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Introduction: The Poetess Tradition [1]

  • Laura Mandell

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  • Laura Mandell
    Miami University

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The transatlantic poetess is now studied in British (1773-1839), American (1770-1865), and Transatlantic (1770-1860) literature courses. This introduction is designed to help plan courses that focus either wholly or in part on the poetess and for doing research on a poetess or the poetess tradition. To offer a way of approaching poetry written by the poetess, I think aloud, publicicly, about several very specific issues: this introduction a) examines why the title “poetess” has come to be a derogatory term, b) discusses the relation of this “minor” poetry to the canon, c) explains the value of studying sentimental literature to those who are interested in postmodernism and transatlanticism, and then, finaly, d) proposes a preliminary sketch of the “poetics” of poetess poetry.

The Word “Poetess”

I first used the word “poetess” in graduate school, talking to a feminist friend about the woman poet Mary Leapor. My friend immediately corrected me: the word “poetess,” she told me, like the word “stewardess,” is demeaning. But sometimes it is difficult to tell the extent to which feminists participate in rather than critique the devaluation of women writers who, after all, chose to designate themselves as “poetesses.” For instance, Anne Mellor, who has done so much to redeem the reputations of those British Romantic-era women writers, has most recently contrasted the “subtle” subversiveness of poetry written by the poetess to the directly political “female poet”  [2] of the Romantic period, devaluing the term “poetess” but this time on feminist grounds (see Mellor, “Female Poet”). Annie Finch – a self-proclaimed “Postmodern poetess” (“Confessions”) whose essay on Phillis Wheatley appears here – forwards messages to me from her email discussion list for poets whenever someone flames someone else for using the term; [3] it happens frequently.

Looking at the word “poetess” in the O.E.D., one can see that, except when applied to Sappho, it was demeaning right at the outset, when first used by Tindale in 1530. Aphra Behn all but equates the term with “prostitute.” [4] The word is derogatory throughout the eighteenth century, even after the publication and re-publication of Poems by Eminent Ladies, the second British print anthology of women’s writing that appeared 1755 and reprinted in 1773 and 1780. Campaigning (and perhaps for personal reasons) to prove the female mind as capacious as the male, the editors George Colman and Bonnell Thornton do not use the term “poetess”: anything BUT; they talk about poetry by “the Fair Sex,” “the poetical attempts of females,” “works [by] . . . ingenious females” and “Learned Ladies.” The female writers collected in Poems by Eminent Ladies are only retrospectively and hence anachronistically called “poetesses,” famously by William Wordsworth who is reported by his nephew and memoirist Christopher Wordsworth to have said, “British poetesses make but a poor figure in the ‘Poems by Eminent Ladies’” (ii.228).

At the moment that Colman and Thornton publish their collection to offer “a standing proof that great abilities are not confined to the men, and that genius often glows with equal warmth, and perhaps with more delicacy, in the breast of a female” – at that moment in 1755, perhaps, the word “poetess” is as derogatory as it seems in a private letter of 1748 quoted by the O.E.D. Though clearly diminutive in Coleridge’s poem “To Matilda Bentham,” the term is – temporarily, at least – rendered respectable by Alexander Dyce in his Specimens of British Poetesses first published in 1825; the poor Scottish Poetess Susannah Hawkins applies it approvingly to herself in 1829 (v). The laudatory sense of the word, Aimée Boutin shows in her essay included in this special issue makes it across the channel into France in the 1830s. As a term of approbation, both in England and abroad, the word has a short life: while George Sands insists upon the poetess’s value in 1841, she was a bit behind her time. There was a backlash against poetess poetry in France by the late 1830s and similarly, in England, the market for Gift Books, the medium that sustained the poetess, had dried up by 1848 when Lady Blessington had to sell her house to pay off debts incurred in producing the Book of Beauty.

In America, the word begins earlier than in Britain to do some rather interesting work: it is first used primarily to designate Phillis Wheatley at the moment that “the African Poetess” addresses a poem to Washington in 1776. Because of that history, the word begins a life of profound paradox: as an addressee of Washington during the Revolution, Wheatley is “the American muse,” but an African poetess (anon., “Poetical Essays” 193). [5] The word “poetess” is profoundly concerned with the indeterminacy of nationality, even as it is, in its beginnings in the U.S., so often coupled with the names of nations: while Sappho is among the first to be designated a poetess in both British and American periodicals, in the U.S., she is more pointedly designated “the Grecian Poetess” (anon., “Sketch”). All the nationalities of poetesses are identified, at the outset of the word’s ascendancy between 1810 and 1820. [6] Thus, while organizing the world into a hierarchy of nations, the poetess is also the occasion of cosmopolitan border crossings. So, for instance, Felicia Hemans is represented as persecuted” by American letter-writers and tourists (anon., Rev. of Chorley 266). [7] As is taken up by the essays in the last section of our collection, the poetess is at once a national and transnational figure.

The word “poetess” had a short heyday in Britain, sustaining a positive value longer in the U.S. as is revealed by a word search in any database such as American Periodical Series Online, 1740-1900, or Poole’s Periodical Index. In our day, it returns to its pejorative sense, but not only among the anthologists who exclude or minoritize women writers -- literally consigning them to the “minor lyrics” sections of anthologies (Mandell, “Twentieth-Century Anthologies”). The derogatory meaning predominates among feminists as well since, as Mellor’s essay indicates, the poetess as a political figure seemed to be complicitous rather than rebellious, a sister of Shakespeare all too willing to accept her lot in life. Some feminists contest this view. In the introduction to her edited collection of Felicia Hemans’s Records of Woman, Paula Feldman presents an important counter-argument to Mellor. Hemans’s poetry, she says,

engages and paradoxically defies stereotypical nineteenth-century views about the character, history, and emotional resources of women. . . . Ironically [her poetry] calls into question what it most seems to extoll: obedience to patriarchal authority. . . . [T]he poems document the courage, nobility, and tragedy of women’s lives; embedded in their painful situations lies a critique of the domestic ideal.

xi, xviii

However, Feldman does not actually disagree with Mellor’s assessment that, if the poetess is critical of her culture’s values at all, then she is too subtly subversive: for Feldman, it is really accurate documentation rather than any critical will discernible in Hemans’s poems that effectively critiques patriarchy. Feminists tend to find the poetess lacking.

It makes sense, of course, that this distinctively feminine sobriquet, “poetess,” acquires cultural capital at the same moment that the feminine is being successfully exalted with the rise of “domestic ideology,” and that its stock would plummet later, as Tricia Lootens has argued, during feminism’s first and second waves when equality of the sexes was privileged over that kind of feminism emphasizing essential differences between the sexes (“Parable”). But it is odd to see feminists, in this instance, allied with sexist criticism: even when the word “poetess” was used by early-nineteenth-century British, French, and American (for the most part, male) literary critics in a positive sense, the adjectives “feminine” and “poetess,” when modifying poetry, could be exchanged either with “minor,” “popular,” or “sentimental” without injury to the sense.

With the canon wars subsiding, and feminist critics more reluctant to laud a poet simply because she is a woman (see Ezell), people have begun again habitually insisting that we should not read poetess poetry because it is “no good.” [8] What counts as “good” for any given literature will be its success or failure at achieving specific goals. One characteristic of “minor literatures,” Deleuze and Guattari insist, “is that everything in them is political” (17). Poetess poetry was at its inception primarily for and by women who were legally and intellectually minoritized at the time of its production. How can it fail, therefore, to speak for or against women’s minority status? It does, but it speaks out on the wrong side. One oddity, then, of poetess poetry is that, if we read it as political, it is destined to fail, and yet, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, since it is minor, we really can’t avoid reading it as political. As a minor literature acquiescing in its own minority, as feminine rather than feminist, poetess poetry fails to be “good” poetry insofar as it fails to be “good” feminist politics. In fact, insofar as it is “sickly sentimental” – insofar as it produces aesthetic pleasure for readers from the scenes of suffering it depicts – could it possibly convince its readers to take action against oppression?

