You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt, eds. Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. ISBN: 0-8131-2107-8. Price: $34.95.

  • Laura Mandell

…more information

  • Laura Mandell
    Miami University of Ohio

Article body

While collections of essays have been published over the last decade that focus on Romantic women writers[1], in 1999, two collections have appeared that focus on women poets: Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, and Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edited by Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen Behrendt. Unaware that the former was in the works, the editors of the latter claim that theirs is the first collection 'to look exclusively at the poetry produced by women writers in the Romantic era' (p. 5), and yet they remain partly correct. Armstrong and Blain's collection spans the long eighteenth century, while Linkin and Behrendt's focuses on Romantic-era writing. Both works present crucial information for serious scholars of Romanticism, but there is a compelling reason, I believe, why Linkin and Behrendt's collection absolutely must be read.

What we might call 'first-wave criticism' of Romantic women writers answered the question, 'Were there any?' by discussing the difficulties of writing as a woman during that era [2] and by producing new anthologies to show that in fact there were myriad women writers[3], and then answered the question 'Why didn't we know there were any?' For Mellor, it is because they were feminine and so ignorable, for Ross because they were intellectual Amazons, masculine almost, and so ignorable[4]. Second-wave feminist criticism of Romantic writers focuses on problems in the work of recovery, beginning with Margaret Ezell's Writing Women's Literary History, who noticed in 1993 that feminist literary historians from Virginia Woolf through Gilbert and Gubar were only interested in recovering women writers who expressed feminist ideas, or at least feminist rage. Armstrong and Blain tell us in the preface to Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment that they are interested in the question of recovery, but that the essays collected in their volume do not respond to the third question which arises naturally, it seems to me, after the first two above: 'are the Romantic-era women writers any good?' (p. vii); such a question, they insist, 'is an ideological rather than an aesthetic one' (p. viii).

Rather than dismiss that question, as do Armstrong and Blain, Linkin and Behrendt have collected essays that delineate the history of the answer to the question 'are women writers, Lamb, Opie, Barbauld, Southey, Smith, Tighe, Hemans, and L.E.L. among them, any good?' These essays trace out when in the history of reception the answer has been 'no,' when 'yes,' and why, up through the present time. These essays all agree with Armstrong and Blain that the question is ideological, and they struggle to show, in the various histories of reception that each delineates, how the ideological is imbricated in the aesthetic. This volume therefore has significance not only for those interested in women writers but for those who work on canonical (male) authors. A new consciousness of the prejudicial assumptions weighing down the work of recovery of women poets helps further that work, but it also importantly reveals the assumptions informing literary theory past and present, illustrating the fact that gender categories are a heuristic device for prying all kinds of aesthetic valuations apart from their ideological foundations.

The history of any cultural imaginary is overdetermined, and this collection of essays offers numerous conflicting plots, all of them no doubt true, about why Romantic-era women poets have been forgotten. Paula Feldman's very moving prologue to the collection, 'Endurance and Forgetting,' raises the question of the relation between popularity and canonicity. [5] She describes her first assessment of Landon's work as 'unimpressive,' pointing out that Landon failed a test of the value of her poetry (flipping through a first edition of collected poems) that Wordsworth would not have passed, she realizes in retrospect, but that nonetheless at the time justified her dismissal of Romantic women poets as inferior: when teaching, 'Who has time to question every truism?' she asks (p. 19). Feldman thereby describes a key mechanism for maintenance of the canon, if not its formation. Once scholars and editors of anthologies have formed the canon through weeding out of it the merely popular—by distinguishing the men from the (female) boys, so to speak—their list of great works is perpetuated in classrooms. Constraints of time prohibit investing the scholarly attention required that makes poets great, as William McCarthy, Tricia Lootens, and Susan Wolfson insist in essays appearing later in the volume, Wolfson reminding Romanticists that we already know this fact by putting it in a Wordsworthian idiom: scholars half-create the great poets we see (p. 219).

