Female poets are restored to history

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS A woman who relegated them to obscurity but now a man has rescued them. Professor Christopher Ricks has chosen 29 female poets for the revised Oxford Book of English Verse, to be published next month.

In 1972, when the anthology was last updated, Dame Helen Gardner, the distinguished literary critic, considered only nine worthy of inclusion. The new version of "poetry's bible" includes many names which will be unknown to the casual reader. From Mary Herbert, a contemporary of Shakespeare, to Elaine Feinstein, the poet who is writing the biography of the late Ted Hughes, a clutch of female poets will stand alongside Milton, Pope and Dryden.

Prof Ricks, who teaches at Boston University, said the gender of the writers had not concerned him. "What most mattered to me in selecting a poem was whether it moved and delighted me and would move and delight others."

Curiously, the first editor of the volume, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, man of letters and Cambridge don, found in 1900 nearly as many women for inclusion as Prof Ricks - but only six of those have survived the century. Eighteen women poets appear for the first time in the new edition, including Charlotte Bronte and UA Fanthorpe. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stevie Smith and Emily Bronte are among those making a return appearance.

Ironically, it is easier to give some flavour of several of their lives by mention of their relationship to better-known men. Frances Cornford was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and mother of John Cornford, the Spanish Civil War poet. Mary Herbert was the mother of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who has been tentatively suggested as the young man to whom Shakespeare addressed most of his sonnets.

Despite these inclusions, Prof Ricks's selection is bound to revive the row ignited by the feminist critic Germaine Greer. She astonished many of her fans when she proclaimed, in her 1995 book Slip-Shod Sybils, that hardly any women poets deserved to be ranked with the greatest men.

Prof Janet Todd, biographer of Aphra Behn and Mary Wollstonecraft, agreed yesterday that most women poets did not stand comparison with the best men. "But they stand comparison with the least of the men." And she said there was a case for their inclusion. "Some of their work is good, but sometimes not quite in the way we have got used to."

Prof Roger Lonsdale, of Oxford University, who rediscovered more than 100 forgotten writers for his anthology of 18th-century women poets, said the proof of the pudding was in the eating. "In the end, [the worth of these poets] isn't a theoretical matter, it's whether people are convinced. It's reader judgement," he said. "I was responsible for resurrecting a lot of authors, but I didn't resurrect simply for the sake of it. I thought they were interesting and intelligent and amusing."

Mary Leapor, who is in the new anthology, was among them. Prof Lonsdale said he was "delighted" at her inclusion. "She's probably the most striking case of a completely forgotten woman poet," he said. Leapor was the self- educated daughter of a Northamptonshire gardener whose poetry appeared in print after her death in 1746 at the age of 24.

Oxford University Press said: "We commissioned Prof Ricks to edit and introduce the Oxford Book of English Verse as he is one of the world's leading literary critics, and a worthy successor to Sir Arthur Quiller- Couch and Dame Helen Gardner. In our view, his selection of a poem confirms its worth."

ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING

1806-1861

What's the best thing in the world

What's the best thing in the world? June-rose, by May-dew impearled:

Sweet south-wind, that means no rain;

Truth, not cruel to a friend;

EMILY BRONTE AND CHARLOTTE BRONTE

1818-1848 1816-1855

The Visionary

Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:

One alone looks out o'er the snow-wreaths deep;

Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze

That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.

STEVIE SMITH

1902-1971

Not waving but drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

UA FANTHORPE

1929-

Portraits of Tudor Statesman

Surviving is keeping your eyes open,

Controlling the twitchy apparatus

Of iris, white, cornea, lash and lid.

ELAINE FEINSTEIN

1930-

An Attempt at Jealousy

How is your life with the other one, simpler, isn't it? One stroke of the oar

then a long coastline, and soon

even the memory of me

will be a floating island

Comments