Corps de l’article


The death at “sixteen years and eleven months” of American child prodigy Lucretia Maria Davidson (1808-1825) marks a significant moment in the development of the ideology of the Romantic poetess, not only capturing the imagination of prominent critics on both sides of the Atlantic, but also inspiring other poetesses to write authorizing elegies based on the young woman’s fate. Lucretia Davidson was the eldest of two New England sisters who both started writing poetry at an early age, but whose careers were cut short by consumption.[1] Because she was the first, Lucretia drew more attention than her sister Margaret Miller Davidson, becoming an iconic figure for precocious genius. Lucretia’s international fame is closely tied to an influential review of her literary “Remains” written in 1829 by Robert Southey, which portrayed the young woman as a female Chatterton, and served as a red flag to parents with gifted children. Southey’s article made its way around Europe, subsequently provoking Edgar Allan Poe in 1841 to attack the laureate’s facile labeling of the young woman as a genius, and to make a firmer distinction between the young poetess’s poetic soul and her more prosaic body of poems. As a result of all the publicity over the Davidson sisters, two prominent Romantic poets, France’s Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859) and Russia’s Karolina Pavlova (1807-1893) wrote elegies addressing the problem of female genius, “Lucretia Davidson”(1832) and “Three Souls” (1845). Read together, these two poems help us better delineate how Romantic women poets imagined the functions of elegy as a mode of literary transmission and of the poetess as a cultural figure.

While the case of the Davidson sisters is remarkable for the uncanny particularity of two sisters writing and dying at such a young age, its appeal to women contemporaries must have partly stemmed from the fact that their story was not so unusual. On the one hand, as a number of historians have argued, death played a conspicuous role in the life and culture of the early nineteenth century.[2] On the other hand, poetry was one of the only creative venues open to young girls bound to the home and educated rudimentarily. Many of the period’s best-known poetesses began their careers early, including Felicia Hemans, who published her first collection at fourteen, Evdokia Rostopchina, in print at twenty, and Delphine Gay, whose dramatic readings at sixteen were the delight of Parisian salons. In her groundbreaking study of American poetesses, The Nightingale’s Burden, Cheryl Walker points out that writing was one of the rare means by which a woman could escape from her domestic condition:

Evidence of a precocious intellect had a particularly important value for these women in terms of domestic politics. Since a ‘normal’ course of development invariably brought a young woman into the trap of domesticity, evidence of ‘difference,’ of more advanced intellectual capabilities than expected, was necessary in order to win these girls the time and freedom necessary for creative work.


For many aspiring poetesses, the most potent exemplar of this “difference” issued not from real life, but from Germaine de Staël’s hugely popular novel, Corinne, or Italy (1807). Corinne, the archetypal woman genius and the authorizing figure for a whole generation of women poets, enjoys her first poetic successes in Florence before age fifteen (De Staël 379).

If creative genius, originality and hence also the problem of origins occupy the various poles of the discourse surrounding Lucretia Davidson, it is her self-sacrificing death, much like Corinne’s, which gives authority to the whole. The reviews and elegies written in honor of Davidson reflect a more generalized ambivalence within Romantic culture in regard to female genius, as well as an uncertainty as to the value of an ideology which privileges self-sacrifice. On the one hand, the young poetess is figured as exceptional and thus not imitable; on the other hand, critics and poets view her case as transmissible, and even dangerously contagious. As I argue below, Lucretia Davidson's self-sacrifice takes on a modern resonance because it looks so much like anorexia nervosa. According to Southey’s narrative, the young poetess strictly controls her consumption of food and poetry writing, a resistance that challenges her ties to mother and father as well as her identity within the patriarchal order and developing consumer society. Davidson’s male reviewers attempt to limit this epidemic of female genius by arguing for the containment of both the consumption and the production of sentimental poetry: a woman can be a genius despite the fact that she writes verse. Women poets on the other hand find authorization in other women artists’ ethic of self-sacrifice. Their elegies dramatize this ethic, which I argue is a refusal of the Oedipal moment, in order to enable a female form of literary transmission that celebrates women's interchangeability instead of their uniqueness. Not all women poets imagine themselves in this role, however. Feminized elegy falls into the devalued category of popular poetry and the poetess, and some poets prefer the more agonistic form of male elegy. In mourning Lucretia Davidson in her later poem, Karolina Pavlova radically rewrites Marceline Desbordes-Valmore's feminized elegy, pointing to the exhaustion of sentimental rhetoric, and thus also to the failure of the ideology of the Romantic poetess.


