"Echo and reply": the elegies of Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett.
--Eugene Ionesco (1967) (1)
The ties that bind women elegists to one another differ radically from what we consider normative elegiac bonds. Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett did not share any kind of personal relationship: they were not friends; they did not move in the same literary circles; they did not write to each other. (2) Yet these three women developed an elegiac dialogue that set in place a poetic economy of shared and negotiated values that flourished throughout the nineteenth century. Hemans' "The Grave of a Poetess" (1828), Landon's "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans" (1835), and Barrett's "Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon and Suggested by Her 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans'" (1835) use the elegiac genre as a space to evaluate women poets and their poetry: sorrow, sympathy, and suffering open up a dialogue of mourning for these poets that extends beyond the recent death of a poetic peer. Allusion becomes a primary tool both to locate particular value in the dead poet's work and to position the general values of poetry they share or dispute; Hemans and Landon create a self-reflexive impulse that transforms the conventional presence of the feminine in elegy. Barrett enters the discourse in a responsive elegy for Hemans that places her (at best) as a mediator of those values or (at worst) as the voice of tradition that challenges a feminine poetic economy.
Elegy is typically a space of ordered and contained emotion, and it can offer women poets relief from their expected productions of conventionally effusive verse. Melissa F. Zeiger discusses the role of women in masculine elegies and notes that "female figures abound in the major, canonical English elegies, occupying constantly shifting roles as enabling or threatening adjuncts to the poetic process." (3) Further, Zeiger argues, in elegy it is not unusual for women to be "noted only as absences" (p. 10). Our canonical perception of the feminine in elegy sees Woman and her female essence as obstacle, device, trope. This inheritance of silence, absence, or oppositional force draws Hemans, Landon, and Barrett together; their elegies share primarily the need to speak to the dead, to each other, to their poetic heirs. In the process, they begin what Esther Schor calls a "circulation of sympathies," which "maps in a moral realm the dynamic process of exchange, negotiation, circulation--that is, the mechanisms by which both valued things and values themselves are distributed within a culture." (4) As these poets speak to one another through the elegiac genre, they position their "sympathies" as a kind of poetic economy: what they value and the idea of value as it distinctly relates to their position as women poets. The lack of overt personal contact between these women indicates that elegy redresses the relationships they did not, or could not, share in life.
Felicia Hemans' elegy for Mary Tighe commences the dialogue between women poets that, in its turn, sets up the poetic economy her heirs receive. As one of the period's most popular "poetesses," Hemans' diminutive designation intimates that the hard poetry written by educated, gifted men becomes softened when under the emotional, intuitive hands of a woman. The writing published between 1780 and 1830 reveals that the sensibility usually relegated to the domestic and private realm--the feminine--becomes a tool that accomplished male poets and philosophers discuss, evaluate, and adopt. Stuart Curran notes that a "singular phenomenon, suddenly appearing in mid[eighteenth] century and not only coinciding with the rise of women poets but also its very hallmark, was the cult of sensibility, which, despite Rousseau's impact on this culture, was largely a female creation.... The obvious literary struggle on the part of women authors was to convince those men that women, too, can think." (5) Already assured the possibility of entering the laurelled arena of poetry, be they "good" enough or of the right class, men add to their poetic prowess the understanding, emotional sympathy, or divine intuition known as sensibility. But rather than taking an aspect of women's poetry and declaring its value inherent, both poets and their readers continue to divide men's from women's poetry. This division presupposes that the underlying intellectual rigor men acquire through their education or "natural" mental strength constitutes a necessary separation from their less educated and more "intuitive" counterparts.
Hemans uses her poetry to negotiate a space between public acceptance of feminine writing and private desire to be a poet, with the added negativity of assumed ambition and public exposure that such a role entails. Hemans' elegy for Tighe adopts the publicly accepted voice of the poetess and begins a dialogue that exposes the artifice of the poetry in which she and Tighe have been at once complicit and resistant. (6) When Hemans invokes Tighe in the poem's opening, it carries a double significance: "I stood beside thy lowly grave." (7) The direct address argues implicitly that the subject of the elegy (Tighe) is a fully realized being. It is also a fluid signification: speaking to a "thou" also demonstrates that Hemans, as elegist mourning her dead, now enters into a new and fundamental existence. Alongside the public desire to commemorate women in a world that often neglects them, Hemans uses elegy to speak to her dead predecessor, and to explore the values of sorrow, suffering, and sympathy that she and the women poets who follow her will circulate, exchange, and negotiate.
The elegy's inclusion in a volume of poetry that emphasizes the impact of war on women reveals a thematic thread that links the poem to its companions. As Paula R. Feldman notes, Hemans' elegy for Tighe is "the only poem in the 'Records of Woman' series set in present-day England," indicating a connection between historical conflicts and a contemporary situation, which uses an implied historicity to distance her critique. (8) The memorializing and ambitious potential of elegy becomes a means to expose a world of gendered conflict: war and elegy emerge as masculine forces that act upon, or provide obstacles for, women--a shrewd reversal of one convention of the feminine in elegy. The poem also reflects a recurring concern for the intrinsic and perpetual elision of women's lives from public record. Michael T. Williamson argues:
Hemans's life-long project of imagining women's responses to death transforms the elegy from a poetic sub-genre dependent on the accident of death into a vehicle for social criticism whose power lies in its representations of the grief of imagined others.... Hemans thus makes her readers aware of women's disenfranchisement as mourners who are neither permitted to inherit the legacy left by the dead nor to gain access to the powerful representational apparatus that confers the new life of the spirit on dead flesh in the male elegiac tradition. (9)
Williamson unveils the politics at work in the merging of gendered poetic economy and elegiac space; he explores the "disenfranchisement," inheritance, and "access" that recall the struggles for and eventual success of the English Reform Bill. As women see men struggle with a political system akin to Matthew Arnold's placement of religion, caught "between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born," they imitate the desire to reform a genre that has excluded them. (10)
The opening of "The Grave of a Poetess" reinforces the significance of the individual woman who sings a song of lament. The epigraph, taken from Germaine de Stael's Corinne, offers the first of several voices that underlie Hemans' poetic dialogue. As a "first" elegy for women poets of the nineteenth century, this multiplicity of voices provides Hemans with authority and creates a community of women writers that did not exist in real life. Samantha Matthews makes note of the assumed sympathy between poet and readers to argue that the epigraph "requires initiated readers, who could identify this uncredited quotation from the end of Germaine de Stael's phenomenally popular novel ... and grasp the reference to an earlier self-reflexive meditation on the trials of female genius" (p. 94). The world of Corinne reinforces the conflict that explains the elegy's presence in a volume outlining the impact of masculine violence (real or metaphorical) perpetrated against women. Patrick Vincent argues that Hemans' "elegy works not as a 'monument of private regret,' but as a public display of female talent, solidarity, and empowerment," (11) a reading supported by the fact that the epigraph, like the "Grave" of the title, is unnamed. The presence of Corinne in her epigraph allows Hemans to acknowledge a primary debt to a female precursor: the impulse, if not the elegy, has been written before.
These states of existence--fictional character, dead woman poet, and mourning elegist--are brought together even as Hemans uses parallelism to reinforce the distance between life and death; "Fresh leaves" ("Grave," l. 9) connect to the "Young voices ... abroad," while the "fring'd" "ruins near" (l. 10) connect to the "sweetness" of the young voices that Tighe "couldst not hear" (l. 12). This shift from the classical world of nature's song and pastoral brotherhood to a contemporary world of neglect and destruction emphasizes an idea that lurks beneath much of women's poetry in the nineteenth century--that life is a kind of death for the disenfranchised, powerless, or oppressed. Although the elegy's physical site is a conventional pastoral scene, its description is neither nostalgic nor idyllic. Hemans gives a sensual account of the world that remains after Tighe's death, with its "Spring-odours," "lulling sound" of the "river-wave," "glad murmur" of the "soft azure sky," and "Fresh leaves" that fringe "the ruins near" (ll. 2-10). The connection of Tighe's "lowly grave" (l. 1) to "the ruins" of elegy mirrors their placement at the end of a line in the same rhythmic position: "lowly grave" (/ x /) parallels "ruins near" (/ x /). When she aligns Tighe with absence and negation, Hemans evaluates the commemoration that the "bright" and "glad" (ll. 6, 7) world offers the woman poet and finds it unsurprisingly wanting. The disjunction between "ruins" framed by a pastoral landscape intimates that the world Tighe (and Hemans) inhabits is one in which life is sorrow, death, and mourning. The elegy fuses death with life as "ruins" become "records."
