Women poets of the nineteenth century remain for the most part marginalized in the study of French Romanticism, despite the historical fact that women turned to poetry in increasing numbers during the July Monarchy. The poetess’s enduringly ambiguous situation is reflected in the linguistic instability of the terminology used to designate her. This essay takes as its starting point the linguistic uncertainty surrounding the term "poétesse" in the nineteenth century and compares it to Anne Mellor’s definitions of the poetess and the female poet. In a survey of French Romantic poetesses (Desbordes-Valmore, Tastu, Gay, Mercoeur, Ségalas), Mellor’s distinction between two traditions proves to be untenable, as poetesses straddle the fine line between domesticity and social engagement. Ultimately, Mellor’s definition of the poetess in opposition to the female poet does however resonate with French women poets’ critical reception: the invention of the poétesse has largely obscured the critical assessment of women poets’ social engagement.
Although research on British Romantic female poets has become mainstream in the last decade, women poets of the nineteenth century remain for the most part marginalized in the study of French Romanticism. It is thus timely to address the invention of the “poétesse” during the July Monarchy to better understand her re-invention in twenty-first-century criticism.
In 1841, the word poétesse was not part of common usage, if we are to believe the novelist George Sand’s observation that poétesse “ought to be in the Dictionary and… appears as necessary today as the word ‘poet’.” Even so, women turned to poetry in increasing numbers in 1830s France as Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve observed in numerous reviews of poetesses; paradoxically, however, a backlash against the poétesse beginning in the late 1830s accompanied any recognized usage of the term. The creation of the figure of the poétesse thus served to destroy any potential she had for survival.
The standardization of the French poetic canon in the early twentieth century by literary scholars, historians and anthologists, such as Gustave Lanson, Henri Potez, and Ferdinand Brunetière, silenced the importance of women poets. Now, thanks to the recent efforts of feminist critics, French Romantic women poets are now being reintroduced into the canon and the classroom. Feminist and revisionist scholars, however, must still contend with a legacy of lexical ambiguity surrounding the figure of the poétesse.
Various attempts at finding a feminine form of the French word for poet—including “poétesse,” “dixième muse” (tenth muse), “femme poète” (woman poet), or “poète” (with either the feminine “une” or masculine “un” article)—attest to the ongoing indeterminate construction of the poetess. For many male critics, the grammatical uncertainty of the word poète paralleled the very untenability of women writing poetry; Barbey d’Aurevilly, for example, felt that “UNE poète” was “a thing so rare that to say it in the feminine one has to commit a grammatical error” (304). Early-modern dictionaries such as La Curne (13-14th centuries) and Furetière (17th century), record a feminine equivalent for poet (poeteresse, poetrice [La Curne], poétesse [Furetière]) with no apparent negative connotation, but most of the evidence I have found suggests that the (masculine) word poète was used for both male and female poets well into the nineteenth century. Poétesse was marked by the eighteenth century when the feminine word une poète, coined around 1723, was supplanted by the masculine form, un poète, in 1817. Although the ARTFL (American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language) database shows the earliest occurrence of poétesse in 1794, the term does not appear with frequency, if at all, until the later nineteenth century, when its use is invariably pejorative. Even though the term “poet” is used to refer to female poets, its usage (alone or in an expression such as “femme poète”) usually emphasizes the exclusion of women from poetic genius. Consider for instance Ecouchard-Lebrun’s well-known misogynist poem “Ode aux Belles qui veulent devenir poètes” [Ode to the Beauties who wish to become Poets] in which the concept of female poet is presented as oxymoronic: “Chloé, belle et poète, a deux petits travers / Elle fait son visage, et ne fait pas ses vers.” (“Chloe, beautiful and a poet, has two little faults / She makes up her face, and does not make up her verses”) (Epigram 9).
Poétesse, the feminized form of poète, was thus negatively connoted. The 1798 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française specifies that the term poétesse is to be avoided, but in the 1835 edition, usage of poétesse is recorded, albeit infrequently used. These dictionaries and the Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle (Larousse) sanction the use of the masculine “poète” for authors of poems by both genders, but the need for a gendered term was felt by at least one nineteenth-century speaker, George Sand. In her 1841 essay for the progressive newspaper, La Revue indépendante, whose mission included publishing the work of working-class writers, Sand surveys the publications of working-class poets and gives particular emphasis to the women among them. Sand’s comment that the word poétesse ought to be in the Dictionary appears with reference to Amable Tastu, an established middle-class poet who prefaced the Preludes of working-class poet Marie Pape Carpantier (114). Curiously, Tastu does not use the word poétesse in her preface, but prefers instead the feminine “une poète.” Sand’s choice of words is surprising, even exceptional, because it lacks the usual prescriptive or evaluative connotations.
