Because Augusta Webster’s poetry involves explicit cultural critique, particularly in relation to gender ideology, it is important to turn to the textual history of her work in order to understand how these poems functioned within their original historical context. Her 1870 collection of dramatic monologues entitled Portraits foregrounds its own textual situation and the process of interpretation in its organization and material design. Read together as a collection, these poems suggest that discovering and then following a particular life path is a process of discerning, accepting, or choosing among different possibilities. Webster represents these possibilities as competing discourses, some of which are actual or imagined texts, whereas others are the ideological commonplaces of Victorian culture. Each of the speakers in Portraits explores his or her subjectivity through a process of discursive analysis and interpretation, which parallels the reading process that the structure of the volume encourages.
Corps de l’article
Recent scholarship on the poetry of Augusta Webster, like other projects of historical recovery, has been driven by two main ideas: first, that her poetry is interesting, beautiful, complicated, and intelligent; and second, that her poetry is interesting to us, now — for what it can tell us about the nineteenth century and for what it can tell us about our own interests and purposes. Webster’s feminist credentials — she signed John Stuart Mill’s suffrage petition in 1866 and was active in educational reform — align with her poems on women’s lives and experience to give us a poet who seems well suited for ideological analysis. For instance, Webster’s dramatic monologue “A Castaway,” written in the voice of a kept woman excluded from respectable society, serves as an important supplement or corrective to other Victorian poems about fallen women (Brown 84-86; Sutphin, “Human” 513-14). “A Castaway” has not only received the most scholarly attention, but has also become the most frequently reprinted poem by Webster in our contemporary anthologies and textbooks. Our current interest in Victorian gender ideology, Victorian social history, and the history of women’s writing does and should fuel our interest in Webster’s work. However, most studies of Webster have tended to be either broad surveys of her publishing career, or closely focused readings of only a select number of poems.
Because Webster’s poetry involves explicit cultural critique, particularly in relation to gender ideology, it is important to turn to the textual history of her work in order to understand how these poems functioned within their original historical context. Examining the original publishing context of “A Castaway” usefully resituates that poem in Webster’s larger literary production, which encompassed seven books of lyrical and narrative poems; an adult novel and one for children; several literary dramas not intended for performance; two major translations from Aeschylus and Euripides; and numerous reviews and essays in periodicals. More specifically, her 1870 collection entitled Portraits, in which “A Castaway” first appeared, foregrounds its own textual situation and the process of interpretation in its organization and material design. Reading the order and material design of Webster’s 1870 Portraits reveals a complex poetic project that is self-consciously situated within the burgeoning Victorian textual environment in order to demonstrate the alienating effects of Victorian ideologies about marriage and work.
The 1870 volume contains eleven poems that we now generally characterize as dramatic monologues, although Patricia Rigg has forcefully argued that we might better term Webster’s poems monodramas, and Victorian critics often used terms like dramatic sketch or soliloquy to describe her poems (Rigg, “Augusta” 76-82). These alternative labels are relevant, because Webster rarely provides the fully dramatic situation of speaker, listener, and setting that we find in other Victorian examples of the form. The dramatic monologue has often been discussed as an inherently double form that requires readers to engage in sometimes contradictory acts of moral evaluation and emotional identification during the reading process. Yet, as Angela Leighton has noted, the doubleness and irony that we associate with the dramatic monologue arise in Webster’s speakers not from their internal psychological division, but from their position within society’s ideologies and institutions (178). Most of the speakers in Portraits are musing to themselves, whether aloud or in thought, and Webster’s poems are rarely concerned with the social hypocrisies and evasive conversational maneuvers that Robert Browning often stages in his texts. These poems reveal their speakers to be caught between external, societal expectations and their internal, individual desires.
Neil Fraistat has suggested that to examine the order and organization of poems within a particular volume activates a variety of meaningful contexts, including: “the contextuality provided for each poem by the larger frame within which it is placed, the intertextuality among poems so placed, and the resultant texture of resonance and meanings” (3). These interrelationships can offer some insight into the poet’s design (when collections are arranged by the author) and into the history of a text’s reception. Some evidence suggests that Webster had a particular design in mind for Portraits. Twenty-three years after the first and second editions were published in 1870, Webster prefaced the expanded third edition of Portraits, published in 1893, with a brief note that explained some of the major changes in the volume. In this revised edition, Webster added to the collection one previously unpublished poem and two others which had been published in her 1866 Dramatic Studies in order, she says, to conform to her “original intention” and include texts which “in fact belong to the series” ([i]). Because “series” was the preferred term among Victorian critics for a sequence of lyrics, such as a group of sonnets, this note suggests some deliberate arrangement to the collection. Although later in her career Webster did occasionally publish poems in periodicals, and some of her poems were reprinted in anthologies, readers in 1870 would only have encountered these poems in the collection entitled Portraits, or extracted in critical reviews of the same volume. Thus the organization of the volume probably influenced some, and perhaps many of its readers.
In the 1893 edition, Webster also made a number of significant linguistic revisions, altering punctuation and word choice in many of these poems. One of the most visible changes alters the appearance of every page of the text: in 1870, Webster printed her poems without capitalizing the first letter of each line, reserving capital letters only for proper nouns and for the initial words of each poem and each sentence. Even to our postmodern eyes, this creates a deliberately stark appearance that pushes her poems towards the appearance of prose; for her Victorian readers, this design choice created a very unusual visual effect, and was criticized as “affectation” and “eccentricity” (“Rev.” 483; Bell 504). Capitalization is, of course, a linguistic feature, but in this text it also worked to create a graphical effect like those discussed by Jerome McGann and Randall McLeod, who have argued that we need to understand the bibliographical features of printed texts as creating meaning through visual effects as well as linguistic signification (McGann 69-87; McLeod 249-250). To read Webster’s poems only in the 1893 edition, in which conventional poetic capitalization was used, is to miss one of the important ways that this text announced its modernity in 1870. Even though many of the textual revisions in the 1893 edition might be considered small, the total effect of the changes Webster made to her work makes the 1870 and 1893 collections very different books. The 1870 version of Portraits should be seen as a distinct and cohesive work both in terms of Webster’s poetic project and in its cultural effects. This book, along with her 1866 Dramatic Studies, established Webster as a leading poet during the same decade she was actively involved in feminist politics. Throughout the 1870s, while Webster’s poems were being widely advertised by Macmillan, she was also publishing essays on a wide range of social and political topics in the Examiner and working with the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage (Rigg, “Present” 110-111). Webster’s public reputation thus depended at least in part upon this visually and ideologically distinctive book.
Portraits involves several interconnected systems of order that organize and sort these poems according to different criteria. As printed, the poems are divided into two groups according to the gender of the speakers: the first four are women, and the remaining seven are men. This distinction foregrounds Webster’s concern with how gender dynamics shape the lives of the speakers in her poems. To cluster the poems in this way encourages readers to make comparisons among the female speakers as women, by virtue of their gender, and among the male speakers as well. In the nineteenth century as today, Webster’s poetry was noted for its “intense and passionate study of Woman’s position and destiny” (Bell 501). This focus is not simply a matter of Webster’s themes or references, but is present in the very structure of the book as well.
The order of the 1870 volume also suggests several pairs of companion poems, a strategy much used by Robert Browning in Dramatic Lyrics (1842) and Men and Women (1855) (Bornstein 273). But other possible interpretive clusters resituate these pairs into dynamic relations with the other texts. The group of women’s poems contains two pairs, “Medea in Athens” and “Circe,” followed by “The Happiest Girl in the World” and “A Castaway.” This cluster of poems mixes ancient characters with contemporary figures to examine the role of marriage in shaping women’s lives and introduces Webster’s interest in marginal or excluded figures. The next cluster of poems also consists of two pairs, “A Soul in Prison” and “Tired,” followed by “Coming Home” and “In an Almshouse,” which examine different definitions of work and duty for men. Read together, these first eight poems enact Webster’s feminist critique of conventional gender ideology. The next two poems, one of the most tightly connected pairs, “An Inventor” and “A Dilettante,” contrast two very different attitudes towards vocation and creative ambition. They might usefully be considered with the previous four as part of Webster’s examination of men’s lives, or as a separate unit within the book. The tension between an individual’s vocation and his familial responsibilities is further explored in the story of Saint Alexius that concludes the volume, and which might be considered part of a concluding triad, part of the larger group of seven male speakers, or as a summary and conclusion to the entire volume, since this final poem returns to the topic of marriage that began the book.
The titles of Webster’s poems in Portraits also organize the volume’s contents. The first two poems in the book, “Medea in Athens” and “Circe,” and the concluding poem, “The Manuscript of Saint Alexius,” are the only titles that include a speaker’s name. Although two of the other speakers in these poems reveal their names in their monologues (Eulalie in “A Castaway” and Harry in “Coming Home”), most are unnamed except by the descriptors given in the poem titles: e.g., “Tired” or “A Dilettante.” Webster’s invented speakers are thus distinguished from those extrapolated or imagined from literary or historical texts in a way that potentially makes them more representative, or even plural, rather than uniquely individual. These poem titles, which are repeated in the running heads on each page, also invoke processes of judgment and interpretation as the reader’s eye takes in both the individual voice and the abstract label. The three titles with personal names are also the only poems which explicitly reference a pre-existing story set in the distant historical past. All of the other poems are set in the Victorian period and frequently comment on the pressures and pace of the modern age. By bracketing her volume with the historical poems, Webster implicitly suggests that the lives of ordinary modern individuals are as full of drama and interest as those in legend or literature.
Webster’s poems involving proper names also invoke a number of intertextual contexts. The figures of Circe and Medea not only refer to classical texts, but also to the many nineteenth-century poems that, like Webster’s, refract and rework classical myth, from Matthew Arnold’s portrayal of Circe in “The Strayed Reveller” to the generalized Homeric context in Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotos-Eaters.” Webster’s choice of the French name Eulalie for the speaker of “A Castaway” plays on popular associations of French culture with overt female sexuality, but also invokes Saint Eulalia, connecting this poem with that on Saint Alexius. In literary terms, the name simultaneously acknowledges the lonely figure of the poetess in Letitia Landon’s “A History of the Lyre,” worn out from manufacturing feminine emotions for her successful poetry, and the idealized object of male desire in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Eulalie,” whose beauty so unsettles the speaker that he awkwardly keeps revising his attempts to describe her. Such multiple frames of allusion place Webster’s poems in conversation with other texts within her collection and also within the larger body of nineteenth-century poetry.
In the discussion which follows, I focus on points of connection among the pairs and groups of poems that constitute Portraits, precisely because the individual voices which speak in these poems are so strong as to sometimes distract us from the coherent project that Webster offers in this book. Vocation in its broadest sense, not simply in the religious sense of “The Manuscript of Saint Alexius,” is the topic which connects all of the poems in Portraits. Read together as a collection, these poems suggest that discovering and then following a particular life path is a process of discerning, accepting, or choosing among different possibilities. Webster represents these possibilities as competing discourses, some of which are actual or imagined texts, whereas others are the ideological commonplaces of Victorian culture. Each of the speakers in Portraits explores his or her subjectivity through a process of discursive analysis and interpretation which parallels the reading process that the structure of the volume encourages. The actions and attitudes that constitute any individual speaker’s identity in Portraits are never located only in a solitary mind; instead, they develop from the interactions between that mind and the larger discursive culture that surrounds it. The intersecting subgroupings that make up Portraits represent these dialogic intersections, and should encourage us to read these poems not simply as separate expressions of individual perspectives, but collectively, as a model for understanding the operations of ideology within Victorian culture.
By opening the collection with a pair of speakers drawn from classical literature, Webster roots her verse in her classical scholarship, which included a translation of Euripides’s Medea in 1868. As Christine Sutphin suggests, Webster’s use of classical myth also allows her to represent female sexuality more explicitly than might be possible with contemporary figures (“Representation” 380). Webster bridges the distance of historical period and literary reference by focusing on marriage and romantic relationships —both real and ideal—as structures that shape women’s lives. Webster’s Medea, years after murdering her own children, views her marriage to Ægeus as a kind of revenge directed towards Jason, whom she still loves even though she blames him for her crimes:
Yea, my new marriage hope has been achieved:
for he did count me happy, picture me
happy with Ægeus; he did dream of me
as all to Ægeus that I was to him,
and to him nothing [. . .] .
What matters most to Medea is what Jason might have thought of her second marriage. Medea remains passionately connected to Jason, whether through hate or love, which she declares to be the same thing. She blames him for seducing her as a “grave and simple girl” and for the “dreadful marriage oaths” that led her to turn against her family (10). Speaking to his ghost, she promises: “I could wrong thee more. Come thou sometimes / and see me happy” (11). “Happy” becomes a bitter, angry word in this poem as Medea defensively insists that her second marriage provides sufficient compensation for her guilt and grief:
What then? am I not folded round with love,
with a life’s whole of love? There doth no thought
come near to Ægeus save what is of me:
am I no happy wife? And I go proud,
and treasure him for noblest of the world:
am I no happy wife?
In classical or Victorian terms, the tragic figure of Medea cannot possibly be happy. “Happy wife” becomes here a role Medea performs while always imagining Jason as her audience. To phrase Medea’s self-justification in the language of the Victorian wife safely cocooned in her husband’s love, exposes that very category of “happy wife” as an ideological construction that may bear no relation to actual happiness.
If Medea is the tragically unsatisfied wife, the companion poem “Circe” focuses on romantic longing: “Where is my love? Does some one cry for me / not knowing whom he calls?” (17). Webster reveals Circe to be imprisoned by a romantic ideal that would make her the helpmeet of a man, when her magical powers repeatedly show her that men are, simply, animals:
Is it all a dream?
will there be never never such a man?
will there be only these, these bestial things
who wallow in my styes [. . .].
The poem shows Circe as unable to recognize her own beauty and power:
. . . why am I who I am,
but for the sake of him whom fate will send
one day to be my master utterly [. . .].
She believes her entire existence to be predicated upon an eventual romantic relationship and envisions herself within conventional (Victorian) gender relations. This pair of poems imagines the emotional dynamics of legendary women, but also clearly reflects Webster’s larger social analysis of marriage and romantic love as ideals that can entrap even passionate and powerful women (Byron 91-92).
The second pair of poems, “The Happiest Girl in the World” and “A Castaway,” also critiques the ideology of marriage and devotion, but from a Victorian perspective. The recently engaged speaker of “The Happiest Girl” sets herself an ideological project that from the outset implies a level of ambivalence and doubt:
. . . I am almost glad
to have him now gone for this little while,
that I may think of him and tell myself
what to be his means, now that I am his,
and know if mine is love enough for him,
and make myself believe it all is true.
Understanding what their relationship now means — and specifically the dependent relationship expected of her (she is his, rather than he being hers) — involves persuading herself of a new viewpoint. Although her language might seem on the surface to be giddy romantic enthusiasm, the speaker’s remark that “I think nothing, only hear him think” signals her threatened loss of self within marriage (24). She worries because she does not feel the passion she thinks she ought:
Where are the fires and fevers and the pangs?
where is the anguish of too much delight,
and the delirious madness at a kiss [. . .].
Her use of the definite article suggests that these intensities are what she has been taught to expect, and that she is finding her reality to be rather different. By providing only the poem’s title to name her speaker, Webster ironizes Victorian cultural expectations about what the speaker (and by extension all young women) should feel about marriage. This romantic ideal is subsequently revealed as a series of paradoxes learned from books:
I would that I could love him to his worth,
with that forgetting all myself in him,
that subtle pain of exquisite excess,
that momentary infinite sharp joy,
I know by books but cannot teach my heart [. . .].
For the “Happiest Girl,” books offer authoritative knowledge that contradicts the internal, emotional understanding of the heart. The Girl tries to set aside her doubts and convince herself that her fiancé’s knowledge of her must be superior to her own:
and yet I think my love must needs be love,
since he can read me through—oh happy strange,
my thoughts that were my secrets all for me
grown instantly his open easy book! —
since he can read me through, and is content.
As her fiancé’s future wife, she becomes a text already known to him, not requiring close interpretation or examination. Although she is filled with doubt, in part because she does not long for children, the Girl dutifully insists that to be a “happy wife” is her goal:
. . . what happiness could I have more
than that dear labour of a happy wife?
I would not have another.
This language and the placement of this poem in the volume compares a typical Victorian girl with one of the great tragic heroines, suggesting that marriage alone cannot fulfill all women’s lives.
“A Castaway” has been privileged in our recent critical studies for the compelling and contradictory claims of its speaker Eulalie, a kept woman who lives amongst “velvet and marqueterie and pastilles” but says “I own my kindredship with any drab / who sells herself as I” (38). The placement of “A Castaway” as a companion poem to “The Happiest Girl in the World” brings into focus the circumstances that will make the Girl a respectable wife and not “that thing / called half a dozen dainty names”: “women all have more or less their chance / of husbands” (38; 56). Because most women’s economic survival depends upon marriage, it is too often a matter of chance and not choice, and Eulalie points out that she has few real options:
Choice! what choice
of living well or ill? could I have that?
And who would give it me?
In this poem, the voice of the fallen woman becomes an avenue for Webster’s cultural critique of the Victorian sexual double standard and the limited educational and economic opportunities for women.
Like most of the Victorian speakers in Portraits, Eulalie develops her self-understanding through interpreting a variety of texts, including her own childhood diary and a religious tract that are both quoted within the language of the poem. The poem opens with her both condescending and wondering analysis of the diary:
Poor little diary, with its simple thoughts,
its good resolves, its “Studied French an hour,”
“Read Modern History,” “Trimmed up my grey hat,”
. . . . . . . . .
Poor simple diary!
and did I write it? Was I this good girl,
this budding colourless young rose of home?
By examining the text of her diary, Eulalie analyzes the way her former self fit into the discursive categories of the good girl or the budding flower of femininity. Webster thus stages a process of reflective inquiry in this poem, as Eulalie analyzes language and tries out different explanatory narratives for her experience. Typographically, Webster distinguishes the language of the diary only with double quotation marks, as this text is encompassed within Eulalie’s reflective analysis. The language of the tract, however, is set off in italics and single quotation marks to suggest Eulalie’s mocking tone and the tired “pious hash of ohs and ahs” (41):
‘I prey on souls’—
only my men have oftenest none I think:
. . . . . . . . . .
‘I braid my hair’ — but braids are out of date:
‘I paint my cheeks’ — I always wear them pale. . . .
Webster’s poem itself stands in dialogic relation to such stereotypes of the prostitute, and her references to the textual world her speakers inhabit self-consciously acknowledge how Portraits participates in larger discursive interactions.
Eulalie dismisses the sheltered wives whose husbands visit her as “glass-case saints, Dianas under lock and key” whose moral superiority results from their comfortable imprisonment in respectable homes and she also clearly states “I hate men.” Yet she does not question the fundamental gender ideology of her society:
40, 46, 51-52
Do I not know this,
I like my betters, that a woman’s life,
her natural life, her good life, her one life,
is in her husband, God on earth to her,
and what she knows and what she can and is
is only good as it brings good to him?
Without a husband to provide meaning and direction, and without education or skills of her own, a young woman such as she was once cannot navigate the treacherous world:
‘tis pitiful when a mere nerveless girl,
untutored, must put forth upon that sea,
not in the woman’s true place, the wife’s place,
to trust a husband and be borne along,
but impotent blind pilot to herself.
The repetition of ideological categories like “natural life” and “wife’s place” underscores Eulalie’s contradictory position as a speaker excluded from conventional social discourse. All of the female speakers in Portraits, whether experienced or innocent in marriage, have accepted that a woman’s duty is to be a wife, and that marriage entails submission to a man’s direction. (Eulalie wistfully comments, “I could have lived by that rule, how content” .) Read together, these first four poems complicate and critique the Victorian assumption that a woman’s life should be primarily shaped by marriage and family.
The next cluster of poems examines convention and conformity as social pressures for men, whose lives are largely shaped by work and duty. To emphasize her discursive analysis, Webster presents the entire poem “A Soul in Prison” as a conversation between the unnamed speaker and a book, and the poem is prefaced by a parenthetical direction in small italic typeface: “(The Doubter lays aside his book.)” (63). This is the only such note in the entire volume, and it draws attention to the poem’s typographically unusual and potentially confusing first line:
“Answered a score of times.” Oh, looked for teacher,
Is this all you will teach me?
Webster’s initial double quotation mark awkwardly frames the decorative capital letter that opens this and every poem in the book. Like the poem’s speaker, who hopes for clarity and understanding from his reading, readers of the poem are abruptly confronted with an insistent answer that does not respond to a question. The Doubter feels excluded and ignored by the author he hoped would be his teacher:
. . . you come not to us
to ask of us, who know doubt, what doubt is,
but one by one you pass the echoes on,
each of his own pulpit, each of all the pulpits,
and in the swelling sound can never catch
the tremulous voice of doubt that wails in the cold[. . .].
Like Eulalie, the Doubter criticizes religious rhetoric that does not actually create change. The thunderous roar of such texts adds to the chaos of the modern day, which makes independent thought difficult:
we, jostling, jostled, through the market world
where our work lies, lack breathing space, lack calm,
lack skill, lack tools, lack heart, lack everything,
for your work of the studies.
As in all of the poems in Portraits, Webster examines the external conditions that shape each individual’s actions and attitudes. The Doubter struggles to develop his own ideas within an environment that is not only intellectually unfriendly but distracting:
so toil and smudge, then put the blurred scrawl by,
unfinished, till next holiday comes round.
Thus maybe I shall die and the blurred scrawl
be still unfinished, where I try to write
some clear belief, enough to get by heart.
Like the Happiest Girl, he wants to change his “heart,” his internal system of belief, through a process of reflective inquiry. The very space of the dramatic monologue is throughout Portraits shown to be in the interstices of social interactions that dilute thought. The speaker’s frustration with the book concludes in his sarcastic assessment that “ ‘twill win the critics,” which marks the distance between the speaker and his society (72). In this poem, Webster suggests there are many different forms of social exclusion, and she highlights the processes of interpretation and potential dialogue within the act of reading any text, including her own.
“Tired,” the companion poem, offers the thoughts of a man who resists the conventional ideas and practices of his society, yet has not fully freed himself of the ideas he loathes. Having married an “artless girl” from the country, idealizing her simple village ways, he is chastened to realize that now, after learning “the way to speak, to look, / to walk, to sit, to dance,” she seems just like any other middle-class woman:
. . . the prized dissimilarity
was outer husk and not essential core:
my wife is just the wife my any friend
selects among my any friend’s good girls [. . .].
It is the category of (happy) wife, as much as the learned behaviors of polite society, that make his Madge seem less interesting. Read together, “Tired” and “A Soul in Prison” suggest the difficulty in maintaining oppositional or critical viewpoints, and especially in developing lasting change. The speaker strongly criticizes his society, yet recognizes that he is still its product:
. . . I had not felt
my own life that punctilious copy-book,
writ to stock patterns set to all a school,
I have called usual lives, but my poor Madge
has unawares informed me of myself.
Webster suggests that because there is no standpoint for cultural critique outside of human society, ideological conflict and inconsistencies inevitably arise. The speaker is “tired, tired, of this bland smiling slavery, / monotonous waste of life” that is social custom, and particularly condemns the “treadmill ceremonies, mimic tasks, / we make our women’s lives,” noting that work is “the natural food of minds” which is denied women (82; 87; 88). Webster’s use of the word “treadmill” connects this poem with “A Castaway,” because Eulalie scornfully describes her time as a young governess as her “insipid treadmill life” (49). Such repetitive social rituals seem particularly wasteful given the knowledge and resources of the modern world, which Webster consistently describes throughout Portraits as a textual plenitude:
And as for us, the men who live in days
when what the West has whispered finds the East
across an ocean in a breath of time;
when the old era’s painful manuscripts,
too choice and rare for less than sage’s needs,
reach the new era changed to daily showers
of schoolboys’ text-books raining from the press [. . . ].
Although this improved level of knowledge should help improve the conditions for women and the poor that haunt “our rare century,” the pressure of social custom grows even stronger because communication technologies have transformed the globe and connected all men into “knitted links, / one drawing on the other in a chain” (82, 81). Webster ironically references her own poetic collection as the speaker complains about the draining effects of social conformity:
. . . I think
if the strong pith and freshness of our lives
were not so sucked and dried away, our span
not maimed and dwarfed, our sight not warped untrue,
by eating custom, petty disciplines,
footlight perspectives cramped to suit our stage,
if we were men, not types and portraitures
and imitative shadows, some of us
Webster here acknowledges the limitations of her verse in attempting to represent complex human beings. Yet the poem also suggests that most people have only limited understanding of themselves or others. The comparisons and contradictions Webster arranges in Portraits are meant to offer expanded perspective and understanding for the reader, if not for the imagined characters within the text.
The two poems which follow offer opposing examples of men’s response to the pressures of duty. Webster juxtaposes a soldier in “Coming Home” with an elderly intellectual in “In an Almshouse.” Webster portrays the soldier as a brave, if somewhat dull person: he is not a reader (“I’ve had scant reading time / and little will to read”) and does not even have much of a story to tell his family about his wartime experience: “one among them all, / doing what we were bidden” (91; 95). His adult success stems from his childhood training: “No whying, boy, but do what you are bid,” a lesson he took to heart but which evidently crushed his brother’s intellectual questionings (96). In contrast, the speaker of “In an Almshouse” fondly remembers “that far world / where books are read and written, my world once;” where he spent his life “waiting to be ready to begin” (101; 103). His devotion to study put him out of step with the modern age in which the soldier fits so comfortably:
This anxious age is driven half mad with work,
it bids us all work, work: no need, no room,
for contemplating sages counting life
a time allowed for solving problems in
and its own self a problem to be solved [. . . ].
The intellectual difficulties faced by the speakers in “A Soul in Prison” and “Tired” are here shown to be a kind of luxury enjoyed by those who are already marginal and alienated:
. . . I have been an alien son,
a dronish servant careful of his ease,
to the master-Present [. . . ].
Webster thus acknowledges the ambivalent relation of many of her speakers to mainstream Victorian society, which little values the acts of interpretation that her speakers perform and which the book as a whole encourages.
The final pair of companion poems, “An Inventor” and “A Dilettante,” contrasts creative ambition with contentment, connecting the topics of independent thought, drive, and duty in an exploration of secular vocation. The frustrated inventor has thus far been unsuccessful in his quest to “awaken” his unspecified machine, but urges himself forward in his work. He describes his work as a calling, not a choice:
120, ellipsis in orig.
. . . A madness comes on you,
whose name is revelation: who has power
to check the passion of it, who in the world?
A revelation, yes; ‘tis but a name
for knowledge…and there perishes free-will,
for every man is slave of what he knows. . . .
Throughout Portraits Webster examines the conditions that constrain human actions in order to temper notions of free choice. The Inventor’s “little ones and grave pale wife” suffer emotionally and financially for his vision and he argues with himself about the value of his ideas for the world, focusing on the conflict between his vocational calling and his social responsibilities:
119, 123, ellipsis in orig.
Traitor to them or traitor to the world:
a downright question that, and sounds well put,
and one that begs its answer, since we count
the nearer duty first to every man;
but there’s another pungent clause to note…
that’s traitor to myself.
He feels that he can best fulfill God’s wishes by following his dream of finishing his “soulless whirring thing,” to “make my creature here another power / to change a world’s whole life” (119; 125). Webster uses metaphors evoking Frankenstein throughout the poem to indicate the extreme, God-like ambition of the inventor, who is unable to recognize any demands outside himself.
In contrast, the speaker of “A Dilettante,” the companion poem, disavows ambition or struggle:
. . . I take my life
as I have found it, and the work it brings;
well, and the life is kind, the work is light,
shall I go fret and scorn myself for that?
and must I sally forth to hack and hew
at giants or at windmills [. . . ].
His remarks are prompted by a friend who criticizes the current state of society. The Dilettante focuses instead on the existence of beauty even among neglected weeds, choosing to ignore the larger context that lies beyond his reach:
No, let me, like a bird bred in the cage,
that, singing its own self to gladness there,
makes some who hear it gladder, take what part
I have been born to, and make joy of it.
The poem questions whether strong vocational drives can be compatible with pleasure, and highlights the assumptions that lead modern society to value ambition and effort over contentment and beauty. The speaker offers a relativist perspective that eschews judgment for acceptance:
Oh, if the men and women of to-day
seem ill or good to us, why, what know we?
to-morrow they, or those who follow them,
will seem another way; and are they changed,
or are the eyes that see them? Let them be;
are we divine that we should judge and rule?
The arrangement of poems in Portraits encourages the reader to evaluate the ambition, self-interest, and inspiration of its many speakers, yet here Webster gently counters that same process of judgment by suggesting that there are always alternative perspectives. This book of poems asks the reader continually to reinterpret the significance of the characters represented within its pages.
