Title page from “A Story of Doom and Other Poems” by Jean Ingelow, one of the uplifting titles from the 19th Century Women Poets Collection.
You could be forgiven for assuming that a collection of 400 works written by 19th century poetesses would encompass a mostly positive worldview. It would even be safe to assume, for example, that the kinds of women who had the educational backgrounds, available leisure time and access to commercial (and private) printers would tend to fill the pages of their volumes with odes to Greek myth, the beauty of a countryside idyll or the joys of being part of the landed nobility.
To be fair, the 19th Century Women Poets Collection contains its fair share of material dedicated to just these sorts of inoffensive, uplifting and mildly amusing pursuits. But a closer examination of the works in this collection also reveal a startlingly high number of works dealing with difficult subjects ranging from the deaths of infants to loves gone awry and the martyrdom of Christians for the cause of Jesus. And that may be because even the relatively luxurious life of a lord’s wife or daughter was not enough to shelter these women from the often brutal truths of life in the nineteenth century.
What is Death?
A simple keyword search for “death” in the Table of Contents field for this collection returns only seven titles – a very small subset of 400, to be sure. But that simply means seven occurrences of the word in titles where a table of contents is present. Searching for “death” across the entire collection returns 387 results: a whopping 96.75 percent of the collection. It would be very difficult to pick a work in this collection that does not include at least a mention of death on at least one page. This number alone speaks volumes (pun intended) about the prevalence of death in the lives of these authors and about their attempts to come to grips with it through the muse of poetry.
And that is by no means the only way to describe death via poetry. Take the example of Hella, and Other Poems by Mrs. George Lenox-Conyngham. Poems from this work feature titles including, “The Last Words of Girlamo Olgiato,” “Death the Mediator,” “What is Death?” “The Memory of Grief,” The Last Days of a Good Man,” and “The Skeptic and His Dying Son.” That means six of 38 total works deal explicitly with death and dying, a fairly significant percentage. While these works deal with the explicit sadness surrounding death, there are works in the collection that view death as a transition into the afterlife, where friends will be reunited, as in the poem “Friendship” by Mary Anne Evans from her work, A Few Short Poems by M.A.E., which reads in part:
“Oh for a Christian friend,
Whose heart to God is given;
When death this friendship seems to end,
‘Twill be renewed in heaven.
Works dealing with the death of children comprise a particularly challenging subset in this collection. A search for the exact phrase “dying child” returns 22 pieces in the collection; a deeper search of similar phrases will turn up dozens more. In today’s world of oversharing and me-centric communication – an experience anyone with a social media account has no doubt encountered – it can be hard to imagine a time when any subject was off-limits for public discourse. But even today, we can find it difficult to come to grips with the death of a child, and many of us would be hesitant to address it more than was absolutely necessary out of a fear of judgment or professions of surface grieving from our online “friends.”
Imagine, then, just how difficult it would be for a woman in the nineteenth century to express her feelings of gut-wrenching sorrow on the loss of a child. After all, this was a time when it was expected that almost every family – certainly a majority of them – would experience the death of a pre-adolescent child in their extended family, whether from accident or illness or some other trauma associated with life in the 1800s. In many ways, the poetesses in this collection who chose to address the deaths of children were serving as proxy mourners for a nation of women whose outlets for grief were few and whose expectations were to bear the burden of loss with quiet dignity as they went forward with the daily tasks of raising and bearing still more children.
That’s not to say that mothers were the sole targets for these works on childhood mortality. In a book called, Children’s Poetry by the Author of ‘John Halifax, Gentleman,’ we see a poem entitled, “A Dying Child.” Here, in a book ostensibly written to instruct and uplift the youngest members of society, we are presented with a work that addresses a deep-seated fear experienced all too often by children in the nineteenth century: the death of a sibling.
“How the trembling children gather round,
Startled out of sleep, and scared and crying:
“Is our merry little sister dying,
Will men come and put her underground,
As they did poor baby, last May-day?
Or will shining angels stoop and take her
On their snow-white wings to heaven, and
Sit amount the stars as fair as they?”
Pestilence, Famine, War (and Death)
But death itself is not the only macabre theme uniting practically every work in this collection beneath the umbra of sorrow. A search for several other equally depressing topics returns a veritable cornucopia of the troubles of mankind, including:
War: 280 results
Famine: 98 results
Plague: 75 results
Broken hearts: 258 results
Loss: 273 results
Sickness: 173 results
You get the (increasingly depressing) picture.
So what does recurring litany of woe tell us about the women who wrote these words more than 100 years ago? Were they all obsessed with death, a coterie of depressives venting their sorrows onto the printed page so that others may share in their sadness? Or were they bravely putting to words the often unutterable darkness that confronts women (and men) of all ages and has since the beginning?
Though it is by no means indicative of the kinds of lives lived by all the women in this collection, perhaps the life, career and death of Christina Rossetti can shed some light on the kinds of motivating influences that drove these women to write in the manner they chose.
Rossetti as a young woman, from a sketch by her brother, Dante Rossetti.
Rossetti was born in London in 1830 to an exiled politician/poet father and a mother who was sister to Lord Byron’s personal physician. Her early years were pleasant and filled with poetry, outings to cultural attractions and visits from “Italian scholars, artists and revolutionaries.”
But in 1843, her father’s declining mental and physical health – he was diagnosed with “persistent bronchitis, possibly tuberculosis and faced losing his sight” as well as depression – took a toll on the family. As her siblings left to begin their careers, she became increasingly isolated and suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 14. She turned down three offers of marriage, due mainly to her increasingly devout religious beliefs, and though she wrote several well-received poems over the next thirty years, she suffered greatly in her final days from both Graves Disease and breast cancer. 
With all of this turmoil, sorrow and sickness to deal with, is it any wonder that recurring themes of sadness and struggle pervade her works? Though the other poetesses in the Women Poets Collection certainly led lives of varying degrees of suffering compared to Rossetti, it is easier to understand why they chose to address their subject matter in their works.
Perhaps there is no more fitting way to end a rather gloomy post than with the full text of Rossetti’s work, “Song,” from her book, Goblin Market and Other Poems. As you read it, think of the impact of the somber things in life and what it meant to a poetess’ soul. But as you do, remember that it is the sorrow in life that makes us appreciate the light, and the words written by these women more than a century ago are but fixed reminders of the balance between darkness and light that must be sought by every living soul.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
For more works from this collection, visit the 19th Century Women Poets Collection.
 Details on the life of Christina Rossetti from her entry on Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christina_Georgina_Rossetti. Accessed 9/10/2013.