Many of the essays take for granted the 'indisputable facts,' as the introduction puts it, that women wrote and published in 'large numbers,' and 'that their reputations were often wide and their influence considerable' (p. 6). Feldman gives us the type of statistics that have been used to establish these facts, since their alleged indisputability is still regularly questioned on discussion lists such as NASSR-L. [6] In the current climate of cultural criticism, popularity is enough to justify scholarly interest, and that frees up many of the writers of the essays that follow to defamilarize those literary-historical narratives that exclude women from 'Romanticism.' Each part of the book focuses on some aspect of the history of reception, part I on 'gaps between receive notions [about women poets] and actual facts' about them, the things critics can't see (p. 7). Part II focuses on how authors represented themselves to the public, manipulating their reception. The last essay in II, Harriet Linkin's essay on Mary Tighe's Psyche, and the essays in Part III come up with numerous important answers to the question as to why women poets have been excluded from the canon.

In general, then, Romanticism and Women Poets presumes our interest in women writers, and it is precisely this presumption which renders the work in this collection invaluable. However, the first essay in the collection by Stephen Behrendt, 'The Gap that is not a Gap,' does seem to slip back into the older project of justifying the study of women Romantic poets. Reading them shows, he argues, that in fact there was continuity between first- and second- generation Romantic male poets, the latter taking the themes of death, exile, and exclusion from women poets for whom poetry had been radicalized as a place appropriate for registering their own alienation. Behrendt, like Stuart Curran before him, clearly wants to show us what the history of Romanticism might look like if women were included in it in order to insist that all-male literary histories deform the facts. Insofar as it tries to justify studying Romantic- era women writers, this essay seems to be a throwback of a sort, recovering territory that the subsequent essays presume conquered, and it suffers from some of the same problems and paradoxes that have beset first-wave feminist projects of recovery: Behrendt tries to show that women were popular and influential (p. 26) but also silenced (pp. 33-34). His argument that understanding Romanticism is not possible when one ignores women writers may seem unnecessary in the year 2000, when the Romantic anthologies that dominate the marketplace contain substantial numbers of women poets, and yet I still receive in my mailbox ads for an all-male Romantic anthology edited by John Mahoney and published by what is, I believe, a vanity press. But it is important for scholarship to move on as well, and the rest of the essays in this collection presume that its readers are all avidly engaged in the work of recovering women poets that they do so well.

Adriana Craciun's 'The Subject of Violence' does an excellent job of showing us, in the case of Mary Lamb, some of the blindnesses about women writers endemic to first-wave recovery projects found in the work of Mellor and Homans. Gender-complementary criticism—Mellor's articulation of 'feminine Romanticism' and Homans's analysis of women's exclusion from the masculine Lacanian symbolic—these narratives presume that only men commit acts of violence. [7] This point of view, Craciun helpfully shows us, has the effect of riveting 'masculinity' to male bodies (essentializing) which precludes the possibility of our understanding exactly which attributes of masculine identity need to be assumed by any and every subject of Western art. Taking up important work done by Kristeva and Lacan, but simultaneously keeping in view Foucault's notions as to how power and resistance operate, Craciun shows us that, for Lamb, really and not just theoretically, seizing linguistic agency required matricide. Craciun then shows us the potency of Lamb's critique of Western art. Once inside systems of representation, a woman writer can bring us to the point of their breakdown, revealing the violence committed against women to be a necessary and sufficient condition of representing within our culture. But a writer cannot get inside those systems of representation without participating in that violence. Once inside, a woman writer can represent woman as unreadable, as one who therefore does not represent excess and darkness, the position allotted to 'the woman' who tries to assume a subject-position in this system, but entering it requires the murder of the mother and self that comprise 'woman,' both at the level of rhetoric and personal psychology. [8]

