About Poetess

Introduction to the Poetess Archive

This archive constitutes a resource for studying the literary history of popular British and American poetry. Much of it composed during what can be called the “bull market” of poetry's popularity(1), late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular poetry was often written in what came to be designated an "effeminate" style, whether written by men or women. Writings in the poetess tradition were disseminated in myriad collections: miscellanies, beauties, literary annuals, gift books. They achieved a place of prominence in virtually every middle-class household. The Poetess Archive Database now contains a bibliography of over 4,000 entries for works by and about writers working in and against the “poetess tradition,” the extraordinarily popular, but much criticized, flowery poetry written in Britain and America between 1750 and 1900.

About the Database:

The Poetess Archive Database is a bibliography that you can organize in any way you wish, searching by author, by collection, and by criticism (tabs above), and then limit by using the side-menu of constraints found with each search. But the Poetess Archive Database is more: it is also a full-text resource. At the present time (19 February 2007), not many texts are available. Our one full-text literary annual, the Bijou of 1828, including engravings, transcriptions, and page images, serves as a model for the literary annuals that we will acquire. The scholarly apparatus and editing of texts is also in process. In addition, the Poetess Archive Database provides images of material books: book boards and slip cases, as in the Forget Me Not of 1823, for instance. All literary annuals and collections of poetry in the database display, minimally, their tables of contents. For many of our literary annuals -- and soon, for all annuals and collections -- the tables of contents have been entered into the database as well: shortly, you will be able to search this site by typing in an author and know all the works that he or she published in annuals and collections produced between 1750 and 1900. The database presents poems, such as Anne Yearsley's The Slave Trade or Felicia Hemans's The Sculptured Children. It presents criticism from the era such as John Wilson's Monologue on the Annuals, as well as criticism written by our contemporaries, sometimes even providing small, edited portions, such as Paula Bennett's "Women's Poetry in American Victorian Periodicals 1860-1900," or full texts, as in Rene Anderson's essay about Susannah Hawkins.

Back to Top

About the Term "Poetess":

In Where We Stand: Women Poets and Tradition, Sharon Bryan protests against using “the ghastly [term] poetess.”(2) Such a reaction is understandable. The term “poetess” has been shunned by women writers and feminist literary critics for so long because the diminutive “ess” is grammatically unnecessary in English and thus is added to belittle the women poets it names. Moreover, the term uncritically embraces “the feminine,” an idea rightly interrogated by feminists.

But at a certain moment in history, as can be seen in the title of Alexander Dyce’s collection, Specimens of British Poetesses (1825), the term was used to designate “woman poet.” The more prominent poetesses include such popular nineteenth-century figures as Felicia Hemans, L.E.L. (Letitia Landon), and Lydia Sigourney. Working in a vital transatlantic poetic tradition, the poetess wrote according to conventions collectively forming a “bourgeois” and “feminine” aesthetic. However, the connection that Dyce forges between writing and biology is not in any sense "natural." Men wrote in this tradition as well—both Keats and Poe are prime examples. Even as usage of the term “poetess” began, literary critics such as John Wilson were defining a feminine tradition of poetry writing, but including men in it. Thus we call this bibliographic database the "Poetess Archive" because it contains writings in the poetess tradition, as well as writings by men and women who feel the need to work against that tradition.

Relatively recently, Anne Mellor has distinguished between “the female poet” and “the poetess,” the latter domestic, the former "explicitly political" (262). In Mellor's view, Anna Letitia Barbauld is not a poetess. But in an earlier essay by Isobel Armstrong, Barbauld exemplifies “the gush of the feminine” typical of poetess poetry. Not coincidentally, Mellor focuses on Barbauld’s very political poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”(271-272); Armstrong, by contrast, focuses on a poem Barbauld wrote to a refrigerator – “Inscription for an Ice-House.” It is possible, then, that, in thinking about “the poetess,” we are dealing less with individuals and more with poems. In that case, an editor of an anthology can make a poet into a poetess by selecting domestic poetry, as Jennifer Breen does in the case of many Romantic women poets.

In addition to falsely classifying poets rather than poems, Mellor's analysis may ressurrect a public/private binary that we had hoped to dismantle. Nonetheless, she does make an important point:

The category of the “poetess” may persuasively encompass the poetry of writers like Hemans and Landon [. . .] who saw themselves as writing a specifically “feminine” poetry, however much they subverted these categories from within. I would like to suggest, however, that to consign all women's poetry published in England between 1780 and 1830 to this tradition of the poetess seriously misrepresents a great deal of the poetry published by women in this period.