Following the 1829 publication of Amir Khan, and Other Poems: The Remains of Lucretia Davidson, Robert Southey wrote a thirteen page article for The Quarterly Review in which he compares Davidson with the marvelous Boy, Thomas Chatterton. Southey was to prove extremely influential in launching Davidson’s posthumous reputation: Cheryl Walker calls him a “male midwife to her career” (80). The Poet Laureate’s essay was copied almost verbatim by Amédée Pichot, an important proselytizer of English literature, and published in the Revue de Paris. A year later in Moscow, on the title page of the avant-garde Literaturnaya Gazeta, critic V. Romanovich copied parts of Southey’s text and added that Lucretia was a rising star who would have rivaled her contemporaries in England had she lived. Finally, following the publication in 1841 of the combined Remains of Lucretia and her sister Margaret Miller’s works, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a review for Graham’s Magazine, a periodical with a predominantly female audience. Poe's essay discredits the “crudest critical dicta of Great Britain” (224) and questions the custom of celebrating dead young poets. In a little over a decade, Lucretia Maria Davidson’s Remains had gone full circle; what began as an example of back-woods pathos returned to the New World as an anxious sign of Europe’s decadent late Romantic culture, a culture intrigued by the morbid conjunction between poetesses, youth and death.

Robert Southey’s 1829 article is crucial not only because it helped transmit the Davidson myth around Europe, but even more so because it legitimized that myth. As in most contemporary reviews of women poets, the laureate devotes more space to biographical information lifted from Samuel Morse’s “Biographical Sketch” than he does to the poems proper. His tale is familiar—he depicts Lucretia as the perfect Romantic heroine, with a “high, open forehead, a soft black eye, perfect symmetry of features, a fair complexion, and luxuriant hair,” adding that “the prevailing expression of her face was melancholy” (300). The tenor of the article, like his previous articles on Kirke White and Chatterton, is that precocious genius can be dangerous. Southey attributes Davidson’s death not so much to consumption, as to an overly arduous mind, which consumes the body and brings the young girl to the brink of madness. There is no clear and easy solution to such an ailment. “To those parents who may have a fearful charge of a child like Lucretia Davidson,” he concludes, “these memoirs will have a deep and painful interest. They clearly indicate the danger, but afford no clue to the means of averting it. It is as perilous to repress the ardour of such a mind as to encourage it” (301).

While Southey’s diagnosis is pure romanticism, the rhetoric, and some of the details chosen to describe this condition give Davidson’s ailment a curiously modern resonance. The poet laureate’s depiction of Davidson hints at a case of anorexia nervosa or bulimia, neither term of which was yet in usage in the 1830s, but a disorder whose recorded history goes at least as far back as Antigone. The analogy between consumption and anorexia may not be so far-fetched: anorexia was first called “nervous consumption” by Richard Morton in 1694 (Raimbault and Eliacheff 13). A model daughter and a perfectionist at home and at school, Lucretia Davidson’s personality, which Cheryl Walker labels as “puritan” (80), fits the mold of many modern victims of anorexia. The young girl’s relation to writing and learning, like that to food, is both obsessive and self-destructive. Describing her writing methods, Southey notes that Lucretia “composed with great rapidity” but “often destroyed” what she wrote (294). He then quotes a passage from Morse in which it is twice stated that Davidson is so preoccupied with her work that she has “often forgotten her meals” (294). At Mrs. Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, Lucretia finds “all the advantages for which she had hungered and thirsted; and…she devoured them with fatal eagerness” (297). Finally, too sick to stay at school and forbidden to read for the sake of her health, the young girl stares at her books and “said often to her mother, ‘what a feast I shall have by-and-by’” (289).

