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Joanna Baillie (1762–1851) was a Scottish poet and playwright who received significant acclaim during the early 19th century, particularly for her plays on the passions, which were a series of plays each illustrating a particular emotional state.

Literary Background and Early Influences

Baillie was born into a family with a strong intellectual lineage; her brother was the famous anatomist, Matthew Baillie, and her aunt, the poet Anne Hunter. Baillie's upbringing was conducive to her literary cultivation, though she was largely self-educated in terms of literature. She had limited access to formal education due to her gender but was deeply influenced by the works of Shakespeare and the Bible, as well as the Scottish folk traditions that pervaded her early life.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Joanna Baillie was not associated with a specific poetic school, but her work does echo the Romantic spirit of her time, emphasizing individual passion and the exploration of human psychology. While her dramatic works have a Shakespearian influence, they are uniquely hers, blending her knowledge of human nature with the dramatic exploration of the human psyche.

Poetic Oeuvre: Phases and Themes

Baillie’s chief contribution to literature came through her "Plays on the Passions" (published in three volumes from 1798 to 1812), wherein each play was designed to depict the governing principle of a single emotion, such as love, hate, or jealousy. These plays were an ambitious project that aimed to dissect human emotions through dramatic narratives, character studies, and intense, situation-driven plots.

Her poetry, though less renowned than her plays, also touches on profound human experiences and emotions. She wrote lyrical poetry, often reflecting on nature, human relationships, and moral questions, with a clear, accessible style that resonated with the reading public of her time.

Influence and Honors

In her day, Baillie was very much celebrated and was often considered second only to Shakespeare in her mastery of the dramatic form. Her works were staged in both Britain and America, although they achieved more acclaim as literary works than as theatrical successes. Sir Walter Scott was an admirer of her work and they corresponded throughout their lives.

Although her fame declined after her death, she was honored in her lifetime by prominent literary figures and maintained a significant role in the London literary scene. She was respected by her literary contemporaries and contributed notably to the development of theatrical literature.


Joanna Baillie’s contribution to literature lies in her unique approach to exploring human emotions through her series of plays, which was an innovative and ambitious undertaking. Her work provides valuable insight into the Romantic era's preoccupation with the depth and complexity of human emotions and the morality that governs them. Baillie’s plays and poetry capture the nuance of the human condition with a sensitivity and intelligence that made her one of the foremost writers of her day. While not as prominent in the contemporary literary canon, her works remain a significant part of the study of Romantic literature and provide a rich resource for understanding the period's theatrical and poetic expressions.

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