Five Questions: Rachel Mann and Patrick Scott on Helen Craik’s Poems by a Lady

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Rachel Mann (RM) is an Instructor in Speech at the University of South Carolina. She has research interests in 18th century British literature, digital humanities, and ‘distant reading’; she has published articles in Review of English Studies, Eighteenth-Century Life, Hemispheres and Stratospheres and Debates in the Digital Humanities, and was co-editor for The Collected Poems of Gavin Turnbull Online.

Patrick Scott (PS) is Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of South Carolina, and Joint Editor of Studies in Scottish Literature since 2012.  For fifteen years he was also associate university librarian/director for Special Collections, which include the G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns and Scottish Literature.  While he was originally a Victorianist (working on Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hugh Clough, among others), his recent research has focused on Burns’s publication history and the Burns manuscripts, mostly in article form. His recent books include The Kilmarnock Burns: A Census (co-authored with Allan Young, 2017), a selection of Ross Roy’s essays on Burns (co-edited with Elizabeth Sudduth and Jo DuRant, 2018), Robert Burns: A Documentary Volume (2018), an edited volume The Ghost at the Feast: Religion and Scottish Literary Criticism (2020) and Robert Louis Stevenson: A Documentary Volume (2021).

Below, we discuss their co-edited edition, Poems by a Lady, by Helen Craik, published by the Association for Scottish Literature.

1) How did you first become interested in Helen Craik and her poetry?

RM: When Patrick first approached me about collaborating on the Craik edition my interest was sparked by the circumstances – the discovery of a manuscript that had long been thought lost. Add to that the very questionable rumors surrounding Craik’s abrupt departure from Arbigland, and you’ve got yourself a plot that seems to jump out of the pages of academic fiction. While I still love that aspect of this project, Craik’s manuscript poetry speaks to some of my earlier work and scholarly interests, which focus on the sociality of manuscript verse and the use of imaginative writing by women to explore alternative models of femininity, challenge dominant narratives, and engage politically and intellectually.

PS: As with Rachel, it was the manuscript itself that got me interested in Craik as a poet. I’d come on Craik originally through the Burns connection. Because they exchanged letters, she’s long been a fringe figure in Burns studies, but it’s only in the past 20 years or so, with Adriana Craciun’s work on her novels, that she’s been given critical attention in her own right. There are entries in, e.g. Orlando, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and newer Scottish reference works. The poetry has been a gap. Some extracts were printed in 1919, but since then the manuscripts seemed to have vanished, and her poetry with them.   

Early in lockdown, someone emailed me about an apparently missing manuscript of Burns’s “Red red rose.” It turned out to be safe in the Lilly Library, Indiana University, and helpful librarians sent me additional scans, showing provenance from the Craik family, which took me to the story of Helen Craik, and so on to the recent reappraisal.  A few days after I wrote about the ‘Red red rose’ for the Glasgow Burns blog, saying Craik’s poetry was lost, I realized it might be trackable through Burns. It will surprise no one that there are much better records on Burns’s manuscripts than on Craik’s. It was the 4-line stanza that Burns had written on a blank page after borrowing the Craik poems that led me to their current location, in the Beinecke Library at Yale. Again, librarians proved amazingly helpful. Once I saw the Beinecke scans, I knew I wanted to get Craik’s poetry into print and asked Rachel to collaborate.

2) How did the collaboration work, and what were the trickiest challenges you faced in preparing and contextualising Craik’s manuscript poems for the press?

RM: We began work on this project the late summer of 2021, when COVID restrictions were still very much in place, so a lot of the collaboration took place by phone or over Zoom, and the research couldn’t have been done without digital sources and email help from librarians and archivists.  For the introduction, we each wrote sections, sharing drafts, and then met at the library to review it as a whole. 

I did almost all the initial transcription, and then for several months we worked through checking the text and drafting annotations online. The Beinecke manuscript is Craik’s careful fair copy, and the scans were good, but even so words and names and Craik’s punctuation and use of dashes could raise problems.  The verse-letters and satirical poems often give names with just an initial letter followed by asterisks or dashes; it’s not always clear who she meant, though sometimes scansion tells you the number of syllables to look for.  

