Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 868:
WOMEN ROMANTIC POETS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 868.

Today, we meet the female side of Romantic poetry. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When I was much younger I sang pieces from a book of old Scottish songs. One text went,

The laird o' Cockpen, he's proud an he's great,
His mind is ta'en up wi' things o' the State;
He wanted a wife his fine house to keep, ...
But, it seems, the lord of Cockpen was too proud for proper courting. Instead, he summoned poor-but-respectible Mistress Jean to announce he would marry her. She just laughed and said, "Na." The lord of Cockpen was dumfounded. The song finishes with
An' aften he thought, as he rode through the glen,
'She's daft to refuse the laird o' Cockpen.'
It turns out this incrimination of male arrogance was written by an aristocrat -- Carolina Nairne. She was one of many women poets writing alongside Burns, Blake, Byron, and Coleridge.

Those poets wove an odd web. They told us we create reality by dreaming it. They loved nature because nature is not just external reality. It is shaped in our dreams. That notion touches engineers and inventors with special poignancy, because we also create realities out of our dreams. Dorothy Wordsworth sounded that theme much the way her famous brother might've done.

Harmonious Powers with Nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake, and sea:
Still, 18th-century male domination was stifling women's dreams, and they expressed anger. Letitia Landon was downright vengeful when another woman jilted her former lover:
But this is fitting punishment,
to live and love in vain, --
O my wrung heart, be thou content,
and feed upon his pain.
Charles Lamb's sister Mary suffered a mental breakdown and murdered her own mother. She took up writing during her recovery. Her poetry not only attacked the institution of slavery. It flatly spoke her, and our, need for reconciliation and forgiveness.
... when distress
Does on poor human nature press,
We need not be too strict in seeing
The failings of a fellow being.
These women treated the drama of their male counterparts in an ironic, down-to-earth way. They agreed that nature is shaped in the human soul. But there was a lot less Victor Frankenstein in that creative process. I think Mary Shelley understood as clearly as anyone. Hear the simple force of her lament on the early death of Percy Shelley:
There is an anguish in my Breast
A sorrow all undreamed, unguessed --
And but one thought remains to me
My heart's lone dull deep agony --
So these little-known women cast an odd light on the creativity of the male Romantic poets. They warn them -- as they warn us -- not to let our inventive genius cut us off from the more commonplace dimensions of the human heart.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Breen, J., Women Romantic Poets 1785-1832: An Anthology. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1992.

Mellor, A.K., Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Methuen, 1988.

I am grateful to Julie Price Hutchinson, Blue Rock Books, Champaign, IL, for giving me the Breen book, and to James Pipkin, Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, UH, for his counsel. During her lifetime, Carolina Oliphant Nairne published her poetry under the pseudonym Mrs. Bogan of Bogan. The actual text of Nairne's poem is done in a pretty thick brogue, which I've altered for the radio. The full poem goes like this:

THE LAIRD O' COCKPEN
The laird o' Cockpen, he's proud an he's great, His mind is ta'en up wi' things o' the State;
He wanted a wife his braw house to keep,
But favour wi' wooin' was fashious to seek.
Down by the dyke-side a lady did dwell,
At his table he thought she'd look well,
McClish's ae daughter o' Clavers-ha Lee,
A penniless lass wi'a land pedigree.
His wig was well pouther'd and as gude as new,
His waistcoat was white, his coat it was blue;
He put on a ring, a sword, and cock'e hat,
And wha could refuse the laird wi' a' that?
He took the grey mare, and rade cannily,
An' rapp'd at the yett o' Clavers-ha Lee;
'Gae tell Mistress Jean to come speedily ben --
She's wanted to speak to the Laird o' Cockpen.'
Mistress Jean was makin' the elder-flower wine;
'An what brings the laird at sic a like time?'
She pat aff her aprin, and on her silk gown,
He mutch wi' red ribbons, and gaed awa' down.
An' when she cam' ben he boued fu' low,
An' what was his errand he soon let her know;
Amazed was the laird when the lady said, 'Na,'
And wi' a laigh curtsie she turned awa.'
Dumfounder'd was he, nae sigh did he gie,
He mounted his mare -- he rade cannily;
An' aften he thought, as he gaed through the glen,
'She's daft to refuse the laird o' Cockpen.'

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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