The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 27. Isa Craig; Jean Ingelow
With the chief singer of the other sex, born in 1830, Christina Rossetti, we are not here concerned; but she had, as close contemporaries and sisters in art poetic, two writiers, one of whom obtained a great, though hardly sustained, notoriety, while the other is one of the most notable instances of the fact that, while judging any kind of literary worker from first appearances is rash, and judging a poet in this manner is rasher, to judge poetesses from single specimens is, perhaps, rashest of all. The person first referred to was Isa Craig, afterwards Mrs. Knox, the victress in the rather foolishly devised public competition for an ode to celebrate the centenary of Burns. “Six hundred” is the conventional Latin equivalent for our equally coventional Latin equivalent for our equally conventional “a thousand,” and Miss Craig acually had more than six hundred,” and Miss Craig actually had more than six hundred rivals. Her ode, if the adjudicators were competent, showed no very considerable poetical power in this large body. It is respectable but nothing more. She did better things—the best, perhaps, being The Woodruff, though this itself comes in most unlucky comparison both in title and in subject with Dante Roseetti’s Wood-spurge. On the other hand, if we had nothing of Jean Ingelow’s but the most remarkable poem entitled Divided, it would be permissible to suppose the loss, in fact or in might-have-been, of a poetess of almost the highest rank. Absolutely faultless it is not; a very harsh critic might urge even here a little of the diffuseness which has been sometimes charged against the author’s work generally; a less stern judge might not quite pardon a few affectations and “gushes,” something like those of Tennyson’s early work. It might be called sentimental by those who confound true and false sentiment in one condemnation. But the theme and the allegorical imagery by which it is carried out are true; the description, not merely plastered on, but arising out of, the necessary treatment of the theme itself, is admirable; the pathos never becomes mawkish; and, to crown all, the metrical appropriateness of the measure chosen and the virtuosity with which it is worked out leave nothing to desire. Jean Ingelow wrote some other good things, but nothing at all equalling this; while she also wrote too much and too long. If, as has been suggested above, this disappointingness is even commoner with poetesses than with poets, there is a possible explanation of it in the lives, more unocuppied until recently, of women. Unless a man is an extraordinary coxcomb, a person of private means, or both, he seldom has the time and opportunity of committing, or the wish to commit, bad or indifferent verse for a long series of years; but it is otherwise with woman.