Augusta Webster writing motherhood in the dramatic monologue and the sonnet sequence.In many respects, the recovery of Augusta Webster may be read as a feminist success story with a now familiar plot. Literary scholars of the early- to mid-nineties seized on Webster's powerful dramatic monologues for their cultural and social significance, focusing particularly on her ideological engagement with urgent mid- to late-Victorian social questions related to female sexuality. More recent work has explored her closet dramas, literary reviews, publishing history, and biography. Safely enshrined in anthologies for the past decade, Webster's frequent appearances in dissertations, journal articles, and books not only reveals the impact of Victorian women's poetry on canon formation, but also the ongoing relevance of central feminist questions about literary authority and women's writing. The critical awareness of and interest in Webster's writing might be read as evidence that recovery has done its work, and, as Margaret Russett observes, that "nineteenth-century gender studies have long since moved beyond the reclamation phase." (1) Yet scholarship on Webster's poetry also reveals the ways in which literary scholars still struggle with some of the same questions that faced feminist scholars thirty years ago. Although we have moved past basic debates over whether or not women authors should be studied at all, the study of nineteenth-century women's poetry is still in a powerful transitional phase. As Alison Chapman remarks, "the critical effects of the recovery of forgotten voices are still making their mark and the work of uncovering women's poetry is by no means completed." (2) In what follows, I will suggest a reading of Webster that I hope reveals not only how her work enriches our understanding of nineteenth-century poetry, but also illuminates some of the challenges scholars continue to grapple with as they recover lost writers.
I will focus on Webster's representation of motherhood. While her entire canon lies outside my scope here, I have chosen to concentrate on two works that I believe serve as touchstone pieces for Webster's interest in the relation between maternity and literary creativity: "Medea in Athens," a dramatic monologue from her most famous collection of monologues, Portraits (1870), and Mother and Daughter: An Uncompleted Sonnet Sequence (1895), a collection of posthumously published sonnets. Both works offer a complex and equivocal answer to the question of whether or not motherhood enhances or undermines a woman writer's poetic authority. I argue that these texts attempt to demonstrate that motherhood can be an important source of creative inspiration for women, but the literary forms in which Webster chooses to work--monologue and the sonnet--also voice ambivalence about this idea. In Portraits, the dramatic monologue performs maternal creativity only by showing the impact of its loss, while Mother and Daughter questions the sonnet's efficacy to represent the mother-daughter bond even as it engages the form. Indeed, Webster's sonnet sequence in particular, with its provocative portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship and a mysterious publishing history which suggests that Webster's male editors may have been responsible for its final form, might be seen as haunted by a ghostly matriarchal line that comes to fruition only through the disavowal of poetic language and a (possible) abandonment of the very tradition it attempts. My argument obviously owes much to the legacy of second-wave feminism and the critical engagement with motherhood and women's writing inspired decades ago by Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born or French feminism as represented by Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and particularly Julia Kristeva. But by taking a close look at both "Medea in Athens" and Mother and Daughter, I hope my investigation occasions close readings that bring recovery work into a larger conversation with the rejuvenation of formalism. The initial recovery work of women poets tended to focus on social context and cultural representations of identity, particularly the ways in which these writers engaged progressively with important political and social questions. Genre has come to the table more recently, and I would argue that the question of gender and genre--or, to borrow Marion Thain's phrase, "gender as genre"--provokes a more important reconsideration of traditional canon formation) Webster, as a poet who made important contributions in several genres, and who, as Patricia Rigg has shown, was deeply immersed in poetic theory, invites a more wide-ranging discussion of the relation between feminism and genre studies. (4)
I begin with the mother figure Webster uses to launch Portraits: Medea. Webster's fascination with this classical figure was not uncommon to late-Victorian feminists, as Edith Hall's work on the play's importance to the British suffragette movement reveals. (5) Webster not only translated Euripedes' version in 1868, only two years prior to the publication of Portraits, but also assigned Medea's monologue the most prominent place in her collection, hanging her at the front of the gallery. Despite Webster's apparent interest in Medea, which has the potential to illuminate the ambivalent attitude toward motherhood that appears elsewhere in Portraits, recent literary scholars have paid scant attention to the poem. One of the most famous Bad Mothers in literary history, Medea would at first appear to share little with the Mother and Daughter sonnets, which often celebrate the joyful bond between mother and child. Yet her position at the head of Portraits invites a reading of her monologue as a self-reflexive meditation on the challenges of literary self-authorization for women, an exploration of the relation between maternity and poetic invention that later resonates in unexpected ways with Mother and Daughter. I propose that Webster's "Medea in Athens" seriously entertains but ultimately rejects the idea that the obliteration of motherhood facilitates a woman's creative self-authorization. Cornelia Pearsall argues that Webster's "Medea," much like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (1847) or Amy Levy's "Medea" (1884), features "a creator destroying what she has herself generated and produced, [an act] of destruction constituting an act of responsive innovation.... In such works we may trace the creative transformation of violence, as destructive acts mutate into inventive ones through the very medium of the monologue." (6) Pearsall's observation that Medea's destructive act "mutates" into an inventive one illuminates much of Webster's monologue, which suggestively figures Medea as a lapsed prophet struggling for authentic language that both accurately represents her own experience and repositions her story as central to Jason's long after they have parted. But I would argue that Pearsall's description cannot fully account for the poem's abortive conclusion, which I believe mourns the loss of maternal inspiration and which gestures toward the relation between motherhood and literary creativity explored by Webster a little over a decade later in Mother and Daughter.
Rather than setting the poem at the occasion of Medea's murder spree, as in Euripides, Webster's poem begins after Medea has escaped from Corinth, married AEgeus, and has just learned of Jason's death. What little criticism of this monologue exists tends to focus on Webster's sympathetic representation of Medea's sexuality, evident in her erotic memories of Jason. (7) I would argue, however, that Webster depicts Medea's deeply conflicted reaction to the news of Jason's death primarily as a crisis of language. When the poem begins, Medea cannot recollect when her voice last achieved any real power, and she barely remembers that she once spoke with divine agency. "Dimly I recall / Some prophecy a god breathed by my mouth," she says (11. 33-34). (8) Indeed, at first, Medea finds herself unable to react to Jason's demise with anything but meaningless cliches: "If I spoke... / 'Twas the prompt trick of words, like a pat phrase / From someone other's song found on one's lips / And used because 'tis there" (11. 6-11). Medea, in other words, has lost her voice, and the rest of Webster's poem tracks her efforts to invent a more authentic "song." As she struggles to reclaim both the personal and social authority of her voice, she deploys several rhetorical tactics, all of which draw upon on the metaphor of transformation. She repeatedly converts the literary conventions that threaten to drain her speech of its agency and power into a new and more authentic language, a rebirth of her voice that depends on transmuting previous traditions into something else.