British romanticist Anne Mellor draws on these terms to distinguish two traditions of feminine poetry in Britain, the poetess versus the female poet (“The Female Poet and the Poetess”). Poetesses such as Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon self-consciously embrace conventional notions such as the doctrine of separate spheres, and accordingly write poetry that privileges the domestic and romantic life proper to women. At the same time, Mellor argues, the poetess often works subtly to reshape discourses of domesticity and femininity from within. In contrast, female poets (such as Hannah More) write political and didactic poetry in the tradition of the female preacher, poetry that “takes up the stance of moral judge of the events transpiring around her” (265). Mellor’s distinction may be fruitfully applied to the French tradition if one makes some adjustments. The poetess embraces the French category of “poésie feminine,” a French term which means explicitly poetry by women, but implicitly poetry that exalts femininity, and which gained prominence after the publication of Jeanine Moulin’s anthologies in the 1960s. In the introduction to her 1963 anthology, Huit siècles de poésie feminine, the antifeminist Moulin argues for the commonality of women poets as distinct from (or complementary to) their male counterparts, based on “representative attitudes of women throughout the centuries,” namely their shared lived experience of marriage, motherhood, nature, religion and the life of the emotions over the intellect. The term gained in currency when Domna Stanton published an alternative anthology in 1986 entitled The Defiant Muse, in which she excludes any poetry about “Kinder, Kirche, Küchen [that] extol[s] conjugal bliss, passively bemoan[s] seduction and abandonment, and seek[s] escape into the transcendent saintliness or the beauty of flora and fauna” (xvii-xviii). The tradition of the female poet, on the other hand, is just now receiving critical interest among French scholars. Constance de Salm-Dyck (1767-1845), a polemicist active under the Napoleonic Empire who countered Ecouchard-Lebrun’s misogynist rhetoric with her “Epistle on Women,” exemplifies the explicitly political and didactic female poet in France. Mellor’s distinction is useful if one remains open to the possibility that an individual poet may belong to more than one tradition, and express different subject positions or voices. In fact, if applied unscrupulously, categories such as these can make the poet’s work conform to a preexisting gender norm, rather than invite the reader to seek a multiplicity of voices within a single work.
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859), perhaps more than any other French poetess, has benefited from a conformist tradition of reading which limits divergent interpretations and thus ensures the lasting support of conservative readers. The best known of all nineteenth-century women poets today, she was marginalized but never completely forgotten, thanks to influential avant-garde poets such as Sainte-Beuve, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Robert de Montesquiou, Louis Aragon and Yves Bonnefoy. Desbordes-Valmore was the first woman poet of the period to be republished in a modern scholarly edition (in 1973). Like Felicia Hemans, many of Desbordes-Valmore’s poems dwell on domestic affections and motherhood. Her imagery of tears and flowers, in collections appropriately titled Les Pleurs (Tears), Pauvres Fleurs (Poor Flowers) and Bouquets et Prières (Bouquets and Prayers), capitalizes on the stereotypically feminine and sentimental. An elegy such as “Sol natal” (“Native Soil”), for instance, expresses her nostalgia for her native Flanders to a fellow compatriot and author:
Jugez si ce fut doux pour ma vie isolée,
Au chaume de ma mère en tout temps rappelée,
Par cet instinct fervent qui demande toujours,
Frère ! un peu d’air natal ! frère ! un peu de ces jours,
De ces accents lointains qui désaltèrent l’âme,
Dont votre livre en pleurs vient d’humecter la flamme.
trans. by Laurence M. Porter
Musing how my quiet childhood was dear
In my mother’s hut I recall each year,
For my fervent instincts always demand,
Brother! My native air! My native land!