Reasons for calling this database of popular poetry 1750-1900 “the Poetess Archive,” despite Mellor's important insight, are given below, in the discussion about dating the Poetess: the term "poetess" avoids some disciplinary pitfalls (see also Vincent xvii-xxi). But also it is important to see that Mellor's work repeats a kind of denigration of this kind of poetry common during the Romantic era on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Mellor, though of course a century earlier, Edgar Allan Poe distinguishes "between 'poetesses (an absurd but necessary word),' and female poets worthy of admiration and serious critique."(3) We aren't here "consigning" women's poetry to an "ess" realm of the not-serious, but rather we are designating popular poetry written by men and women as connected to the most dominant popular poetry tradition of the era: "poetess poetry."

Why has writing in this indistinguishably feminine and feminizing tradition been excluded from the canon?

One way to answer that question is to insist that the poetry deserved to be excluded, that it is bad poetry. And many people do just that. If traditional literary critics demean the poetess tradition as not constituting "English poetry," feminists such as Mellor berate it for serving rather than contesting the cultural reproduction of oppressive notions of femininity.

However, an excellent essay by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins asks us to consider the relationship between writers in the Poetess tradition and the figure of the Poetess in terms of women's and middle-class men's access to learned culture. They were able to get access by writing in popular styles, but somehow we (and perhaps they) have confused poet with product:

While the commodification of women in the nineteenth century may have formed them as potential producers of culture, according to an argument usually made about the rise of the novel, their access to the means of literary production -- the distribution of cultural capital, in Guillory's terms -- leads to a confusion of the poetic subject and the identities circulated, or commodified, by the genre of women's sentimental lyric. The question begged by this confusion is whether the product of culture may also be its producer -- or better, what it would mean to produce "culture" at all. Whose culture? What culture? (526)

One variant of that question might be, did these writers simply acquire the highly-wrought poetic diction so inimical to "high" culture, indoctrinating themselves in cultural values along the way? Alternatively, did they -- as Paula Feldman, Stuart Curran, Susan Wolfson, and Jerome McGann have argued for so long -- did they transform those poetic conventions to create their own culture? Since only the most logically flawed determinism would insist that anyone ever takes up culture without modifying it, can we figure out each poet's particular aesthetic principles and judge the value of this poetry in its own terms?

Beyond distinguishing "high" from middle-class cultures, there are other reasons why this tradition of writing has been omitted from the canon. Tricia Lootens’s Lost Saints explores the process of canonization in relation to gender. For Lootens, the attempts to canonize women poets amounted to assuring their disappearance. Canonization for women rested upon a “radically ahistorical” notion of the “genius of woman” which was entirely distinct from the canonized Romantic “poet-hero.” The result for women, then, was vacancy:

if their literary "relics" were revered, it was not as embodiments [of art] but as representations of a transcendent and definitively absent feminine glory. (Lootens 10)

Thus worship of the feminine erased women poets even at the very moment that their work achieved some popularity. One can see the veracity of Lootens’s argument. In his preface, Dyce speaks of having made a “tedious chase through the jungles of forgotten literature” in order to find women poets. But women writers were especially prolific during the eighteenth-century in Britain, as Roger Lonsdale has shown (Introduction). Furthermore, in Dyce's table of contents appear both Hemans and Landon, who, in the year 1827, at the very moment that the second edition of Dyce’s British Poetesses is published, were collectively publishing or reissuing several single-author poetry collections each in Boston, Hartford, CT, and London. Forgotten? Lootens notices that, for one woman to achieve canonization—Rossetti, for example—meant the decanonization of her predecessor—Barrett Browning. In other words, only one woman poet could establish herself at a time. Dyce's phrase is less a lie than a ritual for elevating one saint at the expense of her predecessor.

Two subsequent writers in the field of women’s poetry have recast the question, “Why are women excluded from the canon?” My own Misogynous Economies asks how excluding women from the canon constituted it (107-28)? Additionally, in Victorian Sappho, Yopie Prins analyzes our institutionalized forgetfulness of women writers this way:

[L]iterary history is produced by the repetition of this effacement. Indeed the loss of the “Poetess” is already predicted in the verse of nineteenth-century poetesses as the very means of its literary transmission. (175)

Prins’s meticulous study of nineteenth-century women writers – meticulous both in its attention to history and to formal detail – demonstrates how Victorian poetesses deployed the figure of Sappho to enact over and over again the loss of the poetess, an evacuation or abdication that is intellectually both empowering and constraining.

