"Appraise love and divide": measuring love in Augusta Webster's mother and daughter.
Underlying Augusta Webster's sonnet sequence Mother and Daughter is the startling proposition that love is a limited resource that can be divided, meted out. Her sequence transposes the concern for how much love is possible, how long love lasts, and how deep it is from the erotic context of the sonnet sequence onto a parent-child relationship. Webster emphasizes that a mother's love cannot escape measurement for she must track the growth of her daughter, their increasing distance, and the gap between the experiences of mother and daughter that is both pedagogical and nostalgic. Unlike an erotic love, often imagined to continue in an afterlife that is either religious, literary, or both, Webster's concept of a mother-daughter relationship has a painful natural end. Webster sharply contrasts the idealized permanence of erotic love with the constantly changing quality of maternal love. Haunted by fears about the duration of love, the sonnet sequence expresses a compulsion to prove love's depth, comparing it to a still, silent lake and a void "filled to the utterest." (3) Written retrospectively, after her daughter was an adult, and when Webster herself was close to death, Mother and Daughter is concerned with the mother's passing, and even in one instance, with the child's. Webster confronts the painful fact of transience in the parent-child relationship, lamenting the passage of time and the distance from her daughter that increases as she ages.
To illuminate the bittersweet relationship between mother and child, Webster must turn to the inherent conditions and contradictions of the lyric, which is at once expansive in thought but economical in expression, rendering permanent a moment even as the meter tallies the time to the poem's end. Mother and Daughter declares that while mothers of multiple children must "appraise love and divide" it among the children, loving each with "various stress," the mother of a single child gives all of her love to her child, who "has the whole" (25.14, 9, 13). Although the sonnets insist that mothers of only children need not measure out their love the way mothers of siblings must, they simultaneously express an anxiety about needing to quantify the strength and duration of this mother's love. Despite this resistance, the use of the sonnet form reflects the compulsion to count the stresses, sounds, and rhythms of maternal feeling. Webster's use of terms like "stress" and "footsteps" refers to the genre, reminding the reader that the poems inevitably measure maternal love as the poet measures accent, syllable, and line (8.11). As the sonnets both wish for love's infinitude and doubt it, the meter reinforces this tension, rushing during tropes of stillness, halting with extra stress to slow the passage of time, and interrupting with caesuras; poetic forms themselves "appraise ... and divide" a mother's love as they express her anxiety. While meter counts the poetic voice of the poems, the poems also address the fleeting quality of the mother's own voice, noting how the human voice measures the passage of time as it ages. Webster asserts that the quest to understand maternal love in poetry necessarily means she must give its aspects various stress, appraising and dividing the words and sounds that embody the feelings.
Recently, Mother and Daughter has received significant critical attention. Two articles argue that Webster uses her sequence to critique Petrarchan conventions. Both Laura Linker and Marianne Van Remoortel suggest that simply by virtue of transforming the lover/beloved relationship into a mother/ daughter relationship, Webster undermines the gendered assumptions of amatory sonnet sequences by male poets. (4) Van Remoortel considers Webster's sonnet sequence as a successor to D. G. Rossetti's The House of Life, arguing that Webster critiques his (and other male poets') use of procreativity as a metaphor for artistic creativity. For Van Remoortel, Webster reclaims the literal terms of motherhood and restores the concepts of presence and unity to the sonnet sequence. (5) Melissa Valiska Gregory reads the formal discipline of the sonnet as corresponding to the moments of maternal discipline within the sonnets. Arguing that the requirements of the sonnet form make the daughter's spontaneous song into something artificial, she suggests that formal discipline does damage to their intimacy. (6) Whereas Van Remoortel and Gregory see Webster as critiquing sonnet conventions, Lee Behlman argues that her use of Petrarchism is "opportunistic and adaptive.... [It is] an archive of language and a set of characterological and narrative patterns she uses to reframe literary motherhood." (7) This proliferation of criticism demonstrates the number of lenses through which we can understand nineteenth-century sonnets and this sequence in particular.
While these critics have usefully drawn thematic connections to the sequence's precursors, none have made explicit the importance not only of thematic sonnet conventions but also of the formal features of the lyric. I argue that for Webster the inevitable measurement of maternal love is inextricable from the measure of lyric song. For Webster, the need to quantify love and its duration activates central features of lyric--a mediation between presence and absence, the attempt to preserve a fleeting moment and the measurement of sound in meter. I argue that Webster's concern with measuring maternal love was both a formal lyric issue and a cultural one. After investigating the sonnets about love for an only child, I turn to the advice literature of the period, which reveals anxieties that a mother could love her child too much by exhausting her own emotional resources too soon, but also that a mother could provide too little love, especially if she is preoccupied with other pursuits. The question of how much love a mother can give is inextricable from the question of how much time a mother has with her child, a quantity that changes as the child grows up. I go on to consider how Mother and Daughter expresses doubts about the lyric's capacity to stop time by distinguishing the permanence of the poetic voice from the singularity and mortality of any human voice. I give special attention to metrical readings of Mother and Daughter because the conflicts between what the mother wants and what she can both give and get manifest in a conflict between what the words of certain poems say and what their meter suggests.
