Syllabus | Assignments

Thirty years ago, only a handful of women poets of this period benefited from the republication and critical attention afforded scores of their male contemporaries. Critical studies and anthologies of Victorian women's poetry began to appear in the 1980s and 1990s, and similar recognition of their Edwardian and modernist sisters has followed. In this course, we will study these writers' formal poetics, their responses to Victorian and modernist literary ideals, and the effects of contemporary cultural debates about the nature of their craft.

We will begin with several weeks devoted to the work of Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Michael Field and Edith Sitwell, then turn to lesser-known significant poets of the period, and give attention to its songs, regional ballads, Highland folk poems, and other forms of working-class and "popular poetry."

I will ask each student to choose a poet for an introductory presentation in class, from a list which may include Victorian poets Laetitia Landon, Emily Bronte, Eliza Cook, Augusta Webster, Mathilde Blind, Amy Levy, Jean Ingelow, Annie Matheson, Olive Custance, Alice Meynell, Caroline Norton, Emily Pfeiffer, Mary Coleridge, Mary Robinson, Rosamund Marriot Watson, Janet Hamilton and Ellen Johnston; and among their twentieth-century successors, Marion Angus, Violet Jacob, Frances Cornford, Emily Lawless, Charlotte Mew, Ruth Pitter, Anna Wickham, Ethel Carnie, Stevie Smith, Sarojini Naidu, Toru Dutt, Margaret Woods, Katherine Tynan, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rosa Newmarch, Dorothy Wellesley, Eva Gore-Booth, Vita Sackville-West, Nancy Cunard, Iris Tree and Naomi Mitchison.

I will also ask students to post weekly comments on their readings, draft a seminar paper of twenty or more pages in length, and summarize briefly the contents of their papers in one of the course's final sessions.



January 18th introduction, handouts

For next time, read Reynold’s and Leighton’s introductions to Victorian Women Poets and the article by Angela Leighton, “‘Because Men Made the Laws,’” (handout), as well as book I of Aurora Leigh.
Also, you should begin to read selections from the Victorian women poets on the list of suggested poets, with a view to choosing your presentation topic.
January 23rd discussion of readings; Aurora Leigh, book I

For next time, read chapter by Isobel Armstrong, “‘A Music of Thine Own,’” and article by Dorothy Mermin, “The Damsel, the Knight and the Victorian Woman Poet,” (handouts), as well as book II of Aurora Leigh.
Also, you should begin to read selections from the modernist poets on the list of suggested poets, with a view to choosing your presentation topic.

January 25th discussion of readings; Aurora Leigh, book II
for next time, read essay by Kathleen Hickok, “Intimate Egoism’” (handout), as well as books III and IV of Aurora Leigh.
January 30th Aurora Leigh, books III and IV

February 1st Aurora Leigh, books V-VII
February 6th Aurora Leigh, books VIII-IX
At this time students should let me know their presentation topics, and I will prepare a new syllabus.

February 8th mid-Victorian sonnets: EBB (“Sonnets from the Portuguese”; sonnets to George Sand; Christina Rossetti, “Monna Innominata,” “In An Artist’s Studio”; Augusta Webster, “Mother and Daughter”)
February 13th Augusta Webster, shorter poems (“A Castaway,” “Circe,” and “By the Looking Glass”)

February 15th Augusta Webster, longer poems (“Medea,” “Mother and Daughter”)
February 20th Emily Bronte

February 22nd Eliza Cook
February 27th Janet Hamilton

March 1st Christina Rossetti

March 6th Christina Rossetti

March 8th Amy Levy
spring break
March 20th Mary Coleridge

March 22nd fin de siecle: Rosamund Marriott Watson, lyrics
March 27th Rosamund Marriott Watson

March 29th Alice Meynell
April 3rd Charlotte Mew

April 5th Charlotte Mew
April 10th Edith Sitwell

April 12th Edith Sitwell
April 17th 2 chapters Dowson

April 19th Mina Loy
April 24th Mina Loy

April 26th Valentine Ackland
May 1st Sarojina Naidu

May 3th Scottish poets: Jacob, Mitchison, Angus
May 8th final discussion


MW 5:30-6:45 p. m., 212 English-Philosophy Building

instructor: Florence Boos,
office hours: 319 EPB, 2:30 W and MW 7-8 p. m.; Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons by appointment

class web site:, then select course title from list, click on Icon from menu bar to post for discussion