Go to Works Cited / Back to Top

Dates comprising the Database

The 'Bull market' of Poetry Consumption: 1750-1900. Each historian of print culture has compelling arguments about when precisely poetry was the most popular form of entertainment in Britain and America, whether among the cultural elite or the mass reading public. Roger Lonsdale argues that magazine poetry written by people of all status, including women, emerged in the 1730s, and, in the 1750s. It was then, he says, that women and men among the midling sort began to write and read ephemeral poetry in large numbers for the first time (ii, xxix-xxx). Lonsdale's argument makes sense given that editions of Dodsley's Collection of Poems and all the supplements to it began to be published in 1748 and flourished until the 1780s with John Nichols's Select Collection of Poems.

Dating the efflorescence of poetry's popularity later than does Lonsdale, William St. Clair identifies 1774 as the moment when there was in England an "explosion of reading": "After [the] 1774 [legal decision limiting copyrights,] a huge, previously suppressed, demand for reading was met by a huge surge in the supply of books, and was soon caught up in a virtuous circle of growth" (115). For St. Clair, this explosion lasts until an 1808 law lengthens the duration of copyright once again.

Dating things differently than St. Clair, Lee Erickson, Peter Garside, and Anthony Mandal describe a poetry "boom" (Erickson 22) from roughly 1800 up through 1820 and a crash that brings poetry publication to its nadir in 1826.

Leaving aside how poetry published in 1808 can wax and wane at the same time, how is it that the 1826 nadir for Garside, Mandal,(4) and Erickson occurs during a moment celebrated by feminist critics tracking women writers in annuals (Harris) and periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic when there was a tremendous "influx of women poets to the [literary] marketplace" (Richards 1)? The critics who see poetry in decline in 1826 acknowledge the appearance, phenomenal growth, and popularity of literary annuals tracked by Harris. But, according to Erickson, literary annuals "provided an inadequate shelter for poetry against the ever-rising tide of the periodicals" (31). For Erickson, poetry and periodicals are opposites; that is not the case for feminist literary historians since much of the poetry they recover comes from periodicals and annuals.

Garside gives us a graph of poetry sales:

Poetry vs. Fiction 1780-1829Figure from Garside, Mandal, p. 3.

As Garside points out, the graph showing the bull market of poetry from 1805 to 1821 and its crash in 1826 is based on J. R. de J. Jackson's Annals of English Verse 1770-1835 (1985). However, a subsequent bibliography by Jackson, his Romantic Poetry by Women, "was [he says] undertaken as a way of testing the adequacy of Annals by examining copies of a definable segment of the whole field" (Preface i). It did not test out very well: "Annals provided the names of about 450 women who wrote at least one volume of verse between 1770 and 1835; Romantic Poetry by Women doubles that number" (Introduction xv). Yet even in this later book, Jackson sticks only to single-author editions of poetry. The graph that came from Jackson's work, however modified by adding 500 or so women's publications, still would only depict -- not the popularity of POETRY, as Erickson continously calls it, but of single-author editions of poetry. Literary historians of print culture have confused a medium with a mode of literary production.

For instance, if you search for particular author's works in the year 1827 in the Online Computer Library Center's massive database WorldCat that has come for so many libraries to replace the Union catalogue, you will get more returns for Felicia Hemans (32) than for Byron (23). Could one conclude that in 1827 Hemans was more popular than Bryon?(5) The WorldCat database combines the card catalogues for numerous American libraries, and one of them, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina, put into the system items from their extensive collection of literary annuals by poem rather than by annual title. For that reason, Hemans has more entries than Byron. Is she more popular than he if her works published that year are spread out among the annuals? Note: they both had single-author editions AND poetry in the annuals published that year. South Carolina's chief rare books librarian, Patrick Scott, called the creation of this database a "noble but misguided effort." But mis-guidance, or guidance elsewhere, may be precisely what we need to break us out of debillitating ways of thinking. Cataloguing by poem as did South Carolina transforms the WorldCat database partly into what the Poetess Archive will be, foreshadowing the different notion of literary history that counting poetic objects differently might give us. Some of the entries for Hemans's work are musical scores: her sister Harriet Browne often set her lyrics to music. Clearly people bought these musical pieces to play on the piano and sing together her songs for entertainment.(6)

