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KeywordsPoetry Periodicals Poetess Women’s periodicals Women’s history
Poetry was a requirement for readers of Victorian periodicals. It appeared in all types of periodicals for men and women throughout the nineteenth century. Poems written by women for Victorian periodicals are noteworthy because of their textual relationship with the publication format. Factors that may affect meaning in a poem include the periodical’s intended readership, physical features, illustrations, advertising, and editorial intervention. A poem’s first publication in a periodical is its first edition, rather than its appearance in a later volume. Many women gained substantial celebrity, as well as professional status, by writing for periodicals, and a new history of women’s poetry may be written through study of periodical publication.
Poetry was important for readers of Victorian periodicals, as confirmed by the consistent regularity of varying amounts of poetry published in the vast, increasingly diverse array of periodical titles that appeared in Britain during the nineteenth century. On the surface, periodical poetry is not unlike poetry published in volumes; much original poetry appeared first in periodicals, often to be collected in later volumes. However, poetry published in a periodical is informed by its embeddedness in the publication’s personality, which may be defined by qualities such as its physical appearance (paper, column format, font, size, etc.), periodicity (daily, monthly, weekly, bimonthly, quarterly, or annual), implied gender and class of the readership, editorial intervention, advertising, illustration, or texts adjacent to or accompanying the poem that compete for the reader’s attention. A poem usually requires minimal space compared to the total, but it can sometimes condense cultural value more effectively than any other feature in the paper because of intertextual relationships with the features suggested above. The demand for poetry provided unprecedented opportunities for women to pursue literary careers through periodicals, where publication was most promising. Writing periodical poetry could become a pathway to self-sufficiency or celebrity for women, whether they be driven by the desire for poetic expression or a need to support their families. Thus nineteenth-century periodical poetry by women is always theoretically political.
Poetry was an acceptable mode of personal expression for women, and the term “woman poet” was often interchangeable with “poetess,” as noted by Susan Brown, who explains that the term “proved enabling as well as constraining for women writers in its insistence that masculinity and femininity mattered where poetry was concerned” (Brown 2000). In the September 1844 issue of the New Monthly Belle Assemblée, an author claims that “Women are the poetry of the world, in the same sense as the stars are the poetry of heaven. Clear, light-giving, harmonious, they are the terrestial [sic] planets that rule the destinies of mankind” (Anonymous 1844). Not only is poetry made for women; women are made of poetry. The author expresses conventional, separate spheres ideology common in the nineteenth century, when poetry’s emotional ethos articulated traditionally feminine sentiments about love, beauty, romance, war, poverty, death, nature, family, country, Christianity, and work. However, these discourses are not exclusive to women, and Victorian practices of unsigned and pseudonymous authorship suggest that firm gender analyses are not feasible. Both men and women wrote gendered and sentimental poetry, and Victorian readers judged literature according to its ability to activate personal feelings. Current views on separate spheres ideology acknowledge that historical examples of women’s independence, religious and racial diversity, female masculinities, and public engagement in business and education destabilize traditional gender definitions, especially after the 1870s. Nevertheless, Victorian readers who were heavily invested in notions of a feminine sphere of influence believed that women would heal civilization through a native sense of self-sacrifice, dependence, purity, innocence, charity, thrift, and domesticity.
Literary Annuals and Expanded Opportunities in Periodicals
Increasing competition between annuals caused their decline, and industrial expansion and a series of tax reforms enabled the growth of competitive periodicals that further crowded them out of the market. Many women busily writing for annuals, such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Russell Mitford, Mary Howitt, Camilla Toulmin (Mrs. Newton Crosland), her friend Dinah Maria Mulock (later Craik), and poet, novelist, and Jewish reformer Grace Aguilar, capitalized on opportunities for writing poetry for the new periodicals. A brief, incomplete review of weekly and monthly papers that feature Toulmin’s poetry includes Chambers’s Journal, Court Magazine, Lady’s Newspaper, Reynolds’s Miscellany, Bentley’s Miscellany, the London Journal, and the Ladies’ Companion. Toulmin also edited the monthly women’s literary/fashion magazine, the New Monthly Belle Assemblée (NMBA) during the 1840s. The paper was a prolific publisher of poetry; it featured 19 poems in the January 1838 issue and at least 100 poems in the 6-month period encased in volume 41 (January to June 1841). Contributors included many women poets now relatively obscure, such as Sarah Gladhill Healey, Elizabeth Youatt, Mrs. Edward Thomas, Mrs. William Quarles, Georgina Munro, Alicia and Eliza Julia Sparrow, Anna Savage, Rose Acton, Ada Trevanion, Grace Greenwood, and Maria Norris. Although the work of these women may never be of scholarly interest, their regular contributions to the NMBA construct a poetic canon unique to the paper, and they undoubtedly became recognized as minor celebrities by more than a few of its readers.