Mother and Daughter considers how much a woman can be a mother by taking on the detractors of a mother of an only child. Those detractors tell her, "You are scarcely a mother, at that rate. / Only one child!" (24.1-2). The poems defend having only one child in several ways. At first, in the same poem in which the rebuke appears, Webster suggests that a mother of many children cannot love any individual child as much as he loves her, for the children love her singly. For their mother, Webster asserts that one child can somewhat compensate for the loss of another. A mother with a "household crowd," the poem suggests, would not grieve as much "were her first-born folded in his shroud," for she would have "more sons to make her heart elate" (24.3, 6, 8). Many mothers would certainly take issue with this assertion, particularly Alice Meynell, who felt, despite her own "household crowd," that when she lost a child God now had something for which to ask forgiveness? Nonetheless, siblings, Webster implies, do not have the unique, irreplaceable love of their mothers:
You think that you love each as much as one, Mothers with many nestlings 'neath your wings. Nay, but you know not. Love's most priceless things Have unity that cannot be undone. You give the rays, I the englobed full sun; I give the river, you the separate springs: My motherhood's all my child's with all it brings--None takes the strong entireness from her: none. You know not. You love yours with various stress; This with a graver trust, this with more pride; This maybe with more needed tenderness: I by each uttermost passion of my soul Am turned to mine; she is one, she has the whole: How should you know who appraise love and divide? (25.1-14)
This sonnet defends having an only child on the principle that love is, like a river's water or the sun's light, vast but nonetheless divisible and therefore quantifiable and limited. While mothers of more than one child must "appraise love and divide," perhaps giving more of one sort of love to one child or another, depending on her needs, the mother of an only child must perform no such calculation. Presumably, these mothers of "many nestlings" were at some point mothers of only children after the birth of their first, but that uniqueness, the poet suggests, was undone with the birth of the second. The defensiveness of the diction here, along with the insistence on the wholeness and oneness of the mother's love for her daughter, points to an anxiety about the very thing she decries. In writing about the second person singular, Alice Meynell asserts that she prefers the intimate address of "thou" to "pointing the rude forefinger of 'you."' (9) In contrast with the familiar "thou" with which the sequence addresses the daughter, Webster's repetition of "you" in Sonnet 25 enacts the kind of confrontation that Meynell associates with this pronoun.
Echoing this defensive tone in the meter, the poem addresses other mothers with various metrical stresses. Several lines use trochaic and spondaic substitution, so the stress not only varies from line to line but is sometimes in excess. Reciting the words "you know not," repeated twice and echoed throughout, a reader may stress any or all three words, as in you know not, or you know not, or you know not. The most stressed version of these words in fact puts four stresses next to each other, or two spondees, to read "Nay, but you know not. Love's most priceless thing" and "you know not. You love yours with various stress." The spondees and sharp caesuras in this poem act almost as a blunt rhythmical weapon. The excess appears not only at the level of accent but also in the number of syllables; four of the fourteen lines, including the final two, carry eleven instead of the customary ten syllables. It is as though the poem emphasizes that in receiving the whole, the daughter receives more than enough love--there is extra. At the same time, the extra syllables invite attempts at elision to help the line fit the meter, so that "uttermost" can be pronounced "ut-most" and "the whole" as "th'whole." It is no accident that words signifying fullness are the words that are cut short. While the sonnet insists that an only child is better off with the mother's "strong entireness," the meter questions whether there is such a thing as too much. In his reading of Webster's sonnet sequence, John Holmes addresses this question by asking whether the daughter of such a mother might not "experience her mother's love not as an ideal but as an oppressive imbalance." (10) In the daughter's near-silence in the sequence, Holmes identifies a potential daughterly rejection of her mother's encompassing love and an invitation to critique the mother instead of sympathizing with her. Certainly, his reading points to the sequence's implication that it is possible to love too much.
Although Webster herself cautioned against biographical readings in her essay "Poets and Personal Pronouns," many readers of this sonnet sequence surely would have known that Webster had only one child and may have been tempted to read these poems as a defense of this fact. In her book that looks at Webster's works in the context of what little is known about her life, Patricia Rigg examines the posthumous publication of the sequence, connecting the emotional complexity of the sequence to Webster's personal experience to explain why she worked on it for thirteen years but never finished it. Rigg reads the sequence biographically on the grounds that Webster focuses on mothering an only child and that Webster never published the sequence in her lifetime. (11) If a reader extends a biographical reading, Webster's status as a professional poet, critic, and an adamant defender of women's education and women's professionalism suggests that she surely must have divided up her time and her thoughts between her child and her own interests. (12) Webster's questions about how we measure and compare a mother's love implicitly challenges the conventional wisdom about motherhood in the period. Readers responding that a mother can love many children with equal intensity might be forced to consider who and what else a mother might love besides her children. If a mother can share her love among her children and husband, can she not give her emotional energy to other pursuits as well?
However much the poems might have been informed by personal experience, we take Webster at her word that "as a rule, I does not mean I." (13) The focus on an only daughter usefully reflects on both the singularity of love in sonnet conventions and on the unsettling prospect that love is quantifiable. On the one hand, the sequence revels in the idea that a mother's love is infinite. On the other hand, the very idea that it is infinite for one but not for more suggests that however many children a mother has, she must divide her emotional resources between her child and other people or pursuits. How a mother measures her love has important implications for the rights for women that Webster passionately championed.
