Poetesses

This is the fortieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XL: English Poetry 1 Chaucer to Grey

I have done Dr. Eliot something of a disservice. In an earlier post, I asserted that the Harvard Classics does not include any works by women. However, that is not the case. In the three volumes of English poetry, Dr. Eliot included poems by just over a dozen women. By my count, excluding the anonymous poets for obvious reasons, women make up just about 7% of the authors in the poetry collection. Considering the number of pages dedicated to Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and a few other “big names,” ladies’ poems make up a significantly less than 7% of the total. (To say nothing of the entire volumes dedicated to Burns and Milton.)

Because the ladies are so under-represented, I’ve decided to quote a line by each:

Lady Grisel Baillie

Were I but young for thee, as I hae been,

We should hae been gallopin’ doun in yon green,
And linkin’ it owre the lily-white lea —
And wow, gin I were but young for thee?

Alison Rutherford Cockburn

Oh, fickle Fortune!
Why this cruel sporting?
Oh, why still perplex us, poor sons of day?

Jane Elliot

The Flowers of the Forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land, are cauld in the clay.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Say not Good-night, but in some brighter clime
Bid me Good-morning!

Isobel Pagan

Will ye gang down the water side,
And see the waves sae sweetly glide
Beneath the hazels spreading wide?
The moon it shines fu’ clearly.

Lady Anne Lindsay

I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae’s me!

Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne

O there arose my father’s prayer, in holy evening calm;
How sweet was then my mother’s voice in the Martyr’s psalm!

Susanna Blamire

The mind wha’s every wish is pure
Far dearer is to me;
And ere I’m forced to break my faith,
I’ll lay me doun and dee.

Anne Hunter

Tis sad to think the days are gone
When those we love were near;
I sit upon this mossy stone
And sigh when none can hear.

Helen Selina, Lady Dufferin

I’m very lonely now, Mary,
For the poor make no new friends.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If thou must love me, let it be for nought 
Except for love’s sake only

Emily Bronte

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn.

Christina Georgina Rossetti

Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

For good measure, I would point out that the work of another lady can be found in a later volume of the set. Volume XLV has a collection of Christian hymns, including Nearer, My God, to Thee by Sarah Flower Adams

Beer of the week: Stella Artois – It is neither inaccurate nor uncharitable to call Stella the Budweiser of Europe. (The existence of that Czech Budvar notwithstanding.) As Budweiser is the flagship beer of AB InBev in the US, Stella is the European flagship. It is pale gold in color with a fluffy white head. It has a faint aroma of cheap grain. The flavor is standard European macro. Stella is totally drinkable, but unremarkable.

Reading of the week: A Lover’s Lullaby by George Gascoigne – I know what you are thinking: how could I possibly pick a poem by a man after a blog post like that? Mainly, I lacked options. The first of the three volumes of poetry has but a single poem by a lady, and that poem is written in Scots. And besides, Gascoigne writes: “And lullaby can I sing too, / As womanly as can the best.”

Question of the week: Gascoigne’s Lullaby connects poetry with caring for children, which may explain why it is the one genre in which women are represented in the Harvard Classics. Aside from other poems, what other works by women would you add to the Harvard Classics?

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Women’s Studies

What an embarrassment! By my count, this is post #199 on this blog. And yet, there has not been a single weekly reading written by a woman. (I honestly thought that I had included a reading by Baroness Orczy, but it seems that I mixed up The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.) What can account for such a tremendous oversight? A number of factors probably play a part.

One fairly innocuous factor is that the women authors that I am familiar with wrote novels. It is much harder to find an appropriate reading for this blog from a long form book. Prefaces, essays, and the like are much easier to dip into for an excerpt. However, there are quite a few readings on this blog from novels, so that cannot account for much of the disparity.

Additionally, many of the readings on this blog come from so-called “great books” lists. In particular, the Harvard Classics (partially pictured below) has been the an excellent resource. However, a quick review of the index confirms that the editor of the Harvard Classics totally omitted any female authors. It seems that I’m neither the first nor the most prominent curator of readings to do so.

For similar reasons, my reliance on public domain and ancient works certainly skews this blog away from female authors. The vast majority of older works, particularly from antiquity, are by male authors. Aside from Sappho, I am not sure that I could name an ancient Greek woman, let alone an ancient Greek woman author. Although the balance shifts somewhat as we approach modernity, there are simply a lot more readily available works by men than by women.