It is significant that Lucretia states the latter to her mother, who acts here as a mediator between the young girl and her desire to learn or eat. While the poet’s mother was very close to her daughter, her father, according to Cheryl Walker, was authoritative and cold (162). Family dynamics seem to dictate the way Davidson manages her intake of knowledge and of food, her mother by requesting too much attention from the young girl, her father through his emotional distance. When Lucretia discovered that her mother was ill, for example, “she gave up her pen and books, and applied herself exclusively to household business, for several months, till her body as well as her spirits failed. She became emaciated, her countenance bore marks of deep dejection…” (292). Lucretia replaces her mother as the nurturing figure; writing and eating provide the young daughter with the means to voice her self-sacrificing love toward her female parent. On the other hand, Lucretia rejects her father, apparently dying with the name of another man, Moss Kent, on her lips. Kent is the surrogate father who oversaw her education at the Troy seminary and served as an intellectual role model, while Davidson’s real father continued to doubt his daughter was genuinely ill (Walker 72).[3] Dying with the “father”’s name on her lips would suggest that the young poet seeks a fixed identity within the symbolic order; the fact that it is not her father’s name, however, but a father, indicates a certain ambivalence in regard to the sacrificial act necessary to enter that order: the young girl appears to at the same time to accept and to reject her own genealogy, and thus perhaps also the traditional phallocentric model of generation used to define gender roles but also artistic production.

Davidson’s overly close relationship with her mother and her difficult relationship with her father of course invites a psychoanalytic interpretation of her pathology, an approach particularly common in anorexia research.[4] According to one psychiatrist, Bernard Brusset, the father’s distance is both a common instigator of anorexia and a typical response by fathers to their daughters’ pathology. The father feels his daughter’s withering away as a narcissistic wound, a sort of failure of the Oedipal relationship between father and daughter (Brusset 201). This “failure” occurs most often during puberty, when adolescents whose identities are still not fully developed refuse to accept their sexuality and regress back to the pre-oedipal stage in which the child is still ambivalent toward a split with the mother. Many psychoanalysts have stressed the fact that the anorectic, like the victim of melancholia, is unable to sacrifice the primary love-object (Brusset 171). Anorexia, much like melancholia, may thus be understood as a regression toward orality and anality in order to repair the primary subject-object relationship. More importantly, it can also be interpreted as an attempt by the adolescent to answer the questions “who I am” and “what is my place in life,” questions that seek to define subjecthood and genealogy outside the traditional models of the Oedipal complex or of the patriarchal family (Raimbault and Eliacheff 9). Susan Sontag, in an essay on Simone Weil, draws a suggestive parallel between the suffering of modern anorectics and of nineteenth-century victims of tuberculosis. “Some (but not all) denials of life,” she writes, “are truth-giving, sanity producing, health-creating and life-enhancing” (51).

Southey’s article is an effort to contain this questioning of authority, this struggle to discover and write the truth with the body. As in recent debates over anorexia, there is a real fear in his text that Lucretia Davidson’s pathology might be contagious. In Southey’s case, this fear is class-driven. With the extension of education to the lower classes, “genius” will spread to more and more young people. “[The gift of genius] is not so rare as it has been deemed to be: it is becoming less so in every generation, because wherever it exists it is now called forth by the wide extension of education…, and by the general diffusion of books” (301). This extension of education and books are symptoms of the new consumer society; Lucretia’s dangerous consumption of books, hence self-consummation, is a transmissible desire that can spread to other women, and to other women writers in particular. Bernard Brusset writes that in a society in which consumerism pervades culture, the anorectic shows great control over herself: “the anorectic consumes herself in order not to consume [eat], or rather, does not consume [eat] in order to be consumed” (117).[5] Modern studies have claimed that women admire this self-control and discipline (Raimbault and Eliacheff 58). Furthermore, as critic Elizabeth Bronfen argues, death gives a woman’s voice the “stamp” of authority (Bronfen 84). By consuming Davidson’s story, there is a risk that other women might imitate her self-consummation as a means of acquiring the self-control and authority denied them by patriarchy. Along these lines, Mary Loeffelholz writes that Lucretia Davidson is passively stamped out by her culture, but is also actively capable of reproducing others in her own mold. “She is the original who licenses all the copies made from her, copies made in bodies (as Margaret Miller is a slightly faded bodily copy of her older sister) as well as in souls and in published texts” (Loeffelholz 280). “Lucretia Davidson” may thus be interpreted as a figure for the subversive transmission of female desire and writing, a form of literary transmission threatening to the patriarchal literary institutions, but also potentially life-threatening, as in the case of Davidson, for women poets.

