Staking out space: British women’s war poetry, 1780-1840

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Emily J. Dolive (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Anne Wallace

Abstract: My dissertation engages with British women poets between the years 1780 and 1840, a period that saw prolonged conflict between England and France, domestic revolt, and eventually government reform. Scholarly attention to war in the long Romantic period has surged in the last decade, but sustained examinations of women as war writers have been slower. I argue that poets like Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, and critically overlooked Jane Alice Sargant utilized and manipulated popular formal approaches to war to make space for women, notably the forms of ballad, elegy, domestic narrative, and lyric. Female figures in their war poems are mothers, soldiers, and record-keepers who navigate different settings, or spaces, and create textual disruptions. Quotation marks, italics, and metrical variation often dramatize women’s speech, and sometimes silence, which at once critiques sociopolitical expectations that separate women from war and suggests that women remain vocal participants during war. To establish Romantic-era practices for reflecting on war and political conflict and to reveal how issues of gender changed the landscape of war writing, I turned to periodicals, manuscripts, and first edition poetry collections by each of the three core poets, some long out of print. In the outpouring of war poetry in Romantic periodicals, the spaces of battlefield, rural home, graveyard, and ocean become central. Thus, Robinson, Hemans, and Sargant – along with other periodical poets and contemporary authors like Helen Maria Williams, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron – returned to and revised these spaces, framing each with distinct textual disruptions. Chapter one takes up the generic space of the ballad and the physical setting of the battlefield to argue that women’s battlefield ballads revised editorial practices popular during the ballad revival that suppressed oral variants and minimized women’s role in battle scenes. Instead, women’s ballads fill with quoted speech from women on the battlefield and mnemonic parallelism to suggest the possibility of women’s speeches being committed to memory, even passed down orally like the ballad itself. The second chapter turns to the battlefield’s supposed opposite, the home. In describing the rural English home, however, women created a domestic narrative that explicitly reveals the home’s closeness to the battlefield, which I term a “home-front poem” because of its blend of rural and militant language. Similarly, I term the reader-focused elegies in chapter three “wartime elegies.” Women poets in this genre call out to readers, asking them to closely read and even write monuments or headstones for fallen soldiers by repeating locative words, direct address, and subverting common elegiac personifications that might allow consolation instead of continued acts of mourning. The fourth chapter also considers the continued effects of prolonged war and loss by taking up the figure of the wanderer in women’s war lyrics. Here space becomes marginal, liminal, as first-person female speakers cross oceans or pace seashores to convey the precarious position women inhabit when engaging with war. Throughout the chapters, I analyze subtle manipulations of the printed page, such as pairing opposing poems on the same page, relying on mnemonic devices as if print were tenuous, shifting from ballad quatrains to couplets mid-poem, and using military terms to describe rural domestic scenes. These and other textual disruptions briefly return readers not only to an awareness of the printed page, but to gendered expectations of wartime participation and writing. Along the way, then, my project places Robinson, Hemans, and Sargant in war-torn cultural concepts of gender and authorship that their poetry helps reveal and reshape throughout the Romantic period.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2019
Felicia Hemans, Genre, Romanticism, War, War poetry, Women
War poetry, English $x Women authors
English poetry $x Women authors
Women poets, English
Romanticism $z Great Britain

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