This dedicatory poem, addressed by May Probyn (1856-1909) to her friend, the poet and angler Thomas Westwood (1814-1888), represented the author’s first step into the hitherto unknown world of poem writing. Probyn’s verse was warmly welcomed by Westwood, a gesture which offered her the opportunity to share in a common passion for the pleasures of the garden in a way which would normally have been inaccessible without a formal invitation from its male owner. Once inside its walls, albeit metaphorically, she was able to sow her poetic seeds and see her flowers grow and flourish in verse, however inexpert she might have considered her efforts. In that self-deprecating tone not uncommon in women poets’ dedications and prefaces from this period, Probyn accepts her role as an untutored gardener-poet. For women writers seeking recognition from their male counterparts, the close affinity between flowers and verse, familiar from decades of male-authored nature poetry, offered a valuable opportunity. Their efforts served to close the gap between women and nature as well as between poetry and flora,
thereby both enriching and legitimising women poets’ interest in the natural world. The character of that reputedly shared identity is the subject of this book. It will explore how women’s poetry in the Victorian period was fertilised and irrigated by cultural discourses which tapped into long-standing beliefs that women shared a particular affinity with the natural world. This will involve examining closely how women’s poetry engages with hegemonic discourses on gender and class and how it served to either reinforce or challenge them (or both), depending on the poet’s stance with regard to structures and agents of domination. Those structures and agents included restrictive institutions and practices as well as oppressive figures of control such as gardeners. While not all women poets were comfortable writing on the subject, May Probyn clearly relished working in the poetic idiom provided by material drawn from the natural world. In a sense, her poems are hybrids, with discourses on nature grafted onto other themes, which enabled her to challenge certain aspects of traditional constructions of femininity. Thus, the natural world is depicted in terms of alliances and affinities mobilised to defend common interests or in terms of resistance against traditional power structures, whether it be the creeping spread of the towns, vanishing pastures and meadows or issues of male hegemony and economic domination.