Printer Friendly

"Telling what's o' er": remaking the sonnet cycle in Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter.

In her 1878 essay "Poets and Personal Pronouns," Augusta Webster proposed that poets adopt a new pronoun: "The use of a little i instead of a big I might have some effect as a sort of modest disclaimer of the writer's personality.' (1) This neologism would allow writers constantly to remind their readers that poetry is not to be taken as autobiographical unless explicitly marked as such by the "big I." Although the essay quickly acknowledges that "the printers would never stand" for this proposal, Webster would soon embark on her own experiment with the authorial 'T' in the unfinished sonnet sequence Mother and Daughter (1895), which takes up the sonnet's familiar preoccupations with love, temporality, death, absence, and language. Recasting these issues in the context of a mother/daughter relationship, the speaker in Webster's sonnets celebrates her relationship with her daughter and mourns its evanescence. Though she employs the conventional capital "I," this speaker not only analyzes her own subjectivity as a mother but also theorizes maternal subjectivity more generally; in doing so, she reimagines the conventions of the sonnet cycle.

Webster would probably have availed herself of the "little i" in these sonnets had it been generally recognized as a "modest disclaimer of the writer's personality," but in the absence of such a disclaimer the poems' earliest reader blithely ignored the poet's previously published caveats against conflating speaker and poet. William Michael Rossetti, in his introduction to the posthumous 1895 publication, wrote: "Nothing certainly could be more genuine than these sonnets. A Mother is expressing her love for a Daughter.... The theme is as beautiful and natural a one as any poetess could select." So natural is it, indeed, that "it seems a little surprising that Mrs. Webster had not been forestalled--and to the best of my knowledge she never was forestalled--in such a treatment. But some of the poetesses have not been Mothers." (2) Attributing her choice of theme to her maternity, Rossetti clearly suggests that Webster not only writes from but about her own experience.

The temptation to read the speaker in the sonnets as Webster herself is understandable. Most of the poems depict the relationship between a mother and her only daughter, and Webster had one child, a daughter. Moreover, what dates we have support a biographical reading; while some sonnets describe the girl's infancy and early childhood, others show the speaker looking back on her daughter's youth after it has passed. The only three sonnets in the twenty-seven-poem cycle that bear dates were composed in the 1880s (I in 1881, XIII in 1882, and XXIV in 1886); Webster's daughter was born in 1864 (Portraits, p. 10). So these sonnets would have been written when she was in her late teens and early twenties. However, as we have seen, Webster herself warns readers against autobiographical interpretation; in "Poets and Personal Pronouns," she not only wishes for an orthographical means of differentiating poet and persona, but also insists that a poet should not be "taken as offering his readers the presentment of himself, his hopes, his loves, his sorrows, his guilt and remorses, his history and psychology generally" (Portraits, p. 369). Rather than interpreting Webster's sonnet sequence as a transparent display of maternal feeling, then, I read it as an innovative reconsideration of both the genre in which she was working and the discursive dimensions of maternal subjectivity. To speak as a mother is already to figure oneself as subjective, personal, and domestic. Webster challenges this equation through her innovative use of the sonnet cycle, simultaneously exploiting and resisting what Natalie Houston terms "a widespread understanding of the sonnet form itself as truthful and documentary." (3)

Moreover, even as many of the Mother and Daughter sonnets seem to invite us to identify the poet with the speaker, the cycle refuses to limit its analysis of motherhood to the speaker's--or any one woman's--experience of this institution. Sonnets IX, X, XI, XVIII, and XXII consider the state of motherhood generally, in contrast to the other sonnets, which focus on the relationship of a specific mother and her daughter. In her reading of Webster's rispetti, Patricia Rigg suggests that the lyrics spoken by one woman about one relationship come to stand for "a more universally recognizable account of the process we call love." (4) The sonnets, I will argue, function similarly; many of them offer a view of maternity that emphasizes one woman's personal experience, but even as the poems insist on the particularity of this mother, this daughter, and this relationship, they partake in Webster's interest in the social forces that shape women's lives and choices. (5)

The maternal discourse of the sonnets' speaker encompasses wonder, joy, anxiety, ambivalence, irritation, and grief; it critiques cultural myths of mother love, dismissing stock imagery and attacking cliches. She sings, then, both to set the record straight and to create a record of a relationship that she repeatedly figures as difficult, if not impossible, to put into words. Sonnet XI notes: "So in a thousand voices has the strain/Of this dear patient madness been retold, / That men call woman's love" (XI.5-7). Her voice, the speaker implies here, is a corrective to the thousand men's voices that have gotten it wrong; but at the same time, the sonnets repeatedly call attention to the difficulty of getting it right--that is, of finding language to do justice to the complexities of this relationship and her experience of it.

