‘Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own
Ask someone about Romanticism and they’ll probably begin by neatly classifying Romantic writers into Old (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge) and New (Shelley, Byron, Keats) Romantics whose egos and meticulously rendered subjectivities almost mythologized their corpus, enduring legacies of the period of upheaval they exemplify. But it is the women Romantic writers who nurtured the movement at its infancy and preserved its legacy long after the winds of trend had stopped blowing, voicing both the center and the periphery.
Identified as the precursor of the “Wordsworthian pattern” in poetry, Smith was perhaps the first Romantic writer who employed worldly observations for psychological commentary and came to be known as the “mistress of the pensive lyre.” Having experienced the darkness of debtors’ prison and the burden of taking care of her kids alone, she was writing at a pivotal moment in history when women first began to take up writing as a profession openly.
With her autobiographical sensitivity to nature, Smith renders nightscapes fantastical, saturated with a female longing for freedom. She is the pioneer of the Romantic poet persona dipped in melancholy. Smith also cleverly fashioned her public persona, rigorously reasserting her circumstances in a skillful textual performance so as to escape scathing criticism and prejudice that female writers were frequently subjected to.
William Wordsworth’s sister is said to have had an aversion for labeling herself a writer or a poet but her influence on the Bard’s works is indelible. Dorothy rigorously journaled which was one of Wordsworth’s primary sources for his compositions. In fact, some of his most famous works, such as Tintern Abbey and I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, are suspected to have had even more direct contributions by Dorothy in the final product. Living in the Lake District, she was joined by her brother and their friend S.T. Coleridge.
Marked by critics as notably “not an intellectual” among the trio, Dorothy’s writings flow unfettered in a manner that one would think is Romantic. She was a keen observer, with reactions pouring often in a full-bodied shudder on paper. Her sensory perceptions rest in her diaries like pressed roses, each moment of life a bud that could still bloom.
When we talk of Mary Shelley, we must take into consideration a lineage of female Romantic writers who, despite their individuality, were tied together by blood and cultivated genius. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and sister Claire Clairmont were remarkable women of letters too. Meena Alexander notes that women’s writing at the time could be broadly categorized as meditative ‘writing in’ or a fierce confrontation with male authority, the latter of which is best exemplified by the Wollstonecrafts.
“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, who found herself first in the shadow of her father William Godwin and later husband Percy and his glamorous circle, including Lord Byron, laid upon bits and pieces of herself her powerful imagination to etch out the subversive worlds of Frankenstein and Mathilda. Critics have largely read an image of the self in Shelley’s grotesque, alienated and tragic, with love always just out of reach. The haunting beauty of her words ensnares us in chill-encrusted lace.
“What had I to love? Oh many things: there was the moonshine and the bright stars; the breezes and the refreshing rains; there was the whole earth and the sky that covers it: all lovely forms that visited my imagination, all memories of heroism and virtue.”Mathilda
Hemans, widely read and acknowledged by her contemporaries, was a major contribution to the national imagination. Her Romantic heroes shone in patriotic light and portrayal of domestic affection contributed to cultural memory, in a manner that anticipated Victorian sentimentality. With the poetry of Felicia Hemans emerged the role of the Romantic writer as a director.
The crisp imagery of Hemans and the grandeur of style and matter are reminiscent of Byron. But the deployment of spectacle in the choreography of her poetic scenes is quite singularly hers, perhaps most sharply epitomized in her most celebrated poem Casabianca, charged with the unstable fusion of domestic and military values. She also reorganizes feminine heroism and explores female suicide in its agency against masculine forces, as seen in The Bride of the Greek Isle:
Come from the woods with the citron-flowers,
Come with your lyres for the festal hours,
Maids of bright Scio! They came, and the breeze
Bore their sweet songs o’er the Grecian seas;–
They came, and Eudora stood rob’d and crown’d,
The bride of the morn, with her train around.
Lauded as the “mother of English fiction” by Woolf, Burney led a life no less remarkable than that of her fictional heroines. She wrote and published her first novel, Evelina, in great secrecy and watched those around her, including her mother, enjoy the book that was quite an explosive success, without a clue that its author was perhaps sitting right across the table for them.
In Fanny Burney, the genre that is inward life writing shapes itself solid, to be seen by the public eye while the authorial leash is still pulled taut. Foremost a novelist, Burney as a diarist left candid imprints that didn’t find a place in her novels of manner. Writing came naturally, and quite compulsively to her. It is in her letters and journals that we witness the spontaneity of an animated Romantic writer.
The picture of Romanticism isn’t a silver-grey heliograph but a sprawling tapestry, whose size we can’t comprehend as long as these women Romantic writers remain eclipsed by a phallocentric canon. We say that the future is female, but to embark upon that possibility, we must first unearth the legacy of the past and shine a light on the labors of the present.