Medea begins by laying waste to the feminine elegy, a mode of self-expression that threatens both to sentimentalize--"Do I drivel like a slight disconsolate girl / Wailing her love?" (ll. 134-135)--and to marginalize her own experience, pushing it to the sidelines while the object being mourned remains in the center of the reader's field of vision. Hence, when Medea envisions the moment of Jason's death, she initially conjures up a picture of his ravaged body, the typical object of desire in elegiac narratives of grief. But she quickly supplants that image with her own by imagining that Jason's last thoughts are of her. She goes so far as to invent a speech for him that celebrates her boldness and beauty, imagining him saying of her,
"She tossed her head back, while her brown hair streamed Gold in the wind and sun, and her face glowed With daring beauty; 'What of woes,' she cried, 'If only they leave time for love enough?' But oh the fire and the flush! It took one's breath!" (ll. 64-68)
Medea picturing Jason picturing her inverts a typical gesture of feminine mourning, replacing her tears with a brave cry and her longing for the lost object into an autoerotic form of self-appreciation. She not only substitutes her own beautiful self-portrait for Jason's image but also overwrites his voice. Jason's remark that Medea's beauty took away his breath hides within a conventional compliment a very literal description of what she is doing during the course of her monologue: inserting her own words where his real ones might have gone. Medea even says that Jason's dying words, which she imagines as "Medea's prophecy" (l. 126), are a sign that he has belatedly realized the truth of her predictive powers. Much as the sun transforms her brown hair into gold, Medea, in a moment of poetic alchemy, converts Jason's death into her gain, using his loss to recapture her own voice. Of course, as Seamus Perry observes, all elegy in some way paradoxically recuperates the speaker's loss, but Medea's overwriting of Jason is not the elegy's "double-heartedness, which recognizes the need to move on, while staying true to the dead," but an effort to retreat inward, a self-absorption so intense that it returns her not back to the world, but to herself. (9) It is a powerful trick worthy of the other mythological enchantress in Portraits with whom Medea is implicitly paired, Circe.
Medea then turns to other self-authorizing narrative modes that borrow from other literary traditions. She transmutes her elegiac grief and longing for Jason into a formal invocation--"Jason, Jason, / Come back to earth; live, live for my revenge" (U. 154-155)--with mixed results, insofar as the arrival of Jason's ghost confirms her authorial powers but, like any poetic creation, also reveals their limits, since once the ghost is on the scene, it refuses to leave. (As I shall momentarily discuss, Jason's silent but persistent presence inexorably leads Medea toward the one topic that threatens to destroy her speech altogether.) Then, she tackles Biblical narrative by way of melodrama. Christian tradition might be inclined to figure Medea as a typological Eve, the sexual aggressor, but Medea uses the conventions of melodrama to write her personal history with Jason as a story of her seduction and betrayal. She describes herself as a "grave and simple girl" (l. 191) and portrays Jason as Eve, a "smooth adder / Who with fanged kisses chang'dst my natural blood / To venom in me" (ll. 188-190). In Medea's metaphor, Jason's love works as a perverted transubstantiation that converts her blood into poison, and Medea must now convert it back--or, more accurately, transform it into something new. By casting herself in the role of iconic feminine victim, she claims an affiliation with a long line of fallen yet sympathetic melodramatic heroines that helps her to spotlight the public implications of her private story. Medea portrays her youthful self as "compelled" (l. 206) to obey Jason, first by her own passion for him and later by the "dreadful marriage oaths" that "bind" her (l. 208). She argues that the combination of Jason's personal and legal power over her not only renders her more vulnerable, but also makes him equally responsible for her actions. "Whose is my guilt?" she asks Jason's ghost. "Mine or thine....? Oh, soul of my crimes, / How shall I pardon thee for what I am?" (ll. 217-219). Medea's argument thus converts her act of vengeance into a condemnation of Jason that contains the seeds of a wide-ranging social critique, one that implicates the ideological structures of marriage itself. (10) From the subversion of elegy to invocation and, finally, the language of social reform by way of melodramatic autobiography, Medea finds her song and confirms Pearsall's claim that her destructive act evolves into a terrible kind of self-invention, and that "destruction, even to the point of self-annihilation, can be a creative act, providing the means to advance ambitions or effect desired alterations in persons or situations" (p. 78).
Yet this holds true only as long as Medea confines herself to the subject of Jason, not her children. Webster reserves the murdered sons for the end of Medea's monologue, and she uses Medea's memories of them to probe the limits of violence as a source of poetic self-authorization. Webster suggests that Medea has committed two murders, not just one. The first, of course, is the murder of her children. The second is the annihilation of Jason through the destruction of his bloodline. Since she kills both his new wife and his children, Medea leaves "none to keep / [Jason's] name and memory fresh upon the earth" (ll. 253-254). This latter act, the destruction of Jason, can be transformed into the "responsive innovation" described by Pearsall (p. 80). The former, the murder of her children, cannot. Faced with Jason's silent, stubborn ghost, Medea insists that her sons' deaths were for the "best" (ll. 248, 256) because now they, too, have been avenged. But this facile spin fails to accommodate either the extremity of her actions or the subsequent self-loathing that it brings on. Once Medea broaches the subject of her children, her control over her own speech rapidly deteriorates, spiraling into an anguished series of unanswered questions that ultimately bring the poem to its conclusion:
What if I have ill dreams, Seeing them loathe me, fly from me in dread, When I would feed my hungry mouth with kisses? What if I moan in tossing fever-thirsts, Crying for them whom I shall have no more, Here nor among the dead, who never more, Here nor among the dead, will smile to me With young lips prattling "Mother, mother dear"? What if I turn sick when the women pass That lead their boys; and hate a child's young face? What if-- Go, go: thou mind'st me of our sons; And then I hate thee worse; go to thy grave By which none weeps. I have forgotten thee. (ll. 257-270)
In the conclusion of "Medea," Webster suggests that no form of self-representation through language can adequately accommodate what Medea has done. Medea's silence about the details of the murder contrasts with Euripides' version, where the murder occurs offstage but is prefaced with Medea's long soliloquy. It also differs from its important Victorian precursors, such as Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave." Barrett Browning's portrayal of infanticide is not only explicit--"I covered him tip with a kerchief there; / I covered his face in close and tight" (ll. 122-133)--but also extended, "drag[ged]," says Tricia Lootens, "from one stanza to another." (11) For Barrett Browning's runaway slave, poetry and the act of infanticide reinforce each other, the ineffectual beating of the struggling infant's feet locked inexorably to the poem's claustrophobic tetrameter: "He moaned and beat with his head and feet, / His little feet that never grew--/ He struck them out, as it was meet, / Against my heart to break it through" (ll. 127-130). (There's more than an echo of this metrical death in Barrett Browning's "Mother and Poet," where the speaker also claims responsibility--albeit much less direct--for her sons' deaths and draws a connection between poetic song and maternal loss.) (12) For the runaway slave, infanticide creates poetic music, confirming the speaker's coherence as a subject even while she claims madness.
Medea's acts, however, destroy her song. Intended to convey her indifference to conventional sentimental attachment (a rhetorical "So, what?"), Medea's derisive "What if?." signals the true ontological crisis on the other side of revenge: the possible disintegration of the self she has carefully constructed over the course of the monologue. With each "What if I?", Medea wonders how the memories of her lost children will affect her, and each possible answer negates the powerful prophet she aspires to be. Medea's increasingly bleak list--nightmares, cannibalistic hunger, unrelieved starvation, envy, sickness, and, finally, the hatred of all children--augments her sense of estrangement, compromising her ability to project a coherent self onto the world. The final lines, "no more, / Here nor ... never more, / Here nor," emphasize not only her self-negation but also her optative anguish. The wistful sound of an alternative path--or, or, or--saturates the poem's conclusion. All of Medea's maternal memories lead toward permanent alienation and obliteration, toward a cavernous self-annihilating loss too terrible to articulate. She can only stabilize the self by shutting down memory and speech altogether. Medea admonishes Jason's ghost to go by claiming that she has forgotten him, and then she terminates the monologue altogether in a formal refusal to engage the subject further. Medea's suppression of her own voice may be what prompted one Victorian reviewer to complain that Webster's version of Medea was "cold" compared to Euripides' "revengeful tigress," but Webster portrays Medea's self-control as a survival tactic. (13) The prophet in search of her own song realizes that it is too horrible to sing. Medea's self-silencing acknowledges the futility of her effort to reclaim her creativity.