In these respects, Mother and Daughter fits neatly into the paradigm of work by nineteenth-century female sonneteers struggling to find a place within a largely male tradition that Amy Christine Billone describes in Little Songs; many women writers, Billone argues, "turned to sonnet writing as a means of confronting 'hopeless grief,'" but their poetry repeatedly suggests that "grief is inextricably intertwined with silence," ultimately leading them to abandon the sonnet for freer forms. (6) Webster's sonnets follow Billone's model both insofar as they explore the speaker's grief at the prospective loss of her child and in their explicit engagement with the problem of speaking; but Webster's strategy of singing as a mother offers her a kind of purchase on the dilemma of how to speak that the principal poets Billone considers never find.

Webster's sonnets variously describe and inscribe a language that grows out of the speaker's relationship to her child; this language is figured as mutually constituted by mother and daughter--even, at times, as a tongue others cannot interpret. It includes both the corporeal communication that precedes speech and the purely abstract signification of symbolic language. The speaker grounds her poetic claims in both personal experience and dispassionate observation; her double-voiced verse is both intimate and analytical. This conjunction offers Webster a way around the impasse Billone identifies; the splintering that ultimately drives women poets to reject the sonnet is reworked in Webster, not via an escape from self-division, but instead by refiguring it as fruitful and enabling, even as it remains painful.

Webster's poems, then, effectively propose a model of maternal subjectivity in which the mother/speaker's split or divided self enables rather than inhibits a new kind of speech or song. The analysis the sonnets offer resonates strongly with feminist psychoanalytic models of maternal subjectivity, which are similarly preoccupied with the way the self constitutes itself through language. (7) Webster's interests intersect with these models in two ways: first, in the sonnets' use of writing to trace the development of selfhood, and second in their interest in the ways a self takes shape through dialogue with an other. Beginning with Freud, psychoanalytic discussions of maternity have often figured mothers as objects who must be left behind; effectively dismissing maternal subjectivity, this is a model of selfhood in which a nascent subject defines him- or herself against a mother-object, who must be lost in order for a self to emerge. Jessica Benjamin sums up the consequences of such a model:
 Within the subject-object paradigm, in which there is always one
 subject, never two, it is necessary that whatever one side gains
 the other must lose. In that formal structure the Other, let us say
 woman, could only become subject by reversal, by displacing man
 into the position of object, which would hardly have been
 acceptable. (8)


In place of this zero-sum model, Benjamin proposes "an intersubjective theory of the self" grounded in the recognition of the mother as a subject in her own right (p. 80). Though Benjamin's paradigm depends on the notion that mothers are subjects, it does not entirely escape the phenomenon Brenda Daly and Maureen Reddy dub "daughter-centricity," the tendency of feminist criticism to shift focus from mothers' perspectives on mothering to daughters' experience of being mothered. (9) Even as Benjamin grants mothers the status of subjects, she elides the question of their subjectivity by focusing on the consequences of mothers' subjectivity for their children.

Webster's sonnets are not least remarkable for the way they avoid this slippage from mother to daughter, in part because they are so frankly interested in the way maternal subjectivity emerges relationally, via the speaker's involvement with her daughter. The poems' speaker is engrossed by her child's developing subjectivity, but her absorption is inseparable from her inquiry into her own experience of motherhood--that is, her developing maternal subjectivity. Thus the two subjects in Mother and Daughter are mutually constituted through their interactions and dialogue.

I say "mutually constituted" because Webster suggests that becoming a mother means assuming a new identity, as Sonnet IX implies when it refers to "the vale where [mothers] were born" (IX.2). The change involved is so encompassing that it not only transforms the new mother's future life but also effectively rewrites her past. Sonnet XII invokes the paradoxical concept of "fresh memories." The flowers the speaker's daughter gathers renovate the mother's memories of the places in which her daughter gathered them. Addressing the "wayside posies" the girl has picked, the speaker reflects:
 For in my memories of your homes that were
 The old sweet loneliness they kept is fled.
 And would I think it back I find instead
 A presence of my darling mingling there. (XII.11-14)


Her daughter's subsequent presence in spots the speaker remembers displaces recollected feeling. The girl's actions and her own response thus remake the speaker's past, as the plenitude of the present relationship retroactively transforms even that part of her life that antedates her identity as mother. This transformation stirs mixed emotions in the speaker, signaling her ambivalence about this new identity. The sonnet's octave is uniformly positive, dwelling on the pleasure she takes in the flowers, both in their own right and as a token of her daughter's regard ("And every flower is dearer for her hand" [XII.8]). But the sestet introduces an unsettling note of regret: the "old loneliness" is "sweet," and the sonnet ends on a wistful note--she cannot recapture this loneliness, even if she wants to ("would I think it back I find instead / A presence of my darling mingling there").

Giving voice to this ambivalence, the sonnets construct a speaker whose song is complexly motivated by her situation as a mother. The first line of the opening sonnet, "Young laughters, and my music!" (I.1), links her daughter's happy pre-verbal sounds and her own verse, two "songs" that are sung in counterpoint to one another. The second sonnet offers a different view of singer and muse, (10) one in which the personal and the impersonal are curiously blended:
 the glad impulse that makes painters sight
 Bids me note her and grow the happier;
 And love that finds me as her worshipper
 Reveals me each best loveliness aright. (II.5-8)


The speaker's perspective here willfully conjoins two seemingly incompatible points of view: the distant aestheticizing gaze of an artist and the warm affect of a lover.