Annual poets who, like Camilla Toulmin, moved into the editor’s role include Mrs. Cornwall-Baron Wilson (New Monthly Belle Assemblée), Eliza Cook (Eliza Cook’s Journal), and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (The Christian Lady’s Magazine). Dinah Mulock Craik went on to write for periodicals until her death in 1887, although she achieved major celebrity status in 1856 by writing a bestselling novel, John Halifax, Gentleman. Grace Aguilar’s poetry appeared in Friendship’s Offering, The Keepsake, and the Book of Beauty during the 1840s; at the same time she was contributing regularly to the New Monthly Belle Assemblée. Aguilar’s career was cut short when she died young in 1847 from a spinal illness, and her death was newsworthy for several papers of varying readerships, including the Lady’s Newspaper, the Gentleman’s Magazine, and Reynolds’s Miscellany. A lengthy memorial printed in the November 1847 issue of the New Monthly Belle Assemblée was written by its editor, Camilla Toulmin, and reprinted in the Lady’s Newspaper as essential news for women readers. Typically for women, the notices of her death focus on Aguilar’s physical features and rationalize her Jewishness in terms of Christian morality, while omitting discussion of her poetic oeuvre.
Poetry in Women’s Periodicals
A brief review of poetry in women’s periodicals is helpful for understanding the scope of gender-specific issues. Philanthropic organizations established periodicals to further an agenda for improving women’s lives, and they published poetry that would anchor readers to the organization’s mission. Such papers articulate Christian beliefs that women can improve and purify civilization by taking salvation and moral righteousness into cities, workplaces, and the colonies. The cheap monthly periodical titled the Mothers’ Friend teaches readers how to live as a pious Christian woman and mother, and poems offer thematic meditations related to Christian life. Poetry in papers such as the Servants’ Magazine, issued by the London Female Mission, stresses the importance of humility, thrift, and hard work. In “A Way to Find Out Pride,” the speaker educates servants about pride and gives them a way to identify and avoid pride in their own behavior: “Can you submissively consent/To take reproof or punishment,/And feel no angry temper start/In any corner of your heart?” or “When you are right, and know you are;/Nor flatly contradict again,/But wait, or modestly explain,/And tell your reasons one by one;/Nor think of triumph when you’ve done?” (Anonymous 1841). Although the title and expressed purpose of the periodical are purportedly for readers below stairs, the Servants’ Magazine is a venue for soothing middle-class fears about theft and immorality among the servant class. The monthly penny paper titled the British Workwoman was sold by the National Temperance League and features a similar focus on improving working-class morals. Other papers, such as the Evangelical activist paper Magdalen’s Friend, feature literature supporting the moral mission to save fallen women, which may include women suspected of any sexual or moral indiscretion. A poem by L. M. Thornton titled “None Need Despair” appears among missionary sketches and foldout maps of London refuges for fallen women. The poem promises that Christian mercy will come to fallen women through forgiveness and a “peace-speaking brow” (Thornton 1860). The poetry is designed to bring hope to fallen women and invites a missionary spirit in philanthropic women who may wish to venture into the fallen woman refuges mapped out on the pages of the Magdalen’s Friend.
Although controversial women’s issues were being discussed in periodicals for men and women during the entire nineteenth century, the first feminist periodical written by women for women was the English Woman’s Journal, inaugurated in 1858. Poetry in feminist periodicals features poetic themes and sentiments related to women’s interests and to social ills affecting women. Other feminist papers included the Victoria Magazine (1863), Englishwoman’s Review (1866–1910), the Shield (1870–1890), Work and Leisure (1880–1893), Women’s Penny Paper (1888–1890), and the Women’s Herald/Woman’s Signal (1895). Their philanthropic roots produced a missionary spirit of morality that may confound later feminists; for instance, a work of poetry that became an icon of patriarchal oppression for twentieth-century feminists, Coventry Patmore’s work, The Angel in the House (1854), is praised in the English Woman’s Journal’s 1862 review of the second edition of the Angel in the House. The reviewer (possibly Bessie Rayner Parkes) comments that “Some poets love to analyse and reproduce great characters; he [Patmore] has painted an exquisite picture of the passion of love as felt by a man for a good woman, simply as such, and we need ask no more from the poet who can do this so perfectly”; she adds that Patmore pays women “honor due” (Anonymous 1862). Reading nineteenth-century women’s periodicals will assist in better understanding of such complexities and contradictions in early feminism.