Considering Webster's depiction of wasted motherhood in "Medea in Athens" may productively inflect our reading of other poems in Portraits, and I would like to take a moment to pause on "A Castaway," currently Webster's most famous and frequently anthologized dramatic monologue. Contemporary scholars routinely contrast "A Castaway" with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny" (1870), a move that facilitates the reading of Webster's poem as a feminist response to Rossetti that exposes and condemns the social forces determining Eulalie's plight. But when "A Castaway" is read in Medea's footsteps, it encourages us to attend more carefully to Eulalie's description of her brief maternal experience, which I would argue is more complex than recent readings have allowed. Webster's interest in the transformative effects of maternal feeling is not as easily incorporated into the political vision of resistance to the Victorian domestic ideal so often assigned to her work. Excavating this idea in her poetry, however, reveals a complex instance of a late-Victorian woman writer's efforts to acknowledge the profound, life-changing potential of motherhood without succumbing to traditional nineteenth-century maternal ideology or diminishing the impact of her fierce critique of a gendered social system.
Like "Medea in Athens," "A Castaway" is littered with the bodies of dead children, from Eulalie's cynical "proposal" that killing female babies would solve the surplus women problem (ll. 300 ff.), to the descriptions of another prostitute wailing over her dead daughter (ll. 306 ff.), and, finally, Eulalie's own dead child, the "baby thing that woke / And wailed an hour or two, and then was dead" (ll. 422-423). In each of these cases, Eulalie states that the children are better off dead and that motherhood is not a viable strategy for either personal or social redemption. Sutphin persuasively argues that Eulalie's satiric and cynical resistance to motherhood reflects Webster's efforts to counter conventional reformist ideals, particularly the idea that becoming a mother can successfully deliver fallen women from further sin. Webster, says Sutphin, refuses "to make her prostitute persona an exemplum of the fallen woman redeemed by motherhood." (14) When read in the shadow of "Medea in Athens," however, "A Castaway" might appear to assign more weight to motherhood's redemptive possibilities than Sutphin and others have allowed. (15) Despite her insistence that motherhood cannot rehabilitate her, Eulalie also momentarily entertains the idea that her son might have saved her from the life:
Had he come before And lived, come to me in the doubtful days When shame and boldness had not grown one sense, For his sake, with the courage come of him, I might have struggled back. (ll. 427-431)
Of course, she just as quickly negates the thought, a disavowal that Sutphin cites in support of her claim that Eulalie "cannot convince herself (or the reader) that she would have been better off if he had lived. Rather than a transformation into an angel in the house, she imagines at best a bleak and poverty-stricken respectability" (p. 524). Although I would agree with Sutphin that Webster does not fall back on conventional domesticity as the solution to Eulalie's problems, I am less confident that the poem wholly resists the idea of motherhood's transformative potential. The other mother highlighted in the poem (aside from Eulalie's memories of her own mother), a bereaved prostitute, does not share Eulalie's cynicism. When Eulalie witnesses her weeping over her dead daughter, the woman's maternal feeling leads to some form of language: she "wailed half mad / shrieking to God to give it back again" (ll. 308-309). The description of this bereaved mother is not, I think, a capitulation to feminine sentiment but Webster's attempt within "A Castaway" to touch upon the possibility that the maternal cry can work as an authentic mode of female self-expression: primal and, in this case, possibly futile, but nevertheless passionate and demanding. This dimension of maternal experience as powerful emotional language does not fit neatly into Eulalie's social critique, which concentrates on the material challenges that motherhood would present--a reasonable response, but not necessarily the only one available.
Is Eulalie's rejection of maternal attachment really an expression of clear-eyed realism, part of the poem's larger critique of an outworn ideological reliance on the redemptive effects of domesticity? Or does it also suggest that with the loss of her son, she has been cut off from the very feelings that might enable her to imagine alternatives for herself?. Would the presence of a child in Eulalie's life, despite material hardship, help her to resist the social pressure she experiences on all sides? Even in the brief moment when she talks about her "baby thing," the verb that she repeats, "come," connotes movement, fertility, blossoming, and invocation (come, come, come). And, at the end of the poem, Eulalie admits that now she would consider taking money from the infant's father, an offer she previously refused out of pride: "yet now I think / I might have taken it for my dead boy's sake; / It would have been his gift" (ll. 590-592). The language of the gift conveys a meaning both within and external to the closed system of economy circulating within the poem. At first, it may seem only to confirm Eulalie's view of a social system that reduces human beings to currency, the transfer of property from one person to another--in this case, a fee for services rendered. Yet her association of the gift with childbirth evokes other shades of meaning: "gift" as a special faculty or talent naturally and sometimes divinely bestowed. By placing "A Castaway" two steps shy of "Medea in Athens," Webster asks us to rethink our ideas of what a feminist critique of prostitution might look like. Without defaulting to a simplistic view of domestic rehabilitation for women, Webster also makes room for motherhood as a source of creative renewal, a nuance overlooked by recent scholars perhaps not wanting to reproduce an essentialist view of female experience or to endorse a Victorian celebration of the virtues of maternity for women. Eulalie's dead infant thus joins the ghosts of Medea's sons as a symbol of lost female creativity, of imaginative potential diminished and destroyed. I do not see this as a capitulation to a nineteenth-century maternal ideology that reduces women to their maternal function, but rather an invitation--perhaps a provocation--to explore the subtle and complex relationship of motherhood to female creativity, and, by implication, to literary authority. Both "Medea in Athens" and "A Castaway" associate maternal loss with a creative depletion that at least in Medea's case, works against language. By destroying her children, Medea blocks the powerful voice that begins to return in response to Jason's death. Infanticide may be the act that moves her into history, but it forestalls all future efforts at self-invention.
