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A Very Short Biography of Isabella Whitney

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

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10 of the Best Sonnets by Female Poets

The best sonnets by women in English

The sonnet form was Italian in origin, of course, but a host of English poets have made it their own: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Auden, and many besides. But what is often overlooked is what female poets have done with the form. Indeed, the first ever sonnet sequence written in English was by a woman (see below). In this post we’ve gathered together ten of the greatest sonnets by female English poets.

Anne Locke, ‘My many sinnes in nomber are encreast’. Any list of the best sonnets by English women poets that strives for comprehensive historical coverage should begin here, with the largely forgotten figure of Anne Locke (c. 1530-c. 1590). As we discuss in our book about obscure and forgotten books, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, Locke was not only the first Englishwoman to write a sonnet sequence, but the first English poet of either gender to do so. A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner, appended to a translation of John Calvin’s sermons which Locke published in 1560, was written two decades before Sir Philip Sidney wrote Astrophil and Stella, which is often named as the first English sonnet sequence. Read the rest of this entry

10 Very Short English Poems by Female Poets

The best short poems by women writers

These are ten of the best short poems by women poets from over three centuries of English poetry (and by ‘English’ we mean ‘written in the English language’ – several of the names on this list are American). We’ve interpreted ‘short’ here to mean very short: only one is as long as 14 lines, and many of the others are no longer than ten lines, which we feel is pretty short for a poem. We hope you enjoy this selection. Click on the title of each short poem to read it.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘A Summary of Lord Lyttleton’s “Advice to a Lady”’. Montagu (1689-1762) was not just a leading female poet of the Augustan era in English poetry (which is most famously typified by the work of Alexander Pope): she also helped to introduce a process of inoculation against smallpox, decades before Edward Jenner’s more successful breakthrough with vaccination. Her poetry is frequently witty and urbane, as this rhyming couplet (the form of choice for the Augustans) neatly demonstrates. Read the rest of this entry