The final poem in the volume, “The Manuscript of Saint Alexius,” opens with a brief narrative about the Pope being called to shrive a dying man, who gives him a document that is reproduced in the rest of the poem. By including this explicitly textual voice in her collection, Webster foregrounds the difficulties in interpreting the written representation of thought and speech that every reader of her book has experienced over the course of reading it. In retelling the legend of Alexius, Webster emphasizes his conflicted feelings about fulfilling his family’s expectations and his religious devotion to God. Webster’s placement of this poem last in the collection retrospectively connects the poems about marriage and duty — the female version of vocation, according to Victorian society — with those about men’s work and individual vision.
Alexius, born in ancient Rome to a wealthy family, feels drawn to God throughout his childhood, but is pressured by his family to marry. When he finally accedes to his parents’ wishes, he imagines that “my soul shall still be spared me, consecrate, / virgin to God until the better days / when I may live the life alone with Him” (141). Alexius thus blends both male and female roles in the poem’s comparison of marriage and religious devotion. The night before the wedding, he looks in Claudia’s eyes and realizes that he does feel mortal, human love, which throws his plan into disarray. He abandons her and sets out to become a pilgrim and devote himself to God. After ten years of wandering, he feels that his faith has become a “blankness” and he needs “quickening pain / to stir the sluggish soul awake,” so he travels to his father’s house, where he is taken in as a beggar and lives there unrecognized for six years, finding in his perilous situation the intensity he was seeking:
In the beggar’s shed with God: with God again!
Oh exquisite pain that brought so exquisite joy!
even by instant peril to be lost
lo I was saved.
In Webster’s poem, the selfishness of Alexius’s religious calling is directly opposed to his human connections and love for his family — a love that continues to the poem’s end as he observes his betrothed in secret.
“The Manuscript of Saint Alexius” is, like many other poems in Portraits, self-consciously concerned with textuality. The introductory section describes the Pope and explains that the dying man “placed a written scroll in the Pope’s hand, / and so fell back and died. Thus said the scroll:” (136). A horizontal rule follows, and the bulk of the poem purports to be the scroll written by Alexius. Both the frame narrative and the section following the rule begin with the ornamental capital letters that begin each poem in the book, signaling that these sections are to be read as two separate texts. The scroll begins by identifying its author (“Alexius, meanest servant of the Lord,”) in the third person, but the next stanza switches to the first person, which continues through the rest of the poem (136). Thus Alexius’s words, unlike those of other speakers in Portraits, are explicitly presented on the page as a visual, textual representation of another written text. His writing also acknowledges its possible modes of transmission to “men who read or hear my words” (138). Believing that “God bade me write” the scroll as he nears death, he determines to ask the Pope to read it and share it with his family:
Behold, I make this paper, being forced
as by the Spirit, and it comes on me
that God doth choose his highest in the world
to be the beggar’s messenger. . . .
This, which I have written,
do I entrust to him, my testament:
some shall learn patience from it and to do
what God bids and not doubt [. . . ].
His stated goal is to persuade his audience of a divine plan that directs human action. However, the poem’s closing frame narrative ends with his mother’s anguished confusion about whether the story she’s just been told is that of her son or of the beggar they called Lazarus: “But still Aglaia could not understand” (161). We might read this as Webster giving a final emphasis to the grieving family members who suffered from Alexius’s abrupt departure and to the ideological and emotional conflict Alexius experiences between his human and divine attachments. A more conventional religious interpretation would emphasize the saint’s own sufferings in the service of God, and elsewhere Webster suggests that all strong vocational drives require sacrifice. Alexius, like all of the speakers in Portraits, makes choices based upon his interpretation of his society’s expectations, his reading of various texts, and his heart’s knowledge. Webster never clearly states whether Alexius truly hears God’s call or only persuades himself that he does, leaving the meaning of the poem deliberately ambiguous.
It is fitting that the last word in Portraits is “understand,” since Webster arranged these poems so as to complicate and expand the reader’s analysis of the human lives represented in the volume. The material design of this poetic collection supports her project by foregrounding its own textuality. Webster’s imagined characters inhabit a world filled with texts, which they must read, absorb, and reject in order to create their own meanings; as self-aware texts themselves, these poems call for readers to work through similar acts of interpretation.
Natalie M. Houston
She is an Associate Professor at the University of Houston. She has published on nineteenth-century women writers, the history of poetry anthologies, and the Victorian sonnet. She is currently writing a book about Augusta Webster and Victorian print culture and is editing Webster’s poetry and prose for a forthcoming digital edition.
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