Another challenge was dating the poems.  The Beinecke manuscript appears to be chronological, but few poems carry actual dates.  For some of the undated ones, we could match internal reference points with historical data. For example, in ‘To Miss D:’ Craik refers to the eruption of the Solway Moss, and so we can say with certainty that the poem had to have been written after 1771. Others were trickier. We know, from letters between William Craik and Dr. William Cullen in 1778-79, when Craik’s sick Elizabeth went to New Abbey to be treated with goat’s whey, so ‘To Mr. D: From Goat’s Whey Quarters’ probably dates around that time. This literary and historical sleuthing was enjoyable, but also time consuming, and led down a lot of rabbit holes and to dead ends.

PS: For most editing projects, annotation builds on previous editions. Because Craik’s poems have never been studied before, the annotation had to be researched from scratch. The challenge is seeing that something needs annotation: it can be tricky simply recognizing that Craik is quoting another poet, and finding who that is.  The headnotes for the narrative poems meant tracking down the sources or stories or germs of stories that Craik was reworking, which meant finding relevant contemporary sources, often in Scottish newspapers or periodicals.  Having sources online helps a lot, but the first match isn’t always the right one or the best one.  We were also trying to provide fuller biographical and social context for Craik; because our own library has the Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, there’s a lot of older material here on south-west Scotland in the late 18th century, but identifying the relevant recent scholarship meant crossing disciplinary lines, and some primary sources (such as Craik’s will) have only recently become available online.  A minor challenge because we are both used to Chicago or MLA style was dealing with very different formatting requirements. 

3) What are the most important insights we gain into Romantic-period history and culture by paying closer attention to manuscript poetry?

RM: In general, we gain a much greater awareness of the sheer volume of imaginative writing that was produced, by women especially. We can also see that manuscript poetry still played a vital role in literary circles and was not seen as less than or inferior to printed work. In some ways, then, Craik is remarkable precisely because, for her time, she was so unremarkable. Many women wrote and wrote often, without aiming at publication. Paying attention to manuscript poetry shows a range of concerns and styles that, as in this case, don’t necessarily fit into what we see as paradigmatically Romantic poetry. For example, in her dramatic monologues Craik explores extreme and unfettered emotions, violence, vulnerability, and madness, which we might call the sublime – however, Craik’s style could never be confused with William Wordsworth’s or Mary Shelley’s, nor, I would argue, could her aims. Likewise, her poems that focus on historical events, such as ‘Queen Caroline’, seem to be more about challenging dominant narratives than a rejection of Enlightenment ideals.

PS: Arguably manuscript poetry played a role in revising the ‘big six’ Romantic (American teaching) canon, though the main revisionary impulse came, not from manuscript discoveries, but from redirecting attention to critically-neglected published texts.  In recent decades, 18th century Scottish women poets have not been neglected – think of the huge ProQuest data base Scottish Women’s Poetry of the Romantic Era: An Electronic Archive (2007) and its introductory essays. There is now lots of good scholarship.  Close study of almost any non-canonical poet or text, manuscript or printed, can interestingly reset the cultural-historical map.

Poets like Craik who never published any of their work are different. There’s more recognition for Renaissance manuscript circulation. In Craik’s period, non-publishing poets have often been seen as unpublishable dabblers, though attitudes are changing. Michelle Levy’s Literary Manuscript Culture in Romantic Britain came out while we were working.  In 18th century Scottish poetry, as Ruth Perry, Sigrid Riewerts, and others have shown, women poets writing or collecting in the ballad tradition (such as Anna Gordon Brown) often circulated their work in manuscript; in Adriana Craciun’s neat phrase, there was a Border Spinstrelsy.  Craik didn’t collect ballads (though she reworked one), and she wrote very few songs. Juliet Shields’s recent essay (in the International Companion to Scottish Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century) seems relevant to Craik, when she suggests that there was a class factor in Scottish upper-class women not publishing their poetry; this rings true for the women poets Burns knew – Janet Little and Tibbie Shiels published collections, Craik and Frances Dunlop and ‘Clarinda’ did not; Elizabeth Scot of Wauchope’s poems were only published posthumously, Maria Riddell’s only after her husband died and she needed money.  In her Album Verses and Romantic Literary Culture, Samantha Matthews shows men as well as women circulating manuscript collections of their poetry, useful context for both Craik and Burns.    

There’s a special disruptive charge, though, in looking at fresh manuscript material, with no baggage of prior criticism. For the larger picture, Craik helps connect Scottish women’s poetry and ballad-influenced narrative poetry with Romantic-era Gothicism. Viewed close up, there is an unsettling tension between her neoclassical allusion-heavy couplets and her first-person narration of violence and horror. She read widely, but perhaps her relative geographical isolation meant that her mutation on her poetic inheritance was distinctive.    

Unpublished manuscript poetry also provides a kind of control group for identifying contemporary assumptions (publishers, readers, critics) as to what publishable poetry looked like.  If Craik’s quite varied novels can be generically pigeonholed as ‘Gothic” or ‘Minerva Press’, most of her poetry doesn’t fit a single category, and for much of it she had only herself to please. I’m also intrigued, as I hope others will be, by the possibility that Craik’s manuscript set the pattern for Burns’s Glenriddell Manuscript, and that her verse narratives may have affected his decision to recreate the legends about Alloway Kirk, originally prose, as his first and only narrative poem.

4) Which Craik poems are your own favourites, and why?

RM: To use George Neilson’s description, all those that evidence ‘Miss Craik’s preference for suicidal and murderous subjects’. In particular, I’m fascinated by ‘Under Sentence of Death’ and ‘The Earl of Caithness’. The former is Craik’s soliloquy for the Reverend James Hackman, who had murdered his ex-mistress in a fit of jealousy, a story that filled the newspapers in April 1779, and the latter imagines the Earl’s final moments and thoughts before committing suicide in April 1789, also widely covered by the contemporary press. These poems and others like them provided entry points and the impetus to learn about their real-life counterparts; like modern-day memes, they are palimpsestic. Literature has always appealed to me when it brings history to life. I’m interested in the way imaginative authors repurpose current events and news to suit their own ends and challenge dominant narratives.

PS: I think Rachel’s right that the narratives, both real life and Gothic-fictional, are likely to prove more significant for the bigger picture. Craik incorporated one of the fictional narratives into her first novel (she had a character read it aloud), and she used a prose version of another, ‘The Monk of la Trappe’, in Adelaide de Narbonne (1800).  ‘The Maid of Enterkin’ is ‘about’ the long aftermath of the ’45, and ‘Helen’ is a very non-ballad reworking of ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel’. 

But I find some of Craik’s shorter poems more immediately attractive. There are nearly 30 of them, and they certainly show her strong distinctive voice. On the surface she writes formal English, but she writes, in Stevenson’s phrase, with ‘a Scotch accent of the mind’.  Even in her preface, behind the conventional self-deprecation she’s teasing Robert Riddell more than herself, and the image of her walking solitary on the beach near Arbigland seems instantly anthologizable.  There’s a brio to her ‘Humble Petition’ ‘To R.O. Esq.’., cheekily asking a rich local landowner to give her and a friend ten thousand pounds each, because ‘Sans money we must also be sans beaux’.  Her social verve comes out in poetic charades and in satires on the flirtatious junior army officers temporarily stationed in Dumfries.  Her verse-letter from Arbigland to ‘Miss D—‘, a friend in Dumfries, when other local gentry had flocked there for ‘Circuit week’, guesses wittily at the local gossip, and dissects the family dynamics of the Craiks staying home. Her two poems ‘To a Gentleman’, dated 1782, were verse-letters teasing a (probably former) admirer who had left his card at Arbigland on a Sunday morning while she was off in kirk, listening to a sermon on retaliation. One of the appendices includes a later poem written after she’d left Arbigland, from a different notebook that is still missing, when a friend’s mother sent her a tartan handkerchief to remember Scotland, and instead she remembered the nephew who was inheriting her home of nearly 40 years who had commented incautiously that her departure ‘t’was all for the best’ (she claimed that ‘for once’ he ‘spoke truth’). And she can also write with affection and humanity to a wide range of friends in difficult situations.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

RM: I’m working on a conference paper about Craik, but my main job focus (and contractual obligation) is to teaching, so I now have the opportunity to read and think before starting any new larger project.

PS: This is a touchy question for someone my age. Editing Studies in Scottish Literature still competes with ‘my own work’.  Smaller projects I’d like to finish up include an overdue essay about the list of the books Burns owned when he died and a recurrently-deferred article on the Roy Collection manuscript of Burns’s ‘Queen Mary’s Lament’. Longer-term projects on which much of the research is done include the first-ever collection of George Douglas Brown’s shorter writings and the first-ever edition of James Hogg’s Memoir of Burns.