With the publication of her very first volume of verse simply titled Poems, Anna Letitia Barbauld became an overnight literary sensation whose influence would go on to strongly manifest itself through the poetry of the Romantic Period. Sadly, many of those poets she influenced wound up turning against her later in life as they mellowed and became more conservative while she seemed to become even more radically progressive in her critique of British policies. It was the popularity of Poems and the release of a new edition every year between 1773 and 1777 that set the stage for a career which saw Barbauld continue writing into her 60’s.
Brought up within the non-conforming milieu of the Dissenters, she forged a bold view toward the role of women and wrote on subjects considered at the time well outside the purview of female authors: everything from military history to philosophy. This focus on the importance of education led Barbauld and her husband to establish a Dissenting academy of their own called the Palgrave School and also contributed to another of her works that proved exceedingly popular. Hymns in Prose for Children was originally published in 1781 and proved to be equally popular across the Atlantic as it was on her home soil. So popular, in fact, that it would almost manage to make it all the way into the 20th century without having ever gone out of print.
Barbauld excelled in various literary genres. Aside from publishing several volumes of poetry, culminating with a political diatribe against state of contemporary British government and society in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (published in 1812), she was one of the leading political pamphleteers of the 1790. In Civic Sermons to the People which she wisely published without attaching her name, she made a direct response to the issuance by King George III of a Royal Proclamation Against Seditious Writings and Publications in which she carefully delineated how such a proclamation went against and undermined the very concept of democratic governance. One year later her essay Sins of Government, Sins of the Nation (1793) took the British government and supporters to task for the failures of the seemingly endless conflict with France.
Despite a lifetime devoted to writing poetry and prose and a steadfast dedication to supporting intellectual freedom and promoting liberal ideas, Barbauld’s name may be more recognizable due to her criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge—one of the Romantic poets who started out admiring her work when they were unknown, but suddenly found fault once they had attained fame—that his most famous work, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” lacked a moral.
Barbauld's influence on the Romantic Period and her passionate commitment to the cause of liberal reform made her a giant among her peers. She was a powerful voice for the Dissenters, a tireless advocate for education, and an unshakable advocate for freedom of speech and thought. She was a fearless critic of the government, writing on topics that were often considered controversial and beyond the scope of female authors. Her political pamphlets and essays have become some of the most enduring works of the period, and her poetry has played an integral role in the development of the Romantic Movement. Her legacy lives on in the works of poets and authors who have been inspired by her revolutionary ideas, her courage, and her unyielding spirit.
Barbauld's influence extended far beyond her poems and pamphlets. She was a fierce advocate for the right to education, a cause which she fought for even in the face of criticism. She was also an early advocate for the emancipation of slaves, a cause which she had championed since the publication of her first volume of poetry. Her legacy lives on in the works of writers who have been influenced by her bold and progressive views on society and government. She was a pioneer in the fight for freedom of speech and thought, and her courageous spirit can be seen in the works of many modern-day authors. She has inspired poets and writers to think about the world in a new and revolutionary light, and her legacy of progressive and revolutionary ideas continues to live on today.