About Poetess

Uses of the Archive

This Web archive is intended for both professors and students. It will provide necessary background into the current standing within literary criticism of a certain group of allegedly “sentimental” writers, most often women, who wrote popular poetry. This site will be valuable to professors and students who may be studying these writers for the first time in British (1773-1839), American (1773-1865), or Transatlantic (1770-1900) literature courses.

There are a number of poetic conventions characterizing the poetess tradition: artificial diction, tetrameter and trimeter metric systems, conventional and apparently uncritical sentiments,(1) direct quotation of other poets, salient rhyme schemes, linguistic transparency, and a focus on the themes of patriotism and domesticity. The term thus links gender to poetic style. As feminine, the poetess tradition has been continuously maligned: an early nineteenth-century reviewer remarks that female poets "disregarded the high art of poetry"; mid twentieth-century New Critics attack the "women with three names."

Recent revisionary critical responses to this popular "sentimental" women's writing are overturning such derogatory criticism. Only now are we finally seeing new editions of neglected women poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, L.E.L., Felicia Hemans, Anna Barbauld, Mary Robinson, and Charlotte Smith, new biographies, newer critical appreciations, and new anthologies devoted exclusively to women poets.(2) Not all of these writers are "poetesses," and yet all confront that cultural phenomenon in some way.

From Paula Feldman’s early ground-breaking work to Catherine Robson's "Standing on the Burning Deck" (2005) about that quintessential poetess, Felicia Hemans, the poetess is finally receiving good press.(3) This re-evaluation renders most striking the long history of denigration that comprises its critical reception: wherefore the energy of those attacks? If misogyny isn't an essential, enduring feature of culture per se, then perhaps this poetry was rejected by the literary establishment until recently precisely because of its main strength: its intense popularity. As Katherine Harris’s essay in Publications of the Bibliographic Society of America shows, there was an explosion of poetry production in literary annuals published in Britain and America between 1822 and 1860, not fully tapering off until 1865.(4) On the British side alone, there were 280 titles or 1,838 volumes published 1822-1860.(5)

Two myths pervade the study of this immensely important and influential body of writing. One is that canonical writers shunned this work, refusing to publish in well-paying annuals and choosing instead to create great, high art. But Samuel Taylor Coleridge published frequently in the venues where one would find popular poetry. For example, Coleridge’s “Work Without Hope” appears in print two places in the same year, in his Poetical Works and in the Bijou of 1828. Its thematically and metrically emphasized phrase “wreathless brow” fits remarkably well into a thematic dominating the poetess-poetry of the annuals, the thematic of unachieved fame and, with it, subjective power irretrievably lost.(6) Coleridge’s poem offers a particular case, and literary historians typically work from particular cases. Our database coupled with the visualization tool will allow quite literally looking at the overall publication history of a number of poems and to make inferences based on statistically significant similarities and differences. Instead of simply finding cases and generalizing from them, literary historians can formulate hypotheses based on individual cases and then objectively test their generalizability. We know that Coleridge and Tennyson published frequently in annuals: did most canonical authors publish in annuals? How often -- as often as most writers in the poetess tradition? What percentage of their total production appeared there? These are all questions that can be answered using our database and visualization tool.

The second myth is that writings in the poetess tradition are bad poems. Paula Feldman tells the story of her first encounter with Romantic women poets who wrote “flowery” poetry. She says that she read critical essays that denigrate them, then dipped into one or two poems quickly as she picked up books here and there. Her spotty, distracted, brief encounters convinced her that the criticism was right. Later, after she spent a significant amount of time reading work by Felicia Hemans and discovered its aesthetic power, she asked herself, “What if I had first encountered Wordsworth or Keats in the same way? Would I have thought them bad poets as well?”

From the perspective of high literary criticism, popular literature is poorly crafted, not rich with verbal and structural complexity, and so devalued as “bad” literature. But recent critics see poetess aesthetics as not inferior but different.(7) We have come to a moment in our collective cultural history in which we have to figure out how to understand and value popular poetry or risk having poetry lose too much ground as a vital, communal mode of cultural expression. The Poetess Archive Database presents as many poems as possible, tying them to the engravings and printing styles that embellished them in their original context: it offers them for aesthetic revaluation.


1. In her 1997 essay “The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women's Poetry, 1780-1830,” Anne Mellor summarizes recent work which shows that, read carefully, poetess poetry reveals more ambivalence about embracing sexist oppression than has been appreciated – it is indeed more ironic than it at first appears. Another prominent counterview is advanced by Paula Feldman, introduction to Records of Woman With Other Poems, by Felicia Hemans (Lexington, KY: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1999): “Records of Woman undercuts, even while it reinforces, conventional views of women” (xx).

2 Andrew Ashfield, ed., Romantic Women Poets 1770-1838: An Anthology (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995); Paula Feldman, ed., British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997); Roger Lonsdale, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (New York: Oxford UP, 1989); Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow, Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (New York: Oxford UP, 1996); Catherine Reilly, ed., Winged Words: an Anthology of Victorian Women’s Poetry and Verse (London: Enitharmon P, 1994); Elizabeth Petrino, Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America, 1820-1885 (Hanover: UP of New England, 1998).

3 Paula Feldman, “Endurance and Forgetting: What the Evidence Suggests,” in Harriet Kramer Linkin, Stephen Behrendt, eds., Romanticism and Women Poets (Lexington, KY: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1999), 15-21; Catherine Robson, “Standing on the Burning Deck: Poetry, Performance, History,” PMLA 120.1 (January 2005): 148-162.

4 Andrew Boyle, An Index to the Annuals (Worcester, MA: A. Boyle, 1967).

5 Frederick W. Faxon, Literary Annuals and Gift Books: A Bibliography 1823-1903 (1912; Middlesex: Private Libraries Association, 1973).

6 Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, “Lyrical Studies,” Victorian Literature and Culture (1999): 521-530.

7 Jerome McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Poetic Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999).