Classic Female Poets
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Yagmur Dur
Inarguably, throughout the history of literature, the tradition of women’s writing has been widely ignored or discredited due to their inferior position, social station and, at times, their lack of education compared to that received by their male counterparts. Prior to the first wave of feminism, which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the broad spectrum of literary works was dominated by the male voice and the male perspective.
However, some female poets have made significant contributions to the world of poetry, inspiring modern female poets to find their place in the male-dominated literary canon. Poets such as Charlotte Turner Smith, Phillis Wheatley, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson and George Elliot brought the female perspective into the art of poetry, allowing their voices to be heard on important private and public topics.
Their works brim with vigour, excitement, humour and immediacy, which ultimately offer an intimate, romantic and intellectually thoughtful insight into women’s lives during the 18th and 19th centuries. These poets gave confidence to generations of future poets, despite living in a society where women’s literary articulation and artistry was restricted and condemned by critics and suppressed by the patriarchal social systems. Many strategically chose to be reticent concerning specific topics in their poetry, making them limited in their freedom of expression.
An often overlooked poet of the Romantic period, Charlotte Smith helped to revive the sonnet form and inspired poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats.
Smith reimagined the sonnet form as a vessel for melancholic rumination and wrote with an idiosyncratic sincerity that pervades much of her poetry. Smith was born in 1749, and became married at only 15 to a violent and neglectful husband whose reckless spending saw Smith turn to writing to support their children. Her life was tainted with misfortune – from losing several children and falling into destitution and literary disfavour – and this resulted in her work often containing allusions to her grief and misfortune. Through her work, which was published in her own name, Smith championed women’s rights and sought greater independence.
Smith also had a keen interest in botany and wrote about the intricacies of nature with more detail and accuracy than many of her contemporaries. Fellow Romantic poet, John Clare, wrote that, “She wrote more about what she had seen of nature then what she had read of it”, which offered a unique and intimate perspective of the natural world. Poems such as ‘The Swallow’ focus on the beauty and excellence that can be found in simplicity, whereas Smith’s masterpiece, the 730-line poem Beachy Head, discusses the complex relationship between humans and the natural world; in spite of personal tragedy, nature provides a source of escapism and comfort.
Smith’s poetry has a remarkable sense of place and explores the majesty of nature without over-exaggeration or romanticisation. Smith’s poetry is rooted in an appreciation and respect for nature’s constancy and its relationship with human experience. Her introspective poetry is intertwined with emotional associations to her personal life, and it is her authenticity and subsequent influence that keeps Smith’s poetry rooted in the present.
Christina Rossetti was born in 1830 to Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian poet and scholar, and Frances Polidori. Rossetti enjoyed a happy childhood, during which her poetic inspiration was channeled. By the age of 16, she had written more than fifty poems and her first collection was privately printed by her grandfather in 1847. Undeniably, she was inspired by Romantic and Gothic writers, asserting a Pre-Raphaelite style in her works. As this movement grew, so did Rossetti’s repertoire. Rossetti died in 1894 after suffering from Graves’ disease and breast cancer.
Like many formidable poets, her work is subconsciously known amongst many. Perhaps the most iconic titles include In The Bleak Midwinter, which Holst and Darke composed into the infamous Christmas carol posthumously. The poet’s fame and success was challenged by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who soared in achieving popularity. However, Rossetti was declared Browning’s successor and has recognition widely renowned by feminists, who regard the poet as one of the female leaders of 19th century poetry, thus influencing other literary icons such as Virginia Woolf.
Rossetti wrote a substantial amount of poetry collections throughout her life, yet her first published collection in 1862 remains the most famous. The collection is titled Goblin Market and Other Poems, with the titular poem being the most well known. This collection asserted Rossetti’s position in literature, earning widespread praise and containing some of the most celebrated poems of our time. These include the likes of ‘Remember’ and ‘When I Am Dead, My Dearest’. Without a doubt, Rossetti was an exceptional talent and it is not surprising that her work is still highly regarded today.