Writing from the Margins, Speaking from the
-- June M. Frazer
In years past, each time I tried yet again to find in the old Victorian Poetry anthologies then available more womens poetry to include in my course syllabus, I was struck by how little there was, how pervasive in that little was the theme of death, and how often the women poets used the device of speaking from the grave. It seemed to me then that nineteenth-century womens poetry was not only a poetry, as Edgar Allan Poe wished for in "The Philosophy of Composition," of dead girls, but also a poetry by dead girls. Now that the wonderful labor has been done of producing several new anthologies of poetry by nineteenth-century women (see Works Cited), we can see that women were writing in great numbers and that they wrote on numero us subjects that mattered to them as women.
Kathleen Hickok writes that as the nineteenth-century wore on, through the three periods before Queen Victorias ascension in 1837, during her most active period of wife- and motherhood from 1837 through the sixties, and from the sixties through the turn of the century, the "literary image of woman as domestic angel" became dominant in womens poetry, reached its apotheosis but began to receive "subdued criticisms," then encountered "direct modifications and outright rejections." "Not coincidentally," Hickok remarks, "the artistic quality of womens poetry took a dramatic turn for the better" (20). Emily Stipes Watts, writing on nineteenth-century American womens poetry, notes not only a large number of women poets--she counts over eighty who published at least one volume of verse or published regularly in the anthologies and twice that number who published only in journals--but also a shift in poetic subject from the nationalistic or patriotic themes shared with male poets in the eighteenth century to "themes which concern women, children, their homes, and their local communities--each of which they examined in a variety of new ways. Their poems became even more intentionally communicative to other women" (64).
Even though many more women were writing than earlier twentieth-century anthologists cared to include, however, and these women were writing on a variety of subjects, it is still very striking how much of that poetry is about death and the grave. Susan Rubinow Gorsky points to a natural reason for it. "Death--very much a normal part of nineteenth-century life, held special meaning for women. Rather than disappearing to nursing homes and hospitals, the elderly and terminally ill died at home, with t he woman as nurse and comforter. With little medicine and no training, she took responsibility for nursing a sick child, husband, housemaid, or, in an epidemic, an entire village. She faced death in each of her many pregnancies and when her children took ill" (42). It is small wonder that Eliza Cook, in "Song of the Rushlight," writes:
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, writing on the nineteenth century in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, point to an "Ideology of Femininity," fostered by Coventry Patmores wildly popular poem "The Angel in the House" and by such male and female arbiters of female behavior as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mrs. Sarah Ellis, that called for the model woman to be either "selfless angel or a serene queen" (289). She was to be "delicate, frail, ethereal"; "[t]o certify her spirituality and refinement, she must look and act like a fragile creature. Instructions as to how a young girl, or even an older woman, was to manage such a task often ranged from the ridiculous to the bizarre. Marriageable maidens on both sides of the Atlantic drank vin egar to cultivate an interesting pallor, tight-laced themselves into narrow corsets so as to achieve an uncannily slender waist (eighteen inches was the ideal), and practiced the art of fainting to remind beaux of their delicacy" (290).
"At its most extreme," Gilbert and Gubar continue, this nineteenth-century ideal of the frail, even sickly female ultimately led to a glorification of the dead or dying woman. The most fruitful subject for literature, announced the American romancer Edgar Allan Poe in 1846, is the death...of a beautiful woman, and four years later, in The Blessed Damozel (1850), the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti offered a postmortem vision of a seductive angel-lady leaning over the golden walls of he aven and yearning toward her earthly lover" (290). Noting the similar fictional phenomenon of dying girl-children (Little Nell in Dickenss The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin), Gilbert and Gubar conclude that "an extraordinary imperative . . . underlay much of the nineteenth-century ideology of femininity: in one way or another, woman must be killed into passivity for her to acquiesce in what Rousseau and others considered her duty of self-abnegation relative to men" (290).