In direct response to Southey’s article, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a review of the collected “Remains” of the Davidson sisters in which he critiques Southey’s role in helping to disseminate or “license” the Davidson myth. Whereas Southey, confronted with the “epidemic” of women’s popular writing and reading, attempts to contain the consumption of literary texts, Poe’s article focuses on ways of restricting their production. He does this by making the critical distinction between a woman’s biography, i.e. her physical body or soul, and the body of her work. Poe’s distinction, significantly “not fully in accordance with that of the mass of our contemporaries,” finds its justification in the mass of sentimental poems produced in which author and text are confused (221). While Poe had himself famously remarked that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” we should not forget that he reserves that topic for the “lips…of the bereaved lover” (Essays 19).

Poe’s review of the Davidson sisters attacks Southey’s mercenary penchant for publicizing young (female) poets of “precocious…celebrity” (224). By puffing Davidson’s work, Poe argues, Southey yokes the virginal “soul of the poet” with her mediocre poetry. There is little doubt that the period’s cultivation of young artists dead before their prime, Chatterton, Kirke White and the Davidson sisters, had as much to do with the commercial savvy of editors and literary promoters as it did the Romantic cult of the “beautiful dead” or of genius.[6] Mary Loeffelholz points out that it was Margaret Davidson, the Davidson sisters’ mother, who actively sought to commercialize her two deceased daughters’ work. Loeffelholz argues that Poe’s fascination stems in part at least from his ironic awareness that “‘Lucretia Davidson’ was a family enterprise, a cottage industry, a fulminating discursive formation, as well as the proper name of a dead girl” (272). What shocks Poe, however, is not so much that crass financial interests lurked behind this “discursive formation,” as the fact that commercialism somehow defiles the experience of “lingering delight” fostered by the “pleasing yet melancholy theme” of a young woman’s death (221). Poe is clearly more concerned here with the aesthetic than with ethical: we should not confuse “the interest felt in the poetess and her sad fortunes,” he warns, “with a legitimate admiration of her works” (221). Poe favors Lucretia over her sister Margaret, even if the latter “has left the better poems,” because “Lucretia evinces more unequivocally the soul of the poet” (223).

The statement that Lucretia Davidson’s status as poet is more clearly unambiguous even though she is the worse poet invites ambiguity. In choosing the term “unequivocal,” Poe reveals an anxiety about the possibility of the label “poet” not meaning what it means, or having more than a single meaning, or even owning up to a dubious or devious meaning. After all, if every poetaster is trumped up by critics as a poet and a genius, then the term “poet” loses its value. For Poe, Lucretia is more of an authentic poet than her sister, a genius rather than a mere talent. “There is more of self-dependence-less of the imitative. Her mother’s generous romance of soul may have stimulated, but did not instruct” (222). What Poe fears above all, it seems, is the fact that these new poets might be equivocal, that more than one body might share the same name, the same work or even identity. Yet this is precisely the case with the Davidson sisters, not only through their name or work, but also through the self-consuming authority of their lives. As Mary Loeffelholz has stated, “the name and death of Lucretia authorize the appearance of her sister Margaret Miller, whose name and remains in turn implicate yet another woman, the other Margaret Miller Davidson” (272). The uncanny interchangeability of the three Davidson women, mirrored by the multiple replications across borders of Southey’s essay on Lucretia Davidson, challenges Romantic ideology and foregrounds the competing demands imposed on poets in the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, Romantic aesthetics requires poetry, and poets, to be unique; on the other hand, the market, with its increasing capacity to mechanically reproduce art, encourages the proliferation of poetry, and poets, as commodities. As I argue below, the poetess’s choice of self-sacrifice is at once a means of controlling her own consumption, and a form of literary transmission that avoids the sacrifice of the mother figure required in the dynamics of the Romantic imagination.


