Women Poets

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte. Stock Montage/Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Women Poets of History

Charlotte Bronte, poet and novelist
Charlotte Bronte, poet and novelist. Stock Montage/Getty Images

While male poets were more likely to be able to write, to be known publicly, and to become part of the literary canon, there have been women poets through the ages, many of whom were neglected or forgotten by those who studied poets.  Yet some women have made significant contributions to the world of poetry.  I've included her only women poets born before 1900.

We can start with history's first known poet. Enheduanna was the first author and poet in the world known by name (other literary works before were not ascribed to authors or such credit was lost). And Enheduanna was a woman.

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Sappho: 610-580 B.C.E

Greek Bust of Sappho, Capitoline Museum, Rome
Greek Bust of Sappho, Capitoline Museum, Rome. Danita Delimont/Getty Images

 Sappho may be the best-known woman poet before modern times.  She wrote in about the sixth century B.C.E., but all her ten books are lost, and the only copies of her poems are in the writings of others.

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Ono no Komachi (about 825 - 900)

Poetess Ono no Komachi (ca 825-900), illustration from L'Art magazine, 1875, Japanese civilization
Ono no Komachi. De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Also considered the most beautiful woman, Ono mo Komachi wrote her poems in the 9th century in Japan.  A 14th century play about her life was written by Kan'ami, using her as an image of Buddhist illumination. She is known mostly through legends about her.

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Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (about 930 - about 973-1002)

Hrosvitha reading from a book
Hrosvitha reading from a book. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Hrosvitha was, as far as we know, the first woman to write plays, and was also the first European woman poet (known) after Sappho. She was the canoness of a convent in what is now Germany.

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Murasaki Shikibu (about 976 - about 1026)

Poet Murasaki-No Shikibu. Woodcut by Choshun Miyagawa (1602-1752).
Poet Murasaki-No Shikibu. Woodcut by Choshun Miyagawa (1602-1752). De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Known for writing the first known novel in the world, Murasaki Shikibu was also a poet, as had been her father and a great-grandfather.

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Marie de France (about 1160 - 1190)

Minstrel, 13th century, reading to Blanche of Castile, Queen of France and granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and to Mathilde de Brabant, Countess of Artois
Minstrel, 13th century, reading to Blanche of Castile, Queen of France and granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and to Mathilde de Brabant, Countess of Artois. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

 She wrote perhaps the first lais in the school of courtly love that was associated with the Poitiers court of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Little is known of this poet, other than her poetry, and she is sometimes confused with Marie of France, Countess of Champagne, daughter of Eleanor. Her work survives in the book, Lais of Marie de France.

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Vittoria Colonna (1490 - 1547)

Vittoria Colonna
Vittoria Colonna by Sebastiano del Piombo. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

 A Renaissance poet of Rome in the 16th century, Colonna was well known in her day. She was influenced by a desire to bring together Catholic and Lutheran ideas. She, like Michelangelo who was a contemporary and friend, is part of the Christian-Platonist school of spirituality.

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Mary Sidney Herbert (1561 - 1621)

Mary Sidney Herbert
Mary Sidney Herbert. Kean Collection/Getty Images

 Elizabethan Era poet Mary Sidney Herbert was a niece of both Guildford Dudley, executed with his wife, Lady Jane Grey, and of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Her mother was a friend of the queen, leaving court when she contracted smallpox while nursing the queen through the same disease. Her brother, Philip Sidney, was a well-known poet, and after his death, she syled herself "Sister of Sir Philip Sidney" and achieved some prominence herself. As a wealthy patron of other writers, many works were dedicated to her. Her niece and goddaughter Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth, was also a poet of some notability.

Writer Robin Williams has alleged that Mary Sidney was the writer behind what we know as Shakespeare's plays.

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Phillis Wheatley (about 1753 - 1784)

Phillis Wheatley's Poems, published 1773
Phillis Wheatley's Poems, published 1773. MPI/Getty Images

Brought to Boston by slavetraders from Africa about 1761, and named Phillis Wheatley by her owners John and Susanna Wheatley, young Phillis showed aptitude for reading and writing and so her owners educated her.  When she first published her poems, many did not believe that a slave could have written them, and so she published her book with an "attestation" to their authenticity and authorship by some Boston notables.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Stock Montage / Archive Photos / Getty Images

A well-known poet from the Victorian Era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning began writing poetry when she was six years old. From the age of 15 and on, she suffered from ill health and pain, and may have eventually contracted tuberculosis, a disease which had no known cure at the time. She lived at home into her adulthood, and when she married the writer Robert Browning, her father and brothers rejected her, and the couple moved to Italy. She was an influence on many other poets including Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allen Poe.

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The Brontë Sisters (1816 - 1855)

Bronte Sisters, from a painting by their brother
Bronte Sisters, from a painting by their brother. Rischgitz/Getty Images

Charlotte Brontë (1816 - 1855), Emily Brontë (1818 - 1848) and Anne Brontë  (1820 - 1849) first caught the public's attention with pseudonymous poetry, though they are remembered today for their novels. 

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Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886)

Emily Dickinson - about 1850
Emily Dickinson - about 1850. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

She published almost nothing during her lifetime, and the first poems published after her death were seriously edited to make them conform to the then-norms of poetry.  But her inventiveness in form and content have influenced poets after her in significant ways.

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Amy Lowell (1874 - 1925)

Amy Lowell
Amy Lowell. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Amy Lowell came late to writing poetry and her life and work were nearly forgotten after her death, until the emergence of gender studies led to a new look at both her life and her work. Her same sex relationships were clearly important to her, but given the times, these were not acknowledged publicly.