The "Ideology of Femininity" laid special constraints and conflicts on nineteenth-century women who desired to be published writers. Elaine Showalter writes movingly of the "genuine transcendence of identity" required of women with "the will to write." The "evangelically inspired creed of work," she points out, urged women as well as men to "bear their part in the work of life," but whereas for men "the gospel of work satisfied both self-interest and the public interest" so that in "pursuing their ambitions, they fulfilled social expectations," for women, "work meant labor for others. Work, in the sense of self-development, was in direct conflict with the subordination and repression inherent in the feminine ideal. The self-centeredne ss implicit in the act of writing" required of women "an engagement with feeling and a cultivation of the ego rather than its negation," a "selfish, unwomanly, and unchristian" activity at odds with "womens mission" as prescribed in treatises by women li ke Hannah More and Sarah Ellis. A nineteenth-century woman wishing to become a professional writer, moreover, not only had to overcome her fear of being regarded (or regarding herself) as unwomanly, she also found, as Elsie Michie points out in a study of Mary Shelley, the Brontės, Gaskell, and Eliot, that to become a professional writer "was to enter a territory implicitly defined as masculine . . . the individuals who functioned as mentors, literary role models, and gatekeepers to the world of publ ishing, tended to be men" (1-2).
If a woman had to deny her "femininity" to become a novelist, it was considered even more unsuitable for her to become a poet. Gilbert and Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic, offer three reasons. The first was the long association of verse- writing with "mysterious inspiration, divine afflatus, bardic ritual," which, after the Romantic thinkers "appropriated the vocabulary of theology for the realm of aesthetics," made writing poetry a "quasi-priestly role." Since "in Western culture women cannot be priests," Gilbert and Gubar ask, "How then--since poets are priests--can women be poets?" (546). A second reason was that novel writing "requires reportorial observation" while in poetry nature had to be "mediated through tradition--that is, th rough an education in ancient rules" found in "the traditional classics of Greek and Latin," "spheres of masculine learning inalterably closed to women except under the most extraordinary circumstances." A woman poet, lacking such an education, was in a triple bind: if she learned the rules she was mocked as the eighteenth-century bluestockings were; if she did not learn them she was held in contempt; if she substituted an "alternative tradition" she was "subtly denigrated," as in John Crowe Ransom co mparing Emily Dickinsons meters to Mother Goose (548). A third reason involved the requirement of women that they abnegate the self. Fiction, with personal relations as its subject matter (writing about "they") and its formal allowance for the author to withdraw, permits the writer to appear more selfless than does lyric poetry, whose hallmark is the "strong and assertive" first person voice, the "I" (548).
Given all these cultural, personal, and formal obstacles in the path of the woman poet, how did any nineteenth-century woman poet proceed? Cynthia Griffin Wolff suggests that one of the greatest of them, Emily Dickinson, did it by sheer impudence, by employing what Bakhtin was to call the "Romantic grotesque." Dickinson was confronted, she argues, by a culture whose principal fear and subject for poetry was death, a fear for which conventional religion offered only a faith in a world to come that s he found offensive to human dignity, and by a poetic, enunciated by Poe in "The Philosophy of Composition," that not only "radically disempower[ed] women (by rendering them lifeless)" but also "betrayed a morbid preoccupation with their bodies to the exclusion of any moral or intellectual attributes" (123-24). The Romantic grotesque, an expression of what Bakhtin calls "carnival" (an insistence upon the flesh, upon mortality, which in Medieval and Renaissance times was a leveling folk reaction agai nst aristocracy but which acquired in the nineteenth century an individual character), allowed Dickinson, as an "author," to confront both her cultures humanly disempowering fear of death and its particular disempowerment of women with its poetic fascina tion with their death.