Craciun's essay is valuable not just because it questions and alters reception history of Romantic women poets but because it shows us concretely the power relations in which theoretical understandings of the symbolic actually exist. Like Craciun's essay on Mary Lamb, Roxanne Eberle's essay on 'Amelia Opie's Antislavery Poetics' prompts a vigorous questioning of current critical pieties, showing us that too much might be lost in postmodernist assaults on the 'liberal' and liberationist intentions of sentimentalist poetics. Deirdre Coleman and others, Eberle points out, have provided a useful corrective to premature (to put it kindly) celebrations of liberalism's radical potential by showing that white woman writers appropriated the abolitionist and anti-slave-trade movements in which they participated for their own uses. Although postmodernist cultural criticism usually associates aesthetic pretensions, such as a writer's participations in the sensibility movement, with liberalism insofar as the aesthetic is seen to provide consolations for social inequities rather than to genuinely insist upon change, Eberle here shows that Opie's later, overtly and programmatically political poem 'The Black Man's Lament' (written after she became a Quaker) is in some ways more 'disturbing' ideologically than her earlier, more sentimental poem 'The Negro Boy's Tale.'

Eberle's analytical premise—an incredibly valuable one, as she shows here in the case of Opie, which can be adopted by literary critics no matter whom they read—is that racism and radical egalitarianism do not exist comfortably on opposite ends of a continuum with any literary work therefore susceptible of being understood as 'more' or 'less' racist. Rather, she argues and shows, racism and protest against it are interfiliated in every complex literary act. Opie's attitudes are informed, Eberle argues, by a 'double vision' of Africans as, on the one hand, friends and equals, and, on the other, 'exhibits' to be brought forth by the female abolitionist for her own purposes, as therefore a group of people who are objectified and exploited by colonial discursive practices, no matter whether the discourse is employed by those who argue for or against abolishing the slave trade. Eberle beautifully brings out the unconscious racism of imitating Creole dialect, as Opie does in 'The Negro Boy's Tale,' all the while showing its effectiveness at making conservative reviewers of the poem extremely uncomfortable.

Sarah Zimmerman's essay on Charlotte Smith similarly reconceptualizes how the aesthetic and political interact which is made visible when reading Smith's sonnets, poems that 'blur the lines between popular and canonical lyricism' (p. 104). In a deft deconstruction of Michael Fried's opposition between absorption and theatricality, Zimmerman shows that the two collapse into each other—or rather that Smith's absorption in nature was obviously staged. The very theatricality or staginess of her lyric solitude, and not any alleged expressive sincerity, is precisely what drew readers into identification. In Smith's poems, absorption does not negate the social world; rather, it incorporates it.

Although appearing much later in the volume, Susan Wolfson's essay performs the same work of questioning the knee-jerk, postmodernist equation of politics with the anti-aesthetic. In their rush to show the ultimate containment of any politically subversive desires by 'the aesthetic,' the new historicists were not simply guilty of demonizing the aesthetic, but of reconstructing once again a single aesthetic with which to characterize the literary, at least at first, although many of them now have moved on to uncover other aesthetics at work in Romantic-era writing. However, something happens when one is recovering and reassessing poetry written by women who adhered to what might be called a 'gift-book aesthetic'—poets who write in the tradition of 'the poetess.'

In recovering these texts, one cannot demonize the art work per se as intrinsically hostile to a politically radical understanding of social problems. Yes, in poems written by a poetess such as Hemans, there is much sentimentalizing of these problems, and, yes, there are 'displacements and containments'of them. But to decide, for instance, that 'Hemans's literary aesthetics . . . prevail over what they contain: a critique of imperialism, of class privilege, of the way gender is used to sentimentalize warfare and to demonize pacifism' is to re-enact precisely the same kinds of reading strategies performed by the Georgian Tory reviewers of her time—that's whom Wolfson is describing in the sentence just quoted, not, as she could be, new historicist romanticists of the present time. Wolfson thus speaks to early nineteenth-century reviewers and contemporary Romanticists when she says, not only that aesthetic form does not contain class protest launched in The Siege of Valencia, but also, of Hemans: 'And she knows it.' To the extent that we equate the poetess or writer of gift books with the 'sickly sentimentality' that pervades some of the conventions which they use to write, we infantilize them, as women (and poor men, many of whom also wrote in this tradition) are always infantilized.

It might seem that, in revealing the congruence of blindnesses between Tory reviewers and new historicists, Wolfson is arguing for the political canniness of Romantic-era women writers over the male canonical six, and the political effectiveness of a gift-book aesthetic over high romantic poetry, but she is not: early nineteenth-century critiques of 'national honor' that look like they could only come from a post-Vietnam skepticism about the value of war, she says, appear in Romantic-era writing high as well as low, from Charles Wolfe's 'The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna' to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan.