These questions about a mother's emotional obligations were circulating in other literary as well as non-literary texts from mid-to late-century. Two critical works identify starkly different views on Victorian attitudes about motherhood. Angela Leighton characterizes verses about motherhood from the period as almost entirely treacly, including works by poets known for emotional complexity or subversive politics such as Christina Rossetti or Dollie Radford. Leighton suggests that the scant poetry directly addressing motherhood in the nineteenth century tended to represent its subject with "picturesque religiosity" or by "infantilis[ing]" it. (14) She focuses on Alice Meyenll's poems about motherhood as defying this tendency and also cites Mother and Daughter in passing:
It is as if the subject is the last to get free of that sentimentalism of the heart which weighs heavily on women's poetry as a whole. The child, in these verses, is rarely older than a baby (Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter sonnets make an interesting exception) and the mother rarely expresses any feelings beyond those of absolute love or grief. (p. 259)
While for Leighton motherhood is the last bastion of unabashed sentimentality in women's poetry, the view of motherhood in the advice manuals, medical texts, and sensation fiction that Sally Shuttleworth examines is quite different. She focuses on the ways in which these texts enforce patriarchal bourgeois power by stressing the need to control the potential excess of feeling, even of insanity, in mothers. For Shuttleworth, the language of biological imperatives dominates these texts, insisting that a woman can only be fulfilled by giving birth to and raising a child. The texts she examines nonetheless fear that these imperatives might be corrupted. Concerns about a range of feelings in mothers, from the infanticidal to the eroticism of breastfeeding, threatened the sentimental ideal. (15) The difference between these two approaches is in their focus on separate genres. Leighton draws attention to the function of poetry as a celebratory and consolatory genre, while advice manuals and sensation fiction tend to bring to light that which should be feared and avoided. Webster complicates this function of poetry, particularly the poetry of maternity, by allowing her sequence to express fears in an emotionally realistic way, one that diverges from sentimentality as well as from the alarmist "demonic" images of mothers that Shuttleworth considers.
Although some of the anxieties that Shuttleworth mentions have no place in Webtser's sonnet sequence--breastfeeding as erotic self-pleasuring for instance-she does address the fear that mothers can love to excess, citing the necessity to measure maternal love articulated in Sarah Stickney Ellis's The Mothers of England (1843). Ellis critiques the "uncalculating" mother who cannot dole out her love in the right proportion:
Strange anomalies in the characters of what are called amiable women, have done much to convince me, that sound principle, and common sense, with unquestionably a due proportion of warmheartedness are in the long-run more conducive to individual, as well as social happiness, than those ungoverned springs of tenderness and love, which burst forth and exhaust themselves, without calculation or restraint. (16)
Ellis' vocabulary pertaining to love centers on a lexicon of measurement: "proportion," "governed," "calculation." For Ellis, "ungoverned springs" of love damage a child's moral character. Turning a positive trait into a negative one, Ellis criticizes the "amiable" mother. According to Ellis, a child with too much love does not learn to be grateful or generous and takes for granted the good feelings and good things granted to him. Indeed, feelings and things are of the same type for Ellis; both maternal approbation and sweetmeats can be given with harmful abandon. Ellis illustrates this idea with a quite literal example of measurement. When teaching a child to share, "the parents should actually take what is offered--not merely that tiny crumb which the tender mother breaks off, and with disproportioned thanks pretends to eat" (p. 40). The "amiable," "uncalculating" mother is a bad one because she does not constantly make her own expressions of affection into teachable moments.