But if "Medea in Athens" and "A Castaway" suggest that motherhood might facilitate a woman's voice, then it is surprising that the rest of Portraits never reveals what the fully realized voice of a woman drawing on her own motherhood for inspiration might actually look like. There is no "good mother" to counter the bad one; the collection contains no analogue, for instance, to Pompilia's monologue in Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1868-69), where the speaker's pregnancy energizes and restores her speech. Locked within an infertile marriage to AEgeus, Medea, both literally and poetically, brings forth no more children. Through this absence, Webster asks us to consider whether the form of the dramatic monologue itself is designed to accommodate the maternal voice. Why are there no creatively fulfilled mother-speakers among the dramatic monologues of Portraits? I would like to propose two answers, both of which revolve around a formal characteristic of the dramatic monologue that has long been considered central to the form: the distance between the speaker and the author. First, as Armstrong remarks, nineteenth-century women poets often exploited the gap between speaker and author in this genre as a means of voicing social dissent while at the same time claiming aesthetic distance, creating, in essence, a "masked critique." (16) Yet as Webster herself complained in her 1878 essay on "Poets and Personal Pronouns," because poets so often use the pronoun "I," readers tend to confuse a poem's speaker with its author, and they persistently read poems as biographical evidence of the author's own life. (17) Of course, as Webster surely knew, the connection between poetic speaker and author cannot be reduced merely to a matter of pronouns. Insisting on this distinction, however, authorizes her to use the form as a vehicle for social critique, activating a polemical mode that Glennis Byron has recently argued women poets tended to deploy in the dramatic monologue more regularly than their male counterparts. (18) Presumably, if Webster were to write a dramatic monologue featuring a mother whose personal life looked more like hers, a professionally successful poet and committed mother, then readers would have assumed that she was writing about herself. Perhaps Webster refused to offer a mother-speaker who might have countered Medea because it would have confused her readers' understanding of her distance from her speakers, a convention that she found both useful and necessary. The inevitable assumption that she endorsed the views of the speaker might have compromised her ability to voice a radical stance in all of her poetry.
Yet even as Webster criticizes readers who mistake the speaker for the poet (and this brings me to my second answer), she also suggests that perhaps a collapse of aesthetic distance may be exactly what writing motherhood requires. As Mother and Daughter suggests, for Webster, to write maternal experience is to seek closeness: she wants a language and a literary form that will allow her to express her oneness with her child. The dramatic monologue, however, only contains enough room for the self-assertions of the single speaker, intent, as Pearsall observes, on "testing the rhetorical power of their own speech." (19) It cannot capture the dual experience that Webster seeks to represent in Mother and Daughter, a reciprocal bond shared by both mother and child. The sonnet cycle, which allows her to use the daughter as a muse, would seem to have more potential for representing their shared voice. Indeed, the mother-speaker of Mother and Daughter attempts to achieve through the sonnet the prophetic, almost mythic voice that Medea cannot sustain in the dramatic monologue. Ultimately, I hope that my brief comparison of "Medea in Athens" to Mother and Daughter at least begins to reveal how a close look at Webster's engagement with the question of motherhood might imply new ways to discuss both her gender politics and her formal interventions over the course of her career.
Before turning to Mother in Daughter in full, I wish to consider briefly what the sonnet meant for nineteenth-century women writers. Over the past fifteen years or so, scholars have increasingly attended to the central role played by women poets in the resuscitation of the sonnet in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. Writers such as Mary Robinson or Charlotte Smith not only dramatically raised the profile of the sonnet, but also, as Amy Billone observes, used it as a self-authorizing strategy, and "entered the lyric tradition through their use of the sonnet form." (20) New anthologies of nineteenth-century literature often position early Romantic woman poets as the mothers of a long tradition of female-authored sonnets that persisted throughout the nineteenth century and which includes Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Webster's sonnet cycle has lately been included as part of this lineage. Through careful historicizing, however, both John Holmes and Natalie Houston have recently argued that women writers of the late Victorian period did not necessarily see themselves as the inheritors of the sonnet tradition begun by women in the early nineteenth-century. Holmes surveys mid-Victorian anthologies to argue that Romantic women poets had largely disappeared from public consciousness by mid-century, and Houston persuasively cites both Victorian poetic theory and the types of sonnets published in popular periodicals to argue that the sonnet was perhaps the least gendered poetic form of the late-nineteenth century. (21) In other words, perhaps we might read Webster as inheriting an interrupted tradition, creatively fertile but fragmented. I am pausing on this point because I believe that placing Mother and Daughter within this context may illuminate it as a text that is "uncompleted" both literally and thematically. Literally, a history of fragmentation is a better fit for a text that was actually written over the period of at least five years and then prepared for publication by someone other than the author. Thematically, Webster's sequence explores the difficulty of expressing the mother-daughter bond without ever settling definitively on a language fur its natural and profound depths, although it suggests that silence is perhaps its closest approximation. Rather than the culmination of a powerful tradition of female writing, Mother and Daughter represents a fascinating and vexed entry into a history already full of gaps and interruptions.
Mother and Daughter is alternately addressed both to other mothers and to Webster's daughter, herself the subject and object of the cycle. As other scholars have observed, the sequence tracks different moments within the daughter's development, moving from her youth and budding adolescence to her official entry into womanhood. (This movement, however, is more convulsive than continuous: the speaker addresses an older version of her daughter one minute and a younger one the next. Although discontinuity may reflect the iterative rather than narrative emphasis of the sonnet sequence, it may also derive from Webster's lack of control over the final version of the posthumously published text, an issue I will later discuss.) When describing her daughter, Webster deploys traditional Petrarchan metaphors in order to depict her as a muse. Assigning her daughter this part to play reroutes heterosexual Petrarchan energies, redirecting them toward the same-sex love a mother has for her daughter. As Laura Linker argues, Webster's portrayal of her daughter as child and mistress, two different versions of the muse figure, helps her to challenge the traditional role of desire toward the feminine object within Petrarchan tradition and to "feature maternal love as the locus of artistic inspiration." (22) Holmes further claims that by the end of the sequence, Webster ultimately idealizes not her relationship with the younger version of her daughter, but the connection they share as mutual adults, "elevating... a myth of the mother-daughter relationship as both passionate sisterhood and a precursor to the attainment of universal motherhood" (p. 111).
Although I certainly agree that Webster's depiction of her daughter as a muse revises Petrarchan dynamics, I propose that Webster is far more ambivalent about the portrayal of the daughter-muse to mother-poet relationship and the entire tradition of the sonnet sequence than Linker, Holmes, or other scholars who have recently looked at this cycle realize. On one hand, the mother-speaker of this sequence portrays motherhood as personally and creatively revitalizing. By entering the sonnet tradition, moreover, she makes a bid for lyric and social authority by negotiating not only with Petrarch and Shakespeare, but also mid- to late-Victorian contemporary women writers such as Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. As Rigg observes, Webster increasingly turned to the lyric in the last fifteen years of her career, beginning the Mother and Daughter sonnets in the same year that she published a collection of rispetti, published first as English Stornelli in 1881 and then reprinted in 1893 as English Rispetti (Rigg, p. 136). Perhaps she reserved the sonnet sequence until late in life because it represents the final and most important technical achievement necessary to establishing herself as a writer of lyric poetry. On the other hand, even as they reflect Webster's technical prowess, the sonnets in the Mother and Daughter sequence revolve around ambivalence and grief. While these themes may be common to a literary form devoted to love, absence, and loss, I believe that the poignant beauty of Webster's sonnets comes from their self-reflexive exploration of the form's potential futility to capture the mother-daughter relationship. Webster worries throughout that confining the mother-daughter relationship to the sonnet may destroy its natural beauty, trapping it in a stale loop of poetic tradition and excessive formal regulation. I propose that Webster's discomfort with the very tradition she is engaging manifests most suggestively in those sonnets that address one of three related aspects of maternal experience: rejuvenation (or the adult sense of invigoration that can sometimes accompany parenting a young child); discipline (the administration of parental authority); and memory (remembering one's child's youth). I will take a close look at a representative sonnet from each group. Finally, I will consider whether Webster's sequence ultimately suggests that the language of poetry may be inadequate to expressing the relationship between mother and daughter, a concern that may account for the sequence's eventual retreat into silence and perhaps explains Webster's failure to publish it in her lifetime.