The course texts, which are in the IMU Bookstore, are:
Victorian Women Poets, edited by Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds (1995)
Women’s Poetry of the 1930’s, edited by Jane Dowson (1996)
Augusta Webster: Portraits and Other Poems, ed. Christine Sutphin (2000)
The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy (2002), ed. Robert Conover

handouts of critical articles, portions of Jane Dowson’s Women, Modernism and British Poetry, and poems by Edith Sitwell.

Course requirements:

1. attendance and preparation.

2. 8 postings: on-line discussion in response to course readings.
These are your responses to an aspect of a text we are reading/have read, with citations from the text. They should be at least a page single-spaced, and because of the oddities of Icon, you should probably prepare them in advance, then cut and paste.
Three of your responses should comment on/continue a discussion begun by one of your fellow students.

3. class presentation/leading of class session on a poet of your choice:
For this, you will choose the selections we read and provide the class with handouts of the poems you wish discussed one class session before the presentation, so that we can all read them together.

4. 1 3 page annotated bibliography of a woman poet of the period:
Most likely this will be on the poet you have chosen for your presentation/leading of class discussion. You should annotate as much criticism on this poet as is feasible, and provide your own evaluative summary.

5. 1 3 page review of a work of criticism on 19th-20th century women poets (or series of related articles):

6. 20 page research paper on some aspect of the work of a Victorian or modern woman poet, or on some relevant feature of literary criticism or reception (e. g., you could study the anthologization of women poets, publishing venues or critical responses)
The first draft is due May 1st and the final draft May 12th.

We will have a final class meeting May 8th at 5:30 p. m., which will consist of some final evaluations of the poets we have read and a discussion of critical issues raised in the course.

Suggestions for Reading and Presentation:

Victorian Women Poets

Emily Bronte
Christina Rossetti
Mathilde Blind
Amy Levy
Mary Coleridge
Michael Field
Alice Meynell
May Kendall
Toru Dutt
working-class poets: Janet Hamilton, Ellen Johnston, Eliza Cook

Twentieth-Century Women Poets

May Sinclair
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Anna Wickham
Valentine Ackland
Naomi Mitchison
Ruth Pitter
Sarojina Naidu
Scottish: Helen Cruikshank, Marion Angus, Violet Jacob, Kathleen Raine
Irish: Emily Lawless, Dorothy Wellesley, Katherine Tynan
working-class poet: Ethel Carnie


Victorian and Modernist Women’s Poetry

This field was scarcely perceived to exist in the 1960s and 1970s--those who wished to present women’s poems in classes were forced to teach the subject from handouts (gathering selections from the available anthologies published in the 1970s, Ann Stanford’s Women Poets in English, 1972, and Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open, 1974). In the 1970s I naively started a card file of all Victorian women poets in the British Library Catalogue, and by the time I realized my mistake we had already reached 3000 entries by the letter C.

Thus despite relative educational disavantages, it is clear that middle-class women published in great numbers. And working-class women published also, though most often in periodicals and collections; even so, despite early disclaimers and their omission from most anthologies of Chartist and working-class verse, at least fifty managed to publish books.

Early criticism of these poets was apologetic (e. g. Margaret Homans, author of one of the first books in the 1970s putatively on women’s poetry, postulated that an anxiety of influence prevented their writing [Dorothy Wordsworth] or writing anything of full significance [Elizabeth Barrett Browning], surely an insult to the many nineteenth-century women who, anxiety or no, managed to write good verse). Then came a period in which critics such as Angela Leighton and Isobel Armstrong attempted to lay out categorizations to counter the stereotype that women’s poetry was sentimental (as opposed to, say, disinterested or detached)--and to explore the ways in which this poetry might have differed from that of male poets of the period.