By 1881, the first known date of composition of any of the Mother and Daughter sonnets, some advice manuals had shifted their tone. W. H. Wigley, in Thoughts for Mothers (1881) declares that a mother's love is measureless and her influence unlimited. Likewise, Frances Power Cobbe asserts, "Fear, my friends, to make your children unhappy, and to love them too little. But never fear to make them too happy or to love them too much!" (17) Cobbe and Wigley both insist, as Ellis does, that the mother is responsible for the child's moral education. Wigley suggests that mothers focus their attention on their children and refuse the distraction of other pursuits. She critiques women's efforts at social and political engagement, disparaging the new prominence of these pursuits: "We might fairly describe the age in which we live as 'the age of Ladies' Committees.'" (18) The author disapproves of such committees for taking mothers away from their children. Nor should mothers become overly concerned with servants, finances, or "our love of reading or music or painting" (p. 53). Webster agrees that what often seems imperative for women in polite society is in fact an extraneous distraction. However, in A Housewife's Opinions, Webster argues that making and receiving social calls interferes not only with parenting but with the vocation of a literary artist. In this respect, protecting both literary and parental work, Webster departs from these advice manuals. (19)
The desire of the mother in Webster's sequence for immeasurable maternal love is largely in line with the shifting ideology of the later manuals, but the anxieties in Mother and Daughter also reflect some concerns of Sarah Stickney Ellis. As my reading of Sonnet 25 above shows, the undercurrent of the meter allows for the possibility of too much love. Other sonnets, in contrast, bemoan the feeling of love being fully spent. Sonnet 11, entitled "Love's Mourner," works against the very kinds of conventions that appear in the advice manuals but puts these oppressive conventions in the minds of men. This sonnet claims that men fail to understand women's love for children by presuming its constancy. Men err in their idealization of a mother's and a wife's love as perfectly steady and fail to recognize that change over time can diminish a woman's feelings. The mother seems to wish that men's idealizations were right and bemoans the tragedy that they are not. The poem expresses pain at the fervor of love degrading into something less than passionate unconditional attachment:
'Tis men who say that through all hurt and pain The woman's love, wife's, mother's, still will hold, And breathes the sweeter and will more unfold For winds that tear it, and the sorrowful rain. So in a thousand voices has the strain Of this dear patient madness been retold, That men call women's love. Ah! they are bold, Naming for love that grief which does remain. Love faints that looks on baseness face to face: Love pardons all; but by the pardonings dies, With a fresh wound of each pierced through the breast. And there stand pityingly in Love's void place Kindness of household wont familiar-wise, And faith to Love--faith to our dead at rest. (11.1-14)
Obligated to confront faults and forgive, love decays into a habit that resembles kindness more than passion. Here, the loyalty shown to the child and the husband is more a product of the memory of love than of continually renewing or constant love. In this poem, the abundance that the mother insists on in Sonnets 25 and 26 is represented as a man's illusion. That plenitude is a "dear patient madness," itself the product of a canon of male poetry, the strain of "a thousand voices." Time itself, and the exposure to faults that it brings, whether a child's or a husband's, here seems to "appraise love and divide" in spite of the mother's ardent wishes. As love changes over time, as the ideal is bruised by "winds" and "sorrowful rain," it transforms into something resembling grief, at its own loss perhaps, for it is only a "remembered ghost."
While "Love's Mourner" is meant to correct a misconception about women perpetuated by men, it also draws attention to the ways in which other poems in the sequence participate in the ideals of love perpetuated precisely by Petrarchan love poetry. It undermines the poems at the end of the sequence that defend the "strong entireness" of the mother's love. (20) Indeed, "Love's Mourner" explains the defensiveness of Sonnet 25, for it is working against not only other mothers' criticism, but against the mother's own knowledge of her struggle to reconcile the complex nuances of her love. The sonnet sequence depicts a struggle between the impulse to expose the painful realities of maternal love and the impulse to elevate them. In praise of maternal love, Webster takes recourse in the familiar Petrarchan tradition, relying on it even as she modifies it. In her defense against the criticism of mothers of siblings in Sonnet 26, she cannot help but cast maternal love in the conventions of male lovers:
Of my one pearl so much more joy I gain As he that to his sole desire is sworn, Indifferent what women more were born, And if she loved him not all love were vain, Gains more, because of her--yea, through all pain, All love and sorrows, were they two forlorn-- Than whoso happiest in the lands of morn Mingles his heart amid a wifely train. (26.1-8)
The mother aims to convince others of her constancy by comparing herself to a young man who has eyes only for his beloved. The mother/child bond here is not only likened to an erotic bond, but replaces it, for the sonnet leaves no room for the child's father: "And who but we? We, darling, paired alone? / Thou has all thy mother; thou art all my own." Webster transforms men's misconceptions passed down by "a thousand voices" and takes ownership of them. Here, in contrast to "Love's Mourner," the man's love is constant, and she measures her love as a mother against it. In this implicit replacement of the beloved by the daughter, Webster implies a fear that there will not be enough love for the entire family; too much love for a child means insufficient love for a husband.
The concept of love as all-fulfilling is embedded in a set of powerful conventional associations that Alison Chapman refers to as "sonnet ideology." (21) According to Chapman, nineteenth-century sonnets elevated the amatory Petrarchan sonnet over Shakespearean sonnets and sonnets on other subjects and prized an ideal of the completeness, unity, and purity of thought that the compact form was thought to embody. Chapman discusses Mother and Daughter as the embodiment of the sonnet ideal of plenitude and completeness in its vision of maternal love. (22) However, I argue that Webster challenges this very element of sonnet ideology. (23) Even as Webster's sonnets express a wish to make the fullness of maternal love eternal, they are forced to acknowledge the constraints that mortality places on that love and the experience of it. While questioning amatory sonnet ideology, Webster also uses and refigures it; by casting Mother and Daughter in a form associated with the erotic, she both celebrates the erotic element of maternal love and reveals its startling intensity. (24) This comparison also questions whether the love object must be singular or plural. She interrogates cultural commonplaces in which an erotic love is assumed to be singular, and in which a mother's love is idealized paradoxically to be both infinite and repeatable, without limit for each and every sibling.
