Research Seminar: ‘Poems about Women from Eighteenth Century Ireland’ by Andrew Carpenter.
For our research skills module in my MA we must attend research seminars bi-weekly and write about two of them on our blog! I attended most of the research seminars this semester and found them all fascinating. There is nothing more thrilling and interesting than sitting among scholars and peers watching your professors and their PhD students presenting their brand-new research. For the first seminar, I had to hold myself back from daydreaming about being in the same position one day, reading my paper for an audience of peers and superiors.
Dr Andrew Carpenter’s research seminar was the first that caught my interest. I have always been interested in poems about women – particularly if they were written by women in the first place! Many of the poems that Carpenter referenced, however, were written by men. These poems were filtered through a classical male gaze, with the male poets displacing Greek myth unto Ireland. However, the majority of the poems about women which were by women lacked this classical pretension, as they lacked the classical education their male counterparts acquired as the education of women was grossly limited in eighteenth century Ireland.
Quite a few of these female oriented poems that were written by men were eroticised portrayals. Dr Carpenter included a poem written by Thomas Moore from ‘Postscript to an Epistle to George Morgan Esq’ (1804). This poem fetishises a Haitian woman of colour, describing her as a “black-eyed” and “loving languid girl of Haiti” named Caty. Along with using infantilising language such as the word “girl” to describe the woman of the poem, it seems that Moore is primarily interested in her sexual prowess. He describes her in eroticised terms and meditates on her “expert fingers.” Thus, the black female subject of this poem is reduced to an object, as Moore sees her as no more than a sexual plaything. Misogynoir is interlaced throughout Moore’s words and sentiments in this little poem, exposing his prejudices and biases as an eighteenth-century Irish man.
A lot of the poems by women that Carpenter included in his talk were originally published anonymously and the writers are only assumed to be female because of their narrative perspective or their subject matter. One of the poems whose female author is actually known is ‘The Old Maid’s Prayer to Diana’ by Mary Tighe (1805). This poem is exceptional as it invokes the Goddess Diana and thus classical mythology, which was not a common feature of Irish women’s poetry at the time, according to Dr Carpenter. The poem reads as a prayer to Diana, a Goddess who is closely associated with virginity, by a woman who is entering spinsterhood in her old age. The female narrator in the poem refers to her lonely, friendless, loveless life and asks the Goddess to “deliver” her, referring to herself as Diana’s servant. This poem suggests that spinsterhood was a state to be avoided in eighteenth century Ireland. It is interesting to juxtapose this ideology to contemporary ideology. In the twenty first century, there seems to be a focus on normalising the idea of women alone. For example, Chidera Eggerue’s debut book What a Time to be Alone focuses on women’s empowerment as stemming from the self and not from those who surround you. And certainly not from a relationship with a man. According to Eggerue, and many other modern feminists who are finding their voices on social media, romantic relationships should be secondary to your relationship with yourself. Recently, actress Emma Watson sparked controversy by declaring herself “self-partnered” in an interview with British Vogue (this interview is well worth a watch in general, not just for this specific comment that the internet latched onto, as she also discusses the previous parameters of her feminism and her growth as an activist). Being ‘self-partnered’ ultimately means that she is rejecting the label of single and rightly stating that she can live a fulfilling and satisfying life without romance. As Cher once said; “men are like dessert” – they are not a necessity to any woman. When questioned on this statement by Jane Pauley, who asked her if she meant to sound “mean and bitter”, Cher replied; “Not at all! I adore dessert! I love men! I think men are the coolest! But you don’t need them to live.” And, luckily, many modern women agree with her. Fulfilment comes from the self, not from the validation of a sex who have been upholding oppressive structures for centuries.
These two poems were interesting to me as Moore’s poem exposed Irish eighteenth century racism and misogyny. Many Irish people seem to be in denial about Irish racism – both historically and in terms of their own racial prejudices today. But Moore’s poem exposes the fact that we do have a history of racial bias. Just because the country was primarily white up until the twentieth century does not mean that Irish people were immune to othering and prejudice. The poem by Mary Tighe engaged me as it shows the leaps and bounds in the psyche of women from the eighteenth century to the present. We are entering an age where the stigma of being a woman alone is slowly but surely being erased. These two poems act as buffers against our present social climate and also expose the roots of certain racist and misogynistic ideologies which have persisted through time, to the present day. Highlighting the existence of opinions such as these in an Irish historical context exposes the threads that still link us to them today. I hope that this blog post reminds you, whoever you are, to check your privilege and assess your own biases and prejudices. We must actively work against our social conditioning on a daily basis.
Watch Cher’s full interview with Jane Pauley here:
Watch Emma Watson’s full interview with British Vogue here:
Eggerue, Chidera. What a Time to Be Alone. Hardie Grant Publishing, 2018.
Moore, Thomas. ‘Postscript to an Epistle to George Morgan Esq.’ 1804.
Tighe, Mary. ‘The Old Maid’s Prayer to Diana.’ 1805.