Those far-off voices slake my thirsty soul,
For your sorrowful book has filled its bowl
“Sol natal” develops a maternal metaphor present in many of Desbordes-Valmore’s poems; the gift of her compatriot’s book has reawakened the tearful poet’s nostalgia for her native soil and childhood. She evokes them in terms that equate the homeland with the maternal body: the voice, air and stream of the land are metaphors for the mother’s song, breath and milk. Desbordes-Valmore’s male contemporaries loved her poetry because it performed the Eternal feminine in all its overflowing ardor. As I have argued elsewhere, the post-Romantic generation read her poems—or heard their mothers read or sing them—as children and hence associated her with maternal comfort. Poems later set to music such as “L’Oreiller d’une petite fille” (“A Little Girl’s Pillow”) or “Le Coucher d’un petit garcon” (“A Little Boy’s Bedtime”) fueled such an image of domesticity (250-51). Much of the scholarship on Desbordes-Valmore beginning with Jeanine Moulin’s 1955 and Eliane Jasénas’s 1962 studies, focuses on Desbordes-Valmore’s place within this masculine tradition and the concomitant tradition of “poésie feminine.”
In contrast to the tendency to relate Desbordes-Valmore to either the male canon or to the tradition of the poetess, Christine Planté situates her poetry in both a historical and female-centered context, in “Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: ni poésie feminine, ni poésie féministe” (“… neither feminine nor feminist poetry”) (1989) and subsequent articles. If we reread Planté’s article in light of Mellor’s traditions of British Romantic poetry, at least one remark is worth making: that the poetry’s subject matter—its politics or ideology—should not be considered apart from its rhetoric, its writing. Indeed, new perspectives on écriture féminine since the 1980s reevaluate the role of difference in Desbordes-Valmore’s writing in ways that show her resistance as well as complicity with Romantic gender codes. Like Mellor’s poetess, and following the tradition of “poésie feminine,” Desbordes-Valmore embraces the domestic and conservative gender role of her day, but she also subverts that position from within. Consider for example “A Celles qui pleurent” (“To the Tearful Ones”):
Bouquets et Prières 1843, 444
Vous surtout que je plains si vous n’êtes chéries;
Vous surtout qui souffrez, je vous prends pour mes soeurs:
C’est à vous qu’elles vont, mes lentes rêveries,
Et de mes pleurs chantés les amères douceurs.
Prisonnière en ce livre une âme est contenue:
Ouvrez, lisez: comptez les jours que j’ai soufferts:
Pleureuses de ce monde où je passe inconnue,
Rêvez sur cette cendre et trempez-y vos fers.
Chantez: un chant de femme attendrit la souffrance.
Aimez: plus que l’amour la haine fait souffrir.
Donnez: la charité relève l’espérance;
Tant que l’on peut donner on ne veut pas mourir!
Si vous n’avez le temps d’écrire aussi vos larmes,
Laissez-les de vos yeux descendre sur vos vers;
Absoudre, c’est prier. Prier, ce sont nos armes:
Absolvez de mon sort les feuillets entr’ouverts.
Pour livrer sa pensée au vent de la parole,
S’il faut avoir perdu quelque peu sa raison,
Qui donne son secret est plus tendre que folle:
Méprise-t-on l’oiseau qui répand sa chanson?
To The Tearful Ones
You, unloved, whom I pity most of all;
You, who suffer, accept a sister’s love;
To you they go, my slow and drifting dreams,
Sweetly bitter notes, setting tears in song.
A soul resides, imprisoned in this book:
Open it and read: count my painful days,
Grieve in this world where I remain unknown,
And dream of hot cinders to heat your chains.
Sing: for a woman’s song relieves our pain.
Love: for suffering thrives on hate, not love.
Give: and let charity revive our hope;
While we can give we will not wish to die!
If there is no time to inscribe your tears,
You can let them fall here from eyes to page;
To pray is to absolve; let our prayers be arms:
And absolve this, my open book of days.
To be spreading secrets in windy speech,
Has reason left her half-witted, insane?
No, perhaps she’s more tender than mad:
Do we scorn songbirds who scatter their song?
The poem uses feminine imagery (tears, prayers) in a double-edged manner, by rhyming tears with arms (larmes/armes). “Let our prayers be arms,” she commands to her sisters in grief; as such, she redoubles the notion of prayer as feminine altruism or charity by recasting it in militant terms in the poem, as well as in the title of the collection the poem introduces, Bouquets et Prières. “A celles qui pleurent” advocates a sisterhood of grief as incitement to resistance.