It is significant not only that Webster chose to write about maternal love in sonnet form, but also that she chose a more intensely lyric form than the dramatic monologues for which she had become known. In recent returning critical attention to Webster, particular notice has gone to her dramatic monologues, especially poems like "A Castaway" that argue for women's rights. However, after the publication of her last collection of dramatic monologues, Portraits, she turned entirely to writing lyrics, and had not completed the sonnet sequence Mother and Daughter when she died in 1894. Webster responds to lyric conventions that mediate between presence and absence in voice, particularly in Victorian women's lyric tradition. In Victorian lyric, sound and presence can only be mediated by absence and silence, which are often gendered as feminine. Webster thus deliberately turns to a lyric genre when writing about the mother-daughter relationship in order to evoke their eventual absence from one another, not only as a result of death, but also of the daughter's marriage. The mother's nurturing presence is meant to prepare the daughter to be separate from her. Written from the perspective of a mother with a grown daughter, the sonnets that represent the daughter as a child must necessarily mediate presence through absence. Especially significant in Webster's sonnet sequence, the poetic voice indicates the eventual absence of the human voice rather than its presence. The lyric's very attempts to render permanent only underscore the absence of what it represents. The lyric thus emphasizes the mother's anxieties about the passage of time and inevitable changes and developments in the relationship between mother and daughter.
Mother and Daughter capitalizes on the condition of the lyric, that its very attempt to capture the human voice must always fail, rendering the poetic distinct in its repeatability and permanence. Webster uses this lyric paradox to underscore the mother's fears that her own voice's deterioration with age will ultimately reduce its emotional power with her daughter. In contrast, the daughter idealizes her mother's voice as an instrument of intimacy between them:
My darling scarce thinks music sweet save mine: 'Tis that she does but love me more than hear. She'll not believe my voice to stranger ear Is merely measure to the note and line; "Not so," she says; "Thou hast a secret thine: The others' singing's only rich, or clear, But something in thy tones brings music near; As though thy song could search me and divine." (13.1-8)
For the daughter, the nearness she hears in the music of the mother's voice is her own feeling of closeness to her mother. The closeness and the difference are enacted in the poetic structure, which positions the two quatrains as two parts of a dialogue between mother and daughter. According to the mother, the daughter's love clouds her ability to hear, and she cannot judge her mother's voice with the objectivity of the "stranger ear." Hearing love, rather than the voice itself, the daughter confounds the mother with her song in her claim that it could "search me and divine." While the daughter notes the qualities of her mother's singing, the mother herself notes the quantities; for her it is "merely measure to the note and line." The voice's very measurability points to its ordinariness and detracts from its supposed divinity. The mother also measures the ultimate duration of her voice when she anticipates the deterioration the coming years will bring to it.
In the sestet, the mother responds to her daughter's idealization of her voice with her own knowledge of its mortality. She breaks from the dialogue of the octave to apostrophize her own voice:
Oh voice of mine that in some day not far Time, the strong creditor, will call his debt, Will dull--and even to her--will rasp and mar, Sing Time asleep because of her regret, Be twice thy life the thing her fancies are, Thou echo to the self she knows not yet. (13.9-14)
Figured as a creditor, time makes the human voice subject to an accounting. The logic of the poem works like an equation: for the daughter, the mother's voice equals the mother's love. For the mother, her voice equals death. In this calculation, then, love, like the voice, is represented as a limited resource that, measured or not, will eventually run out. The daughter's illusion about her mother's voice cannot last, and she must notice it "rasp and mar." The mother begs her voice in vain to reverse Time's effects, but as a poetic and metrical voice it is itself an instrument of time. The meter in this sonnet obeys
the iambic pentameter almost to the syllable. Only when she addresses her complaint to her own voice does the meter's regularity waver. Line 10 follows a trochaic substitution with a spondee and a phyrric: "TIME, the STRONG CREDitor, will CALL his DEBT." In the final line, the mother confirms the daughter's sense that her voice can "divine," for she casts it as an "echo to the self she knows not yet," the sound that the daughter's mature voice will resemble. The voice does know the daughter both intimately and objectively, in a way the daughter cannot yet understand.
Although Webster distinguishes the poetic voice from the human voice, she suggests that both types of voice indicate emotional attachment and can be measured. In her view, the poetic voice engenders the feelings of an imagined other within the reader, establishing a reader's sense of identification. The poetic voice can be repeated in multiple readings and thus its emotional potential lies in this possibility for identification for multiple readers; the poetic voice's repeatability is what makes it permanent. (25) In contrast, the human voice, as the daughter's love for her mother's voice attests in the sonnets, brings out love for the specific person whose voice, and voice in that moment, to the hearer, is inimitable. Because inimitable, it is also limited and must eventually end. Webster insists on the distinction in her essay "Poets and Personal Pronouns," which instructs readers not to read the poetic "I" as the voice of the poet herself: "as a rule 'I' does not mean I" ("Portraits," p. 370). Careful to point out that characters in poetry are not like those in novels because they are not as "sharply definite," Webster asserts that even when situated in a particular epoch readers require that poetic personas be suitable to "always and everywhere, no matter under what disguise of date and story" (p. 366). Webster presents poetry as the genre of empathy, for its readers should be made to feel that the feelings expressed could be their own:
We look to the poet for feelings, thoughts, actions if need be, represented in a way which shall affect us as the manifest expression of what our very selves must have felt and thought and done if we had been those he puts before us and in their cases. He must make us feel this not only of what we ourselves, being ourselves, could come to think and feel and do in like circumstances, but of what no circumstances could possibly call out in us....Not many have it in us to be Iagos, but we feel sure that, if we were to be an Iago, we should be that Iago. (pp. 367-368)
Whereas fiction allows for and might even encourage objectivity, poetry invites identification. Webster implies that the identification that comes from reading can move beyond individual boundaries, so that even if someone were never a mother or a woman, he might feel that he would be that mother represented in the sonnets. This is not to suggest that all mothers must feel alike, but that the poetry must be so persuasive as to engender its feelings in the reader. This approach to poetic voice is an inherently instructive one, meant to enlarge a reader's range of emotional possibilities, especially for women, for its suggests that although this voice does not necessarily represent "me," it might represent "you." This rationale may explain why the sonnets may be for the daughter but are not often addressed to the daughter. Even when the mother identifies with the daughter, she does not address her.