Wolff cites first lines of Dickinson poems in which the speaker imagines herself dead or speaking from the grave-- "lines that cry out for recognition, that assail us with (apparently) personal intensity and defy us with a carnivalesque set of impo ssibilities: I am alive--I guess-- (470); or I felt my life with both my hands (351); or I heard a fly buzz when I died (465); or Twas just this time, last year, I died (445) or As if my life were shaven, / And fitted to a frame (510)" (Wolff 12 3) . It is as if, Wolff suggests, "Dickinson might have said: Ill play your foolish game; Ill create the aesthetic situation that you seem to need (the death of a beautiful young woman)--and then, like the good fairy in the story of Sleeping Beauty, Ill give one extra gift. The dead women of my creation will retain the ability to talk!" (124). "This much," Wolff argues, "is bravura, defiance, even hilarity"; Dickinson went beyond this in her death poems to a level of the grotesque which explores, in Bakhtins words, the "interior infinite" with its "depth, complexity, and inexhaustible resources," the interior heroic selfs "clear-headed willingness to probe behind the sentimental pieties with w hich convention had veiled lifes final, terrifying mysteries" (124).
Wolffs exploration of Dickinsons death poetry, then, offers us one model of how nineteenth-century women poets dealt with the limitations imposed upon them--by defiance. Gilbert and Gubar speak of another, the poetry of renunciation, as exemplified by Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others. Christina Rossetti, like Dickinson, wrote much death poetry , so much, in fact, that Dora Greenwell wrote in her poem "To Christina Rossetti" " thine is the song of Death!" Delores Rosenblum, however, prefers to call it a "Poetry of Endurance." "The poet of endurance," Rosenblum argues, "does not invent new worlds of vision but, rather, complains repetitively and endlessly, reinscribing the same discontinuities over and over again. But although her themes and forms may be as codified as any Petrarchan sonneteers, her repetitions and stylizations are survival strategies. Her writing is almost literally inexhaustible, her unadmitted aim being to outlast her inscription as a symbol of both her mutability and her inorganic permanence within the masculine tradition" (7).
Rosenblum refers Rossettis aesthetic to Irigarays notion of "mimetism," a woman poets reification of her literary role in "the male poets visionary quest." "Often transfixed in art, the female as symbolic figure or icon has the power to transfi x"; the poets "freeze," "taking on the protective coloration of their surroundings, mimicking male visions of women. In doing so, they create art that is revisionary in much the same way as that of Pierre Menard, Borges often cited hero, who reinvents Don Quixote by rewriting it word for word. They take on their assigned poses in order to show and hide; they write exemplary poetry in which, more often than not, a female figure displays, or a female voice announces, both alienation and the means by which she overcomes alienation" (6).
Rosenblum suggests that what lies behind this figure of endurance is the Christian tradition, a transformation of "the stoicism of Ecclesiastes in the face of last things into consolation for the oppressed. The Christian stoic endures until the end , when the last shall be first and all losses made good" (6).
"The female poet, weighed down by these monolithic projections, vampirized by his dream," Rosenblum continues, "enters into the spirit of his project, and at once displays her vulnerability and masks her power," the power to use "the symbolic fe male for her own meanings" (7).
Rosenblums study of Rossetti and Wolffs study of Dickinson have thus given us two models for female poets dealing with the male poets project of "killing them into passivity": embracing the male-assigned role of silent insignificance and putting their own subtle mark upon it, or defying it by a grotesque insistence upon its implications. What both approaches say in common is, to borrow Cynthia Wolffs words, "Ill play your foolish game"; the remarkable amount of poetry about death and by appare ntly dead speakers suggests a full awareness of the tradition that, like the proverbial Indian, the only good woman is a dead one. The mode that Dickinson chose is not common; I find only one other poet, Michael Field, who matches her in the deliberate use of the grotesque. In Fields "Embalmment," the speaker teases her lover with the suggestion that she be "Embalmed in honey" like "the Asmonęn queen," remaining in "the unchallenged dark a mystery," with "golden hair sprung rapid in a tomb" (Leight on and Reynolds 498). Most, like Rossetti, write the "poetry of endurance," appearing to accept the humble grave, sometimes even seeking it, but by a variety of devices offering the attentive reader a subtle subtext.
Charlotte Mews "Not for That City" is a case in point; the speaker seems humbly to seek a place in the next world as obscure as in this: "we greatly long . . . for some remote and quiet stair / Which leads to silence . . . ." But the "we" (women?) implies others (men?), who wish for "golden streets and glittering gates ablaze-- / The shadeless, sleepless city of white days" where there is "everlasting glare, / The clamour of that never-ending song" (Leighton and Reynolds 658). The speaker makes th e morally superior choice; others will want in death what they sought in life--amusement ("song"), fame ("glare"), and attention ("clamour"). In the remainder of this paper I would like to examine two genres of womens death poetry that add their resistan t subtext to endurance: poems about the place of burial and poems about remembrance.
