Anna Laetitia Barbauld Essay - Critical Essays

Barbauld, Anna Laetitia

Introduction

Anna Laetitia Barbauld 1743-1825

English poet, essayist, editor, and children's writer.

An eminent literary figure of the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, Barbauld was known and admired by many prominent writers of her time, among them William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frances Burney, Hannah More, and Elizabeth Montagu. After her death she was remembered primarily for her writings for children, but during the last quarter of the twentieth century, literary critics have begun to turn their attention to the essays, poems, and editorial work that helped secure her literary reputation among her contemporaries.

Biographical Information

Born Anna Laetitia Aikin in Leicestershire, Barbauld was the daughter of John Aikin, a Dissenting minister and headmaster of a boys' school, and his wife, Jane Jennings. Educated at home by her father, she studied Latin and Greek as well as modern languages. In 1758, her father took up a teaching position at Warrington Academy for Dissenters. Barbauld lived at Warrington for the next fifteen years, making the acquaintance of such prominent liberal intellectuals as Joseph Priestly, who also taught at the Academy, and Josiah Wedgwood. In 1772 she published several of her poems in a collection of essays by her brother, the physician John Aikin. The first collection of her poetry appeared in 1773; the same year, she and John published a volume of their essays entitled Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose. In 1774 she married Rochemont Barbauld, a clergyman educated at Warrington, and soon thereafter they adopted one of her nephews. Their marriage appears to have been one of considerable mutual affection and esteem, overshadowed in later years by Rochemont's increasing mental instability. Together they opened a successful academy for boys in Sussex, where Barbauld taught language and science to the younger students. While continuing to write and publish poetry, she also published several immensely popular volumes of lessons and prose pieces for young children. In 1785, citing ill health, the Barbaulds closed the school; the following year, they settled in Hempstead, where Rochemont headed a small congregation. A number of Barbauld's political essays and poems were written here; she also undertook an increasing amount of editorial and critical work. In 1802 the Barbaulds moved to Stoke Newington, where Anna Laetitia's brother also lived. Rochemont's mental condition continued to worsen, and on several occasions he tried to attack his wife. In 1808 he drowned, an apparent suicide. Barbauld continued to write until her death, though she published little after the first decade of the nineteenth century. She died in Stoke Newington in 1825.

Major Works

Barbauld's poetry represents a wide variety of subjects and modes, including odes, satires, riddles, and hymns. Many of her poems draw their subjects and themes from the everyday matters of domestic life; these include "To Mr. Barbauld" (1778), a celebration of love and friendship in marriage; the mock-heroic "Washing Day" (1797); and "Life," a later poem that meditates on life, old age, and encroaching death. She also wrote on political subjects, often emphasizing the importance of personal and political freedom. Her early poem "Corsica" (1769) praises the spirit of Corsican nationalists in their long and ultimately unsuccessful battle for independence from France. The long poem Epistle to William Wilberforce (1791) expresses her firmly abolitionist stance, while Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812) predicts the decline of Great Britain as a world power. Her liberal political convictions were also expressed in a number of widely read pamphlets. In 1790 she published An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts, a spirited attack on Parliament's refusal to revoke laws that limited the rights of citizens who were not members of the Established Church. Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation (1793), written in opposition to Britain's war with France, affirmed the duty of citizens to resist immoral acts by their government. Of her several collections of prose pieces for children, the most enduring was Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), which remained popular into the early years of the twentieth century. Sentimental, didactic, but elegantly wrought, her works for children set a new standard of writing for young readers. In the final twenty-five years of her life, much of her work was editorial in nature. She is particularly noted for editing Samuel Richardson's correspondence (1804) and a fifty-volume set of novels by British authors entitled The British Novelists (1810). Her introduction to the set and her essays on individual authors represent significant early literary and historical criticism of the novel.

