Anna Lætitia Aikin Barbauld was a renown English poet and author, and her works were eagerly anticipated. She was one of the most admired female writers in the Georgian era, and was lauded both at home and abroad. (In the below picture, Nine Living Muses of Great Britain by Richard Samuel, Barbauld is the one gesturing.)
But then she published Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a Poem, a scathing indictment of the waste of life occasioned by the Napoleonic Wars, in 1812 and her career as a poet was sunk. Why? Because not only did she decry the horrors of war, she had the audacity to suggest that Great Britain wouldn’t always and forever be a world power. To make her point, she suggested a little podunk country like the United States of America would one day become the biggest world power, eclipsing the UK as the the UK, France, and Holland had eclipsed the fallen Spanish and Portuguese empires. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous and insulting? Well, the British public were livid.
“reviews, whether in liberal or conservative magazines, ranged from cautious to patronizingly negative to outrageously abusive.” Barbauld, stunned by the reaction, retreated from the public eye … Her reputation was further damaged when many of the Romantic poets she had inspired in the heyday of the French Revolution turned against her in their later, more conservative, years. Barbauld was remembered only as a pedantic children’s writer during the 19th century, and largely forgotten during the 20th century, but the rise of feminist literary criticism in the 1980s renewed interest in her works and restored her place in literary history.
In my forthcoming book, Mansfield Parsonage, Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford discuss the kerfuffle regarding Barbauld’s poem:
“Thinking on predictions, what do you think of Mrs Barbauld’s augury for Great Britain in her poem Eighteen Hundred and Elven? I am assuming, of course, that you have read it,” Edmund sought a diversion.
“I have indeed read it. In point of fact, I had bespoke a copy while the poem was still at the publishers. I am a great admirer of Mrs Barbauld’s writing. But you must clarify for me; do you mean her outrageous prediction that Britain will fall because it has squandered its wealth and men in the unending wars with Napoleon? Or that the United State of America will rise as an empire as Britain falls?” Mary asked.
“Either and both.”
“Considering that the poem is clearly Juvenalian satire, I was surprised how poorly the reviewers received it. You would think that Mrs Barbauld had called for immediate surrender to Napoleon, and that all British subjects begin speaking French. The irony of it all is that many of the people castigating her for verses warning of the dangers of prolonged military engagement are the same ones who groan about the taxes to pay for it. And is she wrong? Are we entirely safe? She asks if we think always “To sport in wars, while danger keeps aloof; Thy grassy turf unbruised by hostile hoof?” If we continue to meddle in Continental affairs, is there not a risk of Continental affairs meddling with us? Mrs Barbauld’s only sin is to have dared to suggest that Britain may not win the war, and even if it does we have lost more than we can ever gain. As for her declaration that America will one day be richer and greater than Britain; what can that be but hyperbolic satire? Surely she does not really think that America will rise to greatness after the United Kingdom has overstretched its limits in war. That is clearly preposterous. I find the attacks on Mrs Barbauld nonsensical and hypocritical. What do you think?”
Edmund considered the matter. “It is always risky to criticise one’s country when we are at war, but I, too, feel the reaction to her work has been disproportionately against her. It certainly does not reflect the skill of the poem, its artistry. Nonetheless, I do believe that Mrs Barbauld went too far into the darkness of despair for the poem to be liked as a general thing; she took no account of her audience.”
It was Mary’s turn to be thoughtful. “I understand what you are saying, but I cannot wholly agree. Art is art; it must come forth from the artist regardless of whether or not the audience approves it. Otherwise, art is merely rhymes and pretty pictures.”
“But the artist cannot live on vapour and romance. If the audience does not like the art, and therefore does not purchase it, then the artist is no more.”
“True. Yet I would also argue that the function of art is to make the audience feel something. Mrs Barbauld certainly commanded an emotional reaction.”
“Then shall we agree that Mrs Barbauld is indeed an artist, but one who was unwise?”
Mary smiled. “That sounds like a perfect compromise, Mr Bertram.”