by Mara Barbuni
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (née Aikin) poet, essayist, abolitionist, literary critic, teacher and educationist, lived an age of extraordinary transformations in the English political, social, technological and artistic fields. Her lifetime, spanning from 1743 to 1825, witnessed three reigns (George II, III and IV), several wars (Seven Years, American Independence, Napoleonic Wars), the industrial development of the country, crucial progress in scientific studies, and the philosophical attempts at a reform of social conduct and individual ‘sensibility’ which strongly influenced her literary production.
In her essay writing, in fact, she showed to be deeply concerned with a necessary reformation of society and the emphasis on the power of human emotions, whereas some of her early poetry appears influenced by a ‘Romantic’ aura, with its preference for isolated settings, observation of natural landscapes and a general feeling of calm tenderness and sweet melancholy.
In her essays An Address to the Opposers of the Corporation and Test Acts, Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation, Civic Sermons to the People, Thoughts on the Inequality of Conditions, she expressed the hope for the strengthening of a ‘public’ spirit and for the advent of a future age of national peace and solidarity, where individuals are ready to help and to sympathize with each other. Moreover, among her several critical works are Essay on Akenside’s Poem ‘On the Pleasures of Imagination’, The Poetical Works of Mark Akenside and The Poetical Works of Mr. William Collins: the choice to edit and comment on such poetical works suggests the strength of Barbauld’s interest for themes and atmospheres which are also easily recognizable in her poems On the Backwardness of the Spring, Verses Written in an Alcove, Ode to the Spring, Autumn: a Fragment, An Autumnal Thought.
As the 1790s marked the start of a new era for Romantic poetry, Barbauld shared with contemporaries such as Wordsworth and Coleridge the same concern with political issues and with the debates about human rights. Like them, at first she praised the bravery of the French revolutionaries (To a Great Nation, 1792) but after the tragic aftermath of the Terror and the French declaration of war on England she withdrew her support for the Revolution and began to regard the war with France as a fatal danger for the safety and survival of the English country and population. Her Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), a poem with pacifist aims, prophesied the English defeat and the country’s future devastation and cultural ruin.
Even more significant is the presence, in her poems, of stylistic elements which make her verse resemble the grand – and today famous – Romantic poetry. Her juvenile poem A Summer’s Evening Meditation is a clear example, because it presents an outdoor setting, a solitary speaker, the description of the landscape and the meditations of the poet, which end with a transformation of her personality, a profound self-awareness and a deeper understanding of life.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld was a celebrity in her lifetime: she was one of the most prominent literary personalities in England, well known and praised for her juvenile poetry and for her writings for children (fables as well as textbooks for her own pupils, which continued to be touchstones of English education through the whole 19th century). A critic of the Monthly Review wrote, about her first publication (Poems, 1773): “In some of the pieces we have a smoothness and harmony equal to that of our best poets; but what is more extraordinary, […] we observe a justness of thought, and vigour of imagination, inferior only to the works of Milton and Shakespeare”. Coleridge eventually walked from Nether Stowey to Bristol solely to meet her, to discuss about poetry and ask for her advice and opinions (and she later dedicated to him ‘To Mr. S.T. Coleridge’); Elizabeth Montagu (the entertainer of the most famous literary salons of the time) hoped to add her to her circle of friends and proposed to her to head a women’s college; Richard Lovell Edgeworth asked her to join in his project of a literary journal written only by women.
But the publication of Eighteen Hundred and Eleven put an end to Barbauld’s glories. With this condemnation of British foreign policy she incurred the anger of the critics, who almost unanimously regarded her as an outrageous defeatist. In The Quarterly Review, for instance, John Wilson Croker, later notorious for his savage attack on Keats, wrote: “Our old acquaintance Mrs. Barbauld turned satirist! […] the last thing we could have desired. […] We had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author. […] An irresistible impulse of public duty […] has induced her to dash down her shagreen spectacles and her knitting needles to sally forth […] in the magnanimous resolution of saving a sinking state. We must take the liberty of […] entreating […] that she will not, for the sake of this ungrateful generation, put herself on the trouble of writing any more party pamphlets in verse”. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven was Barbauld’s last published work.
From then on she disappeared from the literary scene, as well as from literary history. She only ‘made a comeback’ in the 1990s, when some critics started to re-read and study her works. A collection of all her known poems (many Barbauld family documents were lost during the 1940 London blitz) was published in 1994 with the title The Poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, edited by William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft, who also edited an anthology of her poetry and prose in 2002. McCarthy’s biography of Barbauld came out in 2008, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dr. Mara Barbuni is Italian, lives in Berlin and loves Britain. She has a
PhD in English literature and has studied in depth, female poetry of the Romantic Age, to write her dissertation on Anna Laetitia Barbauld. She has been translating into Italian works and letters of Elizabeth Gaskell and is the co-founder of the Jane Austen Society of Italy (www.jasit.it). She writes (in Italian) a web-diary about her readings: http://ipsalegit.blogspot.com