Critical Reception

Barbauld's writing, particularly her poetry, was greatly admired by her contemporaries, and she was acknowledged throughout her lifetime as one of the leading intellectuals of her era. Yet by the late nineteenth century, she had come to be viewed as something of a footnote in literary history whose only lasting contribution was in the area of children's literature. Modern critics generally ascribe this rapid decline in her literary reputation to late nineteenth and early twentieth century prejudices against the poetry of the eighteenth century and against female authors. Critical interest in Barbauld began to revive in the 1970s, when scholars Paul Zall, Samuel Pickering, and Porter Williams suggested that many of the themes and images of the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and William Blake reflect their familiarity with Barbauld's writings for children. Since the mid-1980s, growing interest in writing by women has supported renewed attention to the larger canon of Barbauld's work. Ann Messenger and Marlon Ross have investigated relationships between gender and writing in her poetry, while Catherine E. Moore and Katharine M. Rogers have examined her contributions to the history and theory of the novel. The first modern edition of Barbauld's poems appeared in 1994.

Principal Works

Poems [as Anna Laetitia Aiken] (poetry) 1773

Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose [as Anna Laetitia Aiken, with John Aiken] (essays) 1773

Lessons for Children. 4 vols, (essays) 1778-79

Hymns in Prose for Children (essays) 1781

An Address to the Opposers of the Repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts (pamphlet) 1790

Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq., on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade (poem) 1791

Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation (pamphlet) 1793

The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson. 6 vols. [editor] (letters) 1804

The British Novelists. 50 vols. [editor] (novels) 1810

Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (poem) 1812

The Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. 2 vols. (essays and poetry) 1825

The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld (poetry) 1994

Criticism

The Nation, New York (essay date 1874)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Barbauld," in The Nation, New York, Vol. XVIII, No. 456, March 26, 1874, pp. 206-07.

[In the following excerpt, the writer summarizes Barbauld's contributions to English literature.]

We fear that not many of our readers will have very distinct ideas suggested to their minds by the name of the excellent woman whose memory Mrs. Ellis has revived in the two handsome volumes noted below [The Life and Works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, 1874]. Devout churchgoers may have noticed her name in their hymn-books as the author of some of the finest religious lyrics which they contain; and such of them as shall have passed the "mezzo del cammin" of life may...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Anne I. Ritchie (essay date 1881)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Barbauld," in Littell's Living Age, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1955, December 10, 1881, pp. 579-93.

[In the following excerpt, Ritchie discusses Barbauld's political convictions and reviews several of her poems and essays.]

"The first poetess I can recollect is Mrs. Barbauld, with whose works I became acquainted—before those of any other author, male or female—when I was learning to spell words of one syllable in her story-books for children." So says Hazlitt in his lectures on living poets. He goes on to call her a very pretty poetess, strewing flowers of poesy as she goes.

The writer of this little notice must needs, from the same point of...

(The entire section is 2138 words.)

Sam Pickering (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Barbauld's Hymns in Prose: 'An Air-Blown Particle' of Romanticism?" in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 259-68.

[In the following excerpt, Pickering examines Barbauld's place in the history of children's literature and suggests that her writings influenced the development of English Romanticism.]

Pinpointing the origins of the Romantic Movement is like tracing the evolution of man. New and embarrassing ancestors will forever turn up in isolated rifts in Kenya or in the backwaters of eighteenth-century journals. Wordsworth and Coleridge did not leap full grown from the forehead of Calliope, but were instead the poetic...

(The entire section is 3610 words.)

Ann Messenger (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Heroics and Mock Heroics: John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld," in His and Hers: Essays in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature, The University Press of Kentucky, 1986, pp. 172-96.

[In the following excerpt, Messenger analyzes Barbauld's use of the mock-heroic mode in her satirical writings, particularly "The Groans of the Tankard" and "Washing-Day. "

Satire, that mode for which the earlier decades of the eighteenth century are so justly famous, fell into increasing disrepute [during the eighteenth century]. There had always been a few who protested against the ugliness of satire, suspicious that the satirist was ill-natured,...

(The entire section is 7792 words.)

Catherine E. Moore (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'Ladies . . . Taking the Pen in Hand': Mrs. Barbauld's Criticism of Eighteenth-Century Women Novelists," in Fetter'd or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1986, pp. 383-97.

[In the following excerpt, Moore reviews Barbauld's essays on novelists and argues that she made important contributions to the history and theory of the novel.]

A versatile woman—poet, essayist, polemicist, hymnwriter, children's writer, educator, critic—Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) never wrote a novel. As an avid reader of novels, as well as a respected writer for nearly forty years, and the editor...

(The entire section is 5237 words.)