If this poetry does not speak out for the rights of the women it represents, or if it does so only subtly, and maybe even unwillingly; and, if the political efficacy of sympathetic identification with victims is still up for grabs, then perhaps poetess poetry should be judged not as a minor literature – not for its politics, but rather for its poetry. In Mellor’s terms, Anna Barbauld is a “female” or woman poet rather than a poetess. Barbauld’s life-long friend, Joseph Priestley, called her England’s greatest poet, and her poems contain formal features, such as those described in the discussion of Keats below, indicating self-immortalizing, self-universalizing ambitions. If one is raised on canonical literature along with mother’s milk, one might prefer much of Barbauld’s poetry to, for example, that written by Hemans, an exemplary poetess. Unlike Barbauld whose major poems reveal legitimate and legitimizing canonical ambitions, [9] Hemans, as she said of herself, “loved to repose under the shadow of mighty names.” [10] As passive rather than ambitiously active, this literature fails if judged by the standards of canonical literature as well. It doesn’t attempt to be Romantic and “mighty,” but rather shadowy and sentimental. However, there may be more relevant literary standards for judging this poetry if in fact it constitutes its own poetic tradition.

The Poetess Tradition

The term “poetess” was first used by Romantic-period writers in England, perhaps most famously by Dyce in the title of his collection, Specimens of British Poetesses (1825). While Dyce uses the term interchangeably for “woman poet,” it quickly came to designate a poetic tradition with specific attributes. Is, as Dyce believes, biology connected to literary tradition? Women have written poetry for many centuries, and were especially prolific across class lines during the eighteenth-century in Britain, as Roger Lonsdale has shown. But Margaret Ezell insists that it would be wrong to presume that women wrote in a female tradition. In Writing Women’s Literary History, Ezell argues that nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of the “angry” woman writer as a member of a great “family” of women writers extending across time has blinded critics to the value and presence of women writers before 1700, but she makes two other crucial points as well. First, Ezell shows the dangers of imagining that women writers from the Renaissance onward considered themselves to be “women writers,” members of an oppressed group; many saw themselves responding to other historically pressing concerns. What if women writers of the past don’t “anticipate us,” as Ezell puts it – what if they don’t care about issues important to late-twentieth-century feminists, including the project of making a history of women’s writing, but are immersed in other things?

Second, Ezell shows that the idea that women’s writing has evolved from the beginning of time up to our own, a narrative of evolutionary literary history in which women writers progress toward feminism, was first posited by Virginia Woolf and has since dominated feminist literary history. If indeed, as Ezell maintains, literary historians of women’s writing have wanted primarily to read feminist writings, it is easy to see why the poetess has been devalued by feminists: she is often not “angry” about her lot, and often more feminine than feminist. To what extent, one might well ask, is the feminist attempt to uncover a female literary tradition of “angry” women writers decidedly Romantic, in the literary sense of the word? Was early (“first-wave”) feminism trying to Romanticize the woman writer, and mightn’t preconceptions about the Romantic individual potentially undermine our appreciation of past women writers?

Insofar as Ezell’s work makes us aware that women writers might have many different goals and concerns, it leads us to question the connection between writing and biology. For Mellor, Barbauld is not a poetess. But in an earlier essay by Isobel Armstrong, Barbauld exemplifies “the gush of the feminine” typical of poetess poetry (“Gush” 13-15). Not coincidentally, Mellor focuses on Barbauld’s political poems, “Corsica” and “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”; Armstrong, in contrast, focuses on a poem she wrote to a refrigerator – “Inscription for an Ice-House.” It is possible, then, that, in thinking about “the poetess,” we are dealing less with individuals and more with poems. In that case, an editor of an anthology can make a poet into a poetess sheerly by selecting domestic poetry, and that is precisely what has been done by an editor such as Jennifer Breen. [11]

Any connection between biology and writing is implicitly questioned insofar as men can be seen as poetesses. [12] For a long time, women poet(esse)s such as Louise Bogan, Alicia Ostriker, and Maxine Kumin, as well as feminist critics such as Gilbert and Gubar, have struggled with the relationship between human biology and literary tradition. [13] The poet(esse)s have struggled over whether “to write like a woman” or “like a man,” as Alicia Ostriker puts it, and the former course seems especially odious to Maxine Kumin since being a female poet seems to require foregoing “lean, hard, muscular poetry” for “verse devoted to God, butterflies, and brownies, composed by the little three-name Letitia ladies” (Kumin 103). Poet(esse)s necessarily have an “ambivalent” feeling about affiliation with literary mothers and sisters, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, since they need at once to make use of “the power of precursors” and “to ward off the threat of involuntary participation in [both] a trivial and trivializing [female] tradition” (253). Ann Snitow offers a useful tool for analyzing the struggle women and feminists might have in approaching and appropriating a feminine literary tradition: it is Snitow who first argued that, in order to liberate women from oppression, one must strategically switch back and forth between “difference” and “equality” feminisms, sometimes claiming women to be special, sometimes the same as men (“Gender Diary”). What she says about a stance toward political issues is as true in one’s stance toward tradition: one must sometimes claim particularity as a woman, sometimes equality with male writers. Teachers and researchers can best understand relations among feminist critics and poet(esse)s by charting in their arguments the predominance of difference over equality feminism, and vice versa.

As important as questions of biological determinism are questions of tradition. Even as usage of the term “poetess” began, literary critics such as John Wilson were defining a feminine tradition of poetry writing but including men in it. In an 1829 review of various gift books or “annuals” in which primarily poetesses published, Wilson attacks Thomas Campbell and Thomas Moore by saying that they “sweeten tea for us” (950), meaning that they are “now presiding at the female empire of the tea-table,” as Sir Walter Scott puts it (102). With the image of the tea table, Wilson’s criticism begins the work of labeling as “feminine” the poetic conventions of the poetess tradition, viz., artificial diction, tetrameter and trimeter metric systems, conventional and often uncritical sentiments, direct quotation of other poets, salient rhyme schemes, and linguistic transparency. A central question posed by some essays in this special issue might be: are Poe, Keats, and William Cullen Bryant Romantic poets or poetesses (see Richards)? Even as these men, along with women poets such as Barbauld, slip back and forth between writing high Romantic and sentimental poetess poetry, these two traditions – more, two kinds of subjectivity – seem radically at odds.

The Poetess and the Canon

At the moment of the literary canon’s inception during the Romantic period, with the emergence of the first canonizing anthologies – that is, the first poetry collections explicitly designed to encapsulate, in a rather small space, “The” history of English literature [14] – at that very moment, a shadow tradition emerges in the medium of the gift book: not anthological but miscellaneous; not historical and historicizing, but contemporaneous. Ina Ferris describes the reviews as establishing what “would count as legitimate literary critical discourse for most of the nineteenth century” (23-4). The Blackwood’s critic John Wilson celebrates that literary authority just before describing the “other” kind of periodical literature, that to be found in the annuals, which was less literary than entertaining. Implicitly contrasted to the high, canonical literature discussed by reviewers in a new literary-professional class, the annuals provide “songs and flowers” created “To meet the eye of lady gay,” Francis Jeffrey intones in a verse quoted by Wilson (953). There was an explosion of publications by women writers (Curran, “Women Readers”) at the very same moment that Romantic male writers began to think of their work as immortalized insofar as included in a canonical literary tradition (Curran “Romantic Poetry”). Surely part of the sense of being canonical came from the contrast, from critics such as Wilson reiterating the notion that gift books contain poetry that is “agreeable, curious, or good,” as opposed to canonical literature which is sublime, eternal, and great (Wilson 953). [15]

In keeping with Jeffrey’s motif, Walter Scott characterized poetry written by the poetess as “somewhat too poetical for my taste – too many flowers, I mean, and too little fruit.” [16] In comparing poems such Phillis Wheatley’s “Liberty and Peace” with Joel Barlow’s “The Prospect of Peace,” Charlotte Smith’s Sonnet I (“The partial Muse”) or Sonnet XXXII (“To melancholy”) with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Felicia Hemans’s “Properzia Rossi” or “Joan of Arc in Rheims” with John Keats’s “When I have Fears” or his “Sleep and Poetry,” Frances Osgood’s “Song” (“Your Heart is a Music-box”) with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – can their differences usefully be described as flowery poetry versus canonical fruit? Jeffrey Robinson’s essay appearing in this special issue meditates in an extended way on the difference between flowers and fruit, as well as on the difference between expiration and effusion, as poetic goals.

