Joanna Baillie (1762-1851)


(Baillie, “O swiftly guides the bonnie boat”; setting by Beethoven)

Joanna Baillie was regarded as a pre-eminent woman poet in her lifetime, comparable to Sappho, and a fore-runner of nineteenth-century British women’s poetry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning hailed her as “the first female poet in all senses in England” (cited Duthie 44). But this poet was Scottish, wrote in Scots as well as English, and was a major contributor to the Scottish ballad and song revival. As Scullion remarks, “[a]lthough so long resident in London, she was celebrated as a Scottish woman of letters” (161).

Baillie was born on 11 September 1762 in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland (her twin sister died just after birth). She came from an intellectual family with important links to the major philosophical and scientific communities of the time, in particular the “common sense” school of philosophy, that became known as the Scottish Enlightenment, and was especially associated with the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Baillie’s mother was Dorothea Hunter Baillie. Her father, Rev. James Baillie, was appointed Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow in 1776 until his sudden death in 1778 (Duthie 31). Her uncle was William Hunter, anatomist and physician, who founded the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum. Matthew, her brother, was born in 1761, and later became a medic and anatomist, inheriting his uncle William’s London School of Anatomy on his death in 1783 (Duthie, 58). According to Peter Duthie, Baillie’s writing is influenced by the Scottish moral philosophy tradition:

Baillie constructed for herself in the psychological realm a literary model of what the men who surrounded and supported her did in the physical realm. Intelligent and blessed with a stimulating intellectual background, yet excluded from the world of scientific inquiry because of her genre, she launched her own examination of the psyche. (33)

For Duthie, this exploration of the psyche can be seen particularly in Baillie’s drama, but other critics such as Gilroy have also explored her poetry’s investment in issues of identity.

The first poem Baillie ever wrote was a satire on her father’s servant (Orlando). In 1773, on her eleventh birthday, her mother warned her “remember you are no longer a child and must give up making verses” (cited in Orlando); indeed, as a teenager, she seems to have heeded this advice by turning to writing plays in verse. Her drama, written for the theatre (rather than the more conventional female-authored closet drama), was innovative for the period; in particular, Baillie’s three volumes of Plays on the Passions were immensely successful. But she also continued to write poetry. Inspired by Anne Hunter, her aunt, her first major poem was the blank verse “A Winter’s Day”. As Baillie writes in her “Memoirs”:

I must confess I would much rather have written in rhime; only rhimes with me in those days were not easily found and I had not industry enough to toil for them. Ballads in rhime followed afterwards, and when I found I could write them with some degree of ease, I began to be proud of myself and to believe that I possessed some genius. (cited ODNB)

In 1779 she began composing ballads and songs, which were sung by her neighbours around the hearth (Orlando).

By this date, Joanna and her mother were living in William Hunter’s estate, Long Calderwood, outside Glasgow (Duthie 58). But after Hunter’s death in 1883 they  moved to England, and for most of her life Baillie lived just outside London, spending 30 years, for example, in Hampstead, which Duthie describes as her “creative centre from which she wrote her lyric and narrative poems and her twenty-seven plays” (13). Here she befriended other well-known writers, such as Anna Letitia Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, as well as the Edinburgh Review critic Francis Jeffrey.

Portrait of Joanna Baillie by Sir William Newton (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Joanna Baillie by Sir William Newton (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1790, Baillie anonymously published Poems: Wherein it is attempted to describe Certain Views of Nature and of Rustic Manners; and also, to point out, in some instances, the different influence which the same circumstances produce on different characters. Her authorship was identified by Roger Lonsdale as recently as 1984 (Orlando). The subject matter includes Scottish rustic issues: poems written for common people before Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). Most of the poems were written in English, rather than Scots, and hardly any copies were sold. (Orlando). In 1798, again anonymously, she published the first volume of Plays on the Passions, and one of the plays was performed in Drury Lane on 29 April 1800. One day later, Baillie’s authorship of the volume was disclosed. She published a second volume of the Plays on the Passions in 1802, in her own name, only to receive a damning review by Francis Jeffrey in the July 1803 Edinburgh Review (2: 269-86). In 1804 Baillie published Miscellaneous Plays.