Hemans' poem transforms our understanding of ruins, commemoration, and woman's song. The regular meter of the poem recalls the ballad form: stanzas of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, but here without the xaxa rhyme; Hemans chooses instead the rhyme of the elegiac quatrain, echoing the abab rhyme made famous by Thomas Gray in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751). The first line substitutes its normal iambs for a powerful spondee that locates authority in the speaker: "I stood beside thy lowly grave" (my emphasis). The opening "I" allows Hemans to retain the power of the first-person voice as she speaks directly to the dead Tighe, and that she stands, rather than sits or kneels, demands recognition of the woman elegist as poetic authority. Her particular situation, although mostly kept out of the public eye, meant that she was legally bound to a distant husband's existence, but could not rely on him to provide full support for herself and her children. What inspired a publishing career must at the same time have brought her to realize that, in elegy, women's existence is tentative at best: they are in the possession of men guaranteed the right of power and authority. Accruing authority with her opening line resonates both poetically and historically; as if to accentuate the fact that this is a situation particular to women poets, Hemans' first descriptive mention of Tighe follows the pastoral opening and demonstrates her ease of speaking in the prescribed emotional tone:
And mournful grew my heart for thee, Thou in whose woman's mind The ray that brightens earth and sea, The light of song was shrined. ("Grave," ll. 13-16)
For "mourn[ing]" to follow natural description imitates the path of most pastoral elegies, but it leads Hemans to the "woman's mind" instead of her dead body and inverts the century's emphasis on masculine mentality and feminine corporeality. This inversion allows Hemans to meld "woman" and "poet" into one subject category, which emphasizes the increased value of the union. It also indicates that her poetry does not dwell solely in the depths of melancholy meditation, but can "brighte[n]"--illuminate and warm--the world around her. Hemans describes Tighe's "mind" as a shrine, as a "receptacle containing an object of religious veneration" (OED 2b), and thus explicitly argues that its productions are sacred: hers is a divine craft. "Shrined" also venerates Tighe, as to "enshrine" is a synonym for to "canonize (fig.)" (1c). Hemans' emphasis on the "woman's" rather than the poet's mind as the shrine for poetry indicates that femininity intensifies rather than substitutes her poetic value.
The metaphoric "light of song" in the "ray" that "brightens" the earth, enshrined in the "woman's mind," reveals not only the illuminating power of women's poetry, but also its natural divinity. The "mind"-"shrined" rhyme suggests that Hemans was thinking of mind as both "the state of being remembered; remembrance, recollection" (OED 1) and "the action or state of thinking, a thought process" (6a). Both definitions were in circulation during the early nineteenth century, but mind's connection to memory, rather than its association with a thought process, is the word's dominant meaning in this period. To connect mind with memory allows Hemans to argue implicitly that the thinking behind poetry is an act of remembrance itself, but here specifically an act of feminine remembrance. The "woman's mind" subverts the expectation of a "character, disposition, spirit, or temper" (13a) of sorrow by privileging its process to its product, even as it reinforces this perception to intimate that there is a "woman's mind" that connects women poets to each other.
The bond that Hemans creates with her dead subject, however, distinguishes the poet from the dead as much as it suggests a shared community. The "woman's mind" that continues to think, to remember, to write poetry, places itself in a superior position to the "thou" who now relies on memory for a continued survival. Hemans is
Mournful, that thou wert slumbering low, With a dread curtain drawn Between thee and the golden glow Of this world's vernal dawn. Parted from all the song and bloom Thou wouldst have lov'd so well, To thee the sunshine round thy tomb Was but a broken spell. ("Grave," ll. 17-24)
Hemans alludes to Tighe's "low" slumber and reinforces the sense of subordination that opened the elegy: there, "I stood by thy lowly grave" comments as much on the neglect of the female dead, as it does about the imagined humble conditions of the site. (12) The reiteration of "low," linked here with a separation both from the "golden glow" and the "song and bloom," positions Tighe as one who suffered while she was alive and implies a cyclical situation that bears increasingly gendered connotations. The "dread curtain" separates Tighe from the spring ("vernal") of the "world" and "Part[s]" the dead poet from both "song" and "bloom." This latter noun encapsulates the real loss of a woman poet who died too young; bloom "express[es] a more delicate notion than 'blossom,' which is more commonly florescence [period of flowering] bearing promise of fruit, while 'bloom' is florescence thought of as the culminating beauty of the plant" (OED 1a). The rhyme with "tomb" reveals Tighe's inability to achieve this state, a peak of "beauty" in her poetry, even as it seems to collapse the two together: part of the woman poet's power is that her "bloom" is often associated, if not yet directly located, in the "tomb."
Hemans slips discretely between the recent past (death) and an ongoing past (life) to expose the existence of the woman poet as one that melds both states of being. The fourth stanza uses the past tense to describe the "woman's mind" that "shrined" the "light of song"--this past must refer to the life of the woman poet, since she cannot write from the grave. The next stanza moves forward to the recent past, with the iteration of a "low" slumber, which leads into the sixth stanza and the separation of Tighe from "the song and bloom / Thou wouldst have lov'd so well." But then Hemans circles back to where she began with the "woman's mind" to signify that the life of the woman poet is already imbued with death: Hemans notes that to Tighe, "the sunshine round thy tomb / Was but a broken spell" (ll. 23-24; my italics). Arguing that Tighe had already taken up her place in a "tomb" before her death reinforces Hemans' sympathy with the dead poet, but it also recreates the sense of "ruins" bounded by spring. As a physical space, "ruin" literally means "the state consequent upon giving way and falling down" (OED 2a), and "that which remains after decay and fall" (2b). The symbol of the "tomb," then, evokes a potent figurative condition that preceded a material death. In life, Tighe's lot was "a ruinous condition" (2a); in this poem, Tighe "remains after decay and fall" because Hemans mourns the poet's "lowly grave" and inscribes a record for her life and work.
Both "tomb" and "ruins" offer another reason why elegy becomes the space for a critical dialogue between women poets: if life is a kind of death for the woman poet, then death provides a kind of life and allows the elegist finally to connect directly with her predecessor. Ruins signify a life once great, a life that made its mark, and a life that remains even after it has been eroded by elemental or human forces. Hemans' allusion to Tighe's last poem (a "ruin" in itself) allows the dead poet a voice with which to speak of her life, and gently chastises Tighe for the impulses of her last poem, "a vain love to passing flowers / Thou gav'st" (ll. 41-42). This allusion acknowledges how the poem flouts both the pastoral convention of genuine consolation and the cultural expectation of the gracefully dying woman. Reading "On Receiving a Branch of Mezereon which Flowered at Woodstock, December, 1809," Samantha Matthews argues that Tighe's last poem is "unorthodox. It presents a woman poet dying without Christian resignation.... While the refusal to conform to a conscious, pious 'good death' is in its way heroic, clinging to bodily existence signifies negatively within a contemporary discourse of female self-sacrifice" (p. 84). (13) If ambition to write challenges a culture that would rather see the woman bear children than poems, then a woman who records, through poetry, her inability to die gently and quietly threatens not only her culture's status quo, but also the church's doctrine.
How women poets face death and how their elegists evaluate this final confrontation is an intrinsic aspect of both the dialogue between poets and the values they seek to engage. Hemans' reference to Tighe's poem, as veiled as her title, undertakes Tighe's wishes in their entirety (not to "forget" [l. 45], and subtly links the "lingering thoughts" [l. 48] of the addressee with her "faults" (l. 461). Hemans criticizes the grasping and clinging Tighe for the "vain love to passing flowers / Thou gav'st" (ll. 41-42), although she does not overtly name Tighe's lack of Christian faith. As Tighe's last poem demonstrates, however, the "Mezereon," which symbolizes "hope and renovation" (Matthews p. 83), does not provide consolation to a dying woman whose real anguish comes as much from an oppressed existence, an entwined connection to other remains, as it does from the idea that life will end. The flower itself combines the beauty of "purplish or rose-coloured flowers" with "poisonous red berries" (OED 1)--as with many "gifts" given to the woman poet, this one is as dangerous as it is beautiful. Hemans makes explicit the long-standing tradition that associates women, flowers, and death, a criticism directed outward that Landon and Barrett will later take up in their own complicated dialogue. If evaluation is part of the elegiac discourse here, Hemans cannot fully and completely allow another woman to set self-actualization above other more spiritual goals. As we will see in Landon's elegy for Hemans, the evanescence of flowers becomes a symbolic identification for women. To have a "vain" love for something that while beautiful, cannot last, suggests an unconsciously acute premonition of the fate of nineteenth-century women's poetry.
