Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Amy D. Stackhouse: "Women, Poetry & Politics"

Amy D. Stackhouse

Book Review

Sarah C. E. Ross, Women, Poetry, & Politics in Seventeenth-Century Britain. Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2015), 272 pp. ISBN: 9780198724209

1> In his note on The Verse of Paradise Lost, John Milton sets out a political poetic, defending his use of blank verse as not only more aesthetically appropriate to his subject, but as fit ammunition in the cause of liberty against the jangling rhyme of the Restoration court. His statement is as much a declaration of politics as it is of poetics.

2> The distinctions we draw today — between poetry and politics, manuscript and print, public and private, church and state, female authors and male authors — are useful to a point, but only so far as we do not take the categorical divisions that help us understand our world as our world itself. This becomes an especial danger when we impose our categories onto the past, as we have to depend on one another to do the digging that might upend our assumptions.

3> Were the English civil wars fought over politics or religion? Yes. Was Paradise Lost a religious text or a political text? Yes. Did gentlemen poets hesitate to see themselves in print or was that just a trope? Yes. Did women engage in politics or stay in the private sphere? Yes. Is the birth of the female author distinct from the birth of the male author or is there a common birth? Yes.

4> In our own thinking, we have divorced politics and religion, sacred and profane, poetry and politics, poetry and religion, public and private, manuscript and print, female authorship and male authorship. It is easy to forget that when these terms were married it did not mean that one term necessarily had dominance over the other. When we look at John Donne’s poetry and divide it into the sacred and profane, we might subsume the religious tropes of “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” to the overtly secular nature of that poem. We assume we know the tenor from the vehicle. Likewise, we might subsume Aemelia Lanyer’s religion under her proto-feminist politics in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. We need to be aware of these dangers, to realize that one term in the binary does not necessarily have dominance over the other, or that if it does, that it is not necessarily the one we believe. For the poet, there may be little distinction between the tenor and the vehicle.

5> In Women, Poetry, and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Britain, Sara C. E. Ross has complicated the categories that necessarily have arisen as we study seventeenth-century literature. She does so beautifully. Drawing on the writing that has come teeming from the archives in the past 20 years, Ross plants women’s manuscript poetry at the intersections of public and private, religious and political, manuscript and print.

6> Much of our understanding of women’s place in literary history is based on print. We see Katherine Philips, Margaret Cavendish, and Anne Bradstreet as representative of women’s political poetry in the seventeenth century because they have become canonical, and they have become canonical, in part, because they were published in print. However, digging in the archives of manuscript poetry, we find that the bias towards Royalism in the poetic writing of women is less straightforward than we had assumed. Our understanding of the narrative has been limited by the material we have had available. The recovery of lost women in the archives allows us to create a more nuanced narrative, but we have to find a way to read and understand what it is we have found. We might find that the categories we have come to rely upon to understand seventeenth-century British poetry, politics, and gender do not tell us the whole story. “Rewriting the narrative of women’s political poeticization in the seventeenth century requires us to read less selectively, to read different genres and to read them differently, and to focus not only on ‘the birth of the modern woman author’ as she is recognizable to our twenty-first century tastes and literary-critical habits, but on more foreign and at times less pleasing modes of poetic authorship, and on poetic acts that were in some cases less successful” (213).

7> Ross points out that much of the recovery project of women writers has focused on “microhistories” of those writers. There is a certain depth to the individual author, but less work done to date on the larger picture. This is understandable, as we are still trying to figure out how these women writers fit into and modify our sense of literary history. Ross takes a stab — a successful stab — at broadening the project of individual histories of each writer.

8> Each chapter in Ross’s book is a case study of an individual writer: Elizabeth Melville, Anne Southwell, Jane Cavendish, Hester Pulter, and Lucy Hutchinson. Ross argues that “focusing on these manuscript-based poets offers a new critical view of women’s relationship to poetry and politics in the period: one that is more extensive and various than has previously been realized, one that is less exclusively associated with royalism than has long been the case, and one that spans the long seventeenth century rather than being defined by the revolutionary period and its aftermath” (4-5). Rather than looking at these poets as establishing a female poetic community in the way Aemelia Lanyer attempted to do with Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Ross finds a clear female tradition of political manuscript poetry in the “tropes, genres, and material forms in which they articulate their politics” (6).

9> Arguing against the idea that there was a clear distinction between the public sphere and the political sphere in seventeenth-century Britain, Ross makes the case that women’s poetry, starting in the early part of the century, was political, even as it was wed to religious tropes and private, manuscript form. According to Ross, in some cases, not only did women use poetry to “imagine the political state,” but they also used it to “articulate a sense of political agency or even action” (20).

10> Ross’s book is well-researched, clever, intelligent, and accessibly written. Ross contributes substantially to our understanding of women’s history, the history authorship, manuscript and print culture, and the relationship between the canon and non-canonical writers. Women, Poetry, and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Britain belongs on the shelf of any student of early modern British literature and culture.


Dr. Amy D. Stackhouse is the Associate Dean of Arts and Science at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, as well as the editor of The Shakespeare Newsletter. Dr. Stackhouse’s research focus is on John Milton and seventeenth-century British literature. She also writes fiction and has recently completed a Young Adult novel.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Nine (2016): Texts & Contexts



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