Examining differences between popular poetry written primarily by women and canonical poetry will provide a good basis for recognizing the achievement of any particular poem, be it canonical or non-canonical. But what’s the value of making such comparisons and contrasts? Why do it, if not simply to show that canonical poetry is “better” than popular poetry. Further, if poetry written by the poetess is simply bad literature, compared to the canonical, then why teach popular, sentimental poetry at all?

There has been, for the past twenty years, an argument afoot about high literature based primarily on the sociological study of aesthetic value coming out of work by Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory. In this argument, acting as arbiters of taste has historically secured the intellectual class its cultural dominance over the perhaps more economically powerful bourgeoisie: the aesthetic distinctions we make publicly distinguish us socially in class (Distinction), Bourdieu insists in, and knowing in advance of the bourgeois consumer what artworks are of the highest literary value has given the literati its elite status (Bourdieu, “Market”; see also Garnham). Poetess poetry is self-avowedly middle-brow: it contrasts with the higher literature that the poetess quotes, lauds, and reads as one of the very literary occasions for writing her own poem. The gift-book medium was defunct by 1860 (Bose 38, qtd. by Ledbetter 214-215), at least in Britain, [17] suggesting that poetess poetry had served its primary function of setting the highbrow off to advantage once the high had been definitively institutionalized as the object of the discipline of English literature (Soffer, Court, Engel).

One might expect, with a leveling of the distinction between high and low, literary and popular, inaugurated by Cultural Studies and New Historicism, that poetry written by the poetess would become more interesting, especially insofar as it is one of the “repressed” literary objects described by Cary Nelson (5, quoted in Bennett 204-5). And, from the perspective of (new) literary historians as well, this poetry is crucially important: as Paula Bennett has shown, we are now positioned to begin “appreciating nineteenth-century women’s poetry not just for its precursor status but also for the substantive stylistic and developmental achievement it represents in its own right” (205). But poetess “flowers” have not become a disciplinary object for cultural studies critics, nor for many “new” literary historians. Why not?

There are two reasons. First, cultural studies critics have begun looking at the poetics, or cultural construction, of just about everything, but not the poetics (or making) of poetics itself[18] There might be something threatening there, a residual resistance to fully examining disciplinary structure of English Literature, the cultural studies critic’s own backyard, so to speak. But more than that, the poetry written by the poetess is resolutely bourgeois, not simply in its happy approximation of the poetic voice to consumerist values of “Philistinism,” but, even more uncomfortably, in expressing its Philistine desire for upward mobility precisely by consuming high cultural artifacts. Poetess poetry destabilizes Arnold’s distinctions between the desire for cultural and material acquisition, between serious study and vanity (52, 61, 43). It makes us uncomfortable not the least because attacking it is to attack the very consumers, the students, upon whom any intellectual class depends for its livelihood (see Guillory, “Literary Critics”). The second reason that poetry written by the poetess has not ranked with other kinds of popular artifacts celebrated by the cultural critic is, then, that this particular form of entertainment does not resist capitalism so much as celebrate it, and, since the happy consumerism displayed in these poems takes for its object goods as easily as good literature, it reminds academics of the extent to which, historically, professional literary studies has depended on the beastly bourgeoisie: “they” are our students; “they” are us, as Pogo famously phrased it. However, there is one object upon which cultural critics have indeed focused, an object central to the poetics of the poetess: the “sentimental.”

The Sentimental

Like “poetess,” “sentimental” is, of course, primarily a derogatory term. From the association of “excessive sensibility” in the early 1790s with destructive revolutionary energies (Watson 7-8), to the concatenation, in a phrase made famous by Jean Hagstrum, of sex and sensibility, the sentimental in any form has been associated with the body – with pure, unsublimated feeling (passion, in the sense of emotion that the mind suffers, passively, because of bodily influences). When Toni Morrison, in her Nobel Prize speech, says that any language that has been “smitheryed” or wrought so as “to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege” is “dumb, predatory, sentimental” (268), we know what she means: when sentiment seizes us, we uncritically reiterate cultural values in the form of sobs. The woman has been saved by the man, we feel, as an elderly woman drops a priceless necklace into the water in the movie Titanic, and virtually no amount of prophylactic feminism will prevent a lump from forming in your throat as it sinks. And yet, one could argue that cultural critics focus on the sentimental in poetess poetry because it is a central feature of postmodern aesthetics and theory as well. What’s the relation between the Titanic sob, and the sobbing recorded recently by Kronos Quartet, or the singing that turns into screams as a young boy is castrated to preserve his voice for opera in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover (1990)? In its persistent de-sublimation of art to show the violence that sustains and creates it, does a postmodern aesthetic approximate poetess poetry which either fails or refuses to refine emotions into high art in the first place?

Jane Tompkins’s crucially important 1985 book, Sensational Designs, first put sentimental literature on the critical map, rendering less secure literary critics’ disdain for it by insisting that arbiters of the aesthetic do ill to discount the “moral commitment” and political efficacy of an epitome of “Victorian Sentimentalism” such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “it helped convince a nation to go to war and to free its slaves” (141). Tompkins’s last chapter proves Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s contention that aesthetic value is wildly contingent or culturally relative. [19] That is, Tompkins shows how the canon of American literature has changed throughout the course of the twentieth century, suggesting that the criteria we have for adjudging art to be good shifts through time. But Tompkins does not succeed, if such was her aim, in actually linking political conservatism to canonical texts themselves, a task that John Guillory has exhaustively and rightly argued would be impossible (Cultural Capital 28): canonical literature is, as we all suspected, NOT morally bad, nor even uncommitted to political change; there never has been any secret society selecting literature as canonical for its politically stultifying effects. But the real value of Tompkins’s work lies here: she argues and effectively demonstrates “that the work of the sentimental writers is complex and significant in ways other than those that characterize the established masterpieces” (126). What is true for the sentimental novel holds true for poetess poetry as well: it isn’t underdeveloped, simplified male poetry; it’s different.

For a long time, critics have presumed that women poets would become “better” poets – more complex and masculine -- simply by curtailing their emotions. Thus Griswold’s Preface to The Female Poets of America, actually admonishes women writers: “we should deem her the truest poet, whose emotions are most reined by reason, whose force of passion is most expanded and controlled into lofty and impersonal forms of imagination.” Isobel Armstrong insists that poetesses do not “accept an account of themselves as belonging to the realm of the nonrational,” such as that given by John Crowe Ransom (discussed below), but rather, they use “affective discourse” “to think with” (“Gush” 15). Armstrong’s idea is made manifest in this special issue by Kathleen Lundeen who insists that Hemans “treat[ed] sentiment as something with epistemological value.” And in America, Caroline May introduces her 1853 collection by insisting that “Deep emotions make a good foundation for lofty and beautiful thoughts” (vi). Clearly Hemans and May conceived of sentiment differently than did Coleridge who admonished Matilda Bentham in a poem: “Tho’ sweet thy measures, stern must be thy thought” (line 32).