In some ways, writing within the gift-book aesthetic makes the espousal of such skepticism easier than it is for those writing in high aesthetic traditions which have been accused, at least, of seamlessly papering over ideological traditions: the seams in The Siege of Valencia are more visible. Anti-war protest out of maternal affection is too abruptly terminated with the arrival of forces from Castile and the end of the siege. This is deus ex machina with a vengeance, and therefore constitutes 'a patently overformalized determination against elements [in the play] that resist [ideological and aesthetic] legislation' (p. 237). But then Wolfson asks us what is more than a rhetorical question: 'Does The Siege bring ideological conflicts into an aesthetic resolution, or does the form of such resolution report a persistent dissonance?' The form of resolution, an overformalized, overly abrupt and hence unmotivated deus ex machina, can be read as inartistic handling of dramatic conventions, or it can be read as 'report[ing] a persistent dissonance,' that is, as revealing an ideological conflict that cannot be resolved without political and socioeconomic changes. It will not be read that way if Hemans is read as a merely feminine poetess who writes for gift books using conventions in expected and inconsiderate ways—who writes badly.

The value of reading Hemans, then, resides not in the fact that, because she is a woman and writes in the tradition of 'feminine romanticism,' because she is immersed in 'domestic values,' she can protest against war and nationalist jingoism whereas male (or at least masculinist) poets cannot. To read her that way would be to equate her with one of the characters in Valencia, with the mother Elmina, and then to banish Elmina to the domestic realm. What Hemans did—and other male and female writers of the era did it with her—is 'to push patriotism to a radical consequence . . . and to stage this consequence in ways that put pressure on the whole ideology' (p. 238). If putting pressure on the ideology caused her to put pressure on form, perhaps even to make conventions ring hollow, we have to ask why we have not heard or seen her efforts, why, in the history of its reception, her king of Castile has been read as closing down all the questions opened up by the play. We could have read Hamlet that way: we could have seen Fortinbras as answering all the questions posed by Hamlet, and then have condemned Shakespeare as a mere artificer who relies too heavily on conventions.

The point is not to insist that The Siege of Valencia is as 'good' a play as Hamlet. Rather, it is crucial to notice that what counts as evidence of 'bad' writing in women writers are features to be found among the canonicals; they are simply features that have been downplayed by critics when looking at male canonical writers, and focused on when looking at women poets who threaten to be their equals. Several articles in Romanticism and Women Poets examine especially this fact of reception history: that women poets who were placed by their contemporaries on an equal footing with male canonical writers have subsequently been read as part of a separate and inferior tradition. Harriet Kramer Linkin shows that Mary Tighe's assumption of the subject position as a poet very much impressed her and her contemporaries as participating in what we now see as the exclusively masculinist preserve of high Romantic aesthetics. However, Tighe has been relegated to the realm of 'the poetess' by critics who disparage her work as the apparently necessary price of elevating poetry by Keats, who himself anxiously acknowledged her influence. Kathleen Hickok shows that the same narrative pattern has operated in contemporary criticism of Caroline Bowles Southey who, like Tighe, 'worked comfortably within (male) Romantic traditions' (p. 199). Seen while she was alive (or shortly after her death) as participating in a poetic tradition or school exemplified by Cowper and Crabbe, Bowles has been scapegoated by twentieth-century critics as a participant in the inferior tradition of the 'poetess' who shows us how great Crabbe's work really is since it allegedly avoids her 'failings': by 1950, '[her] dismissal [was] complete. [According to these critics,] Bowles has no literary merit and is not like Crabbe but opposite to him' (p. 198). (If Hickok shows us that this scapegoating process is a perfect way of saying that Crabbe has literary merit, she does not mean to imply that he does not, only that Crabbe himself would probably repudiate such ill-got gains.)

