would take away male power), certainly she went further than anyone before her. Tirelessly active for rights to control property, custody of one’s children, access to decently paid self-respecting employment. But her peculiar achievement is in line with her adherence to an ideal of humanity, kindness — don’t knock it.

Her achievement was the 1878 Matrimonial Causes Acts. The first time anywhere a woman could ask for the right to leave a man if he beat her, and to be protected against him. Alas, it was left to the judge (a male) to move to this and often the judges didn’t but sometimes and increasingly they did.

She is still ahead of her time as her biographer actually blames her for her work for animals rights as getting in the way and ruining her reputation in the wider world. Pray tell me Sally Mitchell, what reputation in any wide world? It’s a fine book except for Mitchell’s lack of sympathy for Cobbe’s work for animal rights. This lack of sympathy vitiates the last part of the book, for there we find Cobbe exposing physicians as well as scientists for their inhumanity. This in the US is the period when doctors took control of public health and schools for their own financial benefit. That Mitchell can get away with her obduracy shows the power of established medicine, science and continued indifference to non-human animals by many people.

A photograph she took of her beloved dog, Hajjin, for her Confessions of a Lost Dog

She’s credited with starting the animal rights movement

As far as belles-lettres are concerned, she wrote travel books — yes she was one of these traveling woman, and she illustrated them herself.


I rush to assure all Hajjin did not get lost but remained with Francis and died of old age in their home.

She was lucky in her birth and connections: wealthy Anglo-Irish, amid intellectuals. As a writing woman, she worked as a journalist, often in mainstream journals but anonymously mostly. Her pieces are heavily political. Perhaps her most important document is “Wife-Torture in England.” There was punishment for a man who attempted to kill another man, but if he beat the hell out of his wife, unless she could prove she was in danger of dying, she could not get a separation (much less right to her property). Violence with family life (on children as well as women) was ubiquitous and tolerated and not just in England with records growing from the time of the Enlightenment.

Here’s a selection of her work on line. Another.

I’m not surprised to find “Wife Torture” is not included in either place. The blog I wrote the other day shows how common accepted violence still is — if we needed reminding.

She was not a poet, but she did write some verse and after reading Elizabeth Bishop’s poem this morning I thought I’d share it. She was a lesbian and lived her long life with a beloved partner, Mary Lloyd, and this is to Mary. It reminds me of Cowper’s poem to Mary Unwin:

To Mary C. Lloyd

Friend of my Life, when’ er my eyes
Rest with sudden, glad surprise
On Nature’s scenes of earth and air
Sublimely grand, or sweetly fair,
I want you,- Mary.

When men and women gifted, free,
Speak their fresh thoughts un grudgingly,
And springing forth each kindling mind
Streams like a meteor in the wind,
I want you,- Mary.

When soft the summer evenings close,
And crimson in the sunset rose,
Our Cader glows, majestic, grand,
The crown of all your lovely land,
I want you,- Mary.

When the dark winter nights come round
To our “ain fireside” cheerly bound,
With our dear Rembrandt girl, so brown,
Smiling serenely on us down,
I want you,- Mary.

Now,-while the vigorous pulses leap
Still strong within my spirit’s deep;
Now, while my yet unwearied brain
Weaves its thick web of thoughts amain,
I want you,- Mary.

Hereafter, when slow ebbs the tide,
And age drains out my strength and pride,
And dim-grown eyes and palsied hand
No longer list my soul’s command,
I’ll want you,- Mary.

In joy and grief, in good and ill,
Friend of my heart: I need you still,
My Guide, Companion, Playmate, Love,
To dwell with here, to clasp above,
I want you,- Mary.

For O! if past the gates of Death
To me the Unseen openeth Immortal joys, to angels given,
Upon the holy heights of Heaven,
I’ll want you,- Mary.

A small extra revelance: 10 years after she achieved financial independence through a combination of her share of an inherited income and her publications, she wrote and campaigned strongly against volunteer work. She argued that volunteer work enabled employers to get work from people for free with no strings attached. That it took bread from the mouths of people who could not afford to work for nothing. That whatever you may claim, it disvalued the work done for nothing. In this time of mass unemployment I come across people saying how honored and wonderful it is when they get a volunteer job — say teaching third grade in a school for a full year without a dime of income. Cobbe recognized what this is about. Desperation.

If I had time I’d add portraits of a few of her friends, Fanny Kemble’s daughter, Mary Somerville and other women writers working for women’s causes at the time and some picturesque pictures from their European world. Perhaps later this week.