Poems about the place of burial tend to at first appear meek to a fault--the speaker desires a humble spot in keeping with her lowly place--but closer attention to the language and imagery reveal the subtle suggestion that in seeking the humb le grave the woman makes the morally superior choice. Two poems of this type are Fanny Crosbys "Let Me Die on the Prairie," and Lucy Larcoms "Flowers of the Fallow," both of which, as in Mews poem, work by a contrast between the speakers choice and th e choice of others. Crosbys speaker welcomes the "rude grave" on the prairie, where she will be "unwept and unknown" (Gray 90), but implicit is the suggestion that others with more pride and less taste will desire something more ostentatious but less fre e, perhaps a crowded cemetery with many mourners and a high requiem mass rather than the bouncing deer she desires for her company and the carol of birds she desires for her requiem.
Larcoms speaker contrasts her own affiliation with natures simplicity and beauty with "The old, mean selfish story!" of how human cultivation and use have given pain to Mother Earth: "She yielded to your axe, with pain"; "Her wildwood soil you ma y subdue, / Tortured by hoe and harrow." Mother Nature has rewarded humankind despite the torture of the harrow with "crops of golden grain" and abundant wild flowers to cover the ugly human marks, but ungrateful humans call her lovely flowers weeds and s ay, "How dull she grows! How plain!" The speaker, in contrast, says "I like these plants that you call weeds," and she chooses for her burial place to "lie down at blessed ease / Among thy weeds and grasses" (Kilcup 179). The speaker of Ella Wheeler Wilco xs "My Grave" also wishes to make an unselfish choice; she wants to be in death, as in life, close to the struggles of humanity, "in some much-used spot, / Where human life, with all its noise, and fret, / Throbs on about me." The slight note of resistan ce is sounded in her not quite resignation to the fact that she must be buried at all: "If when I die, I must be buried . . . ." (Gray 227-28).
The second genre, the plea for remembrance, may call to mind Thomas Hardys very cruel poem, "Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave." Readers of that much anthologized poem will remember that the woman in the grave is so eager to be remembered that she a sks, in successive stanzas, if the person digging is her "loved one?--planting rue?" "Her nearest, dearest kin...planting flowers" or her "enemy--prodding sly." She learns in the final stanzas that it is only her dog burying a bone in a likely spot--he ha d "quite forgot / It was your resting place" (228). Hardys inclusion of the poem in the "Satires of Circumstance" suggests that he intended the poem to illustrate the unintended, ironic, cruelties of fate, but he could have illustrated that point as well by making the buried yearner for remembrance a man; that he makes it a woman suggests the power of the stereotype of the neglected, because negligible, woman. Hardys peom was not published until 1914, but nineteenth-century women did not need to read it to imagine that they might be as unremembered in death as they had been obscure in life.
An early American (1806) sampler verse tells us that women were taught this message, taught even to embroider this message, early in life:
Our women poets no doubt patiently as little girls embroidered such sentiments as these, but when they grew up their willing fortitude took on more complexity; the poetry of endurance expected in the genre of remembrance after death often shows a surpr ising resistance to (or indifference to) being either powerless or forgotten in the grave. The speaker in Letitia Landons "Song," for example, directs her mourners exactly where and when to remember her: they are not to think of her "In lighted hall or ladys bower," "In spring sunshine or summer hour!"; when they "see a lonely grave, / Just where a broken heart might be, / With not one mourner by its sod," there "and then only" they are to "THINK OF ME!" (Leighton and Reynolds 60). The speaker considers her broken heart a warrant for remembrance, for the imperious (capitalized) command to "think of me" that closes the poem.