First, rejuvenation. Mother and Daughter persistently portrays the revitalizing effects of motherhood. Throughout the sequence, the child not only refuses to acknowledge her mother's aging, but also repeatedly transfers her youthful energy to her parent like rays from the sun, making her feel young. The mother gratefully absorbs this energy, but she also sensitively explores the fine line between sharing the daughter's youth and appropriating or even preying upon it. This question emerges obliquely in those sonnets that feature the mother's revitalization of her own poetic voice through the assimilation of her child's song, a basic feature of the muse dynamic that troubles the mother-speaker for all of its obvious benefits to her art. Indeed, this preoccupation opens the sequence itself. Sonnet I explores both the advantages and drawbacks of converting the mother-daughter relationship into poetry, portraying the mother's appropriation of her daughter's voice with a mournful ambivalence that appears throughout the rest of the sonnet cycle:
I. Young laughters, and nay music! Aye till now The voice can reach no blending minors near; 'Tis the bird's trill because the spring is here And spring means trilling on a blossomy bough; 'Tis the spring joy that has no why or how, But sees the sun and hopes not nor can fear-- Spring is so sweet and spring seems all the year. Dear voice, the first-come birds but trill as thou. Oh music of my heart, be thus for long: Too soon the spring bird learns the later song; Too soon a sadder sweetness slays content; Too soon! There comes new light on onward day, There comes new perfume o'er a rosier way: Comes not again the young spring joy that went. ROME, November 1881. (23)
The subject of this opening sonnet is the mother's melancholy awareness of her daughter's impending womanhood. But the poem also charts the mother-speaker's assimilation of her daughter's song, focusing in on the moment when the poet makes it hers. To be fair, the ease with which the mother adapts the daughter's song is rooted in their closeness, evident elsewhere in the sequence. When the young daughter falls asleep in Sonnet V, for instance, she "breathes" the word "Mother" (l. 13) as she dreams, a confirmation of their shared voice and the intensity of the mother-child bond. Yet this closeness does not cancel out the mother's awareness that her use of her daughter's voice in order to occasion her poetry is not necessarily a mutual act. In Sonnet I, the speaker initially observes that the daughter sings independently from the mother's music and the "blending minors" of the adult world. Yet the speaker's somewhat unexpected use of the modal verb "can"--"till now / The voice can reach no blending minors near"--shifts the emphasis from the child's music to the mother's. A more conventional choice would be either a firmly established retrospective stance--"till now / The voice did reach no blending minors near"--or the use of conditional tense--"till now / The voice could reach no blending minors near." Webster's use of "can," however, not only emphasizes the potentiality of the daughter's inevitable growth, but also, and more importantly, implicates the speaker in the child's maturation process. The "now" in the poem refers not only to the daughter, at this moment on the cusp of womanhood, but also to the occasion of the mother's writing. This poem works not only as a lament for the daughter's soon-to-be-lost youth, but also for the performance of poetic tradition--the poet-muse relationship--that hastens it along. According to the speaker, her daughter laughed in a major key until the mother started making her music, singing in minor off to the side. The minor strain playing in the background of the octave then emerges as the dominant key of the sestet, as the volta turns from the child's youthful spring song toward an anticipation of her maturation. By this point in the poem, the mother's integration of the daughter's song into her own is complete, as the sestet's opening phrase--"Oh music of my heart"--makes explicit.
The first sonnet of Mother and Daughter thus stages one of the fundamental questions of the entire sequence: does the poet leave the daughter's natural song untouched, or, by using her as a muse, enter it in (or subject it) to the realm of poetic tradition? Even while the mother states a desire for the daughter's eternal youth and innocence, she knows that without her appropriation and revision of the child's music, the daughter's song would not pass for poetry. The very act of preserving her child's "young laughters" requires writing them into a narrow poetic form controlled exclusively by the mother. Natural and spontaneous, the daughter, like a bird, sings because it is spring, and spring is a time for singing. (24) For all her song's energy, it consists of nothing but spontaneous, repetitive trills, with the word "spring" recurring no less than five times in six lines in an endlessly chirpy loop. This song would pass like so much birdsong: transient, forgotten. To create poetry out of her relationship with her daughter, the speaker must roughly break the sestet's unreflective repetition, a rupture she can only cause by imagining a violent change for the daughter that "slays" her current happiness. If Webster suggests that the transformation of the daughter's natural song into an artificial, made thing--the sonnet--confirms her own poetic authority, then she is also painfully aware that this transformation permanently changes the song's key. By the end of the sonnet, Webster has fully converted the daughter's voice to her own, claiming their shared inheritance in a poetic tradition that sings in minor: the Wordsworthian world of "still, sad music" ("Tintern Abbey," 1. 91) or the "plaintive anthem" of Keats's nightingale ("Ode to a Nightingale," l. 75). Similar conversions occur throughout the cycle as the daughter's "new thoughts, incomplete, / Find their shaped wording happen on [the mother's] tongue" (Sonnet XVII.3-4). As the speaker of Mother and Daughter repeatedly seeks to render her daughter's voice into a recognizable poetic form, transforming what is natural, spontaneous, and mutable into something formal and well-regulated, Webster suggests that invoking her daughter as muse borders on exploitation more than invocation. If Webster's Medea cannot continue her song because the destruction of her children erases all potential for future invention, then the speaker of Mother and Daughter repeatedly hints that she has perhaps veered too far in the other direction, excessively formalizing the relationship between maternity and literary creativity by working within a genre that evokes the oppressive weight of poetic tradition and which demands a serious commitment to technical virtuosity.
The sequence's preoccupation with the potentially oppressive effects of the sonnet's thematic and technical demands appears even more forcefully in those sonnets that take up the subject of maternal discipline. Many of the sonnets in Mother and Daughter feature the mother in the act of managing and scolding her young child, alternately playing the roles of prosecutor, judge, and priest who chides, blames, punishes, and absolves. Sometimes, as in Sonnet VI, the mother's punishment of her child strengthens their bond, for the daughter's penitence ultimately and sweetly reveals that theirs is a spiritual connection beyond either nature or the law. At other times, however, Webster depicts the monitoring and correcting of her child's behavior as voyeuristic absorption, an unhealthy form of parental surveillance that leads to an almost fanatical watchfulness. The speaker scrutinizes her child constantly (some version of the word "watch" occurs repeatedly in Sonnets III, V, VII, VIII, and XIX), and Webster suggests that her hyper-vigilant attention to detail works against the closeness with her daughter that she craves. Take, for instance, Sonnet VII, which opens with a double scene of discipline, the father chastising the mother for chastising the daughter:
VII. Her father lessons me I at times am too hard Chiding a moment's fault as too grave ill, And let some little blot my vision fill, Scanning her with a narrow near regard. True. Love's unresting gaze is self-debarred From all sweet ignorance, and learns a skill, Not painless, of such signs as hurts love's will, That would not have its prize one tittle marred. Alas! Who rears and loves a dawning rose Starts at a speck upon one petal's rim: Who sees a dusk creep in the shrined pearl's glows, Is ruined at once: "My jewel growing dim!" I watch one bud that on my bosom blows, I watch one treasured pearl for me and him.