Her resistance to dominant discourses of femininity or patriarchy is most evident in her poems on the Lyon riots, some of which were not published during her lifetime. Desbordes-Valmore resided in Lyon from 1827 to 1832 and from 1834 to 1837, and witnessed first-hand the national guard’s fierce repression of the revolts of the city’s silk weavers or canuts in 1831 and again in 1834. These revolts were an early sign that the July Monarchy would not be able to achieve the republican goals it held out to the working classes. Desbordes-Valmore’s series of poems about the violence in Lyon, including “Cantique des mères” (“Canticle to mothers”), “Cantique des bannis” (“Canticle to the banished”) and “Dans la rue” (“In the street”), reveal a rebellious voice explicitly gendered as feminine, and make clear what is veiled in double-entendre in “A celles qui pleurent.” In these poems as well as others on the 1848 uprisings, Desbordes-Valmore stakes herself out as moral judge of current events, following the tradition of the female poet. Given the double-voiced nature of her poetry, it is more productive to see the two traditions posited by Mellor as coexisting in one body of work. Desbordes-Valmore’s poetry is best examined as a hybrid production, both feminine and feminist, both conservative and subversive.
Such forthright resistance is harder to come by in the poetry of her contemporary, Amable Tastu. Completely forgotten since the end of the nineteenth century, Tastu (1798-1885) was highly regarded in the period for her poetry and her educational prose. The noted critic Sainte-Beuve praised “L’Ange gardien” (“The Guardian Angel”) as her masterpiece, and as the model of the domestic elegy (a dubious ranking at best) (“Madame Tastu” 165). In this dialogue between a guardian angel and a woman at different stages of her life, from girlhood to old age, the woman expresses her desire to write poetry, but is recalled to her quotidian duties by the angel:
LA JEUNE FILLE
Quel immense horizon devant moi se révèle !
A mes regrets ravis que la nature est belle !
Tout ce que sent mon âme, ou qu’embrassent mes yeux
S’exhale de ma bouche en sons mélodieux !
Où courent ces rivaux armés du luth sonore ?
Dans cette arène il est quelques places encore;
Ne puis-je, à leurs côtés me frayant un chemin,
M’élancer seule, libre, et ma lyre à la main?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
D’un saint devoir doucement enchaînée,
Que ferais-tu d’un espoir mensonger ?
trans. Beth Archer in Defiant Muse 135
THE YOUNG GIRL
How vast a horizon stretches before me!
To my ravished eyes how beautiful is nature!
All that my soul feels, that my eyes encompass
Exhales from my mouth in melodious sounds!
Where are they running, those rivals with sonorous lutes?
In that arena there are still some places,
Can’t I make a way for myself at their side,
Go off alone, free, with my lyre in hand?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
By a holy bond gently chained;
What would you do with a treacherous hope?
The dialogic form heightens the tension between the woman’s poetic vocation and her wifely and maternal duties. Although ultimately the angel of reason is given the last word, the open-ended form challenges prevailing discourses of domesticity.
In 1825, Tastu published “Les Oiseaux du sacre” (“The Birds at the Coronation”), an occasional poem on King Charles X’s coronation comparable to Alphonse de Lamartine’s “Le Chant du Sacre” or Victor Hugo’s “Le Sacre de Charles X”; whereas Lamartine and Hugo focused on the grandeur of ceremonial ritual, Tastu concentrated on an apparent detail, the unleashing of doves at the coronation and their tragic fate as they caught fire in the cathedral’s candelabras. The last lines of the poem—“Vous rencontrez la mort en fuyant l’esclavage. / Mais la mort, c’est la liberté!” (You encounter death as you flee enslavement. But death is liberty!)—reveal the poet’s critical stance toward a ceremony that reasserts the divine right of the monarch, after the French Revolution. The poem’s celebration of liberty serves as an implicit challenge to the Restoration, thus discretely laying bare the liberal allegiances of Tastu, whose uncle had been Minister of War under the First Republic. Like Desbordes-Valmore’s poems to him, Tastu’s poem addressed to the poet Pierre Jean de Béranger, imprisoned for his anticlerical and antiroyalist songs in 1821 and again in 1828 for his caricature of “Charles le Simple” (Charles the Simpleton), demonstrates her loyalty to the ideals of republican and Napoleonic France. Author of both the domestic elegy “L’Ange gardien” and the political “Les Oiseaux du sacre,” Tastu straddled the fine line between poetess and female poet, but her reception would firmly ground her in the former rather than latter tradition.
