“To Vindicate her Beauty’s Cause”: the sister arts and women poets, 1680-1790
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This dissertation offers a new literary history of the tradition of the “sister arts” in England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While previous scholarship has explored how canonical male poets conceived of their poetry in relation to painting, this project demonstrates that female poets also engaged in various forms of literary pictorialism. By attending to the work of these women writers alongside their male contemporaries, we gain a richer and more complex understanding of how poets evaluated the boundaries between verbal expression and visual composition. In line with my aim to offer a more nuanced historical account of the sister arts by including the contributions of women writers, I also examine the gendered conventions of this tradition. In my first chapter, I contend that poetry written by Anne Killigrew and Anne Finch calls into question common critical assumptions about the power dynamics of ekphrasis (the verbal description of visual art). The second chapter explores how Anna Barbauld, Anna Seward, and Amelia Opie respond to the influential model for verse epistles on the sister arts established by John Dryden and Alexander Pope, which assumes that poets and artists are male while the muses and objects of representation are female. In the third chapter, I argue that concepts derived from visual art animate the elegiac practices of Thomas Gray and Anna Seward, as they explore how acts of gazing can manifest same-sex desire. My final chapter shows how the concept of fancy, represented either as a mental creative process contrasted with imagination or as a personified female figure, comes to be associated with both visual power and femininity. I trace this poetics of fancy from essays by John Locke and Joseph Addison to Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, the odes of William Collins, the sonnets of Charlotte Smith, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion by William Blake. The qualities that lead some writers to denigrate fancy—its association with femininity rather than masculinity, dreams rather than reality, and temptation or liberation rather than constraint—are precisely the same qualities that lead the major pictorial poets to seek to internalize it.