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Recent Criticism of the Poetess: A Review Essay

  • Peggy Davis

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  • Peggy Davis
    Miami University of Ohio

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In the past ten years, there has been a flurry of critical attention devoted to the poetess and the development of women’s writing in general. Tricia Lootens’s richly detailed text Lost Saints: Silence, Gender, and Victorian Literary Canonization explores the process of canonization in relation to gender and emphasizes the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti in particular. For Lootens, the attempts to canonize women poets amounted to assuring their disappearance. Canonization for women rested upon a “radically ahistorical” notion of the “genius of woman” which was entirely separate from the Romantic “poet-hero” status men achieved via canonization. The result for women, then, was vacancy: “if their literary ‘relics’ were revered, it was not as embodiments but as representations of a transcendent and definitively absent feminine glory” (Lootens 10). This feminine worship simply served to subsume individual women poets, erasing them even as their work achieved some popularity.

In addition to this vacancy that occurred, Lootens argues that for one woman to achieve canonization—Rossetti, for example—meant the decanonization of her predecessor—Barrett Browning. In other words, only one woman poet could establish herself at a time. This competition between the two poets that ultimately leads to the valorization of one over the other, continues today. If currently Rossetti retains a “feminine purity” that “renders her a useful symbol in struggles against the professionalization and politicization of women’s writing” (Lootens 12), then Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese are now “retroactively packaged as the ultimate Victorian valentines” standing for “old-fashioned romance and marriage” (12). By comparing the process of canonization that both women’s work has undergone, Lootens illustrates how historical gender biases, such as the separate-spheres ideology, affected and continues to affect their reception histories.

In Victorian Sappho Yopie Prins picks up where Lootens left off in analyzing our institutionalized forgetfulness of women writers:

[L]iterary history is produced by the repetition of this effacement. Indeed the loss of the “Poetess” is already predicted in the verse of nineteenth-century poetesses as the very means of its literary transmission.

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Prins’s meticulous study of nineteenth-century women writers – meticulous both in its attention to history and to formal detail – contains the often cited (and once reprinted) chapter, “Sappho Doubled: Michael Field,” an essay about two women writers who published poetry under this man’s name. The chapter of her book that gives it its name demonstrates how Victorian poetesses deployed the figure of Sappho to enact over and over again the loss of the poetess, again, as “a means of literary transmission.”

That forgetting the poetess must be a mechanism for de-canonizing (Lootens) and simultaneously transmitting (Prins) poetess poetry is convincing precisely because of the oddity of the figure’s intense popularity during her time, compared to its subsequent effacement from canonical anthologies.[1] In “The Victorian Poetess” Susan Brown addresses the popularity of both L.E.L. and Felicia Hemans during the late nineteenth century as well as the current resurgence of their work due to feminist interest and recovery projects. She also focuses on the difficulty many feminists have in utilizing the word and in studying works by “poetesses” in general. Indeed, she begins her essay by asking why any feminist would “praise the figure of the poetess” citing current views of the word as “unequivocally patronizing” (180). She then proceeds to historicize the use of the word, providing a more complicated reading of how the word was used for Victorian women poets in, perhaps, a less oppressive way than we currently would consider it to be. For Hemans and L.E.L. in particular, Brown argues, this poetess figure “took the form of a self-consciously feminine self-staging in verse that appropriated many bodies, lives and identities” (184). For Brown, then, and for many contemporary critics rethinking the term, there is a productive multiplicity in the work of the Victorian poetess, and this multiplicity opens up new spaces for important new critical inquiry. The subsequent devaluation of the poetess, then, needs to be properly contextualized: the meaning of such devaluations has not remained constant over the course of two centuries.

