Literary Criticism

Excellence in Scholarship and Learning


Reading Women's Poetry


Laurence Lerner, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has taught at universities all over the world. He was Professor English at the University of Sussex, and later at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. His many critical books include The Truest Poetry (1960), The Truthtellers (on Jane Austen, George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence), (1967), and An Introduction to English Poetry (1975). He has received Poetry Book Society recommendations and his novels include the engaging My Grandfather's Grandfather (1985)

Until quite recently, anthologies of English poetry contained very few poems by women, and histories of English poetry gave little space to women poets. How should poetry lovers respond? This book begins by suggesting four possible responses: the conservative, which claims that women have not written many good poems; individual recuperation, which salvages some fine poems by women but without altering the general view of English poetry; alternative canon, which claims that women do not write the same kind of poetry as men, so that their work should be judged by different standards; and cultural recuperation, which claims that women’s poetry is a cultural phenomenon, and should be read and studied without subjecting it to any aesthetic tests. All these positions can be defended.

This book is about reading women’s poems, rather than forming theories about them: it explores the experience of reading Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Browning, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and many others. Beginning with Katherine Philips, the first Englishwoman to achieve fame as a poet, it covers three centuries to the work of Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith. It is hoped that the form of discussion of the selected poems will be helpful in engaging further with women poets of all calibres.

Do women write differently from men? The author assumes no predetermined answer but is willing to ask the question – and in order to do so he compares poems by women with poems by men, exploring similarities and differences: thus Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is discussed with Alexander Pope, Emily Dickinson with Gerard Manley Hopkins and Elizabeth Browning with her husband. Poems by women can be related to the time they were written and first admired, or to our views on women’s history, or to our expectations of what poetry can offer – but above all they should be enjoyed. And that is the faith in which this book is written.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-337-9
Hardback Price: £42.50 / $69.95
Release Date: August 2009
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-334-8
Paperback Price: £18.95 / $34.95
Release Date: August 2009
Page Extent / Format: 208 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface and Acknowledgements


1 The Beginnings

2 Augustan & Romantic
Anne Finch
Furious Sappho: Pope and Lady Mary
Vile Dependence: Complaints of Marriage
Women against Slavery: Hannah More
Charlotte Smith
Romanticism & Politics

3 The Nineteenth Century 55
The Breaking Heart: Mrs Hemans and L.E.L.
The Brownings
Marian Erle’s Fate Worse than Death
Stealing, Murder, Female Bonding
The Castaway
Emily Brontë
Prepare your Fortitude: George Eliot
Christina Rossetti
Three Radicals
Augusta Webster
Mathilde Blind
Amy Levy
Emily Dickinson
The Moon’s Dropped Child: Charlotte Mew

4 The Twentieth Century
Ecriture Féminine & Modernism: A Note
The Americans
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
Two Retellings: H.D. & Denise Levertov
Ways of being Modern: Edna St Vincent Millay
The Radicalisation of Gwendolyn Brooks?
Sylvia Plath
The English
Elizabeth Daryush
Ruth Pitter
Kathleen Raine
Stevie Smith

Aurora Leigh or What is it like to be a woman poet?
A Name of One’s Own


Addressing an audience that is educated but not necessarily scholarly – that reads poetry purely for pleasure – poet, novelist, and critic Laurence Lerner emphasizes his dislike of literary theory and approaches poems as a poet and teacher. This book is not the ultimate word on female poets, nor does the author intend it to be. Rather, it serves as an introduction. Lerner selects a variety of poets from the 17th to the 20th centuries and includes both well-known and neglected examples. Among the neglected poets are some gems – e.g., Hetty Wright (John Wesley’s errant sister) and Victorian radical Mathilde Blind. The author also presents examples of what he considers to be bad poems and compares them to similar but superior poems (perhaps coincidentally all by men). Lerner takes the same personal approach to poetry Edward Hirsch does in How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (CH, Jan ’00, 37-2605). Both books seek the same audience, but Lerner’s often-judgmental approach differs from Hirsch’s open and contemporary approach. Still Lerner has much to offer, especially in his discussion of canonical poets like Emily Dickinson and in his brilliant responses to his contemporaries, e.g., Sylvia Plath. Recommended.

Laurence Lerner, poet, novelist and critic, offers an enjoyably readable survey of poetry by women, ranging from the famous to the neglected. Reading Women’s Poetry is engagingly informative, warmly responsive and incisively analytical. Lerner is lucid, provocative and entertaining.
Cedric Watts, Research Professor of English at Sussex University, author of many critical books, including Literature and Money and The Deceptive Text

Do we read poem X because it’s a good poem, or because its revealing of its author’s marginalised status? To Laurence Lerner, both are good reasons for reading it, and no harm is done to poetry by attention to matters outside the ordinary scope of critical judgement. Lerner is a born teacher and his book evokes the ideal classroom discussion. He is wonderfully knowledgeable and he reads the poems with insight, skill and enthusiasm, but we are also encouraged to think for ourselves and take pleasure in what we read. Reading Women’s Poetry is an immensely stimulating book.
Clive Wilmer, Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and author of The Mystery of Things

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