Why Scottish Poet Joanna Baillie is being celebrated with a Google Doodle on her 256th birthday

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Revered Scottish writer Joanna Baillie is being honoured with a Google Doodle which pays tribute to her seminal Plays on the Passions, writes David Hughes.

Joanna Baillie was compared to Shakespeare during her lifetime and earned a reputation as one of the greatest poets of all time.

Joanna Baillie is one of the most revered poets of all time (Photo: Public Domain)

Joanna Baillie is one of the most revered poets of all time (Photo: Public Domain)

The revered Scottish writer is being celebrated by a Google Doodle on what would have been her 256th birthday – here is her story.

Early years

Baillie was born on September 11, 1762, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and a mother whose brothers were two distinguished Scottish scientists.

A patriotic family, they claimed the Scottish knight and icon of independence William Wallace among their ancestors.

Today's Google Doodle celebrates Joanna Baillie's Play of Passions (Photo: Google)

Today's Google Doodle celebrates Joanna Baillie's Play of Passions (Photo: Google)

As a young child, Baillie was more concerned with outdoor pursuits than poetry, not beginning to learn to read until after she moved to a boarding school in Glasgow when she was ten.

However, the love she developed for nature at an early age would colour her eventual work.

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Her first poem “Winter Day”, published in 1790, evoked the natural sights and sounds of Long Calderwood, where her mother took the family to live following the death of Ballie’s father.

Joanna’s brother Matthew followed in the footsteps of their esteemed uncles as a physician, inheriting a house and private museum collections from one of them in London in 1783.

When she moved down to the English capital to keep the house, this gave Baillie access to the fashionable literary society circles of the day, and she enjoyed friendly relationships with the likes of William Wordsworth and Lord Byron.

Encouraged by Anne Hunter, her aunt and a well-known poet, Baillie began to write poetry and drama, with her first published collection entitled Poems: Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and Rustic Manners.

Plays on the Passions

Her seminal work, Plays on the Passions, came out in 1798, and set the tone for the English Romanticism movement with its “Introductory Discourse”.

It was the first of a three-volume series of comedies and tragedies which covered love, hatred and jealousy, with the aim of illustrating the strongest passions of the human mind.

This is the work commemorated by today’s Google Doodle, with some of the best-loved of the Plays depicted behind likeness of their author.

Initially it was published anonymously, with speculation around the author’s identity causing an almighty stir among the London literary classes (not least because the protagonists were all middle-aged women – unusual subject matter for most male authors).

However, Baillie outed herself as the writer behind the Plays on the title page of the third edition, published in 1800.

A reluctant talent

Despite her obvious talents, which earned her huge critical acclaim during her lifetime – including contemporary comparisons to Shakespeare – she had been reluctant to publish anything at all.

In a letter to Sir Walter Scott she wrote: “Were it not that my Brother has expressed as a strong wish that I should publish a small vol: of poetry, I should have very little pleasure in the thought.”

Although Baillie was a far more prolific writer of plays than poems, her dramatic works did face some criticism during her lifetime, being labelled Closet drama – not something intended to be performed.

In defence of her dramatic works, she wrote that were were intended for smaller venues: “I have wished to leave behind me in the world a few plays, some of which might have a chance of continuing to be acted even in our canvas theatres and barns.”

However, by the time of her death in 1851 at the age of 88, Baillie had established a reputation as one of the greatest female poets of all time.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, i News