The last part of her dialogue with Tighe reiterates the poetess' culturally reinforced value: the melancholy song. But the record and celebration of women's sorrow in an elegy raises this emotion from expected poetic mode to something higher; because of the value invested in elegizing, feminine sorrow now transcends its earthly realm. In the last two stanzas, Hemans finally engages directly with the cost of being a woman poet:
Thou hast left sorrow in thy song, A voice not loud, but deep! The glorious bowers of earth among, How often didst thou weep! Where couldst thou fix on mortal ground Thy tender thoughts and high?-- Now peace the woman's heart hath found, And joy the poet's eye. (ll. 45-52)
The remains of the living woman poet are the "sorrow" of her "song," but as Hemans indicates, this sorrow comes from the disjunction between "mortal ground" (Tighe's "earthly realm") and woman's "tender thoughts and high" (Tighe's "immortal, vital spark" [l. 25]). In its critique of "a society in which women cannot pursue their 'tender thoughts and high,' poetry both of the affections and the imagination," Vincent argues, Hemans locates the value of her elegy (p. 159). In this newly founded elegiac community, women pursue their highest thoughts through dialogue with one another--thoughts whose content suggests the intensity of their struggles to mitigate life and art made manifestly more difficult through gender and economics.
Woman's elegy does not necessarily take as its primary object women's feelings, even though it adopts the requisite tone of the conventional woman poet and of the contract of elegy itself. What begins as cost for the woman poet--the price she pays for transgressing the private domestic realm into the public professional world of poetry--becomes part of her value, but even as Hemans affirms the divine currency of the woman poet's sorrow, she continues to privilege the woman of the woman poet. Her first reference to Tighe evoked the "woman's mind" (l. 14) as the location of her "song" (l. 16), but now the "woman's heart" and the "poet's eye" separate: "Now peace the woman's heart hath found, / And joy the poet's eye" (ll. 51-52). This move is both universal and particular: she scribes a record of a dead woman poet and locates Tighe's value as a poet, thereby inscribing the value of her own. The record and evaluation do more, however, than substantiate poetic value: they offer peace (remembering that this poem finds itself in a volume where war and masculine forces act on women) to all women. If consolation comes through the "peace" and "joy" that death brings, then life, as antithesis, is strife and sorrow. The ending of this elegy draws a direct line back to its authoritative opening. Jacqueline Labbe points out that "the poem begins and ends with the same self-placing move: 'I stood,' and 'poet's eye.' The two words merge, producing a 'poet's I,'" which Labbe argues allows Hemans to "[see], [mourn], and finally [assimilate] her predecessor." (14) I would propose, rather, that this "self-placing move" is less about the assimilation of a predecessor than it is about the establishment of the female self in a genre that has not often authorized women as subjects. Hemans' self-construction also demonstrates that the woman poet shares her male contemporaries' keenness of the "poet's eye," to which she can add the "woman's heart" and its connection to sensibility. An authorized voice and power of the gaze allow Hemans to evaluate and commemorate Tighe's poetry; without them, she is simply another poetess singing a song of lament. Moving between herself and Tighe to all women poets, Hemans firmly establishes not only an elegizing authority for women, but also the agency required to move beyond cultural restrictions.
Letitia Landon's elegy for Hemans enters this elegiac dialogue, but she is in a different position than Hemans; Hemans could only speak forward--speak to Tighe and to contemporaneous and later poets--whereas Landon looks both forward and back. They share, however, the world that simultaneously celebrates the poetess and regulates or commodities her existence. Landon weaves herself into her poem while lamenting the cost for the dead Hemans, a self-placing and yet abstracting move that mirrors Hemans' subtle yet powerful conflation of first and last words that allows her to become the "poet's I." (15) As she engages with the elegiac dialogue Hemans had begun with her elegy, Landon speaks more self-reflexively than Hemans had. Having already encountered one "record" of a woman poet, Landon uses Hemans' model--sympathy with the dead woman poet, allusion as celebration, and discourse that "bears" the dead poet into life--to examine once again the world that creates tangible and seemingly endless suffering for one of England's most popular poetesses.
Unlike Hemans' elegy, which is addressed simply to "The Grave of a Poetess" and in which only the note and a familiarity with Hemans' great respect for the Irish poet would indicate a specific addressee, Landon's poem names its subject directly. "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans." Like Barrett's elegy for Hemans addressed to Landon, Landon's elegy was first published in a literary magazine, The New Monthly Magazine (44 [18351). This literary journal, unlike the annuals Landon wrote for (both materially--bound in silk, beautifully illustrated--and substantially--seen by "serious" poets as degrading) was predominantly populated with male writing. As such, publication therein provided a unique opportunity for women poets: they were given unprecedented print opportunities, while volumes of poetry by "canonical" male poets suffered a decline in sales. (16) Daniel Riess suggests that publication in the popular literary marketplace, while undeniably necessary for women "who lived on the money raised by the sale of their poetry," necessitates the subordination of talent or intellect for desirability. (17) Riess observes how Landon catered to the literary marketplace, but argues that it became a source of regret: "In her later years, Landon's belief that she had prostituted her poetic talents for money and fame by publishing in the annuals afforded her considerable remorse and anxiety, and much of her mature work expresses these feelings of guilt" (p. 820). Landon's elegy for Hemans precedes her own death by three years, and reflects the "remorse and anxiety" created by her own literary decisions as much as it sympathizes with Hemans' struggle in the same world. The initial double allusions to Hemans' poetry in both the epigraph and the first stanza mimics Hemans' elegy as it offers a poetic sensibility, an emotional understanding between speaker and dead poet. Now that the woman "poet's I" has been established, Landon pursues her role as subject, rather than object to be consumed, and circulates the value of allusion that Hemans had begun.
Hemans' voice opens Landon's elegy--an ironic move that reinforces the "life" that death offers the woman poet. This epigraph comes from Hemans' "The Nightingale's Death-Song" (Lays of Many Lands ), and offers Landon a means of speaking both for and to the dead Hemans:
MOURNFULLY, sing mournfully, And die away, my heart! The rose, the glorious rose is gone, And I, too, will depart. (19)
These lines reflect the melancholy strain of much of Hemans' poetry: Landon evaluates Hemans as a "glorious rose" through her allusive choice of the third line of the quatrain, and implies that this mode of "sing[ing] mournfully" provides them with a shared poetic space. It also reinforces the loss of Hemans to a woman who did not know her personally. Landon's grief echoes Hemans' "die away, my heart," with the knowledge that the two will share an inevitable fate. Opening an elegy with an epigraph that gives the dead poet a presence and a voice signifies a close identification felt by the elegist. Landon inserts herself into Hemans' words, because the "rose" must now be identified with the absent Hemans, leaving Landon as a voice that mourns, "And I, too, will depart."
Landon's prose elegy for Hemans, written alongside her 1835 poetic elegy, recalls the connection between women and flowers, their mutual associations of beauty, transience, and death. As she outlines the four characteristics of Hemans' poetry--the ideal, the picturesque, the harmonious, and the moral--Landon pauses over the inescapability of mortality. "We have all stood beside the grave, and asked of the long grass and ever-springing wild flowers why they should have life, while that of the beloved has long since gone down to the dust." (20) The elegiac question leads Landon to an anecdote that also positions a flower as a potent symbol:
I remember to have read of a Hanoverian chorister, who, having lost by an early death the young village girl to whom he was betrothed, rudely carved upon her tomb a rose-bud broken on its stem, with the words beneath, 'C'est ainsi qu'elle fut' ['This is as she was']. This might be emblem and inscription for all the loveliest emotions of the soul. ("On the Character of Mrs. Hemans's Writings," p. 174; emphasis added)
The "rose-bud broken on its stem," "the glorious rose is gone"--both amount to a description of death that Landon equates with a description of the life of the poetess: damaged and absent. Yet Landon complicates this equation with her positioning of "ever-springing wild flowers," which continue to "live" long after the "beloved" has died. This complication assumes that flowers are interchangeable in their immortality: the individual flower may die, but the species will live on. Landon's paradoxical figuring of flowers connects, aptly, back to Tighe's use of the "Mezereon" in her last poem and Hemans' rebuke that Tighe gave "a vain love to passing flowers." Schor argues that when "sympathizing with the dead ... we take up our place, imaginatively, in the grave" and the "dead take up their places within our minds" (p. 35). The sympathy, fellow-feeling, that informs women's elegies blurs the boundaries between life and death, subject and object, presence and absence; the cultural perception by which women identify themselves with flowers places them already "imaginatively, in the grave."