Conformity to conventions of expression and form lead critics to praise Tastu’s poems for their reserve and precision: “What distinguishes Mme Tastu’s character and talent from other women poets today is the accuracy of her senses, a perspective constantly clear and untroubled” wrote Sainte-Beuve (“Madame Tastu” 163). This strength would later be deemed her weakness, as Maurice Souriau explains: “What she lacks is the power of words which move us and makes us say: she’s somebody” (118). After her second collection of poems in 1835, Tastu renounced poetry and turned to more lucrative forms of writing (educational books, historical surveys for young readers and translations). Her contemporaries perceived Tastu as a “proper” woman poet who, like Desbordes-Valmore, “sought fame only within the confines of decency” (Sainte-Beuve, “Madame Tastu” 164). Framed within a reception history marked by propriety, it is hard to see the potential for a feminist reading of her poetry. Tastu’s work, however—populated with the names of other prominent women writers, notably British Romantic poets Letitia E. Landon and Felicia Hemans, as well as earlier writers such as Sappho, Vittoria Colonna, Mary Stuart and Mme de Sévigné—evinces a strong interest in the work of other women writers. The poem “A Elise Moreau” refers to the fragility of her contemporary young poetesses such as Elisa Mercoeur, Lucretia Davidson or Moreau, sacrificed “on the implacable alter of poetry.” Delphine Gay (1804-1855), the poetess, is more often remembered as Madame de Girardin, the legendary beauty, newspaper columnist and social satirist. Coached by her mother, the writer Sophie Gay, Gay published her first collection of poems at the age of 20. She published poems on king and country, and proclaimed herself the “Muse de la Patrie” (Muse of the Nation) in her 1825 poem “La Vision” (“The Vision”). Notwithstanding, she also wrote “feminocentric poetry” which foregrounded the influence of her female contemporaries in epigraphs, in titles, or in creative imitations of literary characters (such as “Ourika, élégie,” “Corinne aimée” [“Corinne Loved”]). If the poem “Le Bonheur d’être belle” (“The Good Fortune of Being Beautiful”) at first reading seems autobiographical, narcissistic and ingratiating, it takes on an ironic twist in the companion poem “Le Malheur d’être laide” (“The Misfortune of Being Ugly”) and the following witticism from her novella “La Canne de M. Balzac” (“Monsieur Balzac’s Cane”):
Il est un malheur que personne ne plaint, un danger que personne ne craint…. Enfin ce malheur, ce danger, ce fléau, cet obstacle, ce ridicule, c’est… —Gageons que vous ne devinez pas—et cependant quand vous le saurez, vous direz : “C’est vrai. Quand on vous aura démontré les inconvénients de cet avantage, vous direz : ‘Je ne l’envie plus’”. Ce malheur donc, c’est le malheur d’être beau.
Remarquez bien ici la différence du genre.
Nous disons :
LE BONHEUR D’ÊTRE BELLE
LE MALHEUR D’ÊTRE BEAU3-4
There is a misfortune that no one pities, a danger that no one fears…. And, this misfortune, this danger, this scourge, this obstacle, this ridicule, is—Let’s bet that you won’t guess—but when you’ll learn it, you’ll say: “It is true. When the inconveniences of this advantage will have been made clear to you, you’ll say ‘I don’t covet it anymore.’” This misfortune, then, is the misfortune of being handsome.
Notice the difference in gender here.
THE GOOD FORTUNE OF BEING BEAUTIFUL
THE MISFORTUNE OF BEING HANDSOMEmy translation
Under the naïveté of the subject lies a critique of society’s constant surveillance of women, and the gender-biased specular economy. As Dorothy Kelly has shown, Girardin critiques the discourse of femininity from within, by resorting frequently to irony and reversal. Girardin’s late poetry, however, is marked by disenchantment. In poems such as “Aux Jeunes Filles” (“To Young Girls”) and “Désenchantement” (“Disenchantment”), the poetess expresses her disillusionment with womanhood, ambition, talent and social success.
