Victorian Women Poets

By Matthew J. Bolton

Victorian Women Poets
Edited by Alison Chapman
Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1990’s, the culture wars were still running hot—or at least they were in my corner of Upstate New York. The English Department was like a big dysfunctional family, where mom and dad raged at each other and appealed to the kids—us undergraduates—for sympathy and validation. The New Critical professors, generally specialists in a period or an author, gave us to understand that the very idea of literature was under attack by relativists who would have us reading cereal boxes instead of Cervantes and sitcoms instead of Shakespeare. The post-modernists and multiculturalists, on the other hand, likened the traditional canon to an old-money social club, where dead white males were ushered inside while women, people of color, and the underprivileged were left standing at the door. The two factions were engaged less in debate than in diatribe, and it was often one of the undergrads who would steer classroom discussions back to the text we’d stayed up late reading the night before.

Returning to academia as a doctoral student at the start of a new decade, I found that an armistice had been reached, with the canon raiders and canon defenders having met in a sort of Hegelian synthesis. There was still a canon, but it was a more permeable one, and the critical methodology of juxtaposing well-researched authors with relatively unknown ones had enlivened the study of canonical and non-canonical authors alike. Alison Chapman’s Victorian Women Poets demonstrates the merits of such a methodology. By reassessing Victorian women poets, the volume’s eight contributors reassess our concept of Victorian poetry itself.

Glennis Byron’s essay “Rethinking the Dramatic Monologue,” for example, considers how dramatic monologues written by women might pose a challenge to traditional formulations of the genre’s history and character. She begins with the observation that “women’s dramatic monologues have rarely been included in the general theoretical discourse on the form” (79). One might offer any number of historical or political rationales for why this is so—including the argument that the critical revival of interest in Victorian women poets has involved casting their work in terms of socio-political issues rather than in terms of shared formal or generic characteristics—but the critical blind spot is there, nonetheless, and once pointed out is hard to ignore. Byron asks two questions about dramatic poetry written by Victorian women:

First, and quite briefly, should we also be adjusting our perspective on the dramatic monologue to the extent of revising our theory about its origins? Second, and in more detail, do men and women conceptualise and exploit the form differently? (80)

These are questions which only make sense if there is a canon of Victorian dramatic monologues against which the lesser-known work of poets such as Augusta Webster, Felicia Hemens, and Letitia Landon can be read. The essay assumes that the reader has a solid command of the Browning and Tennyson poems which are generally considered to be representative examples of the dramatic monologue form. When Byron contrasts Webster’s “A Painter” (1870) with Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” (1955), the latter poem is the known variable. Yet the essay gradually problematizes one’s grasp on the nature of even such a familiar dramatic monologue. This move towards complexity and problemization, then, is one of the great benefits of decentering the canon. A poem like “Andrea del Sarto” can become weighed down and dampened by being termed a “dramatic monologue” (a term which Browning never used for any of his poems); we begin to read the formal codifications which such a term implies rather than the poem itself. One’s notion of the dramatic monologue must constantly be unsettled and challenged if it is not to become a Procrustean bed which lops off whatever parts of a poem it can’t confine.

Natalie M. Houston takes a different approach to Victorian poetic form, arguing that because “twentieth-century accounts of Victorian poetry focused on the dramatic monologue as the most artistically and politically significant Victorian form,” the Victorian sonnet has been slighted (148). As a great number of Victorian women poets wrote sonnets, a discussion of the genre involves women’s issues and the role of the woman poet to a degree that the dramatic monologue might not. Houston’s ultimate goal is to “investigate how genre might usefully complicate gender-based criticism” (147). Yet this is very much a reversible proposition, as gender-based criticism likewise complicates genre. As with Byron’s essay, Houston’s study of non-canonical or neo-canonical poets by definition engages critical issues regarding canon formation and the conceptualization of poetic genre. Taken together, the two chapters offer exceedingly “useful complications” for scholars of Victorian poetics.

The other essays in the volume approach Victorian women poets through a variety of critical lenses. Editor Alison Chapman’s contribution, “The Expatriate Poetess,” deals explicitly with Victorian women poets’ representations of themselves qua women poets. Taking as her points of departure Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s often-misinterpreted statement “I look everywhere for Grandmothers & see none” (59), Chapman contrasts the differing poetic responses of Barrett Browning and some members of her Italian expatriate circle of women poets to the Risorgimento, English nationalism, and “the trope of the poetess [as] an unstable and transgressive conceit, signifying both home and restlessness, stability and flight, the nation and its other” (65).

Other essays read and contextualize individual poems, address the poetry and poetics of a single writer, or locate the work of Victorian women poets within the material concerns of the literary marketplace. In its own way, each of these essays is grounded in the sort of close-reading and canon formation that fifteen years ago was often represented as being under siege. The diversity of these eight contributor’s work speaks to the rich opportunities for scholarship centering on the rediscovery of Victorian women’s poetry.

There have been any number of new critical studies that make one glad that the culture wars are effectively over and that less-polarized work is now being done. Victorian Women Poets, on the other hand, makes one glad that the culture wars happened in the first place, for it combines the merits of two critical factions which were too long opposed.

Matthew J. Bolton, Ph.D. has published reviews in Victorian Studies, The Victorian Bulletin, The New England Theater Journal, Synoptique, and The Historians of British Art Newletter.