Landon's elegiac discourse begins with the opening stanza and draws together flowers, women, and death to link beauty and gender with professional crisis. Mimicking Hemans' choice of stanza, Landon uses the ballad as well, but rhymes her poem abcbdefe. She turns Hemans' "Bring Flowers" from a poem that situates flowers in sometimes ironic situations--as in the second stanza, where flowers are forced through imperative to "die in the conqueror's way" (21)--to an opening stanza where flowers reveal the implications of being a woman poet in the nineteenth century:
BRING flowers to crown the cup and lute,-- Bring flowers,--the bride is near; Bring flowers to soothe the captive's cell, Bring flowers to strew the bier! (Landon, "Stanzas," ll. 1-4)
Four of the situations are drawn directly from Hemans' poem, but "lute" is not; the addition of "lute" to the imperative whereby the "cup" is crowned with "flowers" resonates with the memory of another woman's famous lyre and a crowning with flowers. (22) Landon quietly connects the genius of a woman poet with the stanza's ending, death. The careful inclusion of poetry as the beginning of this chain enables the elegy to trace the problems her world presents for the poetess: a woman acquires fame for her verses, but she must marry, so "bride" follows quickly on the heels of poetry. (23) This situation becomes the "captive's cell," and ends in her "bier," the rhyme echoing the logical order, as the "near" "bride" is connected to "bier." The imperative anaphoras of Landon's first stanza also suggest that regardless of what the woman poet faces (poetry, marriage, imprisonment, death), we must "bring flowers" to greet her situation. For Landon, the world does not let women free themselves from an association with fleeting, ornamental beauty.
Landon's discussion of Hemans' writing in her prose elegy locates their shared culture as part of the suffering the woman poet endures: "how strange in its severity would seem the lot of genius in a woman. The keen feeling--the generous enthusiasm--the lofty aspiration--and the delicate perception--are given but to make the possessor unfitted for her actual position" ("On the Character of Mrs. Hemans's Writings," pp. 179-180). She further argues that genius "places a woman in an unnatural position; notoriety frightens away affection; and superiority has for its attendant fear, not love" (p. 183). The internal conditions required for poetry, "feeling," "enthusiasm," "aspiration," and "perception," provide a paradox for the woman poet. Emotions are considered her natural sphere, but can undo poetic craft if they are the only tool. Ambition is part of the poetic impulse, but leads women to "notoriety" rather than renown. Landon carefully positions Hemans as a poet who "link[s]" her "offering / With feeling and with thought" (Landon "Stanzas" ll. 7-8), a parallelism that echoes Hemans' attention to the woman's heart and mind in her elegy for Tighe. The "offering" maintains multiple meanings: devotion to God (OED 1), a thing for sale (2), and a gift or token of esteem (3b). Landon does not privilege any of these above the other; her poet is capable of worship, friendship, and a professional career, combining thought and feeling in the product which encompasses all three.
Allusions provide a different chain from the associations of beauty or the nature of woman's sensibility; rather than binding, this chain allows the elegist to link herself to her predecessors--a saving connection rather than oppressive bondage. Landon's elegy winds through Hemans' verses to the elegy for Tighe and indicates that Landon, a careful reader, could take up her predecessor's allusion and turn it to her own use. In the sixth stanza, Landon draws on the two major aspects of Tighe's poetry that Hemans used to expose the world that creates unending suffering for the woman poet:
And yet thy song is sorrowful, Its beauty is not bloom; The hopes of which it breathes, are hopes That look beyond the tomb. Thy song is sorrowful as the winds That wander o'er the plain, And ask for summer's vanished flowers, And ask for them in vain. ("Stanzas," ll. 41-48)
Landon links Hemans with the elegy for Tighe as she echoes the life Hemans mourned: "Thou hast left sorrow in thy song" ("Grave," l. 45) becomes "And yet thy song is sorrowful"; "To thee the sunshine round thy tomb / Was but a broken spell" ("Grave," ll. 23-24) becomes "The hopes of which it breathes, are hopes / That look beyond the tomb"; "Here a vain life to passing flowers / Thou gav'st" ("Grave," ll. 43-44) becomes "And ask for summer's vanished flowers, / And ask for them in vain." The initial imperative to "Bring flowers" signals their symbolic aspect as both ornamentation and fate of the woman poet, but then turns them toward their elegiac roots. The catalogue of flowers in pastoral elegy, brought to decorate the hearse or grave or seen as part of the landscape, is evoked for the symbolism it brings to the location or situation: in Arnold's "Thyrsis," for example, the "cowslips" (l. 114), "purple orchises" (l. 115) and "primroses" (1. 120) strewn along the path emphasize his familiarity with the landscape in which he and Clough used to ramble; here flowers evoke a nostalgia that the elegiac speaker cannot quite evade. But for Landon, the flowers do not distinguish themselves and do not carry the promise of renewal; these are not spring flowers, but "summer's vanished flowers" and Hemans, Landon argues, "ask[s] for them in vain." When elegy's traditional flowers are sought, they have already "vanished": disappeared by "decaying ... ceasing to exist" ("vanish, v.": OED 2). A woman who seeks the conventions of elegy to lament her dead finds that her search is futile. Unable to offer a consoling contrast for the elegist's situation, flowers in women's elegies reinforce the sorrow they already suffer: the evanescent beauty offers only a cruel mockery of their own fate.
Landon's engagement with Hemans' elegiac dialogue makes changes that are slight but fit the negotiation of a new poet to be mourned. Instead of leaving "sorrow in thy song," which proposes the sorrow as a byproduct, Landon reveals that Hemans' "song is sorrowful," a suggestion echoed in her criticism of Hemans' poetry: "Suffering discourses eloquent music, and it believes that such music will find an echo and reply where the music only is known, and the maker loved for its sake" ("On the Character," p. 173). What for Hemans was the elegiac imperative to create records of women is Landon's imperative to "echo and reply" in elegiac discourse. Suffering may make "eloquent music," but it also, as a value circulated and exchanged, creates the distinction that makes women's elegies unique. Both Hemans and Landon's elegies argue that suffering is not the unfortunate and unforeseeable consequence of a particular situation; it is the destiny and the value of the woman poet:
Ah! dearly purchased is the gift, The gift of song like thine; A fated doom is hers who stands The priestess of the shrine. ("Stanzas," ll. 49-52)
Landon outlines the transaction each woman poet encounters: the cost exacted from her rises with her talent. The divinity that Hemans saw in Tighe's "mind," which "shrined" the "light of song," becomes explicit. Landon relates the economy of the poetess--a "dear" purchase--to her role as "priestess." That cost is the "too exquisite" pitch of the soul: its "fine chords are wrung" (l. 57). The alliteration of "misery" and "melody" (l. 58) recalls an earlier alliterative pair, "crowd" and "crown" (l. 53), as causal links. The "misery" of her soul results from the "crowd" who only "hears" beautiful music; "melody" connects to the "crown" the woman poet proudly wears, even to her cost.
The nature of this "priestess" is negotiable in women's elegies; in Heroans, Tighe was always already in the tomb as a woman poet. Landon, however, draws on two masculine types to support the value and cost of the woman poet. The "poetess" is simultaneously an adventurer who brings back "from far and foreign lands ... many a tone" (ll. 33-34), and a sculptor who "from the block" (l. 25) "calls to breathing life / Some shape of perfect mould" (ll. 27-28). Both these metaphoric states indicate that Landon sees Hemans as a poet who transcended the fixed forms of the poetess, an active creative agent, rather than a passive emotional vessel. The argument here is not that women do not feel deeply, but that they use those emotional connections as tools for their verse. The power of the woman poet ironically undoes her presence; if she only exists as that "shape of perfect mould"--equating the woman with her art--she retains the "moral excellence" and the "orderly arrangement" the world asks of her (OED 4b, 11). But if she pursues the "fine chords" of her soul, becomes an authorized creator, she oversteps her culturally enforced and "natural" position. Well aware of this dilemma, Landon's elegiac poetry and prose pursue this poetic inheritance and consistently fight its power over her:
How exquisitely is the doom of a woman, in whose being pride, genius, and tenderness contend for mastery, shadowed in the lines that succeed! The pride bows to the very dust; for genius is like an astrologer whose power fails when the mighty spell is tried for himself; and the tenderness turns away with a crushed heart to perish in neglect. ("On the Character," p. 178)
The "gift" of poetry that Hemans had paid the high price of endless sorrow for while alive continues after death for her successors: it is a battle "shadowed in the lines that succeed" between a woman's pride, genius, and tenderness. Landon positions herself in the shadow that "succeed[s]" Hemans, a shrewd pun for an heir: sorrow finds its own place in the elegy, as Hemans' song "shadows on the actual world" ("Stanzas," l. 19). This space--like Tighe's "tomb"--is a negative space, where the beauty of life and glory of fame spark only temporarily.
