Anna Laetitia Barbauld Critical Essays

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.