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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2011

19 - Eighteenth-century women poets


The rediscovery of women’s poetry has transformed the literary landscape of the eighteenth century. As recently as the early 1980s, students and general readers confronted a canon far narrower and almost exclusively male. Although so-called ‘Augustan’ verse had always offered more generic and stylistic diversity than the social and political satire by which the age is often stereotyped, very few poems by women appeared in anthologies or on university syllabuses. Of the several hundred items in Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell and Marshall Waingrow’s compendious Eighteenth-Century English Literature (1969) there are only four poems by women – three by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and one short lyric by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Charles Peake’s Poetry of the Landscape and the Night (1967), a kind of ‘alternative’ eighteenth-century verse anthology, included only one piece by a woman, Finch’s ‘Nocturnal Reverie’. Yet by the mid 1980s much had changed. Feminist criticism and scholarship had invested heavily in rediscovering literary ‘mothers’; and a wide range of textual scholars had started to undertake the challenge of editing some of the many coterie manuscript poems by women which represented a significant facet of female writing of the period. Roger Lonsdale’s ground-breaking Eighteenth– Century Women Poets (1989) helped place in the public domain unfamiliar women poets, some published and popular in their own time, who had since disappeared from view. Eighteenth-century women’s poetry is now widely accessible in both anthologies and individual scholarly editions, and numerous names have now augmented literary syllabuses – the outspoken teenage poetess Sarah Fyge Egerton; the labouring poets Mary Leapor, Mary Collier and Ann Yearsley; middle-class admirers and followers of Pope and Swift, such as Mary Jones and Mary Barber; those who courted scandal for their unconventional lives and autobiographical self-disclosure, such as Laetitia Pilkington and Martha Fowke Sansom.