Landon illuminates the tomb of the woman poet to reveal that her death-in-life comes ironically from the very thing that she creates. This move aligns Landon with Charlotte Smith's first poem of Elegiac Sonnets (1784), (24) where Smith, calling on her "partial Muse" (l. 1), presupposes painful division as both condition for and consequence of woman's poetic talent:
But far, far happier is the lot of those Who never learn'd her dear delusive art; Which, while it decks the head with many a rose, Reserves the thorn, to fester in the heart. (ll. 5-8)
Poetry defrauds women precisely because it promises what it cannot deliver; the crowning that comes with the height of achievement--here a "rose," the flower Hemans and Landon associate particularly with love and loss--carries its "thorn," which does not just pierce the breast, but "fester[s] in the heart." Smith draws attention to the irony of the "dear delusive art" of poetry and anticipates the sorrow and suffering borne out by the rest of her sonnets. Landon reiterates this idea in a loose allusion to Smith's lines:
The meteor wreath the poet wears Must make a lonely lot; It dazzles, only to divide From those who wear it not. ("Stanzas," ll. 69-72)
As she ascribes to the poetess' wreath the adjective of "meteor," Landon comments on the temporary heights of female success. Whereas Smith discusses the inevitable pain ("thorn") that comes with the glory of poetry, Landon locates her suffering in a social setting. Meteor, from the Greek meteoris, "lifted up," describes a "luminous body seen temporarily in the sky, and supposed to belong to a lower region than that of the heavenly bodies" (OED 2a). The long description of Hemans' misery (ll. 49-68) reveals the "meteor wreath" as bathos; the "lonely lot" and the division that succeeds the "dazzl[ing]" light undercuts the glory that ought to come with such a crown. Landon's "meteor" demonstrates the nineteenth century's perception of women: as it is the nature of the meteor to flash brightly and then dissipate, so too must the glory of the woman poet be negated. This metaphor keenly reflects the life of the rose, which once it reaches its "bloom," quickly decays.
The consolation that Hemans found in her elegy for Tighe is realized in an end to the strife and a cessation of the suffering that her role as poet brought as its cost. Landon's elegy ends where Hemans began, but transforms the former's sad sense of the "lowly grave" into a peaceful return to a symbol of life:
Oh, weary One! since thou art laid Within thy mother's breast-- The green, the quiet mother-earth-- Thrice blessed be thy rest! ("Stanzas," ll. 105-108)
Landon does not find comfort in the traditional elegiac apotheosis. This divine rising up allowed Milton consolation for a lost poet, "So Lycidas, sunk low, but mounted high," (25) although the elegy ended with the promise of the natural world--"Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new" (l. 193). William Collins' elegy for James Thomson, "Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson," begins much as Hemans' had, with the speaker standing over the dead poet's grave, but its ending stanza does not offer the relief from suffering that Landon's does. (26) Landon gives Hemans "rest" in the "green" and "quiet" earth, rather than merely noting her physical location. Rest as elegiac consolation is not as heretical as it might seem: rest, after all, is not that far from Hemans' consolation for Tighe. Peace shares with rest a sense of being free from care, concern, labor. Marking this freedom with a return to the "mother" rather than the "Father" reinforces the transformation to the elegiac genre: the humble earth (rather than civilization or culture) provides the peace that life (and, it would seem, the masculine conception of Heaven) cannot offer the woman poet. Landon's dialogue with Hemans allows her to expose their shared sympathy; both elegies create records of dead women poets to preserve knowledge, but Landon moves beyond Hemans to focus more intensely on the conditions that cause the woman poet's suffering. The consolation that Landon offers is not one she herself can take up, for which Barrett's response will rebuke her for; Hemans' life "pang" ("Stanzas," l. 109) may be over, but Landon struggles still with the forces that mold her, in no small part because she has allowed them to.
Unlike Hemans' and Landon's elegies for dead women poets, which offer an emotional understanding and sympathy between the writing poet and the dead poet, the dialogue between Barrett and Landon discloses a conflict in value. Barrett's elegy ("Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon") disrupts the sympathetic understanding and use of sorrow as elegiac currency set in place by Hemans and circulated by Landon. (27) She foregoes an epigraph from another woman poet, addresses her elegy to another elegist rather than the dead, and begins a critical negotiation of the poetic values informing both the dialogue and the economy of Hemans and Landon. Barrett grounds herself in social and spiritual mores to chastise Landon and implicitly Hemans for mourning the dead--such a rebuke calls into question the fundamental value of elegy. The dead can no longer benefit from the poet's work; the living poet cannot fulfill her obligation to the world if she focuses so insistently on the dead.
Further, Barrett seems suspicious of the unrestrained emotion of Landon's elegy. In her sonnet "Grief" (1844), Barrett claims that "hopeless grief is passionless"; only those "incredulous of despair" give way to "shrieking and reproach." (28) Creating a dichotomy between "passionless" grief and the "half-taught" anguish of those who cannot yet believe in despair, Barrett emphasizes not only different modes of mourning, but also implies a lack of experience in those who "Beat upward to God's throne in loud access" (l. 4). The "Full desertness" (l. 5) of that hopeless grief "In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare"; this bareness--barrenness, we might infer from her use of desert as an abstract noun--separates itself with an almost moral superiority from its louder and more fertile companion, and we cannot overlook the gendered implications of an opposition between barrenness and fertility. (29) A stoic view of mourning like this would find the tears that pervade Landon's poem, which impede her ability to go on as poet, however momentarily, unnecessary and inauthentic. In an imperative that echoes her directions for Landon, Barrett tells "Deep-hearted man, [to] express / Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death" (ll. 8-9). Barrett's elegy insists on apotheosis and proposes a silence of mourning that dignifies the dead. Barrett rebukes Landon for wasting her talent on performed emotions and an unhearing audience.
We see a confident transition between Barrett's poetess precursors and her self-vision as poet in her two versions of the poem: the original version, published anonymously in the New Monthly Magazine (45) in 1835, (30) is written in ballad stanzas, with alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, and offers the original response to Landon's elegy. The elegy evolved from its first authorial publication in Barrett's The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) to a final revision in the Poems of 1850. This latter edition is in some ways a harsher critique of Landon's elegy; it bears her name and collapses the eight-line stanzas into the other ballad form, heptameter quatrains. The two versions of this elegy comprise Barrett's dialogue with her predecessors, a dialogue that she revisits, evaluates, and rewrites--highlighting how different her poetic process is from Landon's, who, rather than revise her "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans," writes another elegy in response ("Felicia Hemans" ). Barrett's change in meter, from iambic tetrameter/trimeter to iambic heptameter quatrains, suggests that she wrote the first version in the rhythm of Hemans' elegy for Tighe and took her place as a descendent in a female line of poets. Barrett's metrical revision, however, allows Dorothy Mermin to argue that the rhythm of the 1850 edition reflects the elegy's corrective impulse: "She uses a stanza based on L.E.L.'s, but she turns eight short lines into four long ones and adds a final unstressed syllable to each: the effect is of energy, speed, directness, and a strong note of impatience, as of one sweeping away nonsense." (31) That the original edition of the poem imitated Landon's stanzas both in length (eight lines) and in meter (tetrameter/trimeter) suggests that the first edition placed itself more clearly in this dialogue of female poets.
In the critical dialogue begun by Hemans, Barrett is the first to omit an epigraph allusion. This absence neglects Hemans' and Landon's initial and representative currency: the words of another woman poet as epigraph reinforce their estimation of women's poetry. Barrett's elegy immediately makes explicit her critical, rather than connecting, discourse; whereas her predecessors had used allusions and literary tropes to conceal the directness of their critique, Barrett rushes into this drawing-room of mourning and scatters her "angelic" precursors as she surveys the "flowers" and "songs" set out by them. The title of the poem, "Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon, and Suggested by Her 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans" (32) resists the elegizing impulse as much as her opening address does. Instead of Hemans' address to the dead--"I stood beside thy lowly grave"--or Landon's address to the world in the dead poet's voice--"Bring flowers to crown the cup and lute"--Barrett addresses the elegist:
Thou bay-crown'd living one--who o'er The bay-crown'd dead art bowing, And o'er the shadeless, moveless brow Thy human shadow throwing; And o'er the sighless, songless lips The wall and music wedding-- Dropping o'er the tranquil eyes Tears not of their shedding. ("Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon," ll. 1-8)
Barrett creates a scene of mourning, where the "living one" "bow[s]" over the dead to set immediately a tone of sacrilege. As she crowns both of her precursors with "bay," Barrett situates their mode of poetry as even now outdated: the meaning of "Leaves or sprigs of this tree, esp. as woven into a wreath or garland to reward a conqueror or poet" faded out of use by the late 1700s ("bay, n.I," OED 3). (33) Barrett uses the "bay" crown to distance and to evaluate both elegist and elegized; it now mimics the "meteor wreath" of Landon's elegy by dividing her from those "who wear it not."