How is women’s poetry different, if at all?
It’s difficult to proclaim separate categories, for if one were to laim that women’s poetry was less political, there would be the counterexamples of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mathilde Blind, and women’s poetry’s strong emphasis on gender politics.
What about the claim that women’s poetry was less doctrinally abstract? Here I think this may be so--contrast Christina Rossetti with the more orthodoxly religious poetry of the period, say Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” But then men wrote devotional verse too, e. g. J. H. Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light.”
If one wished to claim that women were less likely to write long historical poems, one would find counterexamples in Mathilde Blind (“The Heather on Fire,” “The Death of Oran”) and Catherine Dawson Scott.
Is there a female equivalent of the medieval Idylls of the the King? Only to a limited degree--Christina Rossetti wrote a few quasi-medieval poems, and arguably her “Monna Innominata” is a setpiece response to medieval poetic conventions. However there do seem to be fewer Arthurian poems, and somewhat fewer medieval ones.
If one were to claim that women poets were less interested in scientific issues, there would be the counterexamples of Blind, Constance Naden, and May Probyn.
And if one were to claim that they wrote less on classical themes, there would be several counterexamples in Augusta Webster (“Circe”), Amy Levy (“Xantippe”), and Michael Field.
One could posit that women poets tend less to dramatize the “I” voice, but then EBB and Edith Sitwell have strong voices.

Some possible patterns:

Women poets evince concern with family and social relations, direct participation in and commentary on modern society (as defended by EBB in Aurora Leigh, bk. V).

In this choice there are parallels with the Spasmodics, male poets of the 40s and 50s whose work centered on sensational modern-life dramas (with topics such as parenting or the failure of love, e. g. “Monna Innominata”). However it has been plausibly claimed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning evinced “spasmodic” traits in her bold imagery, metrics and themes.
Women wrote many dramatic monologues (Augusta Webster, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Amy Levy, Edith Sitwell), but then it was an age of such monologues--Tennyson, Robert Browning, Morris. Usually the writer women monologist uses a mask to increase our sympathy for the otherwise shunned or unorthodox (EBB, “Runaway Slave”), though some instances of Browningesque irony and oblique condemnation appear also (as aspects of Webster’s and Levy’s monologues).

Women were lyricists and sonneteers (in a period of great sonnets, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Meredith, the former influenced by EBB)

In a period of great epics--by Tennyson, Browning, Morris, and Arnold, among many others--there were also a few female epics, Aurora Leigh, of course, but others by Catherine Dawson Scott, Mathilde Blind, and Mary Smith, and many classical verse dramas by the Fields.)

Women poets, as others of the period, wrote blank verse and odes, and later at the turn of the century and later tended toward variable stanzaic forms with some rhyme as these became common (Charlotte Mew).
Women poets manifest considerable concern with social marginality and excluded groups (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Amy Levy, Mary McPherson, Mathilde Blind, Ruth Pitter).

They often present themes of silencing and obscurity (Emily Bronte, Amy Levy, “A Minor Poet,” Christina Rossetti, EBB’s Aurora Leigh, Alice Meynell and women modernists)

The often engage the social world directly, and comment on specific events (Alice Meynell’s “Sunderland Children,” “St. Catherine of Siena,” poets of the 30s). The working-class women poets respond even more directly and literally--many wrote newspaper poems which evinced the fascination of literacy.

Thus the works of Victorian women poets blended social and psychological perceptions, forming meditations on the psychological effets of the social world.

Nonetheless some poets were more concerned with the inner life--e. g., Emily Bronte, Charlotte Mew.
Many held levelling and equalitarian views--e. g. Ruth Pitter.

Religion was often used as a critique of failures of society (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, later Edith Sitwell)

They share a marked coolness to war and patriotism--even EBB, a supporter of European democratic revolutions, shows ambivalence about the human costs of even a “just war” in her “Mother and Son”; Alice Meynell attacks those who mandate and support wars in “Parentage”; and Edith Sitwell describes sardonically the effets of war.
Women poets often recast traditional historical accounts or myths, as in Webster’s “Circe” and “Medea,” and Amy Levy’s “Xantippe.”

Women poets were often influenced by popular genres. For example, several participated in the art ballad tradition, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Rosamund Marriott Watson, Edith Sitwell, Charlotte Mew, and many modernist vernacular poets in Scotland, such as Marion Angus and Violet Jacobs. In addition, several women, such as Lady Constance Nairne, Lady Anne Lindsay and Frances Tolmie, were noted rearrangers and collectors of ballads.