One of her last poems, the more ironic “Napoline,” lead Sainte-Beuve to criticize her excessive wit (“esprit”) in keeping with his expectations of what women should write—women writers shouldn’t be funny (“Madame Emile de Girardin” 392-93). As Cheryl Morgan has recently argued, Girardin was perhaps a flawed poetess from the outset on account of her propensity for laughter. Under the pseudonym “Vicomte de Launay,” Girardin published letters and journalistic prose in which she judges contemporary society with wit, in Lettres parisiennes. Ultimately, Delphine de Girardin alters the poetess tradition by using irony, humour or wit, but she developed this approach in prose and drama more than in poetry.
Like many poetesses, the renown of Elisa Mercoeur (1809-1835) arose from her tragic life-story as much if not more than her verse itself. The autodidact Mercoeur published two collections of elegies, the first at only 16, before dying tragically in 1835. Aside from her premature death that caused a sensation in the press, she will be remembered mostly as a regional poet from Brittany. While her notoriety was based on an apparent acceptance of dominant views concerning femininity—the publication of her complete poems edited by her mother in 1843 did much to construct this image of virginal and prodigal child-poet—close examination of her poetry, according to Wendy Greenberg, shows clear engagement with the model of masculine genius and voice (43-68). Her poems on the sublime and on philosophy have fallen on deaf ears because her tragic destiny as poetess was ultimately more compelling to her readers.
Louise Colet (1810-1876) is yet another poetess whose life-story has received more attention than her voluminous writings. She wrote a copious number of poems, plays, novels, and other prose works, but her work has been overshadowed by her life and her relationship with her lovers, especially Gustave Flaubert, whom she met in 1846. Flaubert and Colet exchanged letters off and on until 1854; in this correspondence, Colet is made to embody an all too feminine style of writing, the reflection of women’s physiology, that Flaubert rejects as improper to the writer, by definition masculine. In light of this relationship and the critical attention it has attracted, Colet’s participation in the tradition of the poetess is both taken for granted and ripe for scrutiny. Colet’s poems often correspond to feminine poetry and were praised for their sensuality. In “Bluettes” (“Sparks”) from her first collection Fleurs du Midi (Flowers of the South) (1836), for instance, the poet describes those fleeting sightings in nature, such as a circle in water after a leaf has fallen in it, which enchant the senses. Here is how Colet describes the modest and lighthearted muse of such poetry:
Elle berce les coeurs soumis à son empire ;
Elle n’immole pas le barde qu’elle inspire,
Bonne et douce, elle accourt à son premier salut ;
Elle n’a point d’emphase, elle chante sans luth ;
La pauvreté lui plaît ; d’un coup de sa baguette
Elle revêt d’éclat les haillons du poète ;
Elle n’exige pas un ciel brillant et chaud,
La mansarde noircie et l’humide cachot
L’attirent… et souvent, bienfaisante, on l’a vue
Porter aux malheureux une joie imprévue.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Pour langage, elle emprunte un regard, un sourire ;
Je plains l’être incomplet qui ne la connaît pas,
Qui foule, insouciant, l’insecte sous ses pas.
She rocks those hearts under her spell;
does not consume the bard she inspires;
kind and gentle, she comes at his first call;
she is without bombast, she sings without a lute.
Poverty pleases her; with one stroke of her wand,
she covers the poet’s rags in glitter.
She asks not for sunny skies or heat,
a dark attic or a damp cellar
appeal to her… and often, in doing her good deeds, she has been seen
delivering an unexpected joy to the unhappy….
For language, she borrows a look, a smile;
I pity the incomplete being who doesn’t know her,
who tramples on the insect underfoot, unknowing.
Furthermore, as Mary Rice-De Fosse has remarked, Colet’s interest in historical feminine figures, such as Marie-Antoinette in a portrait by Mme Vigée-Lebrun or Joan of Arc in a statue by Marie d’Orléans, in collections such as Penserosa (1840), make clear her attempt to voice creative agency as feminine.
