The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 21. Joanna Baillie

The long life of Joanna Baillie began earlier than that of any of the poets of either sex, outside the retrospect of the last paragraph, who have been mentioned in this chapter, except Rogers; and it continued, like his, till the second half of the nineteenth century. But, except for a tincture of romantic subject, her work bears, and might be expected to bear, the colour of the eighteenth. It consists of a large number of plays—On the Passions and miscellaneous—which were by no means intended to be closet-dramas merely, and several of which made more or less successful appearances on the actual stage; of a certain number of lyrics—some in Scots dialect, some in literary English—and of miscellaneous poems of no consequence. The strictly theatrical value of the plays does not much concern us here. Although some fight for it was made at the time by her friends (who were numerous, as she well deserved), it has long been practically “confessed and avoided.” Whether the poetical value is much greater may be doubted. The composition of most of them, in contrasted exemplification of “the passions,” as passions, impresses some readers as a sort of involuntary caricature of Jonson’s humour-play in tragedy as well as comedy; the verse is remarkably unstimulant, though correct enough, and the general scenery, character-drawing and so forth are essentially of the time before Scott, that is to say, the time when the historic sense, whether in verse or prose fiction, was not. Her lyrics in Scots have been praised by compatriots; but this is largely because they consist of that curious re-hashing of old Scottish ballad- and poem- motive and phrase which the consummate but dangerous example of Burns has vulgarised for the last hundred years; of those not in dialect, The Chough and Crow and Good night have a sort of traditional reputation, which they do not ill deserve, as pleasant, sound-hearted, carolling verse. Scott’s excessive praise of Joanna needs, of course, allowance for personal friendship as well as for his general critical kindliness; but the fact that it was also due to his recognition of a temper in life and literature akin to his own deserves, in turn, similar recognition. In fact, Joanna, though never in the least manish, had something virile about her—as of a ladylike and poetical Mrs. Bagnet. Now, the world is never likely to be over-provided in life, and still less in literature, with Mrs. Bagnets.