Their works are also related to the fiction of the period. There has been a recent movement in Victorian criticism to see cross generic-features, and for women poets this seems valuable--similar forms of sensation, crime, drama, and narrative are present in the poetry, fiction and drama of the period. For example, Aurora Leigh was influenced by Jane Eyre as well as the novels of George Sand. Like the fiction of the period, women’s poetry is often oncerned with fallen woman issue and thus the social definitions of women’s sexuality (and later with the continuation of the double standard) and with violence against women (“The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” Aurora Leigh).

Women poets were concerned with restrictions on women (“Xantippe”), or condescension and exclusion from civil life (Meynell’s “Father of Women”).

During the early Victorian period women poets were reviewed in separate sections of periodicals and newspapers, and judged by separately or on separate grounds. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was among the first to break the pattern and be reviewed in the main poetry columns, but the pattern continued to a lesser extent throughout the 19th century and even into the 20th. Reviewers and critics were preoccupied with whether the reviewed’s poetry was womanly/feminine or “manly,” and with defining women’s poetry in terms of its alleged limitations.

What was the relation of middle-class women’s poetry to working-class women’s poetry?

Working-class women wrote more directly from an oral tradition (Mary McPherson, Janet Hamilton); many wrote songs or recast ballads.
Working-class women were more concerned with domestic violence, temperance, and self-help.
Working-class women were more concerned with the disruptive effects of poverty on family life (“Oor Location”). They often wrote of the dislocation and destruction of the family home and ties (Jane Stevenson, Elizabeth Cambpell, Mary McPherson); these poems are arguably political in a deeper sense.

Are these poets feminist?

Attempts made to distinguish feminism from other strands of thought in analyzing them fail. Certainly issues vary by the possibilities of their period and social class.
EBB deals with the problems facing a woman writer in Aurora Leigh (external and internal); Augusta Webster, Christina Rossetti and others portray the anxiety caused by the social emphasis on youth and beauty for women.
The late century poets and modernists often express homoerotic sentiments--e. g., Mary Coleridge, Amy Levy, Michael Field, Charlotte Mew, Sylvia Townsend Warner and several of the modernists.

Women who married were still caustic about the institution itself (EBB, Augusta Webster, Anna Wickham, Frances Cornford, Mina Loy).
Many of our poets were single (Christina Rossetti, Emily Bronte, Amy Levy, Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew); they often reflect on or clebrate meditative features of solitary life (Christina Rossetti, Mary Coleridge, Ruth Pitter)
They express solidarity with women in more threatened or humble circumstances, or as in Christina Rossetti, grant women a major role in their account of redemptive processes.

Are there changes between early Victorian and modern women’s poetry?
changes more in form than theme;
dramatic monologues continue, also sonnets;
sonnet sequence fades as the use of the modernist lyric and freer stanza constructions gain favor;
continuing political and soial commentary is inspired by WWI and the Spanish Civil War;
as time passes there seems to be even less warmth toward possibility of romance--contrast EBB with Edith Sitwell or Mina Loy;
religion (tinged toward spirituality not doctrinal orthodoxy), is still used as a critique of social failures (Stevie Smith), along with appeals to inner moral standards;
modernists move toward a concern to protect nature, eco-spirituality.

The modernist women poets are travellers and observers, though they write fewer systematically historical poems as in Pound--an exception is Edith Sitwell and her use of historical monologues and myths.
They show a greater awareness of war, and the perceived alienation of modernity has replaced class hierarchies as an overt theme. Not merely the heedlessness of individual men and society are attacked (“A Castaway,” “The Runaway Slave”), but even the notion of authentic loyalty seems under threat.

Whether or not there is less dramatization of “I” voice than in men--Edith Sitwell assumes the voice or mask of declamatory sage or prophet--women share alienation and irony with male poets of period.
Even the frequent religious tone seems a displacement from the hope of improvement on earth through the realm of mystery and imagination, rather than a sense of the possibilty of engagement.

These poets can be usefully approached through a neo-formalist approach, which embeds a study of the linguistic and formal choices of these poets within their social contexts.