Even if one does not go so far as to count individual poems and musical scores rather than single-author editions, the picture of poetry's popularity looks quite different if one adds to it the rise and success of literary annuals. Yes, that kind of literary collection contained other genres besides poetry, and many engravings, but it contained a huge number of poems as well. Many men published in literary annuals -- that is, wrote poetry in the poetess tradition. John Wilson's 1829 essay "Monologue, or Soliloquy on the Annuals" decries the constant reading of periodical literature: "'Tis indeed like the air we breathe -- if we have it not, we die!" He continues by analyzing poetry published in the annuals by many male and female poets, beginning with work by "Delta" (David Macbeth Moir) and by "Francis Jeffrey" to be found in the 1828 Forget Me Not. Not only annuals, but also left out of the above graph depicting poetry's plummeting popularity is the poetry published cheaply in pamphlets such as Jones's 1823 Modern Poets of Great Britain, poetry by "Peter Pindar, [Henry] Kirke White, Cowper, Burns, Coleman, Southey, Moore, Darwin, Byron, Crabbe, Sheridan, Ch[arlotte] Smith, [Mary] Robinson, Beattie, Hayley &c.&c.&c." (St. Clair 117). Not including annuals, periodicals, and cheaper pamphlets in any calculations of the popularity of poetry distorts our understanding even of canonical poets, not just those who are allegedly inferior. Thus in 1828, Samuel Taylor Coleridge published his 3-volume Poetical Works of S. T. Coleridge, a single-author collection, and poems in the Bijou and Literary Souvenir as well as an essay in the Amulet -- literary annuals all.

This database collects not only single-author titles of poetry written by men and women in the poetess tradition, as well as criticism by and about them, but also it presents upon searching the names of authors and titles appearing in the tables of contents of many periodicals and different kinds of collections: miscellanies, beauties, annuals, and anthologies. This will give us, we believe, a new view of poetry's popularity, indeed, of what even counts as "poetry" insofar as we stop opposing that abstraction to "periodical literature" and popular poetry in the annuals. As Franco Moretti predicts in Graphs, Maps, Trees, instead of seeing one short-lived bull market (Erickson, Garside, Mandal) or one "twenty-five year window" (St. Clair 121), we may see "cycles" of popularity connected to specific poetic genres and themes and/or various media. Our view will not perhaps correspond to our notions of literary period. Once more complete than it is now, and once we are able to visualize its data in compact form, this database will most certainly show that there never was "THE peak" in the poetry market any more than there ever was "THE rise of the novel" (Moretti 29-30). Dislodging poetry from a medium, the single-author collection, may enable us to understand poetry as Moretti does the novel, not "as a single-entity" -- Erickson's "English poetry" -- but rather as "the system of its genres [corresponding to] the whole [of its history], not one privileged part of it" (Moretti 30). 1750 to 1900 gives us a doable yet large chunk of time, and there is indeed a more specific reason for these dates having to do with the poetess as a figure.

Go to Works Cited / Back to Top

Dating the Figure of the "Poetess"

Except when applied to Sappho, the word "poetess" was derogatory in its first documented usage in the O.E.D. by Tindal in 1530. Aphra Behn virtually equates the term with "prostitute" (Gallagher 21). It is perhaps for that reason that George Colman and Bonnell Thornton do not use the term "poetess" in their introduction to the first edition of Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755). Instead, they talk about poetry by "the Fair Sex," "the poetical attempts of females," and "works [by] ingenious females." They avoid the perjorative term precisely to "offer [their collection as] a standing proof that great abilities are not confined to the men, that genius often glows with equal warmth, and perhaps with more delicacy, in the breast of a female" (iii-iv). Why then begin a database of poetess poetry roughly with publication of this collection?

The only preceding collection containing exclusively women poets is Delarivier Manley's The Nine Muses, or, Poems Written by Nine Severall Ladies upon the Death of the Late Famous John Dryden, Esq. (1700). This collection is miscellaneous: that is, it is composed of poetry written for a special occasion. All verse is written by living poets, but the collection is not meant to demonstrate their relevance to literary history -- they aren't even identified by name. In The Nine Muses, all the poems are signed by one of the muses. Despite Manley's claim in the title that the poems were written by nine distinct, separate ("severall") women, she and Sarah Fyge Egerton may have written most of the poems. They demonstrate in these poems their classical learning, until mid-century one of the conditions for defining oneself as a poet (Lonsdale xxiv).

In contrast, Poems by Eminent Ladies argues that "most of these Ladies (like many of our greatest male writers) were more indebted to nature for their success, than to education" (iv). These editors participate proleptically in the sensibility movement that designates women as naturally more sensitive and so naturally more poetic: "those paint sorrow best -- who feel it most"(7).

