Anna Cora Mowatt and the Profitable Pursuit of Poetry

I have devoted a considerable portion of the last week to preparing recordings of three of Mowatt’s poems, “My Life,” “Love,” and “Time” for Librivox. If you are not familiar with this organization, Librivox organizes volunteers who create readings of novels, poems, plays, and some works of nonfiction that are in the public domain. These audiobooks are then available for free download on their website. During my recovery from my head injury I had (and still have) difficulty reading. Librivox’s audiobooks were a wonderful resource for me. I think theirs is a noble pursuit and encourage you to take advantage of their catalogue of public domain titles. Volunteer as a reader or proof-listener if you can.

Although all of Mowatt’s works are in the public domain, before I began, Librivox did not have recordings of any of her texts. It is my long-term goal to have audiobooks of all of her novels and plays available on the site. I started with recordings of her poems, not because I feel that they are her best work, but because they are short. There are lots of technical challenges involved in getting a word-perfect recording that is in compliance with all of Librivox’s standards. I needed practice. I started small.

However, recording these poems did get me to thinking about Mowatt’s poetry again. To herself and to her contemporaries, it was an important part of her resume that is almost always mentioned in biographical sketches. Her first work, Pelayo, or the Cavern of Covadonga, published in 1836 when she was 17 years old under the pseudonym “Isobel,” is a 204-page story-poem. After a mammoth undertaking of that scale –even though the work was savaged by the critics – one would justifiably consider one’s self a poet, I think.

Spunky kid that she was, Mowatt didn’t let the bad reviews keep her down. Her sequel to Pelayo was Reviewers Reviewed, a 77-page poem in which she puts her critics on trial and finds them guilty of being stuffy old misogynist hypocrites. Somewhat perversely, the reviewers found this approach highly original and hilarious – particularly the parts that they didn’t think were about them. Reviewers got much better notices than Pelayo.

Mowatt’s poems, like a lot of poetry by Victorian women, are hard for modern readers to decipher let alone love. They are written in a very elevated, faux-Shakespearean style of language that no one even at that time spoke except when they were reciting poems. There are lots of classical references — some of them extremely obscure. Rhyme schemes are strictly observed to the point of making some of her poems seem like mathematical games, or, worse yet, a little like greeting cards.

She wrote in that sort of style because that was what editors expected to see in women’s poetry at that time. “Now wait!” you might be thinking. “Emily Dickenson was alive around that time. Her poetry is nothing like that!” True, my knowledgeable literary friend, but Emily Dickenson (who was 11 years younger than Mowatt) couldn’t get published during her lifetime because her poems were too “unwomanly.” Only twelve of her many, many poems were published. Most of those were edited to “fix” them.

So if Victorian women were in a Catch-22 situation where the establishment of mostly male editors wouldn’t accept their work unless they wrote in a stilted, somewhat old-fashioned style that mostly male critics were then almost guaranteed to decry as being inferior and unimaginative, then why did they bother writing poetry at all? For some it was about art. For others, it was all about the money, honey. As I discuss in Chapter 7 of Lady Actress, poetry was all the rage in those days. Editors sought it for newspapers and magazines. They were willing to pay top dollar to literary celebrities like Longfellow and William Cullen Bryant. The poetry “gift-book” was the Victorian coffee-table book. Here is the link to a religious-themed gift-book from 1855 called “Christian Keepsakes” in which one of Mowatt’s poems appears that is a nicely representative example of the genre. Christmas and Valentine’s Day were also popular themes for gift-book makers and givers. These ornately bound and colorfully illustrated volumes were the perfect present for that special someone in everyone’s life. Gift-books came in all sizes and were priced to fit all purses. Inventories of the possessions of any self-respecting Victorian usually contain at least one thin tome of poetry.

In the 1850’s, it was socially acceptable for women to write novels, but still a little dubious. There were many minefields of subjects society felt it was inappropriate for women to discuss too freely. George Sand , George Elliot were hiding behind men’s names. The Bronte sisters _family were socially obscure and the subject of controversy. Writing poetry, however, was a rare profession that carried little to no social stigma for women. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning h is an example of a highly successful professional Victorian poet whose name and works are still known today. Others poems are still known although their authors’ names have become obscure; such as the writers of “The Boy on the Burning Deck,” (Felicia Hemans), “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (Sarah Josepha Hale) or “The Spider and the Fly” (Mary Howitt).

In the lucrative poetry trade, every aspect of the product – rhyme scheme, word choice, length, subject matter, etc. – could be tightly controlled by editors. These aspects could either be dictated in advance or changed after the text had been submitted if the product did not conform to expectations much more readily and completely than a novel could be trimmed and reshaped.
Perhaps this is why after such a dramatic beginning in the field as a teenager, Anna Cora Mowatt ended up writing relatively few poems during her lifetime. When as a romantic, inexperienced seventeen-year-old who had read too much Byron, one has already published two books of poetry that steam-rolled over all the neat picket fences warning a young lady about how much it is appropriate to write and how one should write and about what and in what manner, it might have seemed a little boring for her to go back to writing little abab verses about Christmas and Valentines’ Day.

[Personal note: Although I recorded my “tracks” for the Librivox January poetry collection, the audiobook was still being edited at the time this blog was posted. I will update you when my “album drops.”]