In this special guest blog post, Ana Sampson discusses six female poets whose poetry has been forgotten (even if they are remembered for something else!)
In 2017, I decided that I wanted to read an anthology of poems by women spanning many centuries and diverse points of view. There had been nothing of this nature published for at least the last two decades. I began to research my own, in the process discovering a rich seam of wonderful work I had never read before, though some of the names were already familiar. Here are six women who wrote fantastic poetry – though it is not what they are remembered for today.
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861-1907)
Mary was the great-great-niece of Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but was much better known during her life for her eerie, imaginative novels. She was too shy to publish her poetry under the famous family name, so she did so under the pseudonym ‘Anodos’. Her poetry only reached a wide audience after her death when Henry Newbolt published them under her real name. Mary never married and devoted most of her time to lecturing at the Working Women’s College in London.
Read: A Moment
A feminist, socialist, pacifist and campaigner against racism, Winifred once wrote that a ‘passion for imparting information to females appears to be one of the major male characteristics’, spotting instances of ‘mansplaining’ seventy years before the word was coined. In 1931 she was diagnosed with Bright’s disease and given two years to live, and she poured all the energy of her last months into writing South Riding. Although better known during her life for her journalism, it is this last novel for which she is now remembered, but she also wrote wonderful poems.
Read: Boats in the Bay
Edith Nesbit (1858-1924)
Edith wrote many books and is best remembered today for her much-loved children’s stories including Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Railway Children. She had a tempestuous personal life with her husband Hubert Bland – they both had affairs and Hubert had children with other women, some of which Edith brought up as her own. She co-founded the socialist Fabian Society.
Her poetry includes Among His Books, written from the point of view of a cuckolded husband.
Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862)
Elizabeth was working in a hat shop when one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters persuaded her to model for him. Millais painted her as Hamlet’s Ophelia, though she became ill because she remained still and uncomplaining when the lamps warming the bath in which she was posing blew out. Painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti fell in love with her and painted her obsessively, perhaps thousands of times. Scandalously, they lived together for eight years before marriage – Rossetti was reluctant to introduce the working class Lizzie to his aristocratic family, and she constantly feared (with good reason) that younger models would claim his heart. She suffered from depression, poor health and a laudanum addiction, and had to be carried to the church when they eventually married. She lost a baby and overdosed – perhaps in a suicide attempt – during her second pregnancy. Rossetti published a manuscript of unpublished poems with her but, seven years later, he had her body dug up to retrieve them for publication. Elizabeth’s drawings and paintings were bought by leading critic John Ruskin during her lifetime, but her poems were only published after her death.
Mary Webb (1881-1927)
Mary grew up in Shropshire where her father, a teacher, inspired in her a love of reading and the countryside, and she set her novels there. They have been called ‘soil and gloom’ books – typically, a tragedy unfolds among simple farming folk – and are brilliantly mocked in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. She also wrote poetry, though wasn’t intending to publish it – her brother sent her poem about a rail disaster to the local newspaper without her knowledge, thinking it would comfort survivors. Mary suffered from Graves’ disease which gave her bulging eyes, a swollen throat and great sympathy for the afflicted, and probably contributed to her relatively early death.
Read: Why? and Green Rain.
Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)
Dorothy is now remembered for her extremely – occasionally uncomfortably – close relationship to her brother William. There were limited options for unmarried women at the time so, after a miserable period housekeeping for a relative, Dorothy moved in with William and his wife, who was also a friend of hers. She wrote children’s stories and helped William with his poems but she also wrote herself, though most of her own poetry was only published after her death. In her later years she became unwell and was often confused, and William nursed her – until he fell ill, and she rallied to run the household again and care for him.
She Is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women, edited by Ana Sampson, is published by Macmillan