Poems by Eminent Ladies is the first collection of poetry to amass a group of poets simply for their gender: these women have nothing else in common ideologically, socially, economically, or even poetically. Moreover, as newly edited editions of the text appeared in 1773 and 1780, Ezell has argued, the selections became progressively more virtuous (90-118): with each edition, there is less of Behn, much still of Molly Leapor -- in Samuel Richardson's eyes, a real-life Pamela (Greene 26). Thus gender is being progressively associated with normatizing content, with the "purity" and "virtue" that in some ways gives and in others deprives emerging middle-class women of their power.

This "essing" of women poets, this commodification of them through gender "identifications stamped in the service of an economy of reproduction" (Jackson and Prins 526), persists far into the nineteenth century as can be seen in the Introduction to English Poetesses (1883) by Eric Robertson, a book published in the U.S., France, and Britain:

Disparagement of women's verse, however, must not go too far. Women, especially English women, have produced a great quantity of beautiful poetry that is worthy of a place in any rank but the first. It is the business of subsequent pages to show how beautiful this poetry is. But there is another beauty which it may be hoped that these pages will also reveal -- the beauty of noble lives led by pure and able women. (xvi)

"Essing" imposes a purity requirement, leaving it to each particular decade and place to define what that means. All the women writers of this era, whether writing in the poetess tradition or not, confront, reinforce, deconstruct, and manipulate the purity rule.

These two collections, Poems by Eminent Ladies and English Poetesses, span the time-period of poetry collected in the Poetess Archive Database -- 1755, 1883. They stake out the role or set of roles that gender will play in "the system of poetry," to quote Moretti again, and everything else published during this time, even or especially Wordsworth's reactive definition of poetry as a "man speaking to men" and Poe's feminine performativity (Richards), participates in that system.

Go to Works Cited / Back to Top

Work Flow:

Every bibliographic entry in the Poetess Archive has been made into a TEI-encoded page (see "Editorial Principles" for more about TEI). We have created TEI templates and will continue to create them for those who wish to submit texts already encoded, but we accept submissions of any kind, and then TEI-encode them here. After that work, the TEI pages are:

  1. created into HTML presenetation pages;
  2. entered into our Oracle database;
  3. made into RDFs so that the Poetess Archive Database is interoperable with NINES using the NINES COLLEX TOOL.

Back to Top.


(1) Lee Erickson used the phrase in a talk given at the 1993 Modern Language Association meeting in Toronto, "The End of Romanticism: The Poetry Market Crash of 1825-26 and Its Aesthetic Aftermath." His book The Economy of Literary Form specifies that "there was a poetry boom during the first two decades of the nineteenth century" (21). He says further, "The English poetry market peaked in 1820" (28). He can only say such a thing by excluding verse published in the annuals from what he means by "English poetry," as he does explicitly in the rest of the chapter on poetry: "If one remembers that these Annuals sold for twelve shillings versus the average poetry volume's five, one realizes that the Annuals were clearly siphoning off whatever growth there was in the poetry-reading public" (29). Another point of view articulated by Katherine D. Harris is that the Annuals stimulated the growth of a poetry-reading public. I extend the term "bull market" to cover the heyday of the annuals, beginning in Britain with publication of the Forget Me Not in 1823 and extending until mid-century. America's market seems to be located predominantly in periodicals, less so in annuals and gift books, though that remains to be seen as we add to the database. Back

(2) Bryan xiv, quoted in Annie Finch, "Confessions" 214. I am grateful to Annie, a self-proclaimed "postmodern poetess" as her title shows, for sharing her extensive research and helping me write parts of this section of the essay. Back

(3) Eliza Richards, "'The Poetess'" 2, quoting Poe's Marginalia, ed. John Carl Miller (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1981), 58-59. Elsewhere, Richards shows, Poe uses the term approvingly (3). Back

(4) Garside and Mandal are focusing their argument on the inadequacy of the graph in picturing the publication of novels. Were they to focus on poetry, they might not agree with J. R. de J. Jackson and Lee Erickson. Back

(5) For a thorough and nuanced answer to this question, see Feldman.

(6) Paula Feldman has an article forthcoming in the Keats-Shelley Journal about the use of women's poetry as song lyrics and the publication and dissemination of musical scores. Back

(7) This line closes the first of Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets (13). She quotes and in important ways alters the last line of Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717): "He best can paint 'em, who shall feel 'em most" (line 366, p. 113).

Back to Top.

Works Cited

Back to Top

Copyright 2004, Laura Mandell