Christina Rossetti was particularly inclined to the remembrance-type poem and wrote several, part of a larger subset of poems about eternity as a place of rest for the weary seeker (as in "Sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over" ). It is, as Rosenblum argues, primarily a poetry of endurance, a reification of the Hardyesque image of the buried, forgotten woman, as in "Remember," a sonnet, in which the speaker in the octet asks the listener to "Remember me when I am gone away / Gone far a way into the silent land" but in the sestet accepts that it would be better should he(?) "Forget and smile" rather than "remember and be sad" (13).
But there are also gestures of independence. In "Song" ("When I am dead, my dearest, / Sing no sad songs for me"), one of Rossettis most popular and most frequently anthologized poems, the speaker is indifferent to whether she is remembered or not , because, "dreaming through the twilight / That doth not rise or set," she may be the one to forget her dearest: "Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget" (12). Similarly, in "Shall I Forget?" the speaker teases the listener, or "friend," with "I pr omise nothing"; the friend must "wait and see / Patient and brave" (99).
My favorite of these death poems (other than Dickinsons) is Lizette Woodworth Reeses "White April." The "cruelest month" is empowering for her; each Spring she defeats again the death that always waits:
Emily Stipes Watts remarks that as the century wore on the poetry of women "became even more intentionally communicative to other women" (64). One form this writing took was writing poems to and about other women poets, expressing their admiration and often their indebtedness, both personal and professional. And, since the poetry of the grave came naturally to nineteenth-century women poets, it is not surprising that they also wrote about each others graves. Felicia Hemans has one such poem, "The Grave of a Poetess" (Mary Tighe, identified by Hemans in a footnote as "the author of Psyche"), which bears the epigraph "Do not grieve--if you knew / How much pain this grave has spared me!" (Leighton and Reynolds 11). The poem praises the siste r poet for her voice "not loud but deep" and follows the structure of the conventional elegy, turning from grief for the mourned poetess to the consolation that death has brought peace to her "womans heart" and joy to her "poets eye." Emily Dickinson wr ites in "Charlotte Brontės Grave" not only of Brontės earthly sufferings, her "Gethsemane," but also of her arrival in heaven, which Dickinson, ever impudent, depicts as more of an event for heaven than for Brontė: "Soft fall the sounds o f Eden / Upon her puzzled ear; / Oh, what an afternoon for heaven, / When Brontė entered there!" (187).
So far missing from this discussion are two of the best nineteenth-century British women poets, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Coleridge. Though Gilbert and Gubar include Browning in the Poetry of Renunciation, and though Browning did su ffer from ill health, and though she did record in Sonnets from the Portugese and Aurora Leigh a formidable struggle to believe in her right to be a poet, her poetry does not seem to me to be marked by a preoccupation with death. The poetry of Mary Coleridge does, but it resists my attempts to place it in any typology of death poetry, I think because it remains so unresolved. In "I envy not the dead that rest" two counterforces seem to be at work: a world weariness so deep that the only kind of eternity that could be tolerated would be one of annihilation ("If ever men were laid in earth, / And might in earth repose, / Where spirits have no second birth-- / Those I envy, those") and a relish, even a joy, in lifes struggles that would prefer an eternity on earth rather than among the blest ("But if for ever I must live, / Then let me live indeed. / What peace could ever be to me / The joy that strives with strife? What blissful immortality / So sweet as struggling life?" (Leighton and Reynol ds 615). The conflict is handled better in "But in that Sleep of Death what Dreams may Come?" because Coleridge poses the problem just as Hamlet does; the troubles of life ("the dreams of day") are so strong that one would wish for death ("Give me undream ing sleep, and long") were it not that the unknown of eternity could be worse ("I that have dreamed, and dreamed enough / Tremble, of dreamier dreams afraid" (Leighton and Reynolds 625).
If these poems do not place Coleridge in any familiar genre of womens death poetry, they certainly exemplify and confirm nineteenth century women poets preoccupation with death. It is sad for us, reading them now, to contemplate the bleakness of womens personal lives and the obstacles to them as professional writers that caused their poetry to be so insistently a poetry of death. The good news is that they turned those burdens to such good account and insisted on speaking, even if they had to do it, in Dickinsons phrase, "with [a] granite lip!" (137).
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