An address to the daughter would have had two poetic effects that Webster wanted to avoid. One reading of such an address would situate the daughter as a silent listener in the manner of dramatic monologues. The evocation of the dramatic monologue, for which Webster was well known, would have undercut the meditation on presence and absence that the lyric voice affords. An apostrophe to the daughter would have put special emphasis on her absence and on the need to make her present through lyric convention. At the same time, by apostrophizing entities of herself, in an address to "the voice" or to "my music," Webster can draw attention to the mother's ever-impending absence and to the melancholy of this knowledge even when she depicts moments full of presence and youth.
Indeed, the sequence opens with a shifting address to "the voice" that emphasizes the sadness of time's passage. While Webster distinguishes the mother's voice in Sonnet 13 as the product of human vocal cords, she represents the poetic voice as a spring bird in the poem that opens the sequence:
Young laughters, and my 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. (1.1-14)
Although the poem begins with an exclamation drawing attention to the sounds that the mother and daughter make, the voice is quickly depersonalized and referred to as "The voice" rather than "my voice." As "the bird's trill," the voice is a poetic convention, but it is also the voice of an illusion of the eternal present, of a joy that "hopes not nor can fear." (26) Identified with the "dear voice" of the daughter, the bird's trill represents the daughter's unawareness of what the future holds. The daughter's frame of mind is the mother's impossible ideal for she wishes in vain that the "music of my heart" may remain longer than the song of the "spring bird," which changes too soon with the season.
This poem establishes a structure that many poems in the sequence adhere to: the octave presents an ideal of the present moment followed by a sestet that reminds both mother and reader of the disappointment of the future, confirming that the present passes. More than the death or transformation of feeling, elsewhere the mother fears death itself. The most stark of these--one that Theodore Watts particularly appreciated--contemplates the inevitable death of the mother and in doing so anticipates the death of the daughter. (27) While the mother's demise seems "Death's natural hest," "To know she too is Death's seems misbelief ... Life is Death begun: / But Death and her! That's strangeness passing grief" (15.8, 10).
Because the mother experiences the passage of time in a way that the daughter cannot yet, the daughter's impulse to measure the quality of the voice conflicts with the mother's impulse to account for the quantity. By extension, they use different standards to understand their lives and their love for each other. This conflict is not just between the two but within the mother's discourse throughout the sequence, for while the mother wants to preserve the present and focus on the quality of the voice, she cannot help but think in terms of quantity, measuring the years. The nature of the genre of the sonnet sequence reflects this divergence; it is a genre at once lyric, recording the quality of a moment and attempting to preserve it, and suggesting narrative in its sequentiality.
While time creates distance between the mother and daughter, it can also establish intimacy in the way they repeat each other across generations, so that the present mother echoes the future daughter's "self she knows not yet." In Sonnet 17, the mother displays the intimate knowledge that her daughter senses in the previous poem:
And how could I grow old while she's so young? Methinks her heart sets time for mine to beat, We are so near; her new thoughts, incomplete, Find their shaped wording happen on my tongue; Like bloom on last year's winterings newly sprung My youth upflowers with hers, and must repeat Old joyaunces in me nigh obsolete. Could I grow older while my child's so young? (17.1-8)
Just as the mother's present echoes the daughter's future, the present daughter's youth recalls the mother's past. This poem uses its own "mere measure" of the mother's song to represent rhythmic responsiveness between mother and daughter. While some poems fear the measurement of time, this one embraces it, aiming to cast it in a positive light by saying that the daughter brings back the mother's youth. This gauge of time is not of its passing but of its rhythms. When "her heart sets time for mine to beat," counting rhythms is hardly a process of fear, or a division of love but rather the very means of bringing mother and daughter closer together. The figurative rhythm of the heartbeats is as essential to their mutual understanding as are words. (28) Moreover, when the daughter's "heart sets time for mine to beat," this counting of rhythms counteracts the effects of development and aging that the mother gauges throughout the sequence.