This call for sternness in Coleridge’s poem shows us that the opposition between feeling and thought forged by the Western intellectual tradition, since Plato, has a specifiable connection to poetic forms. As articulated by Ransom, especially, the “poetic intellectualism” that has secured poems preeminence in the canonical tradition has taken the form of obscurity – Ransom calls it “tantalizing obscurity” (90), the poetess Annie Finch calls it “hermetic” (“Confessions” 222). Even the simplest poetry has been revalorized as canonical (if at the lower end of the canonical) by insisting that it is ironic in structure (see for instance Brooks) -- “ana” as opposed to “apocalyptic,” as Coleridge wrote in a letter about Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Poetry written in the tradition of ironic simplicity contrasts directly with the overwrought transparency of poetry written by the poetess. In my view, at least, it is difficult to find irony in poetess poetry, and to do so leads to strained readings. But, the only alternative to irony, what Bayard Taylor called in his 1871 essay “lyrical inanity” (321-322)?

Louise Bogan and Marianne Moore not only insist that the sentimental poetess “attempt[s] to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart” (Bogan), but that emotion is form (Moore). [20] If canonical poetry is so formed as to provide what William Styron calls “the catharsis of fantasy, enigma, and terror,” mightn’t poetess poetry be formed to provide another kind of catharsis – catharsis not through the enigma generated by irony but through sentiment fashioned in some other way? It is clear that the poetess didn’t just slap together tear-jerk images; the poetry written in this tradition has its own rules and goals, its own complexities – its own poetics.

Formal Characteristics of Poetess Poetics

As I delineate features of poetess poetry, I would like to ask, what’s at stake in denigrating those particular strategies for writing poetry that constitute the poetess tradition? My focus in thinking about this issue is the later Romantic era in British literature.

Class and Meter

Poetess poetry as presented in the Gift Books makes use of poetic forms that are highly imitable by scantily educated people such as Susannah Hawkins and Mary Panton – a lower and a middle-class Scots poetess, respectively – who knew ballads and had clearly read gift-book poetry but not much else. The metrics, iambic tetrameters and trimeters, make for sing-song poetry, but they are much closer to common ballad forms with which those of the laboring classes would be most familiar: they are not iambic pentameters and alexandrines that one has to acquire through learning Latin and Greek, reading expensive and time-consuming texts by Spenser and Milton, and/or through reading continental Latinate languages. Panton’s poems forming part of her “sonnet sequence,” for instance, begin in pentameter but quickly abandon it for the four-beat line. Hawkins writes almost exclusively in the ballad stanza, the form of alternating tetrameter and trimeter used by Hemans most memorably in “Casabianca”: “The boy stood on the burning deck / Whence all but he had fled.” It’s not just that it doesn’t take much to make a four-beat, sing-song line in English: For this I’m sure that you can see / ‘Tis easy so to do. More than that, it is harder to distinguish between good and bad iambic tetrameter or trimeter, easier between good and bad pentameter: three or four beats make lines too short to allow for pitting the rhythms of ordinary English speech against the accented/unaccented syllables – based mostly on vowel length – that constitute the metric feet of a poetic line; its almost impossible, in other words, to make a tetrameter line NOT singsong, whereas pentameter is singsong when bad, but not when good: “The shaking hare went limping through the grass” is a bad line; in contrast, Keats’s “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” in which spoken rhythm overrides a nonetheless persistent metrical exactness (“The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass”) – is good, as F. Scott Fitzgerald and C. S. Lewis have insisted. Verse that can only be singsong, as four-beat lines inevitably are, [21] levels, making it harder to distinguish the educated from the uneducated, the expert from the novice. I personally like iambic pentameter, or any verse line that beautifully stages a war between stressed metric feet and syllables accented in the ordinary rhythms of speech – that push and pull, it seems to me, is the glory of our language. The origins of English in both highly accentuated Germanic and staccato-like French, a language perfect for making poetic feet since in French each syllable has the same dull weight – those mutually antagonistic origins is what makes English so perfect for poetry. But educating oneself as a poet adept at meter and accent is something highly literate. The poetess form can be used by writers who may not have time, money, nor incentive to acquire such a high level of cultural literacy.

Monumentality vs. Community

The Romantics were the first generation of poets who saw themselves as entering into a classic, national, historical literary tradition (Curran, “Romantic Poetry” 225). One rather obvious difference, then, visible in much poetess poetry but made most famous in Mark Twain’s parody of it, Emmeline Grangerford’s “Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts”, which is included in this collection, is that high-Romantic Odes such as Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode and Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” worry about the meaning of art after one is dead, whereas the poetess poetry about death performs an act of commemoration for a community. Poetess poetry is indeed like the Hallmark card insofar as it is written for an occasion. Even a canonical poem about death so seemingly occasional as Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” isn’t really usable; it isn’t consumable. You can’t send it to someone instead of a get-well card, whereas you could send poetry written in the poetess tradition. That makes it low, popular, consumable like Hallmark streamers and confetti. But it also shows us that there is something more about Thomas in that villanelle, that he is addressing us about himself as a poet at least as much as he addresses his dying father. That’s not a condemnation but simply an analysis of audience: Thomas’s community is us, readers living after him who read high canonical verse, for the sake of applauding a national tradition.

Poetic Diction (Wreaders) vs. Defamiliarization (Writers)

As Jerome mcGann has argued, poetess poetry makes readers into writers (Poetics of sensibility). One way it does so is by offering authority via relatively easy means: one need only learn to use an artificial poetic language. In this case of thinking about what’s at stake in the difference between poetesses and canonical authors, I want to compare Wordsworth – who has been called, basically, a trust-fund hippie, by David Simpson – to Hawkins. Wordsworth chose to write in the language, he said, “really used by men” who lived “Low and rustic life” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads). Hawkins, who lived low and rustic life, did not agree with Wordsworth that the greatest poetry is fruit-bearing prose. Hers is the flowery, obtrusively poetic diction disparaged by Wordsworth to be found in earlier eighteenth-century poets or in the Della Cruscans who, it has been argued, collectively founded the nineteenth-century poetess tradition (McGann, Poetics of Sensibility 3, 74-93). For instance, she uses set epithets and images – “virtue shines” throughout her poetry – as well as the rhetorical device of euphemism – a plant is a member of the “vegetable tribe.” For Panton, too, everything wet is “begemmed with dew.” For the poetess, then, highly conventional and even clichéd poetic diction constitutes the poetic contract. Poetesses are still denigrated for using artificial poetic diction, as if it alone were laden with ideology, even though critics from Marjorie Levinson to McGann (Romantic Ideology) have demystified the alleged political neutrality of, as Wordsworth puts it in his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads, “a man speaking to men.” But crucially, the scholarly “discovery” made in the last half of the twentieth century on both sides of the Atlantic that high literature is laden with ideology [22] -- that is, with beliefs that are connected to power structures – has turned critics outward, toward popular culture, but not back to literature in order to study low poetry alongside the high. As Susan Wolfson maintains in a new defense of poetry, a concern with the relationship between form and ideology was not an unconscious problem for Romantic poets but rather their primary formal predicament (Formal Charges 10). Studying Romantic British and American canonical poetry along with Poetess poetry shows that, as Meredith McGill has recently put it, “moments of formal contemplation are when lyrics take on the politics of culture.” Formal analysis is therefore not anti- nor even a-political, as is so carefully demonstrated by the excellent, forward-looking essay in this special issue by Robert Mitchell, an essay about the effective intervention of British and American (respectively) poetics into various political arenas.

This is a crucial moment because now an important claim has found its warrant, the claim that serious study of high and sentimental poetry – at once, together – will not undermine but can in fact be used to justify continued attention to canonical literature as a disciplinary object, as well as to render visible the complexity of popular appeal. During an early moment in the feminist movement within literary studies that involved celebration along with recovery of past women writers, the “feminine” Romantic traditions were elevated at the expense of “masculine” Romanticism. Though necessary at one time, this kind of criticism has outlived its usefulness. [23] Just as neither masculine nor feminine need be tied to particular bodies – we can all agree that they are at least partly cultural constructs – so neither need be wholly good or wholly bad. It is now possible to honestly examine the achievements and limits of both the high canonical and poetess traditions. Introducing a panel about poetess poetry, Yopie Prins made a statement indicating one of the benefits of being able to relinquish that earlier feminist agenda: we can now read poetess poetry non-expressively, as not about women, but rather as about the figure of the poetess. In her response to papers given at the panel, Isobel Armstrong, guest of honor, indicated another benefit: it is now time, she said, to “re-embed” poetess studies in masculine culture – for instance, we can now talk about the male poetess. [24] But re-embedding has benefits for high poetry as well.

With the work of Romanticist New Historicists, high Romantic poetry received one of the more severe blows to its prestige – there have been many, beginning perhaps with T.S. Elliot’s privileging of the “Metaphysical Poets” as exemplary of the best in the tradition of British poetry. The New Historicists attacked Wordsworth in particular, and the Romantics in general, for their adherence to what Paul de Man famously called “aesthetic ideology” – basically, for attempting to “conver[t] the accidents of meaning to organic natural processes in the characteristic manner of ideological thought” (Eagleton 10). [25] What studying the poetess does for us is to show that thinking about any and all aestheticizing as purely ideological is too blunt an instrument for analyzing the politics of various kinds of form, and indeed, various aesthetics. Walter Benjamin’s proposal that aestheticizing the political is a fascist tactic (241) has perhaps fostered specifically Romantic New Historicism, Foucault having stimulated an Early Modern variant. Of course, literary critics have always recognized that Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley were – at least at moments – behaving in politically radical ways (Abrams, “Spirit”; Thompson), but the argument has been that their overarching poetic projects in fact reinforce the status quo, no matter what the poets’ consciously-held political beliefs. Setting Romantic poetry that deplores conventional poetic diction up against another aesthetic, the poetess bourgeois aesthetic, helps both to shine: the sentimentalist project of embodying the conventional in a subversive way, [26] which I will discuss further in a moment, and a high Romantic project that sets out to overturn conventional moral values and expectations of art. High Romantic poetry, in Percy Shelley’s words, “strips the veil of familiarity from the world” – it “awakens” us, Coleridge says, “from the lethargy of custom.”  [27] That project has been seen as inferior to the “ideology critique” that is based on theory insofar as it does not refuse to aestheticize: for Shelley, stripping does offer extra-conventional ways of thinking, but it also simultaneously “lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of [conventional] forms” (L 2A.806; N 2.763). Just as in the project of defamiliarization as described by the Russian formalists (Lotman 67-8), this high Romantic concept of poetical action can be both politically potent and aesthetically pleasing. But to see it as both requires overcoming a theoretical blindness in which it is imagined that a critique of ideology is only effective if wedded to a kind of asceticism, to a refusal of the pleasures of beauty. The high Romantic project of defamiliarization is one strategy for politicizing the aesthetic, even AS it aestheticizes the political: [28] Shelley wants to give people pleasure as they step outside habitual modes of thought.

Two crucial essays describe poetess poetry as performing a different but incredibly valuable project: in contrast to Romantic naturalizing as a way of laying custom bare, poetess poetry embraces and then, in some instances, also simultaneously subverts conventional aesthetic and moral values. Ann Douglas Wood’s “Mrs. Sigourney and the Sensibility of Inner Space” describes Sigourney’s use of conventional images of female piety partly to sublimate, and partly to act upon, sexual excitement. Published in 1972, that essay becomes prophetic in the light of the new scholarship on Letitia Landon’s life presented by Cynthia Lawford: as Lawford has noted in a recently published essay in the London Review of Books, Landon had an illicit affair with her editor, resulting in several children (Diary). Lawford’s essay published in this issue of Romanticism on the Net shows us how that particular embodiment changes our readings of L.E.L.’s poetry: “her affair transmogrifies what had seemed to be her ideal of woman’s love, placing illicit affection, or sex outside of marriage, not only within its bounds, but at its core.” If sexuality always threatens to disrupt or overturn conventions, as the libertine, Freudian, and 60s sexual revolutions all attest, then, sexual biography must inform our readings of the highly conventional poetess poems that it partly produced.

High Romantics worked less on the poet’s body than on the body of the word. For high romantic poets such as Wordsworth, poetry should analyze ordinary language rather than utter the conventional. The poetess reiterates conventional poetic diction but from a body not only gendered feminine but unconventionally and immorally sexualized, thus reworking it via a new context which changes its meaning. For Wordsworth, the poetic contract is ideally established if and only if you find a particular rearrangement of ordinary language to be thought-provoking, deep, and even demystifying; it helps you actually think the language you speak as if speaking it for the first time. Insofar as Wordsworth’s diction contrasts with the flowery, poetic diction of the poetess – insofar as he does in fact try to see how closely he can make his words approximate natural objects (“Rocks and stones and trees”) – he is not endorsing an organicist ideology so much as trying to locate it, attempting to push up against the limits of the cultural, of what is pre-thought, pre-fabricated, and hence not free (Ferguson, Wolfson “Questioning”).

Defamiliarization is an important project. But let’s notice that the poetic contract made otherwise, made through taking a vacation from ordinary language into stock poetic epithets and phrases, gives someone such as Hawkins poetic authority. Hawkins often assumes that the subjects of her poems are her equals, even in poems such as “Lines on a Gentleman and a Lady,” which presumes to tell landlords how to treat their tenants during a famine: poetic authority gained through use of fanciful words, high poetic diction, was enough for her – too much, no doubt, for the particular Lord and Lady. Here is another example of the project of subversive embodiment: a poetess poetics, insofar as it promotes sing-song meters and easily acquired poetic diction, allows the position of “the poet” to be embodied differently – no longer by an aristocratic man of leisure, but by “Suzy Hawkins,” who, homeless for a while, roamed the border between England and Scotland (DNB 9.225-6).

Literacy was indeed becoming incredibly wide-spread. [29] Almost anyone could get access to poetry: if being a poet meant no more than deploying standardized poetic diction, then almost anyone could become a poet. At that moment, the rules had to change to discriminate not just among readers but among writers, confining “the best” to a group of people who were “fit . . . though few.” [30]

The “high” Romantic poets, in offering us a more difficult poetic contract, one in which the poet’s authority is achieved by other means than by the mere usage of recognizably artificial, poetic words, do, in fact, improve poetry. But nonetheless, it is crucial to see and tally all the costs of this improvement, one among them being that lower-class writers may not be able to achieve poetic authority in a Romantic idiom, whereas they can do so more easily if artificial diction were the norm. Romanticism might be said here to begin the avant garde as it is defined by Pierre Bourdieu in “The Market in Symbolic Goods”: the avant garde continually changes the rules of artistic production so as to distinguish it from, and make it more valuable than, mass produced culture. Ordinary language philosophy, undertaken first in Romantic poetry (Cavell), cannot be practiced by everyone, while almost anyone can turn any living thing into the member of a tribe: the billowy tribe – there, a cloud! Is the philosophical poetic project, defamiliarization of ordinary language for the sake of demystifying, perhaps even allowing one to break out of ideology, temporarily at least – is that project necessarily also caught up in the classist project of distinguishing oneself from all the lower orders, aestheticizing as class warfare, so aptly described by Bourdieu? Paying attention to poetry written by the poetess allows us to formulate this question. Only formulating such a question makes possible seeing a poem ask it (Woifson “Questionning”).

Inter vs. Intrasubjectivity

In “Confessions of a Postmodern Poetess,” Finch talks about the fact that poetesses diffuse rather than consolidate subjectivity, partly by not using nature metaphorically, by refusing to appropriate materiality as spiritual food for the ego. A prime example of this refusal can be seen in the difference between William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal entry describing the same scene that inspired the poem (109). After describing the scene, the narrator of William’s poem obtrudes into it, “I gazed – and gazed – but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought”(N 186)) and then goes on to describe how his memory of the daffodils, ideal daffodils, have helped him when “in vacant or in pensive mood.” In contrast, in Dorothy’s journals, daffodils remain daffodils – they are left planted, so to speak, in “that one busy highway”: here human highways have become a metaphor for the ground colonized by the flowers; in Dorothy’s journals, nature metaphorizes us. Insofar as such a refusal of metaphorical appropriations of nature appear in poetess poetry, one can see, Finch argues, a subjectivity not consolidated in the “I” who appropriates the daffodil, departing from the real ones, gathering the ideal, and turning them into a message about the relation of nature to the soul; in contrast, in Dorothy’s sheer description, there is no “I.” Or the “I” is diffused, part of each object described, but no more part of one than of another – spread evenly throughout the scene.

Of course, this is an easy trick, comparing Wordsworth’s “egotistical sublime” to self-abnegating Dorothy who was not, moreover, a publishing poetess. A better couple for comparison and contrast is Keats and Hemans, as is seen in Kathleen Lundeen’s essay included in this special issue, for the sake of thinking about the difference between the kinds of subjectivity crafted in the poetess tradition and those to be found in canonical poetry. Hemans, Lundeen insists,“flaunt[s] her negative incapability” as a kind of “op-ed writer of verse.” How does op-ed writing leave flowers planted, while “negative capability” (Keats L 902; N 831) actually uproots them?

No one has written more eloquently about the poet’s task of diffusing his own subjectivity among the objects he describes than Keats, as here:

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for[ming] – and filling some other Body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea . . . – the poet has . . . no identity. . . . It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature – how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People . . . , the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me [so] that I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated . . . .

Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818, L 908; N 836-7

There is a difference, however, between Keats’s “camelion Poet” who has negative capability as he describes him here, and the “self-diffusion” of the poetess. As Finch so aptly points out, one’s self is diffused precisely when one embraces conventionality. Comparing the particular “selflessness” of the camelion poet to the diffusion of the poetess will show better what exactly Finch means.

When Keats in another letter berates Wordsworth for promoting his own philosophy in his poetry, he says,

We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us – and if we do not agree, seems to put its hands in its breeches pocket [-- seems to pout, that is.] Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject. – How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose.’.

Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818, L 903, N 832

Keats opposes Wordsworth’s poetical egotism to his own purely descriptive poetry, poetry which “does not startle . . . or amaze . . . with itself but with its subject.” Keats does so by metaphorically equating poems with flowers: poems should be as selfless as are natural objects. But it is crucial to notice that the poetic description of a flower as opposed to a flowery poetic description requires the insertion of a poetic will in a way that the actual growth of a flower does not.

For a poet to describe natural as opposed to conventional objects requires the interposition of a critical self. All of us see cultural objects: to turn away from them to nature, or to turn to them as nature, is to addthe poet’s critical or demystifying intentionality to those objects, via description.

Hemans’s “Evening Prayer” depicts a group of children praying: “Gaze,” Hemans’s poetic narrator commands us, and then asks, “yet what seest thou in those fair, and meek, / And fragile things, as but for sunshine wrought?” (436). What indeed: what do you see besides plants that need sunshine? Cultural or acculturated object, such as those evoked here, have a design on us. When a poetess depicts an image of children praying, it tells us exactly what these cultural objects, were we there to see them, would tell us: that children ought to pray. The image buys into the ideology of childhood innocence, and that ideology speaks loudly in Hemans’s poem, most loudly in the “as,” in offering her equation of children with plants in the form of a simile rather than metaphor. Why? Similes proclaim both difference from and similarity to, in the same gesture. The camelion poet, preferring metaphor, overrides culture’s will – its message, children should pray – insofar as he uses metaphor to strip such objects of their design on us rather than to emphasize that design, as Hemans does in her use of flowery simile here. It is much more selfless, in other words, to mouth ideology than to critique it. I don’t mean at all that it’s “better,” only that a Hallmark card gives us real selflessness in poetry: a mere thoughtless repetition of conventional ideas gives us those ideas, not the thoughts of the person iterating them.

To describe things as they really are wouldn’t be an act of sheer description since things do not present themselves to us as sheer stuff but as stuff-plus-ideas. Describing things as they are rather than as they appear to the passive viewer requires interposing one’s own will, a will visible precisely as the act of stripping things down to negate their cultured meanings. In other words, the subjectivity of Keats’s camelion poet has not disappeared into the objects around it: it is eminently visible operating in the demystificatory work done by the act of description. For example, the poet in John Keats’s “Ode on a Nightingale” is metaphorically equated with the nightingale through the activity of pure description – that is, by describing the bird from what is apparently its own or nature’s (rather than culture’s) point of view. As Bruce Clark describes Keats’s “empathetic career” in this Ode, the poet engages in “empathetic circulation”: the poet’s imagination ventures out of himself in the psychological act of identifying with a bird – “sacrific[ing] self on the altar of poetic compassion” – and then returns to the self, the poem ending with “the wandering imagination remembering itself” at the “tolling” of the word “Forlorn” which begins the last stanza of the poem (60-62). But if the self is allegedly annihilated and reconstructed as part of the poetic process described by the poem, the effect of the poem is to give us a Self. Readers of this poem tend to read it biographically, “assum[ing] that it gives us direct access to the profound inner experience of the poet himself,” as Tom Furniss and Michael Bath put it. The poet is seen as “a specially gifted individual – someone who,” they say, quoting Wordsworth’s 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, “’being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply’” (7, 9, qtg. Wordsworth L 357, N 143).

The paradox, that a poem about the dispersal of self gives readers such a strong sense of the poet’s self, is resolved if one reads Keats’s Odes by comparing them to poetess poetry: the act of demystifying, stripping objects of the meaning endowed to them by one’s cultural place and historical moment, through empathetic identification (the chamelion poet’s self-forgetting) is in fact an act of temporal imperialism, establishing the grandeur of the poetic Selfhood for future generations of readers. The high Romantic poets had a deep sense of literary history, and of hollowing out a place for themselves in it, by transcending local time and place. For them, giving things “a local habitation and a name” meant empathetic description from the perspective a future society on whom cultural associations may be lost. That act produces the Poet.

The poetess, in contrast, with a small ‘p,’ has no such temporal ambitions for establishing a name, and thus can leave cultural meanings where she finds them. Here we can see yet another convergence between poetess poetics and postmodernism, and indeed a reason that it is difficult to assess the value or poetess poetry in terms of politics: if uttered passively enough, conventions will “auto-deconstruct” (Derrida, Nutshell 9) leaving open to question whether the one iterating those conventions has actively produced or merely discovered their unraveling. [31]

Conformity vs. Critique

It is so easy to love the visibly active project of critique and often, like so many feminists, to intensely dislike the poetess for apparently accepting her lot. The poetess is a sort of Martha Stewart, infuriating to the extent that she so happily celebrates her oppression, admirable to the extent that she capitalizes on it. But let’s not like Keats pretend that critique is pure subject-less description. Poetry written by poetesses does help us see that “real” realism – as opposed to realism-effects – would consist in reporting about things that do in fact tell us what to think insofar as they are cultural, acculturated, always-already ideological. That is, it is ONLY insofar as they accept the domestic ideology that makes them subservient that poetesses can allow things to appear in poems complete with their very own intentions, without any interference on the part of the poet. The poetess is really not there – the world’s intentionality, ideology by any other name, declares itself in her poetry.

