The mysterious life of an early English woman poet
Isabella Whitney is not a familiar name to many readers of poetry, and in many ways this is hardly surprising. But here at Interesting Literature we like to keep one eye out for the curious but overlooked, the obscure but interesting – and the life and work of Isabella Whitney fit the bill, we’d say. In this post we offer a very brief biography of one of the first English female poets.
That said, writing such a biography of someone like Isabella Whitney might be easier said than done, for very little is actually known about her life. We don’t even know when she was born or when she died. She is said to have ‘flourished’ (the ‘fl.’ abbreviation, standing for ‘floruit’ – Latin for ‘he or she flourished’ – is how her dates are usually rendered in biographical sketches of her) in the years 1567-73. Michael Schmidt’s indispensable The Lives Of The Poets, elsewhere a thoroughly detailed biographical introduction to the great and the good of English poetry, has just one paragraph about Whitney. But this is understandable, given the paucity of information about her that we have. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a chilling short story
Saki, real name Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), was a master of the very short story, and as well as penning dozens of witty Edwardian short stories consisting of just a few pages, he also left us several short horror fiction masterpieces, of which ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ (1909) is probably the most famous and widely studied. The story, about a teenage boy who transforms into a werewolf and preys on small children, manages to appal and unsettle in just five pages of masterly storytelling. You can read ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ here.
As we revealed in our analysis of Saki’s ‘The Lumber-Room’, much of Saki’s fiction reads like a direct challenge to the Victorian notion that children are paragons of innocence. ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ is worthy of closer analysis because it explores a similar idea, but using Gothic horror fiction as its vehicle. But the story is still shot through with Saki’s characteristic wit and irony. It’s as if Oscar Wilde had been crossed with M. R. James or Bram Stoker. Indeed, Van Cheele, the owner of the woods in which Gabriel-Ernest hunts for his prey, is like a protagonist of an M. R. James ghost story in his refusal to believe the youth when he openly admits he feeds on children’s flesh. More of the wittiness of the story later. Read the rest of this entry
Interesting trivia about the original ‘Lesbian poet’
1. Sappho has been credited with inventing the plectrum. An Athenian vase dating from the sixth century BC shows Sappho holding a lyre, which she is plucking with a small device that is recognisable as the forerunner to the modern plectrum. Did she invent it? Historians are unsure, but it appears that Sappho was using a plectrum to pluck the strings at a time when everyone else was happy to pluck the strings of the lyre.
2. Hardly any of Sappho’s work survives. Sappho is known to have written some nine volumes of poetry, but very little of her work was preserved. Some have blamed this on the activities of the medieval Church, which sought to suppress works which were pagan and, what’s more, often probably quite sexy. Sappho is, after all, the poet who inspired the word ‘lesbian’ for a woman who loves other women; Sappho’s home was on the island of Lesbos. Read the rest of this entry