Roger Lonsdale's eye-opening Oxford anthology of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989), still revelatory over fifteen years later, shows that women poets throughout the century cocked a skeptical brow at inherited ideas about women. Together, their poems express a complex understanding of female subordination, an understanding that partakes of the larger cultural uncertainty around what one historian has called the "irresolvability of gender's status as natural or ascribed" (Wilson 2003: 23). On one thing they agreed: too often male authority takes the form of tyranny. This complaint can be traced back at least to Margaret Cavendish (1623—74), in whose "The Hunting of the Hare," as Donna Landry has observed, the human male behaves "as if all other species were subject to his tyrannical dominion" and that "as women they too are subjected to this human tyranny" (Landry 2003: 236). A similar point is made by Anne Finch in one of her best-known and most admired poems. In the night-time world of "A Nocturnal Rêverie," which evokes in subtle ways the experience of feminine contingency, the speaker enjoys with the non-human animals a brief "Jubilee" (release) from surveillance and constraint while "Tyrant-Man do's sleep" (ll. 37—8). Admired by Wordsworth for its natural description, the poem has been praised more recently for its muted protest against "male civilization's brutal ownership of both women and nature" (Doody 2000: 222 ). In "The Emulation," the feisty Sarah Fyge Egerton (1670—1723) insists that female subordination in marriage — she calls it "the fatal slavery" — expresses men's "insulting Tyranny" (ll. 7—8). In an analysis that may owe something to Hobbes, she traces female subjection to male anxiety, envy, and insecurity: fearful that "we should excel their sluggish Parts," men "keep us Fools to raise their own Renown" (ll. 19, 22). The laboring-class poet Mary Collier (1690?—c. 1762), in her most important poem, "The Woman's Labour," describes woman's "abject State" as "Slavery" (ll. 41, 14) but traces her subjection to a comprehensive male "scorn" (l. 41) which, over time, has "destroy'd / That happy

State our Sex at first enjoy'd" (ll. 15—16). The past, for all these poets, contains potentialities betrayed by the human male in his Hobbesian drive for supremacy over all things, women included.

The most complex treatment of these themes is found in Leapor's fascinating midcentury poem "Man the Monarch," her double retelling of the Creation story. In the first retelling, female subjection can be traced back to Nature, who as it turns out is a kindly intentioned bungler. Nature intended woman to rule alongside man, and so endowed her with the delicate physical charms meant to constitute her uniquely feminine power: beauty. But in an irony that cuts through the poetic myth of "beauty's awful arms," feminine beauty not only fails to captivate male attention but also renders women too weak to care for themselves. Beauty, "useless and neglected" (l. 37), lacks force and authority; but, cruelly, without it a woman risks being disregarded altogether: wit from "a wrinkled Maid" is "Delirium" (l. 49) In the second retelling, female subjection can be traced directly to the male will to power. Adam, in this account, is the first of a long succession of greedy and power-hungry "Domestic Kings" (l. 65) who cannot bear equal partnership with woman: "He view'd his Consort with an envious Eye; / Greedy of Pow'r, he hugg'd the tott'ring Throne; / Pleased with the Homage, and would reign alone" (ll. 57—9). In an analysis that echoes Egerton's, Adam uses the power of language to name and control as his main instrument of subjection: "And, better to secure his doubtful Rule, / Roll'd his wise Eye-balls, and pronounc'd her Fool" (ll. 60—1). Is woman nature's fool or the victim of a masculine despotism that has constructed female oppression? Leapor seems here to hedge her bets in a poem that exemplifies the ambivalence of the century's understandings of gender difference.

The blend of nature and nurture proposed by Leapor at midcentury can be usefully contrasted with the model of innate femininity that underpins "The Rights of Woman" by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743—1825), from the last decade of the century. At first Barbauld deploys the language of oppression popular among the earlier Augustan women satirists (and recently renewed by Mary Wollstonecraft) and urges "scorned" and "opprest" woman to take up her rightful "empire" (ll. 2, 4). But the final stanza, which invokes the moral authority of feminine sensibility, suggests that the previous claims were ironically advanced:

Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought, Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move, In Nature's school, by her soft maxims taught, That separate rights are lost in mutual love.

The essential femininity (the "heart" responsive to nature's "soft maxims") celebrated by Barbauld will serve as weapon of choice in the ongoing renegotiation of gender difference in the next century, when the "claim to mind and domesticity" would come

"at the expense of politics and the sexual promise in sensibility" (Barker-Benfield 1992: xxviii).

Uniting women across the century is the effort to instate women as speaking subjects in their own right, as poets. Egerton heaps scorn on the "scanty Rules" that keep women in their place, declaring that her "daring Pen will bolder Sallies make, / And like my self, an uncheck'd freedom take" ("The Liberty," ll. 2, 43—4). Finch privileges the pen in a famous passage in "The Spleen" in which the "fading Silks" of that most suitable of feminine accomplishments, needlework, yield to the creations of a pen which delights in "unusual things" and pointedly declines to take up that most feminine of symbols, the rose:

My Hand delights to trace unusual things, And deviates from the known and common way Nor will in fading Silks compose, Faintly th'inimitable Rose.