This sonnet depicts mother love as a voyeuristic distortion that renders her capable of seeing the small flaws but not the whole. Her gaze constant and "narrow," the speaker becomes hypersensitive and even hysterical, recoiling at tiny, almost imperceptible irregularities. This mode of watching is a sickness, a claim underscored by both the rhyme scheme's emphasis on "ill" as well as the poem's allusion to Othello, another lover whose jealous vision of his rare pearl ultimately destroys it. Even when the speaker laments this stance ("Alas!"), however, she insists on its necessity. The noticeable caesura that occurs after "True" throws back in the reader's face our psychic investment in the first four lines, as the inevitable moment of silence that occurs after the heavy weight of this single word prompts the realization that what we thought we were reading--a more conventional feminine defense of maternal authority over the domestic sphere--is actually a troubling capitulation to an unhealthy obsession. The mother agrees: she is indeed "too hard" on her daughter. Her rebukes are extreme, her scolding disproportionate to the crime. Yet she persists.
Sonnet VII evokes larger questions about the viability of the act of sonnet writing, itself a "hard" regime for any poet. Throughout the entire sequence, the mother's anxious preoccupation with the management of her own child points to the technical discipline required by the sonnet and the potentially destructive effects of subjecting the mother-daughter relationship to an authoritarian control that reduces this profound female dynamic to a formal aesthetic exercise, one complete with its own pre-set metaphors and meter. Maternal discipline is not the only form of management that threatens the mother-daughter relationship, as the mother's act of converting their love into poetic form potentially undermines the authenticity and naturalness of the very bond the speaker seeks to represent. The speaker's cliched metaphors of flowers and pearls, for instance, reveal that she is not seeing what is actually there so much as a literary tradition that unreasonably insists upon total feminine purity. This same tradition encloses and contains women, hoarding them like treasures, enshrining them in beautiful tombs. By writing her daughter into the tradition of the sonnet, Webster finds herself subscribing to a traditional ideological view of feminine sexuality that would seem to be at odds with the politics implied by the rest of her poetry.
The mother's excessive discipline of her daughter is implicated not only in the metaphoric traditions of the sonnet but also in the form itself, with its strict number of lines, rhyme scheme, and iambic meter. Even though she implicitly compares the burden of her own parental authority to a neurotic affliction, the speaker nevertheless insists that it is a carefully and painfully learned "skill"--a special kind of discriminating expertise that only she has mastered. Like the sonnet, it is a technical art. With that context in mind, Webster's remark that she "scans" her child "with a narrow near regard" evokes the act of metrical scansion inherent in the act of both writing and reading poetry. Having transformed her daughter into a poetic text, the mother then takes a prosodic view, inspecting her child for flaws and irregularities in the form. Scansion, as a particular kind of poetic scrutiny that searches the body of a text for the small divisions between feet, works against unity in this particular sonnet. It jeopardizes the wholeness of the child herself as well as her oneness with the mother, who, at several other points in the sequence, promotes the bond between a mother and an only child as the ideal. Indeed, later in the cycle, Webster uses the language of scansion to critique mothers with multiple children: "You think that you love each as much as one.... You know not. You love yours with various stress.... / [But] How should you know who appraise love and divide?" (Sonnet XXV.1-14). Stress, appraisal, division: this is the kind of reading and writing potentially invited by the sonnet form. For every way in which Webster embraces the sonnet, she also worries that it may divide the mother from her child, measuring out their relationship in discreet units rather than successfully representing the whole.
The dangers of measuring maternal experience line by line, beat by beat, are ultimately most fully realized in those sonnets that explore the destructive effects of maternal memory. Throughout the cycle, Webster suggests that the act of remembering often leads to self-sabotage, a perpetual state of mourning that stalls emotional growth and, by implication, future creative invention. In Sonnet IX, for instance, the women who look to their memories of motherhood for comfort and solace (the "Poor mothers that look back" [l. 1]), lead only a cold and barren half-life, full of masochistic sentimentality or deluded optimism. They are more grief stricken than bereaved mourners, says Webster, because at least a mourner can imagine the resurrection of the loved one in heaven and, as such, know that the lost love continues to exist in present time, albeit at a remove. Mothers, however, must acknowledge that their time is "over" and that lost childhood can never again exist in the present tense--there is no "is" (l. 11). Children grow up and leave, and mothers who attempt to recapture the lost past live in an enduring gloom. The next sonnet in the sequence, entitled "Love's Counterfeit," augments this theme through the device of personification:
X. Love's Counterfeit Not Love, not Love, that worn and footsore thrall Who, crowned with withered buds and leaves gone dry, Plods in his chains to follow one passed by, Guerdoned with only tears himself lets fall. Love is asleep and smiling in his pall, And this that wears his shape and will not die Was once his comrade shadow, Memory-- His shadow that now stands for him in all. And there are those who, hurrying on past reach, See the dim follower and laugh, content, "Lo, Love pursues me, go where'er I will!" Yet, longer gazing, some may half beseech, "This must be Love that wears his features still: Or else when was the moment that Love went?"
Sonnet X portrays memory as a ghostly copy of real feeling, the literal "shadow" of Love asleep in his grave. This is no typical gothic ghost with its own agency, signaling the return of the repressed. Webster rather characterizes memory as a prisoner of those who insist on remembering, a "worn and footsore thrall" who "plods in his chains" behind them. Memory "will not die" because his keepers hold him captive. If we assume that those who are remembering in this sonnet are mothers, then memory's thralldom suggests that mothers possess a powerful and almost supernatural ability to resurrect the past, a power so effective, in fact, that it creates an almost perfect copy which less discriminating viewers fail to notice is an imitation (as the sestet confirms). As the speaker insists, however, looking like love is not the same thing as being or having love, which means that mothers who insist on keeping memory alive are not powerful sorceresses but merely clever forgers. If the sonnet is a coin, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti suggests at the beginning of his sonnet sequence The House of Life (1881), then, in this poem, Webster suggests it is counterfeit change. (25) The maternal power to capture memory leaves mothers depending upon the comfort of a delusion, a fake, telling themselves that they are experiencing love because they wish it. The sonnet's final lines suggest that most people who notice that they are looking at Memory instead of Love cannot bring themselves to admit their error. Rather, they insist pitifully on their delusion, begging, "This must be Love." Memory continues to plod behind them.
Memory, in other words, has tired feet. This idea suggestively undermines the project of the sonnet sequence, itself a metrical tradition dedicated to the expression of love and loss. In a compelling pattern of self-reflexive ambivalence, Webster makes the dominant metaphor for maternal memory in Mother and Daughter the counting of feet, an extension of the mother's prosodic vision from Sonnet VII. In addition to Memory's plodding gait in Sonnet X, the footsteps of the past appear prominently in Sonnets VIII (mothers who have "counted all the footsteps by new fears" [l. 11]); XII (the paths the daughter "loves to tread" [l. 9]); and, most poignantly, in Sonnet XX, where the mother admits that despite her newfound closeness with her adult daughter, she still misses "the approaching sound of pit-pat feet" (l. 13). Within the context of the condemnation of memory--and memorializing--in Sonnets IX and X, these references challenge the function of the sonnet sequence, since what else is the sonnet cycle but a metrical, iterative form that seeks to capture past emotion? The other weary thrall in Mother and Daughter is the poetic tradition of the sonnet itself, tired and footsore. The real danger of this particular literary enterprise, suggests the speaker, is that any readers besides the daughter will see only the formal conventions of the sonnet rather than the passionate closeness and deep natural love between them. When the daughter in Sonnet XIII tells the mother that her "music" is the sweetest, the mother attributes it to the daughter's love for her, observing that she loves more than she hears. She also remarks that anyone who is not the daughter will fail to hear the sweetness she intends her song to convey: "She'll not believe my voice to stranger ear / Is merely measure to the note and line" (XIII.3-4). At the same time that she explores the beauty of the sonnet, Webster also implicitly wonders if it may be an impoverished tradition, one that measures, counts, and regulates but cannot fully accommodate or represent the mother-daughter bond.