The genre traditionally associated with literary transmission and poetic genealogy is of course the elegy. Peter Sacks, in particular, has argued that the elegy is bound by an ideology of vocation and heroic succession. Deploying a powerful combination of psychoanalytic theory and mythology that convincingly ties together poems such as Milton’s “Lycidas” with twentieth-century texts such as Hardy’s “A Singer Asleep,” Sacks shows how the elegy recasts the work of mourning into aesthetic form, compensating loss through an Oedipal resolution. The problem with Sack’s model is twofold: first, it focuses too narrowly on pastoral elegy, leaving out elegies in which a resolution is not so clear-cut, such as Thomas Gray’s “Elegy, written in a Country Churchyard”; second, its Freudian model is unable to take into account female desire. While Sacks attempts to answer the problem of gender in a single page by claiming that the “mother-figure” can replace the phallus (12), his study in effect reifies the elegy as the most canonical and phallocentric of all genres. Writing in reaction to Peter Sacks, Celeste Schenck and Melissa Zeiger have argued in separate studies for a distinction between female and male elegy, claiming that women poets are less willing to accept poetry as a substitute for the mourned person. Women’s elegies refuse the transcendence of male elegy, the agonistic swerving away or erasure of the dead person-cum-maternal figure that goes hand in hand with the elegist’s self-canonization.[7]

The most eloquent, and influential example of a female elegy that allows for the transmission of writing without sacrificing the lost object issues from the novel that launched a whole generation of women poets: Germaine de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy. At the very heart of the book lies the contradiction between femininity and ambition. This contradiction brings the heroine, like her model, Sappho, to a tragic end, but it also authorizes Corinne’s voice, and, nominally at least, insures her posterity. Corinne’s final elegy, “Corinne's last song,” is sung not by her, but by an anonymous version of herself, a young woman dressed in white robes and crowned with laurels (581).[8] While the poetess nominally resigns herself to her fate, she also resists it, not through a metaphoric assertion of self, but through a metonymic dispersal of subjectivity, a sublime gesture in which one woman poet equals all women poets, regardless of time or place.

As a model for all poetesses’ verse, de Staël’s prose poem raises important issues, including the question of artistic originality, as well as differences between oral and written language. In her preface, Simone Balayé cites August Schlegel’s remark that de Staël’s prose poems are “copies of an improvised original” (19). If indeed they are copies of a specular “original,” then the many poems generated around Europe by the popularity of Corinne, and in particular, by her “last song,” become copies of a copy, simulacra haunted by the ghostly image of the anonymous young woman clad in white robes. Most striking perhaps are British poet Letitia Landon’s metrical translations of Corinne’s effusions into “odes,” commissioned for Isabel Hill’s 1833 translation of the novel. Simulacrum is painted over simulacrum: the very notion of an origin becomes lost as European and American poetesses re-appropriate and rehearse Corinne’s song.

Born a year after the first publication of Corinne, Lucretia Davidson is one of those poets who ventriloquizes the dead heroine. Davidson’s career is constructed and marketed as that of a real life Corinne, and the reviews of her “poetic remains,” like Corinne’s “last song,” are taken up and translated across the continent. In Moscow, in fact, the Russian reviewer cannot help labeling Davidson a “seventeen year-old Corinne” (Literaturnaya gazeta 149). These reviews do not go unnoticed: women readers and writers are moved on both sides of the Atlantic by the young woman’s story. In 1832, France’s leading woman poet, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore publishes an elegy, addressed “To Lucretia Davidson, young American dead at 17,” in the Talisman, a popular sentimental annual (Appendix A HYPERLINK). Thirteen years later, no doubt in response to Desbordes-Valmore’s poem, Russian poet Karolina Pavlova writes “Three Souls” (1845), which also commemorates the American poetess (Appendix B HYPERLINK). Both poems are used as forums from which to comment on the woman poet’s situation in general, referring not only to Davidson, but also to themselves and to several of their contemporaries, including Delphine Gay (in both poems), poetess Amable Tastu and singer Pauline Duchambge.[9] By addressing the vexed issue of a poetess’s self-sacrifice, these elegies give us valuable insight into women poets’ different strategies of literary transmission and authorization. While Marceline Desbordes-Valmore follows the sentimental tradition, writing an arguably female form of elegy, Karolina Pavlova revises Desbordes-Valmore’s poem, forsaking the metonymic bond between women writers in order to assert her own poetic identity and to bury the poetess figure.

