Elizabeth Cobbold’s poetry is remarkable and significant to a well-rounded understanding of British Romantic Women’s Poetry for several reasons, including the fact that she managed to not only publish poetry while under the societal constraints that went along with being a woman during the Romantic period, as well as the fact that her poem “The Nurse and The Newspaper” both follows and stands distinct from the literary characteristics of poetry that were common to her time.
Cobbold was born in London in 1767, and was highly educated throughout her younger years (Feldman 185). She published her first book, a collection of poems which was very well-received by the public, when she was just sixteen (Feldman 185). Later, after her second marriage resulted in her becoming the care-taker of not only her own seven children, but also her husband’s additional fourteen, she continued to write and publish her poetry (Feldman 185). Though she struggled to balance the demands of housework and the “woman’s sphere,” she was able to keep producing work, and her dedication as well as her ability to work through societal constraints in order to develop her writing should be reason enough to include her work in a study of British Romantic Women’s Poetry. However, her writing gives quite a few more reasons for her inclusion as well.
An analysis of Cobbold’s poem “The Nurse and The Newspaper” reveals several ways in which her voice is both traditional as well as unique within the Romantic period of Women’s Poetry. Initially, even a cursory glance at her title illustrates how her poem is similar to others within her genre. “The Nurse and The Newspaper; An Occasional Epilogue to a Play Represented for the Benefit of the Ipswich Lying-in Charity” is lengthy, a characteristic that is shared by several other Romantic Women’s poem titles (Cobbold 192). For example, Anna Seward’s “An Evening in November, Which Had Been Stormy, Gradually, Clearing Up, in a Mountainous Country” is similar in that it, too, requires several breaths to say aloud (Seward 656). Not only is Cobbold’s title format similar to other titles in her genre, it is also similar in content. Like Seward’s “To Honora Sneyd, Whose Health Was Always Best in Winter,” “The Nurse and The Newspaper” is extremely explanation-heavy (Seward 654).
Furthermore, the format of the body of Cobbold’s poem also exhibits literary characteristics common to those used in the Romantic period. Her strict rhyme scheme in “The Nurse and The Newspaper” is similar to the one Felicia Hemans uses in her poem “Epitaph on Mr. W—, a Celebrated Mineralogist” (Hemans 282). In Hemans’ first four lines, she illustrates this rhyme scheme, ending with “list… / Mineralogist… / power… / [and] Penmaenmawr…” (Hemans 282). The alternation of rhyming couplets is incorporated in Cobbold’s poem too, as seen in her first four lines ending with “bye… / cry… / at… / [and] quiet…” (Cobbold 192).
Delving deeper into the analysis of Cobbold’s “The Nurse and The Newspaper” discloses another way in which her poem is similar to others within the British Romantic Women’s Poetry genre. Several British Romantic Women authors deal with gender roles in their poetry, and Cobbold is no exception, though her comments are more subtle than others’. In Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Washing-Day,” she states her feminist perspective clearly in lines nine and ten when she speaks to housewives directly, saying that they reside with “bowed soul” “beneath the yoke of wedlock” (Barbauld 67). Though her feminist outlook is not as overt as Barbauld’s, Cobbold comments on gender roles as well, and therefore displays a very common feature within the genre of British Romantic Women’s Poetry. She weaves another common characteristic of the genre as well, since her use of italics coincides with her feminist voice. Cobbold uses italics to convey in a tongue-in-cheek manner her stance on gender roles. In lines ten through twelve of “The Nurse and The Newspaper,” Cobbold has her speaker exclaim “Why, though no Scholard, I can read the News: – / But can I understand it? – No; I fear / There’s nothing in my way to study there” (Cobbold 192). Just like writers such as Barbauld, Cobbold manages to include a feminist perspective in her poem, however subtle. Her italics throughout the poem serve to make the nurse’s commentary on the newspaper come across to the audience as somewhat sarcastic. This in turn serves to further Cobbold’s own social commentary on gender norms and how the societally mandated woman’s sphere is not so different from the men’s sphere after all.
Finally, Cobbold’s poem “The Nurse and The Newspaper” brings a unique voice into the genre of British Women’s Poetry. Her poem acts very simplistically on the surface as a piece of propaganda, or an advertisement, while it acts on a deeper level as a comment on gender roles. So far, “The Nurse and The Newspaper” is the only poem that we have studied in this course that incorporates such a common theme of British Romantic Women’s Poetry into propaganda. Because of this, as well as the several previous reasons, “The Nurse and The Newspaper” and Cobbold’s voice in general, would make an excellent addition to the discussion about British Romantic Women’s Poetry.