The unethical role that Landon takes on, according to Barrett, reveals her too-close connection to the dead. In one of her gentler remonstrances, Barrett identifies a problematic sympathy: "Nor mourn, oh living one, because / Her part in life was mourning" ("Stanzas," ll. 25-26). Barrett's criticism embodies an elegiac ambivalence: either Landon projects her suffering self into the elegy for Hemans, or Landon takes on too much of Hemans' suffering in her grieving. This raises the question of whether Landon's elegiac mourning is motivated by empathy or sympathy, or, if the elegy could logically and ethically bear both emotions. If Landon's tendency in her elegy do lie more with an empathic relationship than with a sympathetic dialogue, then she is guilty of the projection of which critics have accused her. Sympathy would indicate that Landon takes on emotions not her own, rather than writing from her own heart, a charge which lends weight to Barrett's (implied) charges of inauthenticity. Either way, Landon's elegiac position faces criticism. Derek Furr argues that as each poet in this elegiac dialogue "sympathetically re-imagines the character/text of her predecessor, she publishes her private fears and emotions." (34) Furr seems to refer more to empathy, the "power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation" (OED), than sympathy, the "state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling ...; the ... capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another" (3b). Empathy includes precisely the kind of projection that personalizes one's "private fears and emotions" in the reconstruction of another. Sympathy, however, involves a much closer ethical relationship: when we share an "affinity" (1a) with another, we essentially enter into their most private space. Landon's elegy presents a connection between the two poets, where Landon enters into a "fellow feeling" with Hemans. For Barrett to suggest that Landon takes on Hemans' sorrow as if she bears none of her own indicates that Barrett, even though she acknowledges Landon's internal poetic gifts, cannot see what she does not believe is there. The difficulty lies with Barrett's perception that the fictive aspects of Landon's poetry, rather than being instructive or artistic as Landon's poetry claims for itself, indicate that Landon "believed that great lie, that poetry is fiction--and it was fatal to her not merely as a poet but as a woman." (35) We cannot, however, entirely dismiss the way Landon's elegy constructs her connection to Hemans. Its real proximity to details of Landon's own life allows it to be, finally, both an empathic and sympathetic response to death, both a performative and authentic revelation of emotion; as both, it cannot fail its elegiac or ethical responsibility to the dead.
Barrett privileges the poet's connection to divinity over the reception of her poetry, a worthy goal that nonetheless ignores the very real economic conditions of middle-class women in need of an income. Certainly, Hemans' elegy for Tighe offers precisely the elegiac demeanor Barrett does not see in Landon:
But then, ev'n then, a nobler thought O'er my vain sadness came; Th' immortal spirit woke, and wrought Within my thrilling frame. Surely on lovelier things, I said, Thou must have look'd ere now, Than all that round our pathway shed Odours and hues below. ("Grave," ll. 29-36)
Hemans' initial consolation transcends secular understanding as it reconciles the death of Tighe without excessive mourning or sorrow. Hemans connects this "nobler thought" with the preceding stanza through a temporal iteration--"then, ev'n then." The "then" referred to describes Hemans' state of mind as she positions Tighe's life of suffering: "Parted from all the song and bloom" (l. 21). The past tense used to describe Tighe's life, that "the sunshine round thy tomb / Was but a broken spell" (ll. 23-24; my emphasis), argues that Hemans also views the life of the woman poet as one which intrinsically and essentially involves sorrow and suffering.
Barrett questions the value of excessive sorrow: to her, it is as empty as a shadow. The "bowing" Barrett criticizes in the opening stanza is not to the world's opinion (although this aspect she will engage in her elegy for Landon), but to a dead predecessor. She connects this physical action signifying respect and submission to a "human shadow" "throwing" itself over the dead ("Stanzas," l. 4). "[S]hadow" here refers to a "comparative darkness" (OED 1) of the mortal realm; "it is in the Old Testament merely a poetic word for intense darkness" (lb). This meaning offers a pointed contrast with the spiritual realm in which Barrett locates Hemans. Figuratively, Landon "throw[s]" her humanity onto one already blessed with light: "shadow" also refers to the "dark figure which a body 'casts' or 'throws' upon a surface by intercepting the direct rays of the sun or other luminary" (4a). Since Barrett locates Hemans in a higher spatial position than the stars ("Stanzas," ll. 21-24), Hemans becomes the "luminary" with which Landon fruitlessly tries to connect on a human level.
The pair of "wedding" and "shedding" of the first stanza (ll. 6, 8), draw us toward Barrett's critical view of England's poetesses: the poetess sings over the dead, "wail and music wedding"--her sorrow and talent figured here as bride and groom. Barrett considers this union suspect, as evidenced in the rhyme "shedding"; it is not only the case that the tears which flow over the dead are not "of their shedding," but also that the kind of poetry the poetess inscribes and performs sheds authenticity and rigor in the process. "[S]hedding" also puns on the meaning "To emit, give forth, pour out (spawn, eggs, seminal fluid, etc.)" ("shed, v. 1," OED 6e) to reinforce the sense in which the poetess' sorrow, here figured as her tears, brings forth--bears--her poetry. For Barrett, however, the "birth" of poetry is less important than what it can do for the world around it. As John Ruskin's major critical work, Modern Painters (1843), suggests, artistic talent should not be privileged for itself but for its potential: "Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as a vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing." (36) The craft of poetry and the ability to use language as a tool to create art is only the base from which the artist builds. Barrett's issue with Landon's elegiac language and sorrowful performance echoes this concept in literary terms: the elegiac mode and sorrow are here the language of a poetry that could be noble, but when it speaks only to express (confess?) itself, it fails as a vehicle of communication--much as a mirror would fail as a vehicle of socialization.
Barrett's elegy places itself against the conventional union of woman and "wail": she demands a more genuine expression of higher thought. This evaluation of her predecessors allows Barrett to make a place for herself in lieu of the dead, as many elegies do, but it also places her above her still-living peer. She may not insert herself into this elegy as obviously as Landon does in hers, but from the fourth stanza on, we are entirely in the world of Barrett's poetic self-conception. When the fourth stanza directs Landon not to mourn the death of her sister poet, Barrett shifts to the conditional to posit that while suffering can inform poetry, it should not be its substance, nor a reason for the poet to complain:
Would she have lost the poet's flame, For anguish of the burning? The minstrel harp, for the strain'd string? The tripod, for th' afflated Woe? or the vision, for those tears Through which it shone dilated? ("Stanzas," ll. 27-32)
As with her question to Robert Browning in a letter of February 3, 1845, "Is it true, as others say, that the productions of an artist do not partake of his real nature[?]" (p. 13), these questions are asked with an immediate implication of the answer. (37) This barrage of questions presupposes its own answer of "no," else Barrett's justification for using Hemans as a means to correct Landon's elegizing and poetical values is unfounded.
These six lines neatly call Landon's poem itself into question: for each object, there is a corresponding part of Landon's elegy that Barrett wishes to restructure. The "poet's flame" recalls Landon's "meteor wreath," which "make[s] a lonely lot" and "dazzles, only to divide" (Landon, "Stanzas," ll. 69-70). Barrett sharply rebukes Landon's poetic tendency to mourn her gift for its effect: would she lose her gift because its power burned her? The "minstrel harp" looks back to Landon's metaphor of the poet's soul as instrument: it is "Wound to a pitch too exquisite," leaving its "fine chords" "too highly strung" with "misery and melody" (Landon, "Stanzas," ll. 57-60). The "tripod" with its "afflated / Woe" (Barrett, "Stanzas," ll. 30-31) links to Landon's description of Hemans' talent: a "Mysterious influence, that to earth / Brings down the heaven above" (Landon, "Stanzas," ll. 21-22). Barrett's construction is more suggestive of classical influence; her "tripod" recalls the seat of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the figure of Pythia. As Glennis Stephenson explains, "The Pythoness projects the image of a woman controlled by male authority--both in what she says and how she is interpreted, but she is actually a woman who seizes the opportunity to speak by claiming the influence of inspiration." (38) Both Landon's and Barrett's poetic strategies are "controlled by male authority," as the image of Pythia suggests, but where Landon's strategy manipulates control over her work-her poems like the body of Pythia channel emotion as truth for her audience--Barrett's mimicks the authority that controls her.
