“Flying atoms in the sightless air”: Issues of Coherence and Scale in Leapor and Yearsley

David Fairer, University of Leeds
Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring 2015), 141-162

This essay maintains that there need be no embarrassment in focusing on the small, the insignificant, the awkward, and the specific in the poetry of Mary Leapor and Ann Yearsley. The discussion examines how each of them deliberately confronts matters of scale and coherence and in so doing challenges traditional aesthetic criteria. The essay argues that in their poetry the normally self-evident values of coherence and significance are directly challenged. Miniaturized detail is creatively freed from mock-heroic, and their interest in the fragmented and dis-articulated (not the same as the inarticulate) raises questions about how meaning is made. In risking incoherence, uncertainty, and disproportion, both poets are seen as offering critical resistance to a reassuring Nature, an authorized Wisdom, over-confident Truths, and notions of coherent Unity. This close reading of five of their poems focuses on the shrewd and skeptical intelligence with which they handle ideas of a philosophical kind concerned with perception, thought, and language. In contrasting ways (respectively comic and tragic in implication), Leapor and Yearsley make coherence problematic and render scale independent of significance, and they do so with remarkable fluency and control.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]