Both Linkin and Hickok are able to expose the scapegoating process through which twentieth-century critics have established the difference between the traditions of high canonical poets and the poetess. Such an exposure allows us to see both that the tradition of the poetess need not be denigrated, and that women poets could and did participate in that tradition and in others simultaneously. By bringing Letitia Landon's novels into view as significant in forming her reputation and shaping readers' responses to her poems, Tricia Lootens shows us that the participation of Landon's poetry in a gift-book aesthetic does not preclude it from participating in other traditions and consequently being read other ways. Lootens locates in Landon's poetry 'the powerful, deeply disturbing strain' found in her novels: 'a bleak vision conceived in cosmic, not merely feminine terms' (p. 251). And William McCarthy shows that Anna Letitia Barbauld's admirers and family emphasized her femininity, trying to force her into the mold of the poetess, in order to prevent her from being dismissed by the reviewers so hostile to Wollstonecraft, a strategy for preserving her fame that has backfired among recent feminist critics such as Marilyn Williamson and Marlon Ross who are capable of valuing intellectual amazons.

McCarthy's essay about Barbauld provides a healthy corrective to the work in this collection that merely deconstructs the binary opposition between the traditions of feminine poetess and masculine canonical poet by warning against 'the danger of reassimilating [Barbauld] to a literary culture that she herself distrusted and which certainly did not take to her kindly' (p. 184). While Tighe, Bowles, and Landon found much they could use for their own purposes in the subjective melancholy stance adopted by the canonicals, Barbauld opposed that stance as I argue in my book Misogynous Economies, and as is clearly visible in her often- reprinted 'To Mr. S. T. Coleridge.' But McCarthy underestimates, I think, the power of the scapegoating process that Linkin, Hickok, and Lootens trace. For instance, he includes as one reason for Barbauld's non-canonical status the hostility of Tory reviewers to political dissent. But if John Croker Wilson's attack on Barbauld's 'Eighteen Hundred and Eleven' in the Quarterly Review successfully banished her from the canon, why didn't Wilson's attack on Endymion have the same effect on Keats? Bearing out John Guillory's contention that canonical poetry does not in fact have a particular political bias, reviewers of the Tory Quarterly were so notoriously wrong about literary reputations that one can best come up with a list of canonical authors by looking at whom they most vigorously attacked.

Nonetheless, McCarthy rightly insists on the dangers of showing that women poets felt and wrote as if included in the high literary culture of their time. It would be a mistake, Catherine Burroughs's essay on Frances Kemble deftly shows, to see Kemble's preference for 'reader's theater' as merely participating in the Romantic anti-theatrical bias articulated, for example, by Charles Lamb. Other articles in this collection show that we do women poets of the Romantic era a disservice if we try to peg them as either feminine or masculine: for Burroughs, Kemble no more capitulates to the domestic ideology that wants to keep her off the stage, in the closet, reading, than she unequivocally embraces 'publicly performing a sexually active woman' on stage (p. 126): she prefers 'oratory,' a genre of behavior not coded by sexist ideology. Romantic-era women poets cannot be categorized as masculine Amazonian partisans of the Blues and Wollstoncraft nor as ultrafeminine poetesses, anymore than they should be seen as high Romantic poets whose failure to make it into the canon was merely political: they need to be seen in their own terms. We must, in reading women poets, do precisely what this collection of essays is doing: try to fully elucidate the complicated, contradictory pressures on receiving them, both when they wrote and now.

When Keats was attacked by Croker, Shelley wrote Adonais. When Barbauld was similarly attacked, Maria Edgeworth wrote her a private letter, saying in it that she and her father had thought about publicly denouncing Croker's review but decided, on second thought, that Barbauld's public would vindicate her. [9] Edgeworth was tragically wrong, unless this collection forms part of that public. I must partly disagree with McCarthy—vindicating Barbauld's politics and her feminism will not help to establish her as a canonical poet—but then wholeheartedly agree with McCarthy in another way: he only cares that Barbauld be canonized insofar as we pay a great deal of attention to canonical poets. A 'vindication' of Barbauld and other Romantic-era women poets against a history of reception that has continually demoted them can only come through attending closely to their works and their reputations. I highly recommend lavishing your attention on Romanticism and Women Poets. It is time most well spent.