Beginning with the epigraphs, the two poems engage in an extended dialogue with one another. Desbordes-Valmore and Pavlova both preface their poems with an epigraph taken from a male poet, marking the fact that Lucretia Davidson’s sad history cannot be reduced to gender alone, but also masking a gender-specific protest in the guise of a universal statement. “Lucretia Davidson,” by Desbordes-Valmore, opens with a verse by André Chénier: “ No, I no longer wish to live this servile existence”(1: 231). The epigraph anticipates the poem’s sentimentalized Christian rhetoric of renunciation and transcendence, the stock theme of life as a “fragile prison” from which the young soul must escape in order to be free. Pavlova, on the other hand, begins “Three Souls” on a more bitter, elegiac note, with a line from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: “But it is sad to think / That our youth was given to us in vain”(127). Pavlova from the very outset announces that her poem will not as readily accept religious transcendence as a consolatory formula to justify the woman poet’s fate.

The Christian theme is carried over into the first stanzas of both poems, which open with the identical image of a path leading from Heaven to Earth.

What path of thorns

Tore your angel feet that strayed from the heavens?

 What poor spikes, fugitive gleaner,

 Fed your frail, gracious fates?

ll. 1-4

Desbordes-Valmore’s speaker compares Davidson to Ruth, a vulnerable figure accidentally driven into exile, poverty and subordination to men. Like Davidson’s male reviewers, the French poet plays on, even exaggerates the poetess’s angelic features and will-to-renunciation, using a gently eroticized language to describe the young woman that resembles the titillating language that Edgar Allan Poe attaches to the female soul.[10] Davidson’s voice is “soft” and her “forehead…burning” (l. 17) as “the dreaming star / Slips …A chaste kiss under the modest cloth” (ll. 31-31). Afraid of the world, she “reclines, submissive and virginal, under death’s weight” (l. 38).[11] The alternation between unusual images of containment and eruption, heat and cold gives the poem a sensory aura that is unique to Desbordes-Valmore, but which unfortunately gets lost in translation. Her closest equivalent is probably England’s Felicia Hemans, as Sainte-Beuve often pointed out. Much like in Hemans’s elegy written in 1828 to another female Chatterton, Mary Tigue, Desbordes-Valmore’s delineates a woman poet who is frail, self-sacrificing, and chaste.[12] Her poem at first glance leaves the domestic ideal unchallenged.

Karolina Pavlova’s “Three Souls” takes a harder look at the poetess’s fate. Rather than opening with an apostrophe to an angelic muse figure, “Three Souls” first addresses the age, “our century of wearisome knowledge / Of mercenary business”(ll. 1-2), associating poetic production with money from the very outset. The poem narrates the story of three women poets whom Pavlova mistakenly believes were all born the same year. The three “departed / Into exile on the path of the world” in order to be “tested” (l. 23). Pavlova represents the three souls’ passage on Earth as alienating and solitary. The poem’s form, each stanza divided according to a single poet, reproduces the centrifugal trajectory of the three souls allotted a separate fate in a different country. While they remain unnamed, it is fairly clear who these poets are: French poetess Delphine Gay, Lucretia Davison and Pavlova herself. None of the three women ever met in real life, and there is little effort on Pavlova’s part to make connections between them besides the fact that each are given “the flame / Of divine inspiration” at the outset of their careers.

Pavlova’s second soul is Davidson, whom she disguises not as Ruth, but as a pioneer, autonomous and tough, venturing alone through the wilderness of America:

God threw the other far

Into the American woods;

Led her to listen lonely

To the divine voice of the wilderness;

Led her to struggle with necessity,

To fight against fate,

To guess all herself,

To infer all on her own

ll. 44-51

There is very little sentimentality in these lines, nor any of Desbordes-Valmore’s genteel eroticism. Davidson’s loneliness allies her to the male Romantic, the conqueror of high peaks and distant wildernesses of the imagination, rather than to the domesticated, contained female poet. The American poetess ventures “with a fearless will, a firm step” (l. 58) away from Desbordes-Valmore’s earlier, feminized version of herself, into the yet unexplored realms of post-Romanticism in which women could more fully engage in the masculinist ideology of the alienated, visionary self.