Van Remoortel contends that in the latter part of the sequence the mother rejects the "convoluted and hackneyed" language of Petrarchism, in favor of wordless communication. Citing the line about heartbeats, she avers that the mother "generat[es] a mother-tongue that is more about closeness and rhythm, about wordless understanding and unisonous heart-beats, than about signification and difference....[O]nly the pulsation of the iambic pentameters remains, like the beating of the heart mentioned in the text" (pp. 482-483). However, in Sonnet 17, as in Sonnet 25 discussed above, the meter does not communicate the same message as the words do. Webster reminds us that just as the human voice and the poetic voice are not the same thing, meter and the rhythms of the heart are not the same either. The iambic pentameters of this poem do not consistently pulse like a heart; rather, right after the mention of the heart, they are weighed down with extra stress: "We are so near; her new thoughts, incomplete, / Find their shaped wording on my tongue." The spondaic and trochaic substitutions in these two lines do not allow the reader to experience the lines themselves as regular as a heartbeat. While the mother and daughter's "wordless communication" may be in their heartbeats, the wordless communication of the poet's meter suggests weight, gravity, slowing down. Moreover, the idealization of maintaining youthful vigor with the merger of heartbeats only lasts a short while, for the following sonnet describes how "in the heyday of our prime," "suddenly we note a touch of time, / A little fleck that scarcely seems to mar; / And we know then that some time since youth went" (18.10, 12-14). Deliberately measuring the poem's meter can both briefly halt and dramatize what Webster describes as "the slow advance [of] Time" (19.4).
The daughter's development brings about the mother's fears about how her own feelings change over time. Webster also figures these fears rhythmically. While the poems at the end of the sequence vehemently resist measuring maternal love, earlier poems express fear of the changes in the love between mother and daughter, marking them in meter and song. In Sonnet 8, the mother notes how the passage of time changes feelings about developmental stages:
And yet, methinks, sad mothers who for years, Watching the child pass forth that was their boast, Have counted all the footsteps by new fears Till even lost fears seem hopes whereof they're reft And of all mother's good love sole is left-- Is their Love, Love, or some remembered ghost? (8.9-14)
The poem laments the danger that accompanies new progress; fear limits the hope and pride that constitute the joy of maternal love. By the time that fear can resolve into hope, the moment for hope is past, and the mother is bereft of it. This poem speaks to the dangers of measuring love, not for the child, but for the mother. A pun on "footsteps" reveals that she counts her emotions in poetry as well as in the delicate balance of learning to walk. The meter in this poem is much surer than in "You think you love each as much as one." The iambic rhythm dominates; occasional substitutions are used for emphasis or to stir meaningful ambiguity, as in the last line where a reader might stress "their Love" or their Love," the latter suggesting that while the mother's love remains, the child's does not. The mother's love, praised with such certainty at the end of the sequence, here is reduced to "some remembered ghost," a vestige of the past like the fears that become hopes, both of which are feelings to be mourned as they outlast their relevance. Because a mother's love is constantly changing, from pride to protectiveness and worry to hope, she must count each developmental change, but as she does so the quality of her love is perpetually transformed.
These somber poems do little to cloud the expectation of sentimentality in the sonnet sequence's reception. In his review of Mother and Daughter in The Athenaeum, Watts focuses on the sonnets that are most idealistic, paying no attention to sonnets that challenge and undermine these ideals. The softer side of the sequence appeals to Watts, who uses his review as an occasion to praise maternal love as a subject for poetry, as much as to praise Webster's sonnets:
For here, when once the sweet womanly vanities of the mother have become merged in maternal joy and pride, the charm of entire companionship--which no father can fully feel--seems to shed a marvelous kind of glow over all the pageantry of life. There is no phase of sexual love, nor even, perhaps of paternal love, that is so satisfying in its beauty as this....[T]he spectacle of a loving mother surrounded by the daughters whose adoration of her grows with every advancing year. Never has the sacred bond between mother and daughter been more beautifully depicted than in the sonnet sequence before us. (p. 346)
Watts misses the point in numerous ways, not only in conjuring an image of plural daughters when the sequence goes on at length about the daughter as
an only child, but in what he neglects to notice about the sequence's focus on development as separation. This review says as much if not more about the state of ideas about motherhood in 1895--it remained the fulfillment of womanhood, generally thought to be aesthetically and emotionally satisfying rather than complex and trying--than it does about Webster's lyrics.
Webster's sequence brings together cultural anxieties about measuring maternal love with the sonnet and lyric forms' paradoxical resistance to measuring time, even as they count their beats in meter. In doing so, she represents a more nuanced and complete view of maternal love than had previously been seen in women's poetry. In these sonnets, maternal love resembles erotic love in its intensity. At the same time, the sonnets cannot idealize a perpetual union because to do so would both stunt the daughter's growth and imagine her death. The sonnets waver on the question of the constancy of maternal love, for while they assert that maternal love is both intensely consuming and limited, some sonnets acknowledge that family life can devolve from passion to habitual kindness. Webster casts this particular mother's love as different from that of many other mothers because she is not obligated to "appraise love and divide" and thereby budget her love among siblings. Yet Webster does exactly that in the meter of her poems, recognizing that love cannot escape measurement. The metrical feet of the poem as well as the "approaching sound of pit-pat feet" must mark the passage of time and its effects on a mother and daughter's love.
(1) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The House of Life," in The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), II. 1-2.
(2) Margaret Reynolds addresses the question of measuring love in "Love's Measurement in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese," Studies in Browning and His Circle 21 (1997): 53-67.