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Old Woodstock Manor, Oxfordshire: Scott’s Woodstock; or, The Cavalier is set there

Dear friends and readers,

While last weekend for two afternoons and one morning, I saw myself at the AWP (American Women Poets) conference, an umbrella get-together for all sorts of (basically) non-commercial creative writings, I went ot the Wompo breakfast where I met with 20 people on Wom-po. Several were very friendly or gracious and it seemed many encouraged me to resume foremother poet postings on Fridays. I did these for two years regularly and since then now and again as the spirit took me: 3 examples: a recent one, Caroline Norton; not so long ago, Georgiana Spencer; and someone I’m fond of who I should write a scholarly publishable paper on, Henrietta St John Knightley. I know that on Wom-po Joelle Beiele (an editor of Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence) has been soldiering on, more or less alone, on both Wednesdays and Fridays putting fine poems on the listserv. So I thought I’d give regularity another try.

This time I’ll go further. Each week I do one, I’ll make a brief casual blog of it.

So for yesterday morning, I sent a poem to the listserv community by Anne Vavasour (c 1560-after 1620), a gentlewoman of Elizabeth’s court whose life shows the vicissitudes a woman endured under the oppressive customs and laws of the era. The value of her poem is (to me) its stark truthfulness about the necessity of hiding herself, depriving herself to survive:

‘Thoughe I seeme straunge sweete freende be thou not so’

Thoughe I seeme straunge sweete freende be thou not so
          Do not annoy thy selfe with sullen will
Myne harte hathe voude allthoughe my tongue saye noe
          To be thyne owne in freendly liking styll
Thou seeste me live amongest the Lynxes eyes
          That pryes innto each privy thoughte of mynde
Thou knowest ryghte well what sorrows may aryse
          Ife once they chaunce my setled lookes to fynde
Contente thy selfe that once I made an othe
          To sheylde my selfe in shrowde of honest shame
And when thou lyste make tryall of my trouthe
          So that thou save the honoure of my name
And let me seme althoughe I be not coye
          To cloak my sadd conceyts with smylinge cheere
Let not my jestures showe wherein to joye
          Nor by my lookes let not my loue appeere.
We seely dames that falles suspecte, do feare
          And live within the moughte of envyes lake
Muste in oure heartes a secrete meaning beare
          Far from the reste whiche outwardlye we make
Go where I lyke, I lyste not vaunte my love
          where I desyre there moste I fayne debate
One hathe my hande an other hathe my glove,
          But he my harte whome I seeme most to hate
Then farewell freende I will continue straunge
          Thou shalt not heere by worde or writinge oughte
Let it suffice my vowe shall never chaunge
          As for the rest I leave yt to thy thoughte.

She was a survivor, gentle reader, no mean feat for a woman in Tudor times.


Hans Holbein, Anne Cresacre: the clothing, like the lady is of the early not middle Tudor age, but her wary guarded expression is a propos for Anne Vavasour

The context here is Anne Vavasour was probably pregnant by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (an heartless cad, unscrupulous, mean in every way — I can’t admire her taste as you can see) or had given birth to the baby. She and de Vere were imprisoned, and the son taken by the De Vere family. This boy later became a soldier.

She survived by becoming the mistress of Sir Henry Lee, Elizabeth I’s “champion” (think of it as a job which brings a house with it) at Woodstock. She lived there until her death — a pretty place but it needs upkeep. So she married to John Field (not Finch as the wikipedia article has it) at some time during her life at Woodstock and had a son by him; this marriage brought an annuity (times being what they were, there were no job listings, employment agencies, much less helpful agencies to secure some kind of income, especially not for women). Much later after Lee and Field’s death, she married again, one John Richardson of Durham and co-signed a lease with him. This brought down on her (very quickly too) Lee’s heir who accused her of bigamy; she was accessed a big fine, but Queen Anne (James’s queen) came to her aid and she was exempted. There are various telling tales told of her

Her champion in the poem might be Lee who knew her early on, but it’s clear it’s Oxford whose reassurance (poor woman) she seeks.

The poem come from Early Modern Women Poets: An Anthology, edd. Janet Stevenson and Peter Davidson. My information derives from there, and my own knowledge of the era, as well as a paper I wrote on Anne Cecil, de Vere’s emotionally abused wife, Burleigh’s unlucky daughter.


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