Perhaps this accounts for Webster's ultimate turn to the idea of silence to convey the truth of the mother-daughter relationship. In the final third of the sequence, maw of the sonnets explore the inexpressibility of the mother-daughter bond, what the mother and child both hear when nothing is being said. In Sonnet XXI, the daughter "feels" what the mother says rather than hears it: "as when some foreign tongue is heard / Familiar on our lips and closely known, / We feel the purport of each word / When ignorant ears reach empty sound alone" (ll. 9-12). Similarly, Sonnet XXIII says that true love requires no language at all: "heart that's st, re of heart has little speech. / What shall it tell? The other knows its thought" (ll. 9-10). Sonnet XXII is perhaps the clearest expression of the prioritization of silence over sound in the sequence:
XXII The brook leaps riotous with its life just found, That freshets from the mountain rains have fed, Beats at the boulders in its hindered bed, And fills the valley with its triumphing sound. The strong unthirsty tarn sunk in deep ground Has never a sigh wherewith its wealth is said, Has no more ripples than the May-flies tread: Silence of waters is where they abound. And love, whatever love, sure, makes small boast: 'Tis the new lovers tell, in wonder yet. Oh happy need! Enriched stream's jubilant gush! But who being spouses well have learned love's most, Being child and mother learned not nor forget, These in their joyfulness feel the tarn's strong hush.
The juxtaposition of the sound of the brook--again figured suggestively as beats--against the quiet tarn offers a model for understanding the work of poetic mimesis. Poetry is loud and, in Webster's case, also successful, as the brook fills its public space with "triumphing sound." But the silent tarn shrouds the real feeling, submerged and inaccessible to all outsiders. This reading in many respects confirms Billone's elegant theory that women writers from this period use silence in the sonnet to negotiate in often "elaborate" ways with the question of "unspeakability" (p. 5). Indeed, the sonnets in Mother and Daughter suggest that mother-daughter relationships create their own poetry, a reciprocal and shared communication that lies outside language and poetic tradition. Silence is more mutual than either the muse-to-poet relationship or the display of technical prowess demanded by the sonnet form. Webster's Medea and the speaker of Mother and Daughter thus share the same basic sense that motherhood is unspeakable. In Medea, this unspeakability becomes the poem's driving frustration and ultimate destruction. In Mother and Daughter, the act of negotiating with both motherhood's inexpressibility and the sonnet sequence would seem to yield poetic fruit, "finally," as Billone observes of Smith and Barrett Browning, "characterizing poetry as the music of inexpressivity itself" (p. 11).
Yet my suggestion that silence in Mother and Daughter should be seen as a metaphor rather than a literal experience fails to accommodate the important questions raised by the posthumous publication of Webster's cycle. The subtitle of Mother and Daughter, "An Uncompleted Sonnet Sequence," invites us to ask whether or not Webster ever intended the piece to be made public. At the time I am writing, literary scholars have no idea what, exactly, "uncompleted" means. Is it metaphorically suggestive? Or, as suggested by the act of posthumous publication, a literal description? Was Thomas Webster a generous and sensitive editor? Self-interested and exploitative? A collaborator? All or none of the above? Webster never published any of the Mother and Daughter sonnets during her lifetime, and the original manuscript--or perhaps manuscripts--is currently lost. The answer cannot be gleaned from Webster's private papers to date. Although Webster appears to have been a recognizable literary name in the latter half of the nineteenth century, much about her remains a mystery. As Rigg remarks in her carefully researched and recent biography of Webster, she is an author "without collected papers, with no manuscripts extant, and with relatively few personal letters scattered in various archives." (26) Without more information about the textual history of the Mother and Daughter sonnets, it is impossible to determine the extent of the posthumous editing. Did Webster leave a batch of individual sonnets scattered throughout her personal papers that someone--most likely her husband but possibly also William Michael Rossetti, who wrote an introduction--assembled and arranged into a sequence? Or did her husband assign these poems the title "uncompleted" simply because she died before their publication and thus was unable to sign off on the project? Or did she even intend for them to be published at all, given that she withheld them for at least five years?
Despite this ambiguity, all recent critical readings of the sonnets depend heavily on the idea of Mother and Daughter as a sequence. Florence Boos, for instance, imagines Webster in complete control of the entire project: "She subtitled Mother and Child's twenty-seven sonnets 'An Uncorapleted Sonnet-Sequence,' bound them with several other sonnets arranged in small clusters after the manner of 'True Woman' or 'The Choice,' marked some of them with dates that ranged from 'Rome, November 1881' to 1882 and 1886, and arranged them (with a subsequence which focused on the exclusive depth of a mother's love for an only child) in a rough progression." (27) Holmes remarks that the individual sonnets in Mother and Daughter are unremarkable in themselves, but "what gives them significance is their place within the sequence" (p. 108). How would it change the readings of this cycle if we discovered that the sonnets were not intended to function as a sequence? Or that Webster never intended them to become public? Marianne Van Remoortel has recently argued that the turn to silence in Mother and Daughter, which simultaneously confirms the mother-daughter bond and rejects Petrarchan metaphor, might be read as "nothing less than artistic suicide" (p. 483). Perhaps the "uncompleted" and unpublished nature of Mother and Daughter is just that: not just a metaphorical retreat into silence but a literal one, an abandonment of this particular artistic project.
Obviously, we can still derive meaning from this sequence as it appears in its final published form (although, for the most part, I have tried to refrain from commenting on the placement of individual sonnets within the cycle in my own reading above). But I hope that these questions illuminate some of the strengths, weaknesses, and practical challenges manifest in the still ongoing project of recovering women writers. Webster's Mother and Daughter's "uncompleted" sonnet cycle reminds us how much is left to do when it comes to resurrecting lost women poets. The advent of new digital technologies and the internet have made accessing obscure editions easier than ever before, but much painstaking archival work remains that would complicate and enrich our understanding of women's poetry from the nineteenth century. Mother and Daughter, for instance, has been incorporated into poetry anthologies as a prime example of a nineteenth-century woman writer's successful appropriation of the tradition of the sonnet sequence, and Webster is now taken as an important writer of women's sonnets. (28) But as I hope I have successfully demonstrated here, the sonnets within Mother and Daughter indicate that Webster herself may have been more ambivalent about the sonnet tradition than we realize. Excavating more about the material manuscript history of this sequence and her relationship to it would most likely complicate this thesis even further. Surely it would inform whether we want to claim this particular work as a celebratory victory over a male literary tradition or a more complex, unsure, and open-ended negotiation with it.