References to Shakespeare (whom she translated into French), Milton, the Italian revolutionary Silvio Pellico (she translated the heretic Tommaso Campanella and the revolutionary Alessandro Manzoni into French), Goethe, Petrarch, in Colet’s poems, evince a literary scholarship not commonly visible in the poetess tradition. As such, her poetic erudition defies expectations about what women should write. In addition to learned topics, the increasingly militant Colet judged events around her in her later poetic works: Le Chant des vaincus [Song of the Vanquished] (1846) commemorates the mid-century nationalist uprisings taking Europe by storm ; La Colonie de Mettray [The Penal Colony at Mettray] (1852) discusses a new French penal colony whose aim was reform not punishment; Le Poème de la femme. La Paysanne, La Servante, La Religieuse [The Poem of Woman. The Peasant Girl, The Maid, The Nun] (1853-56) describes the victimization of women, especially those of the working-class; and La Satire du Siècle [Satire of the Century] (1868) condemns the moral corruption of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. In the collections that succeed her Romantic phase, critics deemed her poetry “virile.” It is perhaps this mixture of gendered styles—this androgyny—, which explains how Colet won the Académie française’s poetry prize “more times than any other women in French literary history.”
Contrary to Colet and Desbordes-Valmore in whose voices the resistance characteristic of the female poet tradition is audible, Anaïs Ségalas (1814-1893) upholds the theory of separate spheres which restricts women to domesticity: “Love, pray, dream, that’s the existence of all women” (Enfantines  11). Ségalas eschewed any revolutionary spirit, as she states unequivocally in her preface to her collection La Femme [Woman] (1847):
L’auteur veut-il nous peindre une esclave révoltée qui jette un cri de Spartacus ou de saint-simonienne ? Dieu me préserve de ces idées révolutionnaires ; je ne suis pas de celles qui font de leur écharpe un drapeau.
Does the author wish to depict a female slave in revolt who shouts like a Spartacus or Saint-Simonian? God save me from such revolutionary ideas; I am not one of those women who have turned their shawl into a flag.
In keeping with the tradition of the poetess, Anaïs Ségalas never wavered from the clichéd expectations of what, how, and why women should write poetry.
The word poétesse may not have caught on because the popularity and growth in number of “poétesses” during the July Monarchy coincided with an increasingly hostile response to the “bas-bleu” or bluestocking. A word that might have identified a new phenomenon, the invention of the poétesse, was obscured by linguistic backlash. All creative women were now lumped together in the ubiquitous term “bas-bleu.” The perception that the phenomenon of women writing was taking on alarming, pandemic proportions was widespread, as Edmond Texier’s Physiologie du poète exemplifies: “the tenth muse has multiplied in frightening proportions; she has thrived uncultivated like mushrooms… on the front page of the newspaper” (118). The economic determinants of the linguistic backlash stemmed from the increasing participation of women in forms of lucrative writing such as journalism, educational books and translations. Often the poetess was forced to give up the muse’s pedestal for the streets.
Economic determinants were compounded by an aesthetic reaction against the oxymoronic “woman poet.” Diatribes against women poets such as those by Gaschon de Molènes (1842) and Charles Labitte (1843) in the Revue des Deux Mondes, entrenched masculinist literary norms. Molènes, who considered that women belong exclusively in the domestic sphere, repudiated any woman’s claim to creativity: “When one creates, and the word poet means creator, it is in one’s own image not others’. Originality is rarely found in women; one doesn’t find it in any women of whom we have spoken today” (63), notably Tastu, Desbordes-Valmore, Girardin, Colet, and Ségalas. These women, according to Molènes, bear the “grand and formidable title of poet for want of another name that would better characterize them” (54). Labitte pursues Molènes’ prejudicial discourse based on a strictly gendered definition of the poet: poets are male; women poets are necessarily poetae minores (a footnote in Labitte’s article specifies the term may mean either “lesser” or “worse”). For Labitte, women’s poetry leaves no trace in the mind, only the impression of a lulling harmony (132). Barred from the linguistic designation of poet, the term poetess, had it taken hold, would not have redressed the ideology of gender exclusion that leaves the woman poet without a proper name.