Poetry by women exhibits independent womanhood and female aestheticism in Oscar Wilde’s sophisticated paper titled Woman’s World (under Wilde’s editorship from 1887 to 1889). One of his favorite contributors was Violet Fane (Mary Montgomerie Lamb Singleton, Baroness Currie, 1843–1905); Wilde once wrote that she was “a poem and a poet in one, an exquisite combination of perfection and personality, which are the keynotes of modern art” (Wilde 1962). Wilde’s comment echoes sentiments articulated in the 1844 NMBA, quoted above. For Wilde, Fane’s body is poetry, as well as a producer of art. Her sonnet “Hazely Heath” appears in the inaugural issue of Woman’s World and demonstrates influences of aestheticism with sensual descriptions of seasonal qualities of a personified autumn. However, in an important essay about women poets titled “English Poetesses” published in the women’s weekly, upper-class fashion magazine, The Queen, Wilde proclaims Elizabeth Barrett Browning as the greatest poetess of English literary history, to whom he attributes the “really remarkable awakening of women’s song that characterizes the latter half of our century in England. No Country has ever had so many poetesses at once” (Wilde 1888). In Woman’s World, he comments that women “possess just what our literature wants, a light touch, a delicate hand, a graceful mode of treatment, and an unstudied felicity of phrase” (Wilde 1889). In spite of Wilde’s support of women writers through publication, his comment confirms traditional notions of femininity while articulating aesthetic notions of beauty.
Erasure and Recovery of Women’s Poetry
A definitive count and comprehensive list of women who published periodical poetry is impossible because of the practice of unsigned contributions, and names of many who signed their poems were erased by twentieth-century critics whose aesthetics opposed sentiment or whose elitist discourse articulated prejudice against the ephemerality and commodification of literature in periodicals. Evidence of an established canon of women poets in the late nineteenth century is provided in “A Literary Causerie,” published in The Speaker on 29 October 1892. Here an author with the initials K.T. writes a brief history of women’s poetry that begins in the Middle Ages and continues the genealogical line through the nineteenth century to poets such as Felicia Hemans, L.E.L., Caroline Norton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Adelaide Procter, Jean Ingelow, Augusta Webster, Alice Meynell, Constance Naden, Graham R. Tomson (Rosamund Marriott Watson), Edith Nesbit, and Michael Field, all of whom published in periodicals. K. T. concludes that “Most of the women writers are minor poets indeed, but for that no less poets than the robin ceases to have an exquisite song because he is not a nightingale” (K. T. 1892). Her comment implies that the inferior status of women writers does not dampen the significance of sentiment and feeling still desired by readers of their poetry.
Nevertheless, names of many major and minor women poets were absent only 30 years later in Marjory A. Bald’s 1923 study titled Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century; eight writers represent an entire century of women’s achievement in Bald’s account: Jane Austen, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rossetti. George Saintsbury complains about this removal in his review published in The Bookman (April 1923) and suggests she publish a second volume that would include Margaret Oliphant, Charlotte Yonge, Alice Meynell, and an “‘omnibus box’ or two of minors from Mrs. Hemans and ‘L.E.L.’ through the author of ‘Paul Ferroll’ [Caroline Clive] and poor Amy Levy to others of the eighties and nineties” (Saintsbury 1923).
