Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

Charlotte Wetton resurrects Ellen Taylor

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

On 31 August 2021, Charlotte Wetton communed with Irish poet Ellen Taylor, alongside Geneviève L. Walsh who resurrected US Beat poet Diane di Prima, at an online event [Not] in Halifax. You can watch the whole event back here, and read Charlotte's resurrection and poems in response to Taylor below.

Ellen Taylor published her only book of verse in Dublin, in 1792. It was, in fact, published without her knowledge or consent, as a fundraiser for her. What little we know about her life we gain from the introduction to this book. She came from a very poor, rural family in Queen’s County (now County Laois). After the death of her parents and brother she took work as a servant to a wealthy family. We know that Taylor did get hold of books, reading Milton, Young and Thomson, and her work also contains classical references. Despite her lowly social and financial position - apparently with little chance of improvement - Taylor’s work sings with the assertion of her own emotional and intellectual self, rising above bereavement, financial precarity and servitude.


My poem is inspired by ‘Written by the Barrow Side, Where She Was Sent to Wash Linen’, which you can read below and here. It’s such an authoritative, beautiful declaration of an artist’s spirit, trapped in the wrong job, struggling for survival. To have such a piece from a servant-woman, from over 200 years ago, is an incredible insight. It’s a voice and a sentiment so rarely heard. Working-class women poets have been systematically written out of the literary canon; they are even harder to find in anthologies and educational syllabi than upper-class women of the period like Anne Finch and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But, of course, their work is of comparable quality. Not only should it be studied critically in its own right, but it can offer us a fresh perspective on a literary period and society which has been defined by male, upper-class viewpoints.

Ellen Taylor - Written by the Barrow Side when she was sent to wash linen
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In my commissioned piece I have explored Taylor’s underlying metaphor of the river as free-flowing thought and used this to articulate the understated violence of our social and financial systems. I was so affected by her personal poem that I found myself addressing her directly in my piece. Her concerns are as vital and urgent for poets today as they were then - how to keep your artistic and intellectual flame burning in harsh economic times.


Taylor's work is inaccessible to anyone without university library access so if you're interested in learning more about her, get in touch on Twitter @CharPoetry or via email at charlotte.wetton[AT]postgrad.manchester.ac.uk.


*


The River Lethe/Barrow/Calder

by Charlotte Wetton


Cou’d cold insensibility through my whole frame take place…

I perform an experiment for Ellen Taylor with my left foot,

sitting on a convenient rock in the sunshine

I submerse my foot in the River Calder and wait


the cold lips of the water round my calf

clutching


a bearable discomfort


I notice two bricks at the bottom of the river

I notice tansy and green alkanet


now, strangely, my skin feels warmer

wearing a boot of stone


I hear ducklings in the reeds


it’s not the skin that’s cold, but inside

red and white strands and planes

abstractions invisible inside

the red hidden heat of me


not pain, slower and softer than pain

filling my mind

mind circling back

to this near-dead

somnambulant foot


the urge to pluck it out is strong

skin tingly

yet the muscles inside reluctant to move

even to flex

solidified

struck numb


Ellen is right, I can think of nothing else

drawing back into myself

wholly present in my own foot

hard to thought-flow

stuck


I yank my foot out and touch it

cold as metal

like someone else’s

robot foot.


***


Under the water

the paved stones of the weir


dug out, cut

loads hauled heaved

burdens worked in cold mud and water

dug and sunk

levered, jammed into place

packed down, massed heft hammered,

sunk in base river mud


no inscriptions

just rows of set stones

green slimed

serving still

pressed under weight of water.


***


Ellen, can you not slip under the surface

your whole frame


fit the angle of your shoulder

against this squarish rock

this niche

braced


linen unfurling through the water


it is possible to breathe

with only your nose and mouth above water


if you align yourself to the current

your thighs like two logs washed down

in the peat-tainted water

pebble-spine swaying fluid


Is it not possible to enjoy a river from underneath?


***


Ellen: whose thoughts alight like wag-tails

dip-down-off-again

in flash-scatterings & foam specks

in burbling rills and runnlets

gurgling rucklings downstream

ripple dimple in the river

shimmy round rocks

silver fish quick flip

& twirl-away twigs


gnats change tack

every new idea

zip-zip-skim

doodling a dance on the

light glance glint

glitter flicker

of the peat-rich river


tiny brown boat of a sycamore leaf

furled and crisp

carries away Ellen with her river-weed hair

else why my soul enchant…


dirty linen basket forgotten on the bank.


***


Two logs forced down by the current

sodden stubbed trunks

driven over the weir, rammed against the bank

bend or break


ceaseless dulcet violence


tansy and green alkanet on the banks


stilling, stiffening

slower and softer than pain


ducklings in the reeds


endure

subdued blood gelid


choose

the river rolling your skull

to a small round pebble


benumbed

stone-sunk body settling into silt.


*


This creative response was commissioned as part of Charlotte Wetton's resurrection of Ellen Taylor for a séance [Not] in Halifax on 31 August 2021, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Geneviève L. Walsh communed with US Beat poet Diane di Prima - find a feature and three new poems in response to di Prima here, and watch an edited recording of the event below.


This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.


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