If what the poetess does in some sense is to quote the world, as it expresses itself (ideologically), poetess poetry is realistic. To what extent, though, does sentimental quotation realistically represent the feelings had by the subject who writes poetess poetry? That question has been pressing, as Adela Pinch shows in her discussion of Charlotte Smith, from the eighteenth century to our own time, and, as work by Cheryl Walker, Ann Douglas Wood, and Cynthia Lawford (the latter published in this special issue) attest, the biographical mode of reading poetess poetry has had a powerful impetus and fascinating results: poetess poetry raises the question, to what extent can quotation – or in fact any use of language which quotes the dictionary, if not hackneyed clichés – to what extent can it express any subject’s private feelings?

Although much postmodern theory has effectively critiqued the notion of the lone genius that fuels denigration of the poetess, such postmodern thinking has not been brought to bear systematically on an aesthetic revaluation of lyric poetry. [32] At the inception of the poetess tradition, Edgar Allan Poe attacked both Hemans and Sigourney for using quotations in their poetry, in a review of 1836. Now, almost two centuries later, poetesses are still condemned for such artificiality, despite the fact that so much has been done by Derrida (“Signature”), Barthes, and Foucault – as well as more material critics such as Martha Woodmansee and Mark Rose – to deconstruct our Romantic notions of authorial originality. We need now to fully analyze how the poetess’s “artificiality” and “sentimentality” serve to debunk an expressivist aesthetic in which an artistic individual spontaneously exudes deeply hidden, private feelings. Recent critics argue that poetess poetry is as anti-expressivist.

First, Pinch shows that Charlotte Smith habitually quotes rather than merely alludes to poetry written by precursors and contemporaries because, for Smith, acquiring literary language is in fact kind of like growing another sense organ, one similar to sight or taste, which stimulates new and deep feelings. Smith does not subscribe to a model of subjectivity in which poets feel and then express what they feel; in her view, the acquisition of expressions is precisely what causes one to feel deeply. [33] Second, Yopie Prins and Virginia Jackson see poetess poetry as inventing selves that are not selves but rather crossing- or meeting-places for exchangeable emotions: the poetess depicts the feelings of a slave with which she and her readers identify, thereby losing a sense of private suffering and stimulating suffering in common. According to Prins and Jackson, the feelings stimulated by this poetry are as much about the self as the victim described, and thus are about neither: this poetry escapes not into but out of Romantic individualism. We might conclude, then, that, in its very exaggeration of the feminine, and its incredible willingness to relegate women’s feelings to the mere occasion for empathetic identifications, poetess poetry is a system of exchange or transit (Prins and Jackson “Lyrical Studies”): it attempts to be transnational, transhistorical, and transatlantic.


Isobel Armstrong has said recently that transatlanticism will make us rethink the whole issue of the poetics/politics relation (see note above), and Tricia Lootens has begun the project of describing transatlantic connections even or especially among women poets wishing to forge their own distinctively feminine and patriotic nationalism. [34] I will conclude this introduction by situating poetess poetics in the transatlantic conversation that formed its true milieu – it transpired primarily in what Meredith McGill has called “transnational periodical culture” – and by suggesting that sentimentality provides a very imperfect but very interesting medium for conversing across national boundaries. A poet such as Hemans, whose poetry, Hugh Roberts says, “would be approved by the fiercest Church and State Tory,” and who is thus politically nationalistic, nonetheless conducted a transatlantic poetic business: The League of the Alps and Other Poems was first published in Boston (1826). She was not the only one. Phillis Wheatley first published in London in 1773. And beyond the business of publication, poetesses seemed to be in conversation with each other. The poetess Lydia Sigourney was called “the American Hemans” (Haight 80-1), a designation at once erecting and overleaping national boundaries.

In its commercialism, poetess poetry performs what Deleuze and Guattari call “the first sort of deterritorialization” or expansion out from national boundaries by using “a vehicular . . . language, a language of commercial exchange” (23). The coin on this international market is, again, sentiment. Contrast this exchangeability of sentiments to what Paul Gilroy calls “the slave sublime”: a transatlantic aesthetic trying to represent the terrible sufferings that Africans experienced while being transported from Africa to the colonies in what has come to be called “the middle passage.” The slave sublime “struggl[es] to repeat the unrepeatable; to present the unpresentable” (Gilroy 37, 17, 38), therefore not in fact producing easily exchangeable, consumable units of feeling or meaning. But if poetess poetry does not give us “the shock of elsewhere,” as does “the slave sublime” instantiated in Black Atlantic poetry, as Edouard Glissant describes it, it is nonetheless still about “the entanglements of world-wide relation” and thus participates in what Glissant calls “the poetics of relation” in contradistinction to “the poetics of depth”:

romantic lyricism . . . claim[ed] that the poet was the introspective master of his joys or sorrows; and that it was in his power to draw clear, plain lessons from this that would benefit everyone.

30-1, 24

As within the theory of “depth psychology” that consolidates the self into a master ego, the romantic lyricist coalesces into a “sovereign subject” (Glissant 24). Insofar as the poetess is not represented in her poems as this sovereign self, her poetry is indeed what Glissant calls a “nonprojectile imaginary construct” (35), that is, an artistic endeavor that does not have imperialist and colonizing designs. This is not to say that it doesn’t have designs, only that these designs are not those of a self-universalizing, territorializing subject.

Tompkins suggests the value of understanding a sentimental poetics, especially in the context of transatlantic studies: “the tears and gestures of Stowe’s characters are not in excess of what they feel; if anything, they fall short of expressing the experiences they point to . . . .” – “sentimental fiction . . . is anything but domestic . . . . Its mission . . . is global” (132, 146). And so here lies the difficulty of understanding the politics of sensibility, an issue addressed by so many recent critical texts. [35] Even though it makes use of often hackneyed conventions for the sake of producing its effects, sentimental poetry presents us with gestures that are, Tompkins insists, not in excess of what is felt in the course of registering experiences for the sake of a mission for global justice. [36]

The very sense we have of sensibility’s excess perhaps speaks less to the vulgarity of a poetic tradition than to the desire to separate politics from aesthetics (see also Gilroy 38). High art’s rejection of the kind of sensibility that is indeed allied with morality [37] – the kind that perhaps only seems excessive because of this rejection – is completely visible, for instance, in Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien, in which he says that presentations of true misery make bad art:

An unhappy woman, and truly unhappy, cries and moves you not at all: it’s worse, it’s that a slight characteristic that mars her looks makes you laugh; that her particular accent jars and wounds your ear; that one of her habitual movements reveals her sadness to be vilely [selfish] and sullen; it’s that all the exaggerated passions are almost all prone to the grimaces that an artist without talent servilely copies but that the great artist avoids.

128, 132, 137 [my translation]

True anguish here is both feminine and inartistic, the very stuff of poetess poetry. Great artists who are actors, Diderot concludes, cannot be men of sensibility:

The sensitive man obeys natural impulses and renders nothing precisely but the cry of his own heart; at the very moment where he tempers or forces that cry, it is no longer he himself but the actor who performs.

151 [my translation]

Diderot here puts forward the notion that effectively representing to others what one feels, for the sake of stimulating their empathy, requires some “aesthetic” distance: once any distance is admitted, he implies – once any of us admit to paying attention not just to how we feel but to how our feelings look to others around us – then we are all simply actors and artists. We could say that, paradoxically, real pain appears fake, while those representations of pain over which an artist has coolly deliberated appear most real. The poetess deliberates less over her excessively sentimental depictions than the canonical poet who artistically prunes away the excessive.