In the book Victorian Women Poets: Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossett, edited by Bristow, Isobel Armstrong analyzes the politics of women’s poetry in the Victorian Period. Her essay, “‘A Music of Thine Own’: Women’s Poetry,” discusses how women poets of the nineteenth century —such as the Brontë sisters and Christina Rossetti—did not take up political positions as much as they had to negotiate the conventions and constraints of the period. Here Armstrong presents a fertile area for future scholarship: getting beyond the surface of these emotional poems. For Armstrong, and for a growing number of critics, the poetry of the poetess “probes more complex questions than its simplicity suggests” (32). Armstrong places questions regarding femininity in direct relation to the debates over aesthetics that grew in volume during the Victorian age. Through such questioning, then, Armstrong joins other feminist critics in constructing a women’s tradition in poetry based on a “feminine poetics” that she carefully sets out via close readings and attention to use of language and style.

In 1996, Armstrong and Bristow, along with Cath Sharrock, combined their energies into co-editing Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, thereby further establishing the importance of such “recovered” poetesses as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Amelia Opie, and Felicia Hemans as well as bringing renewed attention to those who remain somewhat obscure. Obviously, the importance of such a collection cannot be overstated and, with its publication, the need to read and study this work has also gained recognition. In their Introduction, Armstrong and Bristow provide one of the most useful overviews of poetess poetry available today. That is, they cover the various contexts in which much of this poetry was produced, illustrating how things such as factory conditions and class status influenced the subject matter of many poems. Additionally, they discuss the major themes covered by these women poets—marriage, slavery, and history—comparing how various poets utilized these themes for different purposes. They also analyze how form, especially the lyric, influenced the work of these women as well as how specific use of language and emotion comes into play. Overall, what their anthology convincingly illustrates is that the tradition of women’s poetry rests upon diversity, intelligence, and ambition, among other attributes, rather than the simple label of sentimentality often used to relegate these poets into one homogenous group. These women, from conservative to radical, wealthy to impoverished, represent distinct contributions to literary history, a distinction often denied them and which this anthology seeks to remedy.

A very useful companion volume is Roger Lonsdale’s 1989 collection Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology which, along with Paula Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, goes far towards indicating the sheer number of women publishing poetry in England from 1700 on. Lonsdale’s introduction provides historical contextualization that is often mind-boggling – you may be surprised to discover, for instance, Ralph Griffiths declaring in 1798 that the battle between the sexes on intellectual grounds was effectively over. Feldman effectively argues for producing anthologies that try to reclaim large numbers of women poets and publish them all together, despite the anachronism. That is, these poets didn’t see themselves, necessarily, as writing in a tradition of women poets (see Ezell), and there certainly isn’t any single, unified tradition. Nonetheless, Feldman insists,

It is useful to look at women poets together, apart from their male contemporaries, not because of any common ideology (for which one will search in vain) but because their varied perspectives on the world were all shaped by a personal struggle with patriarchal constraints.

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Germaine Greer’s oft-cited work, Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, devotes a chapter to the various pros and cons of utilizing the term poetess as well as another extensive chapter devoted to the life and poetry of one of the most central poetesses: L. E. L. In her analysis of the term poetess and its long history (dating back to Sappho), Greer states that, “Feminists have to decide whether to drag the name of poetess up to equal estimation or to abandon the distinction as essentially slighting” (37). Here, Greer accurately assesses what is at stake. On one hand, reclaiming the term can bring validation to many women poets—past and present—whose reputations have been damaged, or even erased, by being labeled with the term. On the other hand, however, adding feminine suffixes to titles in general has been viewed as sexist and as relegating those subsumed under such terminology to marked second-class status. Clearly, the term presents some not so easily resolved problems for all literary scholars, feminist or otherwise. Greer covers how the term affected publication and interpretation of the work of particular women, including Aphra Behn, Lucy Aiken, and Anna Seward, among others. Because specific topics, such as religion, remained the “accepted” subject-matter for successful women poets for “two hundred years,” the term became attached to a certain type of poetry, a type that, though popular for its time, has been steadily devalued ever since. Through her historical analysis of the term, Greer demonstrates how women poets had to comply with expectations associated with poetess poetry in order to have any success at all. With Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she notes that perhaps more possibilities opened up in terms of themes and ambitions for women poets, but even that remains uncertain. The legacy of the term lives on, and for Greer and many other feminist literary scholars, we must decide what to do with it.