(3) Augusta Webster, Mother and Daughter, Sonnet 27, 1. 4, Portraits and Other Poems, ed. Christine Sutphin (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000); hereafter sonnets from Mother and Daughter are cited by sonnet number, followed by line number.
(4) Laura Linker, "Mother and Daughter: Augusta Webster and the Maternal Production of Art," Papers on Language and Literature 44, no. 1 (2008): 55. Linker reads the child of the sequence as a muse in the model of Schiller's elegiac mode, the child signifying an irrecoverable naivete.
(5) Marianne Van Remoortel, "Metaphor and Maternity: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life and Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter," VP 46, no. 4 (2008): 476.
(6) Melissa Valiska Gregory, "Augusta Webster Writing Motherhood in the Dramatic Monologue and the Sonnet Sequence," VP 49, no. 1 (2011): 41-42.
(7) Lee Behlman, "Loving 'Stranger-Wise': Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter and Nineteenth-Century Poetry on Motherhood," Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 6, no. 3 (2010), par. 16.
(8) June Badeni, The Slender Tree: A Life of Alice Meynell (Padstow: Tabb House, 1981), p. 75.
(9) Alice Meynell, The Second Person Singular and Other Essays (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1922), p. 134.
(10) John Holmes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 112.
(11) Patricia Rigg, Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 256-265.
(12) In addition to being a poet, Webster was a journalist, whose columns were collected in a book called A Housewife's Opinions, a social activist, suffragist, and elected member of London's school board. She was engaged in important activist and literary circles of the day and corresponded with Christina Rossetti, though none of her letters from this correspondence remain. Webster's translations of Greek dramas Prometheus and Medea, as well as her original verse dramas, received much acclaim in the period. In the 1880s and until her death in 1894, she served as the primary poetry critic for The Athenaeum. Of her tenure in this role, her colleague Theodore Watts wrote, "I know that she never wrote a line that was not inspired by honesty and good feeling, while as a conscientious and painstaking critic ... she had no superior, scarcely an equal" ("Mrs. Augusta Webster," The Athenaeum ]September 15, 1894]: 355). Webster was married and had one daughter, who went on to become an actress. For more on Webster's life, see Rigg, Julia Augusta Webster.
(13) Augusta Webster, "Poets and Personal Pronouns," in Portraits and Other Poems, p. 379.
(14) Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 257, 258.
(15) Sally Shuttleworth, "Demonic Mothers: Ideologies of Bourgeois Motherhood in the Mid-Victorian Era," in Rewriting the Victorians, ed. Linda M. Shires (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 31-51.
(16) Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Mothers of England, Their Influence and Responsibility (New York, 1844), pp. 36-37.
(17) Frances Power Cobbe, The Duties of Women (London, 1881), p. 88.
(18) W.H. Wigley, Thoughts for Mothers (London, 1881), p. 48.
(19) In her essay "Vocations and Avocations," Webster addresses the way in which other interests compete with the work life of someone who does "brain work," such as "scientific research or literary production." Webster complains that people often think that these brain workers are constantly available because the work can be pursued "at one time as well as another." Women in particular, she writes, are considered as "being[s] whose time is reckoned needless to the owner and free to whoever takes it, like blackberries on a hedge." As a result, social obligations to entertain unexpected callers and to return their calls ... often detract not only from literary production but from "duties to husband, children, or household" (A Housewife's Opinions [London, 1879[, pp. 158-161).
(20) It is not clear whether Webster ordered the sequence or whether her husband ordered it after her death, so I assume that regardless of order each of the sonnets can be read in the context of the others.
(21) Alison Chapman, "Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence," in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, Antony H. Harrison (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), p. 100.
(22) Van Remoortel also argues that Mother and Daughter "promotles] presence and unity, rather than otherness and ambivalence," which she sees as the hallmark of Rossetti's House of Life, p. 476.
(23) In her discussion of Webster's "English Rispetti," Patricia Rigg makes an argument similar to Chapman's about Mother and Daughter, that these poems cite the renewal of natural cycles as a way to express the infinitude of human love ("Augusta Webster and the Lyric Muse: The Atheneaum and Webster's Poetics," VP 42, no. 2 (2004): 135-164.
(24) Nicole Fluhr explores the way in which Webster distinguishes maternal love from married love-the former is born while the latter is made-but also notes that Webster uses the very conventions of romantic love to describe a mother's love ("'Telling what's o'er': Remaking the Sonnet Cycle in Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter," VP 49, no. 1 : 53-81).
(25) Fluhr makes a different kind of distinction between voices in this sequence, noting the contrast between the analytic and the personal tones of the poem. She also compellingly discusses the sequence's interest in intersubjectivity, noting how the mother/ daughter relationship constructs the mother's subjectivity.
(26) John Holmes notes that Webster's use of the image of birdsong, music, and seasonal change in this sonnet recalls both Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life and Christina Rossetti's "Later Life" (p. 108).
(27) Theodore Watts, Review of Mother and Daughter: An Uncompleted Sonnet Sequence, by Augusta Webster (Athenaeum [September 14, 1895]: 346-347).
(28) On the heart as a consistent figure for, if not a cliche of poetic rhythm during the Victorian period, see Kirstie Blair, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006).
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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