About Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Anna Barbauld (nee Aikin) was born in 1743, daughter of a nonconformist minister and schoolmaster, who taught her to read English before she was three and to master French, Italian, Latin and Greek while still a child. Her book of poems, published in 1773, was an astonishing success and established her at the time as a celebrated and widely read poet.
Soon afterwards, she married a French priest, Rochemont Barbauld, and moved to Suffolk where they together founded and ran a school for boys. Without children of their own, they adopted one of her brother’s sons, and it was for him that she first began her innovative works for young people, for the first time treating them as children rather than as small adults.
Unfortunately Barbauld’s marriage was unhappy: Rochemount was mentally unstable, with symptoms including obsessive washing; when Anna tried to intervene or help him, he attacked her. In 1808 he committed suicide.
'The Rights of Women' is a response to Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Barbauld’s poem is not entirely straightforward, seeming both to celebrate and question Wollstonecraft’s views on the need to liberate women from the injustices and restrictions they faced. Similarly, 'To the Poor' at first sight seems to endorse the notion that the poor must wait patiently until they are repaid in heaven for their suffering on earth. This complacency is then overturned by a simmering anger at the way things are but should not be; rewards for the poor in the afterlife are simply not good enough to justify the cruelty of the rich and powerful.
Like her younger contemporaries, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Barbauld responded joyously to events in France and the example they gave of the possibility of violent change through revolution. She was a vigorous critic of the slave trade, and in 1812 wrote 'Eighteen Hundred and Eleven', a violent attack in heroic couplets on the folly of continuing the war against France, and on Britain’s decline. For this she was widely criticised for lack of patriotism in a time of national emergency, and afterwards she wrote little. She died in 1824.
Though sometimes regarded as an early Romantic poet, and an important influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge (on one occasion Coleridge walked forty miles to meet her), her reputation declined after those writers turned against her. She offended Coleridge by criticising The Rime of the Ancient Mariner because it had no moral, and during the years after her death she was mainly remembered for her books for children and her fifty-volume edition of English novelists. However, feminist readers in the late twentieth century rediscovered the power and range of her verse; she is once again recognised as one of the important poets of her time.
On my first visit to the Poetry Archive I dipped in to see what was there, and discovered there was far more to hear...