Leapor's verse is filled with ironic self-portraits of the woman poet that comically dismantle all those constructs of women bound up in the imperatives and anxieties of male desire (see Doody 1988; Landry 1990, 2003; Greene 1993; Mandell 1996). Mira, Leapor's poetic alter ego, does not simply fall short of a feminine ideal of bodily delicacy. She affronts with an excess of physicality: she is humpbacked, hugely misshapen, a heap where "Mountains upon Mountains rise!" (l. 56). In "Mira's Picture," the source of this quote, Leapor inserts a deliberately uglified version of herself into the poem and into the masculine line of sight. She enters a figure in the landscape, but one who, far from being a ravishing nymph or lovely songster, is seen to be muttering to herself: a dimly comprehending rustic explains to his companion, a fashionable man of the town, that she makes "your what-d'ye-call — your Rhyme" (l. 34). Her appearance prompts dismissive judgment from the Londoner: she is a blight on the landscape, a "Nuisance" best swept away by the rains (l. 38). Drawing upon familiar masculine prerogatives, he associates her body, derisively, with things in nature: her skin is darker than a rook's; her eyebrows are dry bundles of wood. The insight that the poem's effectiveness rests on a recognition that Leapor is burlesquing "her own appearance but satirizing the gentleman as well, and, in a broad sense, the male gaze" (Greene 1993: 92) can usefully be extended. She also exposes that contradiction at the heart of poetic tradition whereby women are at once etherealized and identified with their bodies. In this inventively deconstructive self-portrait we watch Leapor transforming the image of feminine beauty into terms that release her from femininity's restraints and leave her free to speak as a poet. It is sad to recall that this astonishingly gifted poet died aged twenty-four.

It is often observed that women of the eighteenth century challenge constructions of the feminine simply by writing poems that give voice to their own wishes, feelings, desires. The very act of taking up the daring pen, that is to say, breaks up the traditional alignment between femininity, passivity, and silence. Some things, to be sure, went unquestioned. Women were not, finally, men's equals. But that left much to be contested, including male claims to absolute authority over wives and daughters; the cultural tendency to confuse beauty and worth, or (contrariwise) to see beauty as a sign of moral vacancy or mere ornamental indolence and frivolity; the reduction of female humanity to the status of landscapes and other objects of scrutiny; and the inevitability of a femininity that, in Roy Porter's words, could be "worn for the gaze of men" (quoted in Greene 1993: 88). As this brief survey has shown, poetry offered spaces for creating or imagining a rich diversity of "femininities" unavailable to women in their everyday social existence or, more to the point perhaps, unavailable in the language and poetic discourses of men. It is one of the remarkable features of the poetry of this period that feminine identity is everywhere under construction. If in the final decades of the century femininity would at last coalesce into a soft but inescapable essence, in its earlier Augustan phases femininity was a fluid category available to a range of appropriations.

See also chs. 8, "Women Poets and Their Writing in Eighteenth-Century Britain"; 9, "Poetry, Sentiment, and Sensibility"; 11, "Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and 'Eloisa to Abelard' "; 12, "Jonathan Swift, the 'Stella' Poems"; 13, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Six Town Eclogues and Other Poems"; 15, "Stephen Duck, The Thresher's Labour, and Mary Collier, The Woman's Labour"; 16, "Mary Leapor, 'Crumble-Hall.' "

References and Further Reading

Unless otherwise indicated all poems are cited from David Fairer and Christine Gerrard, eds.

(2004), Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Armstrong, I., and Blain, V., eds. (1999). Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Barker-Benfield, G. J. (1992). The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Laura (1985). Alexander Pope. Oxford: Blackwell.

Chico, Tita (2002). "The Arts of Beauty: Women's Cosmetics and Pope's Ekphrasis." Eighteenth-Century Life 26: 1, 1—23.

Doody, Margaret Anne (1988). "Swift among the Women." Yearbook of English Studies 18, 68—92.

Doody, Margaret Anne (2000). "Women Poets of the Eighteenth Century." In Vivien Jones (ed.),

Women and Literature in Britain 1700—1800, 217—37. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Fulford, Tim (1996). Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Greene, Richard (1993). Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon.

Guest, Harriet (2000). Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750—1810. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Jones, R. W. (1998). Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, V., ed. (1990). Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity. London and New York: Routledge.

Jones, V., ed. (2000). Women and Literature in Britain 1700-1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Landry, Donna (1990). The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Landry, Donna (2003). "The Labouring-Class Women Poets: 'Hard Labour we most chearfully pursue.' " In S. Prescott and D. E. Shuttleton (eds.), Women and Poetry, 1660-1750, 223-43. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. (1989). Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mandell, Laura (1996). "Demystifying (with) the Repugnant Female Body: Mary Leapor and Feminist Literary History." Criticism 38: 4, 551-82.

Nussbaum, Felicity A. (1984). The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women, 1660-1750. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Pollak, Ellen (1985). The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Prescott, Sarah, and Shuttleton, David E., eds. (2003). Women and Poetry, 1660-1750. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Schor, N. (1994). "This Essentialism which is not One." In N. Schor and E. Weed (eds.), The Essential Difference, 40—62. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Sitter, John (1982). Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press. Swift, Jonathan (1958). The Poems of Jonathan Swift, 3 vols., ed. H. Williams. Oxford: Clarendon.

Wilson, K. (2003). The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century. London and New York: Routledge.

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