Wednesday 8 January 2014

Jean Ingelow

'Unless a man is an extraordinary coxcomb, a person of private means, or both, he seldom has the time and opportunity of committing, or the wish to commit, bad or indifferent verse for a long series of years; but it is otherwise with woman.'
Lawks! This withering verdict on female versifying was published in the Cambridge Guide to English Literature, a propos the writings of the Victorian poet and children's author Jean Ingelow. She was very popular in her day, and her name just about lives on as the author of the well-loved anthology piece, The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire (often requested on Radio 4's Poetry Please) - no doubt it was the recent spell of atrocious coastal weather that put that into my mind. It's a powerful piece, if overlong, overblown and overloaded with archaisms - read it here, if you like.
 A poem of Jean Ingelow's that I hadn't come across before was her other great success - Divided. And this the Cambridge Guide praises, if grudgingly: 'If we had nothing of Jean Ingelow’s but the most remarkable poem entitled Divided, it would be permissible to suppose the loss [of her], in fact or in might-have-been, of a poetess of almost the highest rank... Jean Ingelow wrote some other good things, but nothing at all equalling this; while she also wrote too much and too long...' Divided - while not exactly a model of brevity and understatement - is a vivid piece of work that packs quite an emotional punch. And it contains a lovely glimpse of butterflies:
''Twixt the two brown butterflies waver,
Lightly settle, and sleepily swing.'
Sleepily swing... Meadow Browns, I'm guessing. You can read Divided here - and it's well worth a look.

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