By mid-February 1804, Baillie agreed to write original or adapted songs for a collection by George Thomson (an anthologiser of folk songs and ballads and a friend of Robert Burns), to be sung with Scottish, Irish and Welsh tunes (Orlando). She refused to accept money, and was paid in shawls and scarves (Todd 32). Her songs were an important part of the Scottish ballad revival, and they were written in a mid-west Scottish dialect. Thomson published her work in various places, and finally brought them out in his Collection of the Songs of Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Bart. and Other Eminent Lyric Poets (1822).

In early 1806, Baillie first met Walter Scott in London (Orlando) and visited him in Scotland in March and April (Duthie 59). Baillie’s play The Family Legend (1810) was published wish Scott’s patronage. Jeffrey, the following year, reversed his earlier negative assessment of Baillie, and now ranked her with Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge (Duthie 59). In 1812 her reputation was consolidated with the third volume of Plays on the Passions.

In her later career, Baillie returned more to poetry. Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters (1821), written after another trip to Scotland, is a series of heroic takes on exalted characters such as William Wallace, inspired by Scott’s ballads. The volume earned her ₤1,000.  In the same year, the collection Poetic Miscellanies contained some of her poetry. She also edited A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, From Living Authors (1823), to aid a friend in financial distress. The anthology includes her own poetry as well as work by Scott, Wordsworth, Felicia Hemans and others. On the death of Scott, in September 1832, she composed Lines on the Death of Sir Walter Scott (Orlando). The last major collection of poems in her own lifetime, Fugitive Verses (1840), was published to assert her claim to the authorship of poems that had been published elsewhere without her name. She was uncomfortable about the fashion in this period for literary annuals, writing explicitly against their popularity on 20 November 1837 (Orlando). Her final published volume of poetry was the privately printed Ahalya Bee. A Poem.

Towards the end of her life Baillie also attempted to reassert her status as a dramatist, bringing out a “comeback volume” (Todd 32) of Miscellaneous Plays in 1836 (actually 3 volumes). In 1851 she oversaw the publication of her Complete Works, dying shortly afterwards on 23 February 1851.

Works Cited

“Joanna Baillie”. Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles. Web. 14 January 2012.

Clarke, Norma. “Joanna Baillie”. Dictionary of National Biography. Online. 15 January 2013

Duthie, Peter (ed.). “Joanna Baillie: A Brief Chronology”. Plays on the Passions. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001. Print.

Gilroy, Amanda. “From Here to Alterity: The Geography of Femininity in the Poetry of Joanna Baillie”. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Ed. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. 143-57. Print.

Scullion, Adrienne. “Women of the Nineteenth-Century Theatre”. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Ed. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. 158-78. Print.

Todd, Janet, ed. Dictionary of British Women Writers. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.

 Further Resources

Baillie, Joanna. Ahalya Baee: A Poem. London: Printed for Private Circulation, 1849.

Baillie, Joanna, ed. A Collection of Poems, Chiefly Manuscript, From Living Authors. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1823. Web. 15 January 2013.

Baillie, Joanna. Fugitive Verses. London: Edward Moxon, 1840. Web. 10 February 2013.

Baillie, Joanna. Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters. Second edition. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821.

Baillie, Joanna. Miscellaneous Plays. Second edition. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1805. Web. 10 February 2013.

Baillie, Joanna. Plays on the Passions. Vol. 3. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812. Web. 10 February 2013.

Baillie, Joanna. Poems. Web. 15 January 2013.

Bujaski, Ken A. “Joanna Baillie: An Annotated Bibliography.” Romanticism on the Net. Web. 15 January 2013.

Hypertext and Performance: A Resonant Response to Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft. Web. 10 February 2013.


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