Of all the volumes on my bookshelves Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Poems, 1773, is my favourite. It’s the physical book that makes it so special to me. When I was getting married, I was in the midst of a PhD thesis on Barbauld and as a wedding gift my husband managed to track down a first edition. It remains the most romantic present I have ever received. I unwrapped the small, dusty blue volume and started to cry. I’m all for kindles and e-books, but the smell of ancient pages and the patina of two hundred and fifty years of readers’ fingers give a book an aura of magic.
I’m not sure which is my favourite Barbauld poem. The first I ever read was ‘The Mouse’s Petition’, a poem narrated by an unfortunate mouse caught in a trap by the scientist Joseph Priestley, who intends to use it for his experiments in natural gases. The mouse, realising that this isn’t going to end well, pleads with Priestly for his freedom, citing Virgil and Plato’s transmigration of souls (this is a very well-read mouse) arguing that although he is small, he still may be a brother of sorts and a kindred mind. Barbauld was staying with the Priestleys at the time, and the story goes that when Priestley went to fetch the mousetrap, he found the poem twisted in the bars. This particular mouse had a happy ending — Priestley set him free.
I am also very fond of ‘The Groans of the Tankard’, another poem with an unlikely narrator, this time a tankard that is accustomed to being filled with beer, and now to its disgust finds itself gracing a teetotal luncheon table and filled with nothing better than water. The poor tankard cannot understand how ‘hungry poets’ can manage to concentrate for the afternoon without ‘solid pudding and substantial pie’ or, most importantly, a little drop of something. In a masterpiece of mock-heroic verse, the tankard laments the tragedy of his plight for half a dozen pages that carry us from the shores of China to a vicar’s dining-room table.
‘A Summer Evening’s Meditation’ gives me the same feeling as staring at Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. The stars start to shake and tremble in the sky, until Barbauld takes us shooting through the heavens for a close-up look at ‘an embyro God; a spark of fire divine’ in the poetical equivalent of an out of body experience.
I find myself thinking about Barbauld a lot at the moment. I have a new book coming out in April, and am about to start the rollercoaster of reviews (newspapers, blogs, amazon, my mum’s book group). Do I read or avoid them? Do I scour the internet for every word written about me and my book, or do I scrupulously avoid everything? All I can say with confidence is that I am unlikely to get a review as bad as that given to Anna Laetitia Barbauld for her anti-war poem ‘Eighteen-hundred and Eleven’. It was a review so bad that she chose never to publish again.
Forty years before, in 1773, it had all started out rather well with the critics heralding the arrival of an exciting new voice in poetry; although they were as intrigued by the fragrant young poet as her actual poems. William Woodfall writes in The Monthly Review what has to be one of the most delightful descriptions of the relationship between writer and reviewer:
Our trembling victims waited their doom; and our weapons were brandished for execution: when this fair form offered herself, attended by a train of virtues, so pleasing, so enchanting, that we lost the rage of our peculiar devotion, and, from cruel and snarling critics (as all reviewers are known to be) were metamorphosed into happy and good-tempered men.
The critic has the power not only to mete out a bad review but also death (which is considered worse by some writers). Woodfall is clearly rather enamoured of the young poet’s ‘fair form… so pleasing, so enchanting’, but he does regret that such a pretty little thing chooses to write about – shock – politics and that she even dares to dabble in satire, when really every woman writer should stick to the subject of love:
Miss Aikin, like most female writers, has, in some measure, disappointed us on the subject of Love… If we could have found that her heart had ever betrayed her, and that she had marked, from her own feelings, the particular distresses of some female situations!
He wishes that her poems were more autobiographical and that in intimate ‘HELLO Magazine’ style, she could have been persuaded to confess all about some dastardly love-rat and a bit of juicy heartbreak. Though, my favourite review has to be the Westminster Magazine, which declares:
‘This lady is not only poetically enchanting, but personally attractive.”
However, by 1812, Barbauld was not a pretty twenty-something but a woman in her seventies. Now no longer ‘personally attractive’ the critics found her notably less ‘poetically enchanting’. The modern literary critic, Nicholas Birns, writes that ‘it is still staggering to think that there was a poet more ‘killed’ (as Shelley put it) by the Quarterly than “cockney” John Keats. But such was the case with Anna Laetitia Barbauld. The journal’s mockery of her ambitious poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” … knocked it, and her, out of the canon for nearly two centuries.’ That is some feat – a review so bad that it not only stops a writer publishing, but readers from discovering her for two hundred years.
In the review, John Croker Wilson (though he published it anonymously, too chicken to put name to his vitriol) notes that ‘her former works have been of some utility;… though they display not much of either taste or talents, are yet something better than harmless’. What every writer dreams of hearing – that they are talentless though a bit better than harmless. But, it gets worse. Barbauld is satirised as a ridiculous old woman who has been ‘induced to dash down her spectacles and her knitting needles, and to sally forth’, and to top it all he calls her a ‘lady- author’ as a term of abuse.
However anxious I am come publication day in April, I derive a little comfort in the fact that I am unlikely ever to receive a review as cruel as this. But, if I do, I shall be in splendid company, alongside a writer who has inspired and entertained me for more than a decade.