While positive, Pavlova’s depiction of Davidson as a brave but lonely pioneer serves to set the stage for the Russian poet’s own poetic assertion in the last stanza. Davidson dies too early, according to the speaker, and is not prepared to deal with the solitude and suffering required to compose verse. “Her young powers grew exhausted,” writes Pavlova, “And from the heights, like an angel of truth, / In the evening twilight, Shines a star from a different hemisphere / Over the cross of her grave” (ll. 59-64). As in male elegy, the lost object is elided and assimilated into a figure of immortality, an eternalizing gesture intended to compensate and console for the hardships of this earth. Transcendence and Christian consolation seem disingenuous, overly facile in this passage. Pavlova idealizes, and erases the young woman in order to substitute Davidson’s divinely inspired voice with her own:

The third [soul] thank God,

Was assigned a peaceful path,

Many divine thoughts were placed

In her young breast,

Majestic dreams shined in her

ll. 63-68

By placing three women poets in an agonistic struggle with one another, then resorting to the aggressive hypsos of male elegy to assert her own poetic identity, Karolina Pavlova makes clear in this poem that she wishes to defy the sentimental mode.

The Russian poet’s embracing of Romantic ideology comes across even more strongly when we examine the resolution of Desbordes-Valmore’s elegy. Whereas Pavlova can promise the mourned person only further solitude and incomprehension, “a star from a different hemisphere”(l. 62), Desbordes-Valmore’s poem suggests that Davidson might have been saved. In her poem, Desbordes-Valmore, playing on Davidson’s own escapist poem, “To a Star,” also tropes Davidson into a star and sends her on her way:

Diving back into the starry sky,

On your tremulous star with its pale sparks,

You consoled your eyes with an airy sleep.

l. 14-16

Yet the French poet’s subtle deployment of sentimental rhetoric enables her to use sentiment in order to empower, rather than to idealize and erase women. Sentiment, the speaker points out, transcends national borders, even natural boundaries: “Foreign-born flower! In vain the waters float between your coast / And mine; one same tide carries me to the unfortunate” (ll. 6-7). Two stanzas down, the speaker engages Davidson in a conversation, enabling rather than eclipsing the dead person’s voice. Keyed in the interrogative mode, this passage indicates an unwillingness to let Davidson go.

Were you not asking for this virginal rest?

Doesn’t a morning bird pour a sweet dirge,

Soft like your voice, your soft silenced voice,

Over your innocent grave?…

Tell me!

ll. 23-28

Unlike Pavlova’s confident assertion that Davidson “shines… / Over the cross of her grave,” Desbordes-Valmore’s speaker appears much less certain that death is in fact better than life.

The crux of the Desbordes-Valmore’s elegy comes in the sixth stanza, when the speaker wonders what might have happened had Davidson come to France. Building up the rhetorical force of the narrative by alternating between certitude and doubt, the poet then explodes the validity of Christian renunciation. Referring to the same figure of a solitary star, she regrets that:

You [Davidson] did not come, prolonging your visit by a day,

To test our climate’s tepid, transparent air;

To watch, dying, your sisters from beneath your veil

Of incense in which their youth is consumed!

ll. 41-44

The syntax and imagery are quite confusing here. It is not clear what the veil of incense signifies. Nor can we be quite sure who is doing the dying, Davidson or her sister poets, or why even Davidson must watch. The opaque diction, allied to the sensuous imagery gives a homoerotic intensity to the passage, powerfully voicing the subversive undercurrent of solidarity between women writers. Their act of collective sati brings not only death, but also an erotic pleasure linked to sight, sense and smell. By bonding with another sister poet, the speaker asserts, Davidson’s body / work would not have been consumed so rapidly. Desbordes-Valmore co-opts male objectification, the pleasures that Poe exacts from dead females, in order to save both the poetess’s name and her work.

The elegy’s last stanzas are each devoted to a “sister” artist, all friends of Desbordes-Valmore, in order to emphasize the fact that women poets can find their identity in a sense of group solidarity grounded in female desire. Davidson, claims the speaker, may have been able to shore up her consuming sense of loss not through a strong assertion of the self, but rather by encountering a community of sister poets. Poetess Amable Tastu, for example, could have “with her veiled lyre…touched your lyre” (l. 50). Had she heard Pauline Duchambge sing, Davidson would have realized that she was not alone in singing sad songs. Finally, had she met the young poetess Delphine Gay, she would have had a sister spirit, born almost on the same day, and whom she could have embraced.

The sense of interchangeability between poetesses is particularly evident in the case of Davidson and Gay. After Delphine Gay’s own death in 1855, and upon the request of Michelet, Desbordes-Valmore composed an elegy, which rehearses much of the same plot as in her elegy to Davidson, and ends with the following stanza:

Oh beauty ! regal through all your veils!