Aligned with one tradition of an internalized masculine elegiac, Barrett employs imperatives that place her in a position of power over her predecessor. The second stanza begins with a command and continues the directing impulse until its end:
Go! take thy music from the dead, Whose silentness is sweeter; Reserve thy tears for living brows, For whom such tears are meeter; And leave the violets in the grass, To brighten where thou treadest. (Barrett, "Stanzas," ll. 9-14; emphasis added)
Barrett reads Landon's elegy as a performance to and of the dead woman poet--she senses the connection Landon feels to her dead peer, a connection which reveals an ability to take on the emotions and desires of others, whether they truly fit her nature or not. Landon constructs this connection as a moral value, as her passionate defense in "A Summer Evening's Tale" (1829) attests. Landon's generalization describes the necessity of a poetry which can "melt these frozen waters into tears" (l. 47), waters frozen by the "present's littleness" (l. 40), "petty cares / And mercenary interests" (ll. 38-39), the "deceit" (l. 43) that polishes the "smooth surface of society" (l. 42), and, in a highly provocative image, the "warm heart" whose "kind affections" are "Flung back upon itself" (ll. 43-45), beating only for itself narcissistically. The attention to both "petty" and "mercenary" interests allows Landon to address both women and men: the trivial issues with which women concern themselves, and the financially motivated self-interest of men working in the world, make up a culture desperately in need of the fire that thaws a cold and withdrawn heart. Landon calls on "sympathy with sorrows not our own" (l. 48; emphasis added) as the means by which the poet works her gift. In this way, she resembles an affective Pythia: her verses become vessels to transmit emotion from one to many. Barrett's imperatives force us to question the actions and authenticity of the elegy where Landon models this system of sympathy and moral connection. The directions also compel us to evaluate Landon's poetry, since we are put in the position of agreeing that she needs to "Go" from the dead, "Reserve" her tears for subjects more fitting, and "leave" flowers as ornaments rather than troping them as poetic tools (Barrett, "Stanzas," ll. 9, 11, 13).
Barrett's recurring attempts to disengage Landon from her connection to the dead Hemans, "take thy music from the dead" and "Reserve thy tears for living brows," indicate that she sees her predecessor's singing and weeping as empirically fruitless, but it also hints that Barrett envies the poetic and sympathetic bond between the two. In a move not dissimilar to Arnold, who opens his elegiac poem "The Scholar Gipsy" with the same directional impulse, in 1835 Barrett follows the first stanza with an imperative: "Go!" (Barrett, "Stanzas," l. 9). Arnold softens his imperative with an inclusive "Come" at the end of the first stanza, but Barrett does not participate in Landon's quest: "Go," "take," "Reserve," and "leave" are all verbs that signify distance, either one about to occur or the action of keeping a thing apart from other things. There is a verbal violence to Barrett's elegiac demand that positions itself against the sympathetic and empathic connection Landon claims and values as her inheritance from the dead Hemans. Landon's elegy celebrates both the life and work of Hemans in a way that denies any real distance between the two poets, while Barrett's elegy, as it focuses so insistently on what others do wrong, further distances the poet from predecessors she had never met. Barrett cannot connect, empathically or sympathetically, to the dead woman poet she "mourns" or with the living woman poet she speaks to. Barrett returns to the more traditional, masculine roots of elegy as part of her discourse with Landon. This reaching back allows Barrett to express her belief that the divine spirit guided Hemans even m her most oppressive hour.
The epigraph Hemans began her elegy with, a de Staelean plea not to feel pity for one liberated from a life of sorrow, reverberates in Hemans' consolation. She experiences how "Th' immortal spirit woke, and wrought / Within my thrilling frame" ("Grave," ll. 31-32) a "nobler thought" than her "vain sadness" (ll. 29-30). The use of "wrought" as the transforming action reveals both the artificiality and the necessity of elegy. "[W]rought" means that which "is made or constructed by means of labour or art" (OED lb), "Shaped, fashioned" (1c), "Decorated or ornamented" (3b). The shift from mourning to consolation signaled by "But then, e'en then" leads to a consolation, "Surely on lovelier things, I said, / Thou must have look'd ere now" (ll. 33-34) that is not natural but fashioned, an ornament to an otherwise desolate existence. The more genuine consolation in the poem comes at its end. Hemans' first reference to Tighe in this elegy evoked the "woman's mind" (l. 14) as the location of her "song" (l. 16): the two were logically entwined with both gift and suffering. The final lines separate the "woman's heart" and the "poet's eye": "Now peace the woman's heart hath found, / And joy the poet's eye" (ll. 51-52). The universal consolation in this reinforces Hemans' own sense of elegiac propriety: she offers a record of a dead woman poet and locates her value as poet; the literal loss of this value (Tighe's poems will remain, but her gift will not reach its "bloom") is compensated by the "peace" offered to all women. The conventional and superficial veneer of this elegy--after contemplating the sorrow of Tighe's life, "a nobler thought" brings the realization that death liberates the woman poet from precisely those hardships (39)--covers the ambitious, confident, and authentic voice of a woman who values her poetry and the poetry of her dead.
Barrett, however, sees the work Landon did for "the world's / Cold hand" ("Stanzas," ll. 33-34) as the reason her predecessor cannot find or offer proper consolation. Landon's elegiac consolation is "rest" from the poet's work, not an embrace in the "Saviour's" arms, as Barrett would place the dead (Barrett, "Stanzas, "ll. 30-31). Landon turns downward, to lay Hemans "Within thy mother's breast--/The green, the quiet mother-earth" (Landon, "Stanzas," ll. 106-107). For Barrett, a financially secure Christian, work is one's duty to God and the community, to be undertaken wholeheartedly and earnestly. For the woman poet who supports herself and a family on her writing for a particular reading public, work is anxiety and pressure, to be undertaken as a means of surviving a middle-class world. This is one of Landon's most egregious offenses to Barrett's sense of elegiac responsibility: the mourning poet will not only omit the ritual of apotheosis that echoes centuries of the Christian elegiac tradition, but she also refuses a spatial hierarchy. The maternal aspect of the earth in which Hemans is laid to rest is more important, Landon implies, than its low space--and preferable, we infer, to the masculinity of a higher sphere. The ability to take peace in the low ironically recalls much of Christ's message, and this is instructive: not aspiring to the heights does not negate achievement.
Beyond commemoration, evaluation, or replacement, part of elegy's function lies in unfastening "the ties that bind us to life," accepting that we, like all living things, "[long] for rest" (Ionesco, p. 56). How the elegist positions this rest reflects her values, but perhaps more important are the opposing forces against which she struggles. Elegy for women poets in the nineteenth century is a dynamic, thriving, difficult, but imperative space: whether she struggles against her "natural" sorrow, the constraints and oppressions of the world around her, or what she sees as the restraining values of her predecessors, she creates in the language of mourning a discourse on life and craft for women poets that they never shared in life. As they transform the elegy, Hemans, Landon, and Barrett take what could be an empty echo and give it full voice; the conditions of the world around them, however, make elegy one of the few spaces where that voice can be heard.
(1) Eugene Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal, trans. Jean Stewart (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 56.
(2) They did, however, particularly Barrett, discuss one another in some of their own correspondences. Among the most famous elegiac relationships are John Milton's school relationship with Edward King ("Lycidas"), Percy Bysshe Shelley's complex and tense friendship with John Keats ("Adonais," 1821), the long and intimate relationship between Alfred Lord Tennyson and Arthur Henry Hallam (In Memoriam, 1850), and Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough's tumultuous poetic relationship and friendship ("Thrysis," 1866). Barrett did discuss both Hemans and Landon, most often in her letters to Mary Russell Mitford.
(3) Melissa F. Zeiger, Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1997), p. 11.
(4) Esther Schor, Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), p. 5.
(5) Stuart Curran, "Romantic Poetry: The I Altered," in Romanticism and Hellenism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988), p. 195.
(6) "At her death, the Anglo-Irishwoman Mary Tighe (nee Blachford) was known only within a coterie, as the author of one work, the six-canto epic romance Psyche, composed in 1801-03, and privately printed in an edition of fifty as Pysche; or, The Legend of Love (1805). Tighe was diagnosed with consumption (a disease that ran in her family) in 1803, of which she died aged 36 on 24 March 1810" (Samantha Matthews, "'The Grave of a Poetess,'" Poetical Remains: Poets' Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004], p. 78). Harriet Kramer Linkin presents a thoughtful argument about the importance of Tighe's other poetry in "More than Psyche: The Sonnets of Mary Tighe" in European Romantic Review 13 (2002): 365-378.
(7) Felicia Hemans, "The Grave of a Poetess," l. 1 (my emphasis), Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials, ed. Susan J. Wolfson (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2000). Quotations are from this edition, unless otherwise noted.
(8) Felicia Hemans, Records of Woman With Other Poems, ed. Paula R. Feldman (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1999), p. 187.
(9) Michael T. Williamson, "Impure Affections: Felicia Hemans's Elegiac Poetry and Contaminated Grief," Felicia Hemans: Reimagining Poetry in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Nanora Sweet and Julie Melnyk (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001), p. 33.
(10) Matthew Arnold, " Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse," ll. 85-86, The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Kenneth and Miriam Allott (New York: Longman, 1979).
(11) Patrick Vincent, "Burying the Poetess: Disenchantment Poems, Death Elegies, Posthumous Reviews, and Obituaries," The Romantic Poetess: European Culture, Politics, and Gender. (Durham: Univ. of New Hampshire Press, 2004), p. 158.