Not content to be mother and poet, however, the sonnets' speaker is also a critic; refusing to choose between personal revelation and objective analysis, she charts a third course. The maternal discourse of these lyrics thus anticipates Julia Kristeva's answer to a question that the theorist claims women only begin to ask in the latter part of the twentieth century: "What can be our place in the symbolic contract? (11) For Kristeva, this "contract" has two dimensions, one psychological and the other socio-historical; it concerns women's ability to situate themselves both as speaking subjects and as historical subjects. Kristeva argues that women should neither seek to "enjoy" this contract by assuming its privileges and leaving it intact, nor simply repudiate it; instead, she advocates

another attitude ... [that is] more self-analytical which--without refusing or sidestepping this socio-symbolic order--consists in trying to explore the constitution and functioning of this contract, starting less from the knowledge accumulated about it (anthropology, psychoanalysis, linguistics) than from the very personal affect experienced when facing it as subject and as a woman. ("Woman's Time," pp. 199-200)

Interrogating the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, Webster's speaker adopts the approach Kristeva promotes here. And, also like Kristeva, she does this in part by theorizing motherhood, submitting it to a form of scrutiny that is at once intuitive and analytical. In doing so, Mother and Daughter deconstructs the binary lines along which the institution of motherhood is conceived.

Webster's sonnet cycle represents maternity as an experience that heightens one's attention to self and other and the relation between them. Kristeva shares this understanding of motherhood, arguing that pregnancy leads to "the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and of an other, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech" ("Woman's Time," p. 206). This process, she continues, can lead to the ability to love an other, and to do so "without annihilating one's affective, intellectual and professional personality"; she calls this "a creation in the strong sense of the term," though she also wonders if it is, "for this moment, utopian?" (p. 206). Webster's speaker figures maternity in strikingly similar terms, suggesting not only that it provides access to a new kind of subjectivity for the mother, but also that it enables a new kind of poetic creation. In making this last argument, Webster's sonnet cycle brings together two strands of Kristevan theory that the critic herself has often left unintegrated. For while Kristeva has posited motherhood as a prototype for dissidence, on the one hand, and argued that literary creativity is grounded in artists' access to their preverbal, corporeal relationships to their mothers, on the other, she has rarely considered the mother as artist. (12) Marilyn Edelstein notes, "Kristeva has more often written about male avant-garde writers than about mothers or even women, especially women writers." (13) Webster's sonnets can help us see how Kristevan theories of maternity and creativity illuminate the work of a woman writing specifically as a mother.

For Kristeva, art offers a way in to the otherwise inaccessible realm that precedes language. Jane Gallop describes the Kristevan semiotic as "a more archaic dimension of language, pre-discursive, pre-verbal, .... [It] is a more immediate expression of the drives [that] is linked to the bodily contact with the mother." (14) But if this model at first suggests a linear progression in which the subject leaves the semiotic to enter the symbolic, Kristeva insists that the semiotic and the symbolic are instead "two modalities [that] are inseparable within the signifying process that constitutes language." (15) They are simultaneously separate and linked; though the semiotic is left behind, it is never entirely abandoned for or superceded by the symbolic. But while the two realms are never completely detached from one another, there is nevertheless a break that intervenes to divide them and make language possible. And Kristeva's contention is that all artistic creativity then depends on the (chronologically prior) semiotic's eruptions into the symbolic; the imaginative experiments of artists thus grant them privileged access to an otherwise inaccessible realm, though they are never in control of such access as they may enjoy. "It can be said," she writes, "that artistic creation always feeds on an identification, or rivalry, with what is presumed to be the mother's jouissance" ("A New Type of Intellectual," p. 297). This link between maternity and creativity is of course more than metaphorical in Webster's sonnet cycle, where the speaker is driven not by an identification or rivalry with another's maternity, but by her own experience of motherhood.

Exploring what happens when the artist is a mother, Webster's sonnets investigate the ruptures and losses that mark the speaker's relationship with her daughter, celebrating and mourning its evolution, and examining how it is negotiated through speech. The cycle thus shows us a daughter's entry into the symbolic (a domain associated with language, words, and writing), but these poems are not especially interested in the effects of that process on the daughter; that is, Mother and Daughter does not so much examine a child's coming to language as it does explore how that process plays out for a mother. The cycle thus escapes the child- or daughter-centric tendencies of psychoanalytic and feminist theories, respectively. Webster's speaker is interested in her own relation to language--what prompts her to sing and what limits her song. Her observations of her daughter, then, give this mother a new kind of insight into the preverbal realm from which she herself emerged, since she is both accessing it vicariously, through her daughter, and analyzing it from the vantage point of the symbolic.

This double vision, which informs the speaker's perspective in the sonnets, effectively creates a new kind of bridge between the semiotic and the symbolic. Such a bridge might seem unnecessary, given Kristeva's insistence that they are "inseparable," but Gallop's caveats about the mother's relation to the semiotic suggest wily this bridge cannot be taken for granted; the mother, Gallop reminds us, is neither "in command of the semