Poetry News

Caution: Ribaldry ahead

By Harriet Staff

Included in Dr. Gillian Wright's November 22nd Literary Manuscripts Masterclass at the Bodleian Library was a poetry manuscript attributed to Octavia Walsh (1677-1706). Notes in the catalog call into question whether Walsh actually wrote the poems due to their "ribald" nature, implicitly denying the possibility that women of the period could appreciate, let alone write, "a scatological, Rabelaisian mock-epic."

It is unclear if all the poems in the manuscript are, indeed, by Walsh and two of those present in the manuscript were published in The Grove, a 1721 poetic compilation, under the name of her brother, William Walsh, the mentor of Alexander Pope. Dr. Wright paid particular attention to the “ribald” poems of the catalogue entry. These included two poems on “Sacharissa," the premise of both being that their eponymous heroine has left London to the sorrow of the young men, retiring to the country, allegedly to read Epictetus, but in truth to be adored by the rural swains.

While issues of attribution run rampant in many texts of this age, discovering the true authorship of these poems is complicated by the perceptions female writers faced at the time and by the assumptions contemporary scholars still make. That mock epic, "To Urania," was the only poem to be excluded from a collection of Octavia Walsh's tamer poetry published posthumously under her own name. It doesn't take great feats of speculation to guess why.

Originally Published: November 29th, 2010