Elizabeth Thomas (poet)

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Elizabeth Thomas (1675 – 1731), poet, was born in London, the only child of Elizabeth Osborne (died 1719), aged 16, and lawyer Emmanuel Thomas (d. 1677), aged 60. Her father died when she was an infant and she and her mother faced financial hardship. She was educated at home, was well read, and learnt some French and Latin. As an impoverished gentlewoman, she was dependent on others for patronage, and she was fortunate to be part of an illustrious artistic and literary circle which included Lady Mary Chudleigh, Mary Astell, Judith Drake, Elizabeth Elstob, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, John Norris, and painter Sarah Hoadly, wife of Benjamin Hoadly. She sent Dryden two poems not long before his death, and he responded, "your Verses were, I thought, too good to be a Woman's."[1] He went on to compare her to Katherine Philips, and it was he who gave her her nome de plume, "Corinna." Her first known publication was an elegy, "To the Memory of the Truly Honoured John Dryden, Esq", published anonymously in the collection Luctus Britannici (1700).

She was engaged for sixteen years to Richard Gwinnett (1675–1717), though the couple were not in a financial position to marry until 1716, at which point Thomas postponed the marriage in order to nurse her terminally ill mother. Gwinnett died the next year, and although he left Thomas a bequest, his family suppressed his will and after litigation Thomas could not even cover her legal costs. During their engagement they had maintained an extensive correspondence, much of which was published in Pylades and Corinna (1731–2) and The Honourable Lovers (1732; repr. 1736).

Thomas was active and had a reputation in London and Bath literary circles. She experimented with a wide range of literary forms including lyrics, panegyrics, pastorals, polemics, religious meditations, and satires. Much of her poetry dealt with women's issues, particularly women's right to education, as women were in her time "still deny'd th'Improvement of our Mind."[2] Her work initially circulated in manuscript, but due to financial necessity she published Miscellany Poems on Several Subjects anonymously in 1722, and thereafter sought publication.

Her friend Henry Cromwell some time earlier had given Thomas some letters he had received from Alexander Pope which she, needing money, sold to Edmund Curll in 1726. Curll promptly published them in Miscellanea in Two Volumes (1726), much to the irritation of Pope. For this infraction he lampooned Thomas in The Dunciad as "Curll's Corinna" (II 66). A minor revenge was attributed to her by Pope — the publication of Codrus, or, ‘The Dunciad’ Dissected (1728) — though she was incarcerated at the time it was published. Her reputation was severely damaged by the notoriety, and she was long believed to have been Cromwell's mistress though there is no reason to believe that she was.

She continued to publish with Curll through the 1720s but was unable to meet her debts and was gaoled in the Fleet prison in 1727 for three years. Her health was never strong, and she died within a year of her release, alone and in lodgings, and was buried at St Bride's, Fleet Street.

Works[edit]

  • "To the Memory of the Truly Honoured John Dryden, Esq", Luctus Britannici (anon., 1700)
  • Miscellany Poems on Several Subjects (anon., 1722); rpt. Poems on Several Occasions (1726)
  • Codrus, or, ‘The Dunciad’ Dissected (attrib., 1728)
  • Metamorphosis of the Town (anon., 1730, repr. 1731, 1732; under her own name, 1743)
  • R. Gwinnett and E. Thomas, Pylades and Corinna, 2 vols. (1731–2)
  • The Honourable Lovers (1732; repr. 1736)

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Germaine Greer, et al., eds, "Elizabeth Thomas" Kissing the Rod: an anthology of seventeenth-century women's verse (Farrar Staus Giroux, 1988. 429).
  2. ^ Virginia Blain, et al., eds, "Thomas, Elizabeth," The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. 1075).

Resources[edit]

  • Blain, Virginia, et al., eds. "Thomas, Elizabeth." The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. 1075-1076.
  • Greer, Germaine, et al., eds. "Elizabeth Thomas." Kissing the Rod: an anthology of seventeenth-century women's verse. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988. 429-438.
  • Mills, Rebecca. “Thomas, Elizabeth (1675–1731).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 13 May 2007.