But perhaps the biggest reason is my own biases and flaws. I gravitate toward authors with whom I am familiar and with whom I perceive common interests and ideas. And those authors are almost exclusively men. (They are also predominantly American or Western European, but that is another bias for another day.) It is not that I don’t believe that women are capable of producing great works; Jane Austen and George Eliot would have wiped out that belief in me if I’d ever held it. But a combination of my experiences, resources, and my own narrow world view has resulted in a reproachable lack of appreciation for female authors. One that I hope to remedy.

To be clear, the solution is not inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Reading anything simply because it was written by a woman is patronizing. It does a disservice to the author by neglecting her merits in favor of her sex. And it does a disservice to the blog and its readers for the same reason. Our time is valuable, so what we read has to have its own worth independent of its author.

The solution, it seems, is to cast a wider net. To seek out new readings from other resources. Rather than relying on my past experience with authors or on their interactions with each other, I need to find a way to encounter a greater variety of writers of quality. I hope not to overlook any truly great books, regardless of who wrote them.

One valuable resource that I have found (at a thrift store for 69¢ per volume) is the Heath Anthology of American Literature. The Heath has the stated goal of publishing the under-appreciated works of women and minorities alongside the established literary canon to present a broader view of the development of American literature. An unsurprising inclusion in the Heath is Anne Bradstreet, the first New World poet of either sex to have her work published in England. Her poetry is clearly of the finest quality, and more than worth the reading. Bradstreet rightfully scoffed at those who would look down on a work because its author wore a dress:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.”

Writing, too, is women’s work. And a woman’s work is never done.

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Beer of the week: Dundee India Pale Ale – This New York IPA is pretty amber. The smell is of sweet biscuits and marshmallow. The malt is definitely dominant in the flavor. The beer is hoppy, but it is not overly bitter, and certainly not as strongly hopped as many American IPAs. Dundee makes quite a serviceable beer.

Reading for the week: In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659 by Anne Bradstreet – What could be a better reading for Mother’s Day Weekend than this touching poem about a mother’s dedication to her children? Bradstreet does well to portray the pride and joy of motherhood, as well as the bittersweet experience of watching her children grow up and start their own independent lives.

Question for the week: Who are other female authors that would be good readings for this blog? Comment below.


Cannibal Chic

The Question of the Week from my last post was whether the advice from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— was equally appropriate for men and women. He tells his son how to “be a man”, but would the same qualities (level-headedness,  a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort) make his daughter a woman? I suspect that modern feminists would agree that all humans, regardless of sex, are made great or virtuous by the same virtues. Although this seems like a departure from traditional evaluation of the sexes, this view is in line with a much older philosophical tradition.

In his essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil Montaigne writes:

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold, and that, education and usage excepted, the difference is not great. Plato indifferently invites both the one and the other to the society of all studies, exercises, and vocations, both military and civil, in his commonwealth; and the philosopher Antisthenes rejected all distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much more easy to accuse one sex than to excuse the other; ’tis according to the saying ‘The Pot and the Kettle.'”

So we see that from antiquity, certain philosophers recognized that men and women have the same virtues, capacities and inherent rights. (Even if political rights are not meted out equally.)

Montaigne, however, can be a tricky author to nail down. This statement of equality seems somewhat at odds with his glorification of the natives of Brazil, whose “ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives.” These virtues are specifically masculine since in their culture war and wife taking are for men alone. The only real mention of women’s role in Of Cannibals is the preparation of the beverages. Personally, I think that sounds like the most noble of all occupations.

Beer of the Week: Xingu Black Beer – True story: the first words out of my mouth after I tasted this Brazilian dark lager were “Come on Brazil, get your act together!” Judging by the copious carbonation and the sticky, sweet taste, I suspect that there was a translation problem and what was meant to be a cola came out as a beer or vise versa. I am not sure which is worse, but this beer is that one. As a man of science, I always try a beer twice before writing up an official review. Upon trying it a second time, I did detect some of the familiar flavors one gets from a dark roasted malt, but I still didn’t finish my glass. I simply do not like this beer. According to their website, it is based in part on a drink brewed by the natives of Brazil. If the native women had served this to the men of the tribe, I suspect that they would have ended up being served as the next dish at the cannibal feast.

Reading for the Week: Of Cannibals by Montaigne – In this excerpt, Montaigne describes the daily lives and living situation of the Brazilian natives. He also (with the natives and the Scythians) comes down pretty hard on false prophets. He writes: “such as only meddle with things subject to the conduct of human capacity, are excusable in doing the best they can: but those other fellows that come to delude us with assurances of an extraordinary faculty, beyond our understanding, ought they not to be punished?”

Question for the week: “Love for your husband” is a straight-forward female analog for “love your wife.” Is there such an analog for “be resolute in war” if women are not warriors?