Women Poets of the English Civil War Edited by Sarah C.E. Ross and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann

Women poets of the English Civil War

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The editors of this volume have selected five poets who were active in the period leading up to the Civil War and during its aftermath. The poets are Anne Broadstreet, Hester Pulter, Katherine Philips, Margaret Cavendish and Lucy Hutchinson. The book is intended to supplement texts that examine the poetry of male writers of the period, men like Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and John Suckling. Since the English Civil War is given cursory attention in many courses, the editors have given detailed guidance in their introduction to this book.

Much little known information is provided in the Introduction. Preceded by a very useful timeline, the Introduction informs its readers that women’s literary writing burgeoned in the seventeenth century moreso than in the earlier period simply called the Renaissance. It provides the information that poems written by women existed more widely than the print market might suggest. The diversity and complexity of women’s writing is characteristic of the period, and is tied to the ideas and conflicts of the Civil War. These were poets fully alert to the intellectual landscape of the period. There were well read in the metaphysical poetry that figured prominently in poetic discussion. The manuscript culture that pervaded contains examples of most genres in which the men were engaged – elegies, dialogue, panegyrics, and epic poetry are some formats that are found in the work of women writers.

The book is very well laid out. A substantial Table of Contents is followed by Illustrations listed and the obligatory Acknowledgments page. This is followed by a very comprehensive Time Line and a detailed Introduction to seventeenth century poetry, sectioned off to discuss the Civil War, Religion War and Poetry, Networks and Communities (which contains details of each poet), Philosophy and Science, and genre. A section called Notes follows as does a huge list of Further Reading on each poet. The book then begins the body of the work under headings which are the individual poets’ names. There is a heavy biographical component beginning on page 29 and then the poetry with snippets relevant to the particular poet. The book has a cover that brilliantly conveys the emotion of a nation at war. Following the body of the book appear textual Notes for the readers who want to go deeper. The book concludes with an index of first lines.

The poets, whose work is the subject of the book, are headed by Anne Broadstreet (1612 – 1672) whose spouse was instrumental in the founding of Harvard College (presumably later Harvard University). Anne Broadstreet’s verse holds up to emulation the verse of her father while instigating her characteristic rhetoric of modesty. Her poems reveal a tenuous connection through the Dudleys to the Sidneys and the Elizabethan court or more generally to England’s Protestant and poetic role models. A pirated copy of her poems was printed in England and a fire destroyed many more.

Her editors assess that Bradstreet, “Focusing on individual leaders and the ebb and flow of their power…seems to suggest the transience of monarchical power and to comment on the violence those upheavals entails [sic]” (46). A perceptive comment, in my view. Retrospective elegies and poems of praise are characteristic of Bradstreet’s verse. That the editors saw fit to continue this poet’s verse and commentary to page 88 of the present volume indicates how important they view her work.

As with the Broadstreet entry the editors begin their coverage of Hester Pulter (c1605 – 1678) with a comprehensive introduction to the poet’s work. It contains not only precise details (as can be ascertained) with such treasures as “there is, to date, no evidence of anyone having read her manuscript other than those who annotated it” (90). Her manuscript was discovered in 1996, and her poems, when made public, made her a notable woman poet of the Civil War period.

Katherine Philips (1632 – 1664) achieved a great deal in her short life. Her sympathies lay firmly in the Royalist camp, and it is true that she wrote many poems on political matters. However, as the authors mention, she was best known for her poems on the theme of friendship. The book contains (151) a bust of a beautiful woman, (Philips herself) which introduced Katherine Philip’s poems (published in 1667). She has been described as ‘the matchless Orinda’. We are told that Philips was an avid manuscript writer before falling prey to smallpox. Where she is well known to scholars of English literature is in the genre of metaphysical poetry. Her name is often mentioned when students are discussing John Donne. There is a beautiful poem that explores locales and sources of contentment. It is called Content, to my Dearest Lucasia. This book’s fifty page coverage of Katherine Philips actually contains this particular poem as well as a rich accumulation of other verse.

Margaret Cavendish’s poems are capably presented in the book and generate in this reviewer at least an interest in knowing more about her. In that respect the book is a winner. Hers is an entry that takes a less explicit treatment of the Civil War but rather reflects the tensions, philosophies and ethical questions raised by the Civil War. Much of Cavendish’s poetry is given over to a dialogue with nature wherein the natural world represents conscience and empathy while man represents self-interest. In adopting this stance Cavendish is not far from the idea of Thomas Hobbes and his social contract. Her dialogues represent the fractures and dislocations of the Civil War, and have been given extensive treatment in the text.

The final poet is Lucy Hutchinson (1620 – 1681). She favoured the republic over the monarchy, largely reflecting her husband’s leanings. Her fine poem Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson recounts her husband’s actions through civil war and relates her version of the mental tumult that accompanied her husband’s decision to sign the death warrant of King Charles I. Later in the 1650s her poems reflect her frustrations with the progress of the republic. The editors of this volume have it right when they state that, “across poetry and prose, print and manuscript, Hutchinson’s writing bears the marks of her fervent hostility to corrupt rulers and her remarkably broad education, adventurous reading habits, and energetic intellect” (250).

The goal to throw light on the poetry of women writers in the Civil War period in England has been more than amply achieved in this book. It was intended as an adjunct to a study of the male writers of the period but more than holds its own as a study in its own right. As a lover of English literature, with a particular bias towards poetry, I am thrilled that we have such a resource available to us. An excellent read.

Women Poets of the English Civil War


Edited by Sarah C.E. Ross and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann

Manchester UP

ISBN: 978-1-5261-2870-6

400pp; $55.99

To order a copy of Women poets of the English Civil War at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

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