Today “la poète” is an accepted form in French though most critics use the term “femme poète” or simply “poète.” Nevertheless, a revised canon that accounts for nineteenth-century women poets has yet to emerge after the 1966 publication of Jeanine Moulin's La Poésie féminine, as has happened, for example, with British Romanticism (Homans, Mellor, Ross). The new millennium edition of an anthology of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century French poetry published in the prestigious Pléiade collection suggests that little has changed. While many eighteenth- and twentieth-century women poets are included, only Desbordes-Valmore figures as the token woman poet of the nineteenth century. The recently published introduction to nineteenth-century women poets, Wendy Greenberg's Uncanonical Women, however, seeks to remedy this bias and to revisit the nineteenth-century canon. Critics, such as Gretchen Schultz and Adrianna Paliyenko (with whom I have collaborated on a bibliographic article on this subject), have examined masculinist literary norms and the gender-based expectations that prevented the poetess from receiving an unconditional reception. New approaches to French Romantic women poets focus on the historical and cultural construction of the poetess or poet herself. Thus, for scholars today it is not a matter of recreating a tradition of poésie féminine in nineteenth-century France; rather, twenty-first century criticism has redeployed its efforts in discovering anew the multiple discourses to which particular women gave poetic voice and the differing, even contradictory, ideological positions these voices make claim to. The tradition of the poetess, once narrowly defined as poésie feminine in France, has now ceded to a more complex view of the heteroglossia and manifold subject positions inherent in any good writing, not the least in women’s poetry.
For a survey of the field, see the bibliographic article I published in collaboration with Adrianna M. Paliyenko, which the present essay substantially draws from. Among the critics who have recently contributed to this field, let me single out Schultz, Planté and Paliyenko as representative of new critical trends.
Today, however, “la poète” is an accepted form (see Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Femme, j’écris ton nom). See note 3 of my bibliographic article.
Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, art. poète. The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition (1999) also lists the following example of the pejorative connotations of poetess dating back to the mid-eighteenth-century. In a letter to Shenstone, Lady Luxborough claimed on 28 April 1748: “I am no Poetess; which reproachful name I would avoid, even if I were capable of acquiring it” (art. Poetess).
Mellor argues as much when she discusses the ideological limitations of the tradition of the female poet, which originated in that of the female preacher. Her dissension based on Biblical interpretation could easily be taken as affirmation of patriarchal Christian values (264).
See Boutin 156-84.
Like Tastu, Desbordes-Valmore celebrated the liberal poet Béranger; see her poems, “A M. de Béranger” (115), “La Première Captivité de Béranger” (175), “Béranger” (241), “Le Luxembourg” (410).
Ourika is the protagonist of Claire de Duras’s novella Ourika (1824); Corinne, the eponymous heroine of Germaine de Staël’s novel Corinne or Italy (1807). See Kelly for an examination of Girardin’s major themes, “feminocentric poetry” and prose works. It is worth remembering, however, that Girardin’s stance on literary women was contradictory; in her fifth and sixth letters of 1847 (4 and 11 April 1847), she condemns literary women (see Lettresparisiennes 461ff, 465ff).
On the codes of sexual difference in writing in Flaubert and Colet’s correspondence, see Beizer.
For a lengthier discussion of each of these works, see Du Plessix Gray, 108-09, 201-04, 237, 341-42.
Du Plessix Gray 256. Many women poets won regional literary prizes—Tastu was recognized at the Académie des Jeux Floraux de Toulouse (Academy of the Floral Games of Toulouse) the year after Victor Hugo—but the Académie française prize was by far the most significant of its kind. Delphine Gay had received its recognition in 1822 for her poem “Le Dévouement des médecins français et des soeurs de Sainte-Camille dans la peste de Barcelone” (“The Devotion of the French Doctors and of the Sisters of Sainte-Camille during the Barcelone Plague”). From 1671, the date of its foundation under Louis XV, to 1839 when Colet won the prize for the first time, the Académie française had awarded its poetry prize to a woman only four times (Du Plessix Gray 61). Today, the Académie française has four female members, none of whom are poets.
In France in the late 1830s, bas-bleu became the standard and derogatory term for the woman of ideas. (Bas-bleu, however, does not appear in the 1835 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française.) The French term is derived from the English “Bluestocking,” coined in the eighteenth century to describe a circle of women that gathered regularly at the home of Elizabeth Wortley Montagu (1720-1800). One of the few male members of the group, Benjamin Stillingfleet wore blue instead of black stockings.
The backlash against the bas-bleu heightened with the popularity of the physiologie in the early 1840s. The years 1840-42 saw the publication of Frédéric Soulié's Physiologie du bas-bleu, and Jules Janin’s “Le Bas bleu” in Les Français peints par eux-mêmes. Honoré Daumier also published a series of caricatures of the bas-bleu in Le Charivari in 1844. The outbreak of bas-bleu criticism in the press may well have been a symptom of widespread changes in editorial policy following Louis-Philippe censorship laws rather than of an “epidemic” of women writing. See Czyba, “From Daumier to Flaubert.”
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