But an interest in transatlantic literature, and particularly Black Atlantic cultural forms such as jazz that articulate a history of suffering at the hands of global injustice, has caused us to reassess Diderot’s priorities. What we want to see now when we look at cultural artifacts is not how “cool” they can be, but rather, whether and how they have successfully managed “to use syntax in order to cry, [and] to give a syntax to the cry” (Deleuze and Guattari 26): it’s only by bringing intense feeling back out of the aesthetic realm and into the arena of action that a literature and its language can become revitalized (Morrison 268-9). But of course action requires an aesthetic: communicating feelings for the sake of establishing a moral community requires attention to the syntax or form that makes them understandable, sharable (Gilroy 37). How interesting it will be to ask how and why poetess poetry succeeds or fails in this enterprise, in contrast to other transatlantic cultural enterprises. [38] Yes, it is odd to imagine the hyper-conventional, self-educating poetess, even those involved in the abolition movement, as performing something like the work of jazz. And yet one only need to remember that Frederick Douglass, for instance, was inspired by The Columbian Orator, a decidedly middle-brow text, and to remember that abolition, feminism, and indeed any poetics of relation that centers on the idea of justice, [39] began as a demand “that bourgeois civil society live up to the promises of its own rhetoric” (Gilroy 37). Poetess poetry is one mouthpiece of that rhetoric, and so studying it will give us yet another way to measure its impact on communal forms of life.

Contents of the Special Issue

In this special issue, Peggy Davis provides a review of criticism about the Poetess published during the last ten years, a most fruitful time for poetess criticism. Next, Nanora Sweet clearly establishes that Louise Bogan and Felicia Hemans were engaged in forging a transatlantic, trans-temporal or periodic feminist community or sorority through their reworkings of shared literary predecessors, in particular, Petrarch. Failing to recognize that both women poets are writing in the Petrarchan genre of “the triumph” has led critics to assume that they both reject fame for “feminine” reasons. Rereading their work as a redaction of the Italian tradition of the laurel exemplified by Petrarch enables us to see that their “poetry of abjuration” not as an actual renunciation of fame but as “fallow time” before the next triumph.

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, printed for the first time here, Jeffrey Robinson illuminates Felicia Hemans’s poetics which he calls “the poetics of expiration.” This essay is itself artistic, moving easily between Hemans’s works and contemporary theorists in the field of poetics. In a very different kind of essay, Kathleen Lundeen assesses the theoretical impact of the recovery of the poetess. Pointing out that Hemans is “an op-ed writer of verse,” one who wishes to flaunt her “negative incapability,” Lundeen implicitly questions what is at stake among critics who privilege disinterestedness and call all else “sentimentality.” Implicitly at stake is critics’ own need either to repress or deny their own passionate commitments, interests that are not ultimately erasable from any meaning-making activity, including the fact-finding of science itself. If cultural critics balk at sentimentality as much as did new critics of the past, Lundeen implies, it is because they do not see Felicia Hemans for what she truly is: a cultural critic with political commitments and a sophisticated epistemology to match.

Kate Montweiler’s argument about The Improvisatrice is as much about the physical body of the book, and its punning on the female body, as it is about the poems as disembodied texts: her essay presents thus a truly radical argument about the erotics of poetess poetry, anchoring that erotics in the sensuality of "embellishments," including the elaborate chirographic renditions of the initials L.E.L. Arguing that The Improvisatrice enacts a kind of viewing that L.E.L. wants readers to participate in as they read, Montwieler maintains that the poem encourages readers to enage in an "onanistic poesaphilias": thinly-veiled pornographic, masturbatory, solitary scenes of indulgence in poetic sensibility. Montweiler’s very convincing essay is profitably read in conjunction with the new biographical information provided by Lawford here, that Landon’s early poems, at least, were in fact missives to a real lover – that Landon acted out in her own life the radical, and potentially subversive, sexual politics promoted by her poetic heroines.

Robert Mitchell’s essay extrapolates sophisticated and complex theories as to how poetic language generates sympathy from poems about slavery by Helen Maria Williams and Ann Yearsley. In reading women’s poetry in general, and abolitionist poetry in particular, Mitchell implies, we too often uncritically attribute to them the supposition that all readers would identify directly with representations of suffering. While William Cowper, writing before Williams and Yearsley, opens up the problematic that, as Mitchell puts it, “all pity [might be] self-pity,” Yearsley and Williams provide a model for and effectively limit what Mitchell calls “reflexive sympathy,” a process of sympathizing for an other by taking him or her into one’s own imaginative “domos.” The two regulate – each one differently -- such domestications of the slave’s pain. Williams controls whose identities merge, ensuring that the reader identifies with reformer rather than slaver. In contrast, Yearsley encourages wider-ranging imaginative acts of identification – one can identify with the “crafty merchant” of her “Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” – but ensures through artistic means that such an act will reveal “the disjunction between family and capital.”

Shelley King’s essay shows that changes in assumptions about sensibility and women’s poetics in which they came to be gendered “feminine and weak” reduced the political impact of Amelia Opie’s poety. Feminizing sensibility, and proffering a “feminine” poetics as the legitimate goal for her work, as did conservative reviewers among Opie’s contemporaries, is one way to defuse the anti-classist and anti-racist radicalism constitutive of her earlier poetics. Turning back from politics to poetics, but connecting it firmly to the economic sphere, Ann Hawkins’s essay does an excellent job of showing how Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, relied upon but also diverged from poetess poetics as a way of forging her own poetic voice without sacrificing the economic success enjoyed by anyone willing to write poetry in the style and manner of the annuals.

Connecting Britain to America, Wendy Dasler Johnson argues that Lydia Sigourney played off of her identification as “The American Hemans” in order to forge a place for herself, but that the identification with Hemans simultaneously threatened, and still threatens, to obscure her achievement. Sigourney’s (mis)identification as “The American Hemans” serves as a kind of parallel or allegory for the double-bind faced by a nineteenth-century woman writer: to become famous, one must be like Hemans, but to be like Hemans is to lose sight of oneself; to signify oneself as a “proper” woman writer, one must utter the sobs of the sentimental woman, but such a voice has been valued by critics at about the level of “anonymous.” Johnson points out that such sobbing is habitually seen as a craft, not an art.

Annie Finch, a self-proclaimed “postmodern poetess” – a poet rather than an Americanist literary critic – who focuses on questions of form, [40] insists upon the artistry of the sobbing craft. Carefully distinguishing between Enlightenment poetry of sensibility and nineteenth-century sentimental poetry allows Finch to recognize Phillis Wheatley as among the first innovators of modern sentimentally, arguing that it is precisely her situatedness (that is, the racism that positions Wheatley as an “Afric Muse” in America) which promotes such an innovation. Finch effectively shows Wheatley presenting us with “a manifesto of sentimentality,” and also shows the advantages for Wheatley, in overcoming poetical oppression, at least, of constructing a sentimental poetry that is genuinely intersubjective rather than subjective. By the end of Finch’s essay, the Romantic, expressivist aesthetic informing canonical poetry can be seen as much more manipulative – at least politically – than this sentimentalist form.

Patrick Vincent’s essay addresses another transatlantic relationship, but this time between the U.S. and the Continent. Vincent heeds Yopie Prins’s recent call to abandon critical attempts to recover the subjectivity of (real) poetesses and instead to look at the culturally constructed figure of the “poetess” (Introductory Remarks). Vincent describes the early reception history of American poetess Lucretia Davidson who died at 16, apparently of anorexia nervosa: focused as it was on her death, a transatlantic body of criticism (Southey, Poe) and tribute (Desbordes-Valmore, Karolina Pavlova) offers to the poetess tradition a “women’s ethic of self-sacrifice . . . enabl[ing] a female form of literary transmission that celebrates women’s interchangeability rather than their uniqueness.” And finally, Aimée Boutin gives us an overview of the French construction of the figure of the poetess. Boutin’s argument provides a useful antidote to Anne Mellor’s attempt to distinguish the acquiescent “poétesse” from the politically resistant female poet, showing in her survey of some key French figures, not only that both kinds of work might appear in one poet, and indeed in one poem, but also, more importantly, that the rhetoric of the feminine appearing in poetess poetry displays “resistance to as well as complicity with Romantic gender codes” (6).

Collectively these essays take us back and forth across the Atlantic, simultaneously mapping the full range of intersubjective and political possibilities achieved by Sapphic leaps in space and time.

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Parties annexes