(12) Matthews notes that at the time Hemans wrote her elegy for Tighe, she had not visited the grave, and goes on to speculate that when Hemans did visit the site three years later, it proved something of a disappointment: "Hemans had described the traditional literary ideal of a poet's grave: modest, minimally marked, natural. What she finds is not a grave, but a substantial 'tomb,' a statue commissioned from high-profile sculptor John Flaxman--a monumental statement of wealth, status, and cosmopolitan pretension at odds with the village churchyard" (p. 99).
(13) Mary Tighe, "On Receiving a Branch of Mezereon, Which Flowered at Woodstock. December, 1809," 11. 43-48, The Collected Poems and Journals of Mary Tighe, ed. Harriet Kramer Linkin (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2004).
(14) Jaqueline Labbe, "Re-membering: Memory, posterity, and the memorial poem," Memory and Memorials 1789-1914: Cultural and Literary Perspectives, ed. Matthew Campbell, Jacqueline M. Labbe, and Sally Shuttleworth (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 141. In this way, Labbe distinguishes her argument from Celeste Schenk, who presented the first major exploration of woman's elegy (Schenk, "Feminism and Deconstruction: Re-Constructing the Elegy," TSWL 5, no. 1 : 13-27). Rather than invoking the dead poet to replace him, Schenk argues, the woman poet places herself alongside her ancestors. Labbe presents an alternative view, where women replace their predecessors or living contemporaries, but do so in a passively feminine way: they "re-member" them--piece them together in such a way as to render them "unreal, poetical"--rather than aggressively evoking and banishing (p. 132). Labbe's reading argues that women's elegy is "too successful in its emphasis on isolation and loneliness" (p. 146), partially responsible, the implication goes, for the "endemic forgetting" that will lead Virginia Woolf to be "stymied by what is actually perceived, an artificial, lack of a female writing tradition" (p. 146). I share Schenk's perception of woman's elegy as a connection to the dead, but take this view further. The responsibility for "forgetting" women poets lies not in the substance of their elegies, but rather in what they attempt to procure through the elegiac genre.
(15) This is not to suggest that male elegists do not reveal the same self-presenting impulses, but to suggest that for women, the "poet's I" or the weaving of the self into the poem is as much a political as a literary move.
(16) Anne Mellor notes the "increased" desire for annuals which catered to "an audience of young ladies who preferred them to the more severe conduct-books.... Designed for women, these best-sellers systematically constructed through word and picture the hegemonic ideal of feminine beauty.... In steel engravings of exceptionally high quality, they promoted an image of the ideal woman as specular, as the object rather than the owner of the gaze" (Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender [New York: Routledge, 1993], p. 111).
(17) Daniel Riess, "Laetitia Landon and the Dawn of English Post-Romanticism," SEL 36, no. 4 (1996): 807-827.
(18) "The Nightingale's Death-Song," The Complete Works of Mrs. Hemans, Reprinted From the Last English Edition, ed. Mrs. Hughes (New York, 1853). Accessed online: Making of America Books, University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service.
(19) The epigraph of Hemans' poem comes from the second stanza of Friedrich Schiller's "Thekla's Answer," and seems to be part of Hemans' joy in quizzing her readers, as it appears in its original German. Matthew Arnold's English translation indicates why Hemans chose this poem as a fitting opening for a song of love and lament:
WHERE I am, thou ask'st, and where I wended When my fleeting shadow pass'd from thee?-- Am I not concluded now, and ended? Have not life and love been granted me? Ask, where now those nightingales are singing, Who, of late, on the soft nights of May, Set thine ears with soul-fraught music ringing-- Only, while their love liv'd, lasted they.
(20) Letitia Elizabeth Landon, "On the Character of Mrs. Hemans's Writings," Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings, ed. Jerome J. McGann and Daniel Riess (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1997), p. 174.
(21) This metaphorical situation reinforces Hemans' perception of the masculine world as one which acts upon women: since women are associated with flowers, their being first placed on display or given as gifts leads inevitably to a death from being in the "conqueror's way."
(22) Cf. Corinne's coronation where she is crowned with "myrtle and laurel" (Germaine de Stael, Corinne, or Italy, trans. Sylvia Raphael [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998], IV.33).
(23) A woman who chooses to be in the public eye risks the reputation of a woman who wants too much to be seen, rather than remain passively cloistered in her private, domestic sphere. Stuart Curran notes that the "social position of a professional woman writer, in other words, was little better than that of a mistress, and her precarious financial status indeed seems often to have reduced her to that level" (p. 179). Marriage was one way to dissociate a woman from charges of a loose reputation, something Landon discovered too late. Deborah Epstein Nord also discusses the sexual connotations of women who place themselves in public view (Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation and the City [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995]).
(24) Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, ed. Stuart Curran (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993).
(25) John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), "Lycidas," 1. 172.
(26) William Collins, "Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson," The Works of William Collins, ed. Richard Wendorf and Charles Ryskamp (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979).
(27) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Stanzas Addressed to Miss Landon, and Suggested by Her 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans,'" Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings, p. 363.
(28) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Grief." The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 46, 11. 1, 2, 5.
(29) It is worth noting that the major tragedy of Barrett's life was the loss of her favorite brother, Edward or "Bro," in 1838, and while this could have no impact on her elegy for Hemans, it must have informed her sonnet and sense of true grief that it described. While the death of Bro was to impact her the most, she had lost her mother in 1828 and so would likely have begun to consider the nature of both grief and death. Rather than reading "Grief" as instructive of this elegy, we can infer that Barrett's understanding of true grief as stoic was in place before her brother's death, since the Hemans elegy was written five years before.
(30) This poem was published one month after Landon's elegy "Stanzas On the Death of Mrs. Hemans" appeared, in issue 45 of the New Monthly Magazine.
(31) Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 74.
(32) Marjorie Stone notes, in reviewing Furr's article "Sentimental Confrontations: Hemans, Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett," that Barrett "evidently recogniz[ed] that her poem was as much an elegy to Hemans as an address to Landon, EBB changed the title in her 1838 volume to the convoluted, 'Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans. Written in Reference to Miss Landon's poem on the same subject.' In her 1850 Poems, she altered the title again to 'Felicia Hemans: To L.E.L, referring to her monody on that poetess.' ... The change from 'Mrs. Hemans' to 'Felicia Hemans' at a time when EBB was increasingly being identified as 'Mrs. Browning' is of particular interest, along with the substitution of 'L.E.L.' for the 'Miss Landon' of the 1838 volume" (Marjorie Stone, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," VP 41 : 391-392).
I would also suggest that the change from "Mrs. Hemans" to "Felicia Hemans" reflects the shift Landon makes in her own elegies, from the "Stanzas on the Death of Mrs. Hemans" (1835) to "Felicia Hemans" (1838).
(33) Barrett returns to this idea of crowning the poet in Aurora Leigh, and pointedly dismisses the bay immediately (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds [Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1992], 2.33-53). The "ivy" Aurora eventually chooses she gives an unusual significance: that it is "as good to grow on graves / As twist about a thyrsus," aligning the usual symbol of Bacchus to the "graves," we might argue, of her predecessors.
(34) Derek Furr, "Sentimental Confrontations: Hemans, Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett," ELN 40, no. 2 (2002): 34; emphasis added.
(35) The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford, 1836.1854, ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, 3 vols. (Winfield, Kansas.: Wedgestone Press, 1983), 1:251.
(36) John Ruskin, Modern Painters I. The Genius of John Ruskin, ed. John D. Rosenberg (Boston: Routledge, 1963), p. 22.
(37) Barrett addresses Browning's comment in a letter of his own that she cannot know him from his poetry: "Is it true, as you say, that I 'know so "little"' of you? And is it true, as others say, that the productions of an artist do not partake of his real nature, ... that in the minor sense, man is not made in the image of God? It is not true, to my mind" (The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-1846, ed. Frederick G. Kenyon, 2 vols. [New York, 1899], 1:13). Poetry, if authentic, rigorous, intellectual, will "partake" of an artist's "real nature," and yet this is quite different from Barrett's positioning of Landon's poetry and the "real" self offered there.
(38) Glennis Stephenson, Letitia Landon: The Woman Behind L.E.L. (Mancester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1995), p. 102.
(39) Remembering Tighe's last poem, however, we have to question how much Tighe would have appreciated this gesture:
But oh! in every mortal pang That rends my soul from life, That soul, which seems on you to hang Through each convulsive strife, Even now, with agonizing grasp Of terror and regret, To all in life its love would clasp Clings close and closer yet. ("On Receiving a Branch," ll. 17-24)
These are not the words of a conventionally passive dying woman, and indicate, in some ways, a closer affinity to Landon than to Hemans or Barrett.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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