A brief case study of one poet who made it into Bald’s twentieth-century list demonstrates ways that gender politics united with aesthetic prejudices to subdue women’s periodical poetry. Contribution to literary annuals and other periodicals provides important insights about the early development of Elizabeth Barrett Browning as “poetess.” She began her professional poetic career in a periodical, not a volume; her first two published poems appeared in 1821 in the New Monthly Magazine at the age of 15. When she moved to London, Barrett’s cousin John Kenyon introduced her to London literati, including Mary Russell Mitford, a frequent contributor to literary annuals and editor of the luxury, folio-sized Finden’s Tableaux. Mitford published poems by Barrett in the 1838 volume of Finden’s Tableaux (published in autumn, 1837), predating her first signed book of poetry as an adult, The Seraphim and Other Poems (published in June, 1838). She contributed six poems to literary annuals: four to Finden’s Tableaux (1838, 1839, 1840) and two to the Keepsake (1855, 1857). Between 1838 and publication of her popular Poems of 1844, Barrett also published eight poems in the Athenaeum, including “L.E.L.’s Last Question,” “The Crowned and Wedded Queen,” “Napoleon’s Return,” “The House of Clouds,” “Lessons from the Gorse,” “A Claim in an Allegory,” “Sonnet: On Mr. Hayden’s Portrait of Mr. Wordsworth.” Before and after Barrett’s name became attached in marriage to Robert Browning, British and American periodicals heavily reprinted and reviewed her poetry in an exchange relationship that contributed additional status to her as a periodical poet while adding value to the periodical with use of her name and poetic work. The original source, title, and authorship of her poetry may or may not appear in the reprinted versions. Sometimes, only a stanza or selection of lines appears in cut-and-paste fashion; in this case, the work (and possibly its author) becomes a unique, sentimental possession of the periodical and its readers.
The weekly feminist paper The Woman’s Signal provides an example of this textual dynamic with lines attributed to EBB on 23 July 1896 under a column of short clippings titled “Facts and Scraps”: “Let our souls pursue/Some high, calm, spheric tune, and prove our work/The better for the sweetness of our song” (“Living on Leavings” 1896). The rest of the poem, its title, and its original publication source are lost in this reprinting, but the lines work with other “Facts and Scraps” to comfort and encourage women seeking employment and independence. The lines are extracted from a sonnet first published in the United States within a grouping titled “Four Sonnets” in Graham’s Magazine (December 1842). A Google search reveals that the sonnet or these particular lines were reprinted, often without attribution, until the end of the century under different titles and served a variety of ideological purposes. In the religious periodical published by the Baptist Tract and Book Society, the Baptist Visitor, the lines become part of S. Vincent’s sermon article titled “Glad Work: A Secret” (1881). In Woman’s Thoughts for Women (1899), edited by Rose Porter, the lines are the daily devotional meditation for the third Friday in January. For readers of James Mudge’s Poems with Power to Strengthen the Soul (1902), the sonnet appears as an unsigned religious poem titled “Spiritual Devotion.” These examples demonstrate the ways meaning multiplies in periodical poetry through reprinting and migrates to other printed media where it adopts yet more meanings, with or without the author’s signature. Thus readers could consume the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in very significant, personal ways on at least two continents throughout the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, much of her life’s work disappeared from view by the early twentieth, while her husband Robert Browning’s poetry took precedence in critical canons; EBB’s Sonnets from the Portuguese remained a favorite because of the romantic story of their courtship. The pattern is familiar to scholars wishing to reconstruct an author’s value and reputation, and periodical publication offers essential resources for such a mission.
In her 1892 “Literary Causerie,” K. T. asks: “Gentlemen who reform our language, is it not time to do away with the clumsy modern classification of poetry by sex, and to fuse us universally under the ancient proud name of poets?” (K. T. 1892). Current research in Victorian periodicals will help to establish a new history of women poets that may even the score of men and women’s poetry. Until then, literary historians should consider an author’s publications in periodicals as an essential key to understanding the influence and professional work of poetry; a poem published in a periodical is its first edition, not the poem later collected in a volume. Periodicals offer a window to the past that is inaccessible in a bound volume because women often published first in periodicals, and texts in a periodical create conversations with a poem that more clearly verify its significance in cultural history.
- Anonymous. 1841. A way to find out pride. The Servants’ Magazine (1841), 105.Google Scholar
- ———. 1844. Women are the poetry of the world. The New Monthly Belle Assemblée 21 (Sept 1844), 183.Google Scholar
- ———. 1860. Poetry of the months. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (May 1860), 42.Google Scholar
- ———. 1862. Rev. of Angel of the House, by Coventry Patmore. The English Woman’s Journal (1862), 62–63.Google Scholar
- K. T. (1892). A literary causerie. The Speaker (29 October 1892), 535.Google Scholar
- Living on Leavings. 1896. The woman’s signal (23 July 1896), 62.Google Scholar
- Saintsbury, George. 1923. Women writers of the nineteenth century. The Bookman (April 1923), 8–13.Google Scholar
- Thornton, L. M. 1860. None need despair. Magdalen’s friend (August 1860), 150.Google Scholar
- Wilde, Oscar. 1888. English Poetesses. The Queen (December 8, 1888), 742–743.Google Scholar
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