Monday, 12 December 2016

Passion and Powerlessness - the Riskiness of Being Both Woman and Poet

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The split between their sexual (human) identity and their artistic practice isolated early women poets in a male-dominated society.

In her essay "Language and Gender" Cora Kaplan says: "To be a woman and a poet presents many women with such a profound split between their social, sexual identity (their "human" identity) and their artistic practice that the split becomes the insistent subject, sometimes overt, often hidden or displaced, of much women's poetry."

Three important Victorian poets fit into Kaplan's depressing context, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. All of these poets, in different ways, suffered degrees of isolation due to their individual projects.  Barrett Browning did not see herself as a champion of feminine or feminist qualities; on the contrary, she repudiated the very idea of a female self.

"My mind is naturally independent, and spurns the subserviency of opinion which is generally considered necessary to feminine softness," she said.  Barrett Browning, like Rossetti and Dickinson, lived in a time when women poets were expected to write about feelings, about personal experience and about domesticity in their poetry.

In Victorian Women Poets, An Anthology, Margaret Reynolds says:

"The power of these two parallel commonplaces - the gender construction of women as instinctive, feeling, personal, and the consequent genderizing of poetry... - had far-reaching consequences which stretch well beyond the nineteenth century."

Reynolds explains the riskiness of being a woman and a poet, due to assumptions made about women and about poetry. According to Reynolds, these assumptions do not equate with the reality of literary practice. The reality was that the annuals and anthologies of women poets that were being published then were good in one sense, in permitting a platform for their contributors. On the other hand:

"[They] were also bad for women writers because they seemed to promote a small and trivialized style of poetry in which women were presumed to specialize."

Christina Rossetti is an intensely personal poet; much of her poetry focuses on emotions. In Christina Rossetti Selected Poems, C.H. Sisson says:

"It was Christina's isolation - an isolation which persisted even in a circle which originally included Italian revolutionaries as well as... William Morris, Ruskin, Browning, Swinburne... which enabled her to stand aside from so much of the ordinary nonsense of the age and to concentrate so intensely on the events of her own inner life."

Sissons describes her "life of abnegation" as horrifying; however, it enabled her to write her poetry, whose quality justifies her sacrifice.

Emily Dickinson was excluded from the anthology: Victorian Women Poets. Dickinson was greatly valued by her family and the few poems she managed to publish were well-received. She may have become a recluse to protect herself, either from being misunderstood, or because of an unhappy love affair.The latter is suggested in the "Introduction to Emily Dickinson" in 19th & 20th Century Women Poets. The author, (either Gurr or de Piro; we are merely told they are both responsible for the Notes and Approaches) praises Emily Dickinson for the brevity and reticence of her poems. This compression makes her poems enigmatic and open to different interpretations.

"At a time when women were expected to deny their passions," they say, "and remain silent about their powerlessness in a society that privileged men, her writing expressed the suffering this caused.
Her teasing mockery is read an an attack on male authority and a protest at female repression."

According to Elizabeth Gurr and Celia de Piro, Dickinson, early in her life, tried to publish her work but with little success. Only five of nearly fifty poems she sent to magazines in the 1850s were accepted and these were altered, to her increasing annoyance, to make them more conventional.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth, Hitherto Unpublished Poems and Stories With an Unedited Autobiography, ed. H. Buxton Forman, Boston, 1914.
Kaplan, Cora, Essays on Culture and Feminism, Verso, London, 1986.
Victorian Women Poets, An Anthology, ed. Angela Leighton & Margaret Reynolds, Blackwell Publishers Ltd. Oxford, UK, Mass USA, 1995.
Rossetti, Christina, Christina Rossetti, Selected Poems, ed. C.H. Sisson, Carcanet, Manchester, 1984.
"Introduction to Emily Dickinson" 19th and 20th Century Women Poets, Selection, Notes and Approaches, Elizabeth Gurr and Celia de Prio, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

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