With an important forerunner to this double issue, in 1999 Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain edited a collection of essays devoted to women’s poetry. Though not explicitly focused on the poetess, Women’s Poetry, Late Romantic to Late Victorian covers a wide range of topics relating to the development of women’s poetry during these periods, much of which includes the figure of the poetess. The collection, divided up into six main sections, covers everything from theorizing women’s poetry to the market and the poetess and recovering “lost” poetesses. In her highly influential essay from the same collection, “Msrepresentation: Codes of Affect and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Poetry,” Armstrong addresses the influence of a poetry of feeling and emotion and its subsequent dismissal from both the canon and critics’ vision. Therefore, Armstrong argues, as “textual critics we can at least interrogate a cultural tradition which developed a discourse of affect and consider the rhetorics concurrently at work in poetry” (4).

The collection also includes, “The Whip Signature: Violence, Feminism, and Women Poets,” in which Cheryl Walker traces how changing times have also altered how we read these earlier women poets. Walker explores how women’s poetry, then and now, can be linked to women’s experience, particularly the violent experience of patriarchy. Walker also traces the progress feminist criticism has made in relation to poetess poetry, illustrating the debates still at work that are producing more productive and new perspectives all the time.

Paula R. Feldman’s essay in the same collection, “The Poet and the Profits: Felicia Hemans and the Literary Marketplace,” addresses what it meant for a woman to be a successful poet in the nineteenth century. This type of investigation into the financial realm of poetry as indicative of popularity is a new and worthwhile area for critical work, as Feldman’s essay demonstrates. Examining such business features in relation to women poets, Feldman argues, goes a long way towards helping us “understan[d] the peculiar conditions of authorship during the period” (71).

In “Rewriting a History of the Lyre,” also part of Women’s Poetry, Late Romantic to Early Victorian, Linda H. Peterson examines a shift in aesthetic value, looking at how: Elizabeth Barrett Browning reconfigures Letitia Landon’s Romantic-era poetess in order to construct her vision of a woman poet. Landon imagines a male lover viewing the work of the poetess; Barrett Browning envisions a woman poet writing of herself for herself. Peterson identifies a shift “from art produced to satisfy masculine desire to art for the sake of the female poet” (116). It is through Aurora Leigh, that Barrett Browning “revises the constructions of the poetess.”

Tricia Lootens’s essay “Hemans and Her American Heirs” investigates how poetesses across the Atlantic influenced and inspired each other. For Lootens, this transatlantic connection is important for its political implications. She analyzes how Hemans’s verses, seen in Britain as representing “decorous domesticity,” were radically transformed in the United States into Abolitionist and patriotic poetry. Lydia Sigourney and Frances E. W. Harper relied upon Hemans’s poetry as a way of imagining the possibility “that feminine art [c]ould seek a national religious redemption on earth” (245). Though both poets claim and transform Hemans’s poetry, they also participate in a community of women writers at work: reading, disagreeing with, and influencing each other.

In the final section of the Armstrong and Blain collection, Gill Gregory and Kathleen Hickok, in separate essays, present two poets for reclamation: Adelaide Procter and Emily Pfeiffer, respectively. Both of these essays demonstrate the difficulties inherent in trying to reclaim or rediscover an “unknown” poet, particularly a woman. At the same time, however, their careful attention to these poets’ lives and work illustrates the importance in continuing such work. They both contextualize the work of their individual poets by contrasting them with their contemporaries and analyzing their use of themes and styles popular for their time. In addition, they provide close readings of some of the poems themselves, demonstrating their critical value for contemporary scholars. Whether or not their attempts to recover these poets will be successful, both essays ultimately demonstrate that a great deal of work remains to be done, that there are many women poets out there worthy of our attention, if only we could rediscover them.

I have covered the Armstrong and Blain collection in such detail because it illustrates the breadth of the field of nineteenth-century women’s poetry. There are so many areas—from marketplace analysis to recovery work to aesthetic value—that deserve attention and are just now, in the past decade, beginning to receive it. The collection also demonstrates, however, that the real work is just beginning and that more collections, more essays, more biographical work need to be produced in order to establish a more prominent place for the poetess in particular and, more generally, women’s poetry in literary criticism and history.

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