I also hope that my reading promotes the relevance of close reading to recovery, a goal indebted to the excellent model of close reading initially offered by second-wave feminism and which continues to resonate today. To date, the scholars who persistently allude to "Medea in Athens," for instance, never take the time to look at the poem closely, exploring its formal structure and devices, an oversight which suggests that in our eagerness to determine the impact of women's writing on our understanding of nineteenth-century poetry, we sometimes make broad assertions about authors whose individual poems have yet to be carefully read, parsed, and discussed. I do not mean to sound pedantic or overprotective, insisting that dessert can only be eaten after dinner (speaking of motherhood). But I hope that that pushing "Medea in Athens" as well as individual sonnets from Mother and Daughter into the spotlight may reveal the advantages of continuing to read individual poems by recovered authors, taking the time to zero in on the details before pulling back. Such readings illuminate the centrality of genre and formalism to feminism and may eventually encourage us to reconsider organizing the canon around literary form rather than individual authors. One of the richest legacies of feminist scholarship is not only its invitation to continue revising our understanding of the role of women within a patriarchal literary tradition, but also to revise our concept of what a tradition looks like. Webster's complex engagement with motherhood in "Medea in Athens" and Mother and Daughter suggests one way in which we might begin to revisit both ideas.
(1) Margaret Russert, "Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century," SEL 47, no. 4 (2007): 964.
(2) Alison Chapman, "Introduction," in Victorian Woman Poets, ed. Alison Chapman (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 1.
(3) Marion Thain, "What Kind of a Critical Category is 'Women's Poetry'?" VP 41, no. 4 (2003): 575.
(4) Patricia Rigg, "Augusta Webster and the Lyric Muse: The Athenaeum and Webster's Poetics," VP 42, no. 2 (2004): 135-164.
(5) Edith Hail, "Medea and British Legislation before the First World War," Greece and Rome 46, no. 1 Second series (1999): 42-77.
(6) Cornelia D. J. Pearsall, "The Dramatic Monologue," The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Joseph Bristow (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), p. 80.
(7) See Christine Sutphin, "The Representation of Women's Heterosexual Desire in Augusta Webster's 'Circe' and 'Medea in Athens,'" Women's Writing: The Elizabethan to Victorian Period 5, no. 3 (1998): 373-392.
(8) Augusta Webster, "Medea in Athens," in Augusta Webster: Portraits and Other Poems, ed. Christine Sutphin (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000), pp. 169-178.
(9) Seamus Perry, "Elegy," in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony Harrison (Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), p. 116.
(10) Natalie Houston observes that Medea's insistence that she is happily married to/Egeus also works as a critique of marriage, insofar as it "exposes that very category of 'happy wife' as an ideological construction that may bear no relation to actual happiness" ("Order and Interpretation in Augusta Webster's Portraits," Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 47 (2007), http://www.erudit.org/revue/rawm/2007/v/n47/016701ar.html).
(11) Tricia Lootens, "'Our EBB': Editorial Pedagogy, Contemporary Culture, and 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point,'" VP 44, no. 4 (2006): 499.
(12) See the analysis of Barrett Browning's use of dactylic tetrameter in this poem by Olivia Gatti Taylor, "Written in Blood: The Art of Mothering Epic in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," VP 44, no. 2 (2006): 161.
(13) Rev. of Portraits, in the Examiner and London Review (May 21, 1870), in Augusta Webster, ed. Sutphin, p. 419.
(14) Christine Sutphin, "Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster's A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women's Sexuality," VP 38, no. 4 (2000): 525.
(15) See Susan Brown, "Economical Representations: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Jenny,' Augusta Webster's 'A Castaway,' and the Campaign Against the Contagious Diseases Acts," Victorian Review 17, no. 1 (1991): 78-95; Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1992); and Warwick Slinn, Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2003). These scholars do not engage the question of Eulalie's motherhood at any length.
(16) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 372. For an overview of the history of the mask metaphor in relation to the dramatic monologue, see Carol Christ's chapter, "Dramatic Monologue, Mask, and Persona" in Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 15-31.
(17) Augusta Webster, "Poets and Personal Pronouns," Examiner (March 2, 1878): 268-270, in Augusta Webster, ed. Sutphin, pp. 366-372.
(18) Glennis Byron, "Rethinking the Dramatic Monologue," in Chapman, pp. 79-98.
(19) Cornelia Pearsall, Tennyson's Rapture: Transformation in the Victorian Dramatic Monologue (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 11.
(20) Amy Bilhme, Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007), p. 2.
(21) John Holmes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 100-101; and Natalie Houston, "Towards a New History: Fin-de-Siecle Woman Poets and the Sonnet," in Chapman, p. 152.
(22) Laura Linker, "Augusta Webster and the Maternal Production of Art," Papers on Language and Literature 44, no. 1 (2008): 53.
(23) Augusta Webster, Mother and Daughter: An Uncompleted Sonnet Sequence, in Augusta Webster, ed. Sutphin, pp. 336-351.
(24) This line echoes stanza XXI of Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850), "I do but sing because I must, / And pipe but as the linnets sing." Webster also references this stanza in "Poets and Personal Pronouns," where she says that "nothing is truer than that the poet sings because he must. He sings because singing is his sixth sense, and because it is so bound up with all the others that if you deprived him of it he would feel as if they too were leaving him. Yet you can reduce even the linnet's song to rule--whether the linnet is aware of a rule or no--and the rule of the poet's expression seems to be that it is not the revealing of him but of themselves to others; and to him the revealing of them and himself among them" (Sutphin, Augusta Webster, p. 371). The tension between the poet's spontaneous song and the "rules" that govern lyrical self-expression registers throughout Mother and Daughter. Webster's reference to Tennyson both here and in the sonnet sequence might also be seen as a meditation on her own modernity, making her more of a Wildean artist who self-consciously makes the choice to be a poet; see, for instance, Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist (1888), where Gilbert remarks that "no poet sings because he must.... A great poet sings because he chooses to sing" (The Works of Oscar Wilde [New York: Lamb Publishing Co., 1909], p. 135).
(25) An extended reading of the relation between Rossetti's sonnet sequence and Webster's can be found in Marianne Van Remoortel's "Metaphor and Maternity: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life and Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter," VP 46, no. 4 (2008): 467-486. In a rich intertextuaI analysis, Van Remoortel argues that "Webster's Mother and Daughter ... can be read as an attempt to trace Rossetti's maternal metaphors back to their literal grounds" (p. 476).
(26) Patricia Rigg, Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer (Madison, New Jersey: Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2009), p. 15.
(27) Florence Boos, "Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Poetic Daughters: Fin de Siecle Women Poets and the Sonnet," in Outsiders Looking In: The Rossettis Then and Now, ed. David Clifford and Laurence Roussillon (London: Anthem Press, 2004), p. 263.
(28) A recent call for papers for a special issue of Victorian Poetry, for instance, invited essays on "sonnets by women poets: Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Augusta Webster etc." (Hilary Attfield, email April 4, 2008). Given the number of women poets from this period who wrote many more sonnets than Webster, it is surprising to see her name listed alongside Barrett Browning and Hemans, and it suggests that scholars are conceiving of her as a central figure within a continuous tradition of women's sonnet writing.