Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Agnes Mary Frances Duclaux (Robinson-Darmesteter)
Joanna Baillie (17621851)
[Born at Bothwell Manse, Lanarkshire. Sept. 11, 1762; came to live in London, 1784. Published Plays on the Passions, vol. i., 1798; vol. ii., 1802; vol. iii., 1812; Miscellaneous Dramas, 1804; The Family Legend, 1810; Dramas, 3 vols., 1836; Fugitive Verses, 1840. Died at Hampstead, Feb. 23, 1851.]
IN reading Joanna Baillies poetry we find her to possess a quickness of observation that nearly supplies the place of insight; a strongly moralised temperament delighting in natural things; a vigorous, simple style. These are not especially dramatic qualities, and although she won her reputation through her plays, the poetry by which she is remembered is chiefly of a pastoral kind. She described herself, with justice, as a poet of a simple and homely character, and her truest poems deal with simple and homely things: had she not persuaded herself that she possessed a more ambitious vocation she could have taken an honourable place among idyllic poets. About the year 1790 Miss Baillie published her first little book of poems. It met with little notice, being, as she said, too rustic for those times when Mr. Hayley and Miss Seward were the chief poets south of the Tweed. Before the publication of her next work the great wave of German romanticism had burst on our literature, an impulse inspiring Scott and Southey with the spirit of heroic chivalry, and moving even this quiet singer of woods and fields to tell of supernatural horrors and of the great explosions of Passion.
In 1798 appeared the earliest volume of a Series of Plays, in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mindeach passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy. These dramas are noticeable for the sustained vigour of their style and for the beautiful lyrics with which they are interspersed, but they have neither passion, interest, nor character. Few women possess the faculty of construction, and Joanna Baillie was not one of these; nor had she qualities rare enough to cover the sins of a wandering story. Even in the revelation of a passion she is more occupied with the moral to be inferred than with the feeling itself, and few of her dramatis personæ are more than the means to bring the moral to its conclusion. Late in life Miss Baillie produced a book of Metrical Legends in the style of Scott, but without his fine romance and fervour, and quite at the end of her career she republished her earliest poems with the addition of some Scottish songs under the title of Fugitive Verses. The little book, with its modest name and prefaced apology, is nevertheless the most enduring of her works. Her country songs, written in the language of her early home, have the best qualities of Scottish national poetry; their simplicity, their cautious humour, endeared them at once to the national heart; they have the shrewdness and the freshness of the morning airs, the homeliness of unsophisticated feeling. Such songs as Wood and Married and a, The weary pund o Tow, My Nanny O, and the lovely trysting song beginning The gowan glitters on the sward are among the treasures of Scottish minstrelsy. Only less delightful than these are her earlier sketches of country life, of cottage homes on summer and on winter days, of husbandman and housewife, of lovers happy and unhappy, of idle little village girls and boyssketches touched with a certain homely grace whose greatest charm is its sincerity. Among these poems are a series of Farewellsthe melancholy, the cheerful-tempered, the proud lover, each bids in turn an adieu to his mistress. Last of all comes the poetical or sound-hearted lover, and even while we smile at the unusual synonym we remember how natural a truth it must have been to her that used it.