As long as loved ones’ names shall return to the heavens,

We will seek Delphine amongst the stars,

And her soft name will dampen our eyes.

“Madame Emile de Girardin”, 2: 565

Delphine Gay is Lucretia Davidson in this late poem-subjectivity is dispersed metonymically and intertextually, so that one woman poet equals all women poets, regardless of time or place.[13] Looking back at Karolina Pavlova’s poem, we can better understand the ideology it is resisting: an identity grounded in the figure of the “poetess.” For Pavlova, these three souls are not equal and interchangeable. In contrast to Davidson, Pavlova depicts Delphine Gay as the quintessential society poet, her gift corrupted by fame. She is made the “servile object of cold amusement / And of mindless praise” (l. 35). Pavlova holds her accountable for writing overly facile poetry and for spending “her life amidst the insane tumult of society / Completely satisfied with her fate” (I. 43).[14]

“How many smothered songs! How many lost pages!” (Desbordes-Valmore 1:231, l. 69). Curiously, Desbordes-Valmore’s speaker also holds Davidson accountable not only for a wasted career, but also for her own death. “You die, / and you willed it!” (l. 72) The French poet almost intuitively perceives that Davidson’s death, be it the result of consumption, anorexia, or an overdose of sensibility, equates suicide. As the tenor of the poem as a whole indicates, she links this suicide with a patriarchal society which isolates women from each other. But Desbordes-Valmore also associates Lucretia Davidson’s death with another figure. In the closing couplet, the speaker states: “No! I do not dare cry in my bitter state of mind; / No, I do not pity you; but how I pity your mother!” (ll. 73-74). Must we interpret this simply as a resistance to closure, an opening out onto more empathy, more tears, or is there something accusatory in Desbordes-Valmore’s final apostrophe to the mother? [15] Does the poetess understand that it was Davidson’s mother who pushed her daughter to write poetry? While these lines are too open-ended to be able to answer with certainty, it would be tempting to read the final lines of this elegy as a subtle warning against what Loeffelholz earlier called “a family enterprise,” the dangerously commodified field of sentimental verse.

Desbordes-Valmore’s warning may not have been so misplaced. When Karolina Pavlova wrote “Three Souls” in 1845, tears no longer held the same cultural value as fifteen years earlier. The sentiment that made Desbordes-Valmore so popular in the 1820s and 1830s could not get the French poetess published in the late 1840s, and continues to haunt her even today.[16] “Three Souls” rewrites Desbordes-Valmore’s domestic ideology and Delphine Gay’s overly popular poetics, in order for Pavlova to be taken seriously, to be remembered as a poet and not simply as a “poetess.” Pavlova forsakes enthusiasm and sympathy, the two Enlightenment values dear to poetesses, which she sees as hopeless in an age of “mercenary business”:

In the best half-century

What success did she accomplish in the world?

What was her enthusiastic power capable of?

What did the language of her soul say?

And what did love achieve?

Pavlova 126

Like “Life calls us…,” her elegy written a year later in 1846, Pavlova ends “Three Souls” on a sober, ironic note. The narrator admits the futility of the “heart’s useless ardor,” yet persists in pursuing her “futile, stubborn dream,” in writing poetry. She toys with, but consciously rejects the Sapphic will-to-dissolution, which she tropes as a Decembrist wife sacrificing herself for her husband: “Perhaps it would have been better for her / To lose her mind in superficial life / Or to fade out into the steppe…” Critic Catriona Kelly argues that in this later poem, Pavlova “expresses a confidence in her own genius which escapes the established traditions of feminine poetry, yet embraces femininity as part of identity”(Kelly 45). In order to escape those “established traditions,” however, the poet must overwrite both Gay and Davidson. Pavlova shapes her identity, as in male elegy, at the expense of, rather than in connection with, her sister poets. All-too-predictably, her strategy backfires. In seeking to bury Davidson’s “remains,” Pavlova buries herself. Russian critics, beginning with Belinsky, call Pavlova’s verse, even Pavlova herself, “muzhestvenii”, or masculine (Belinsky 2: 446). In the early 1850s, blamed for being overly insensitive to her estranged husband and for not attending her father’s funeral, Karolina Pavlova exiles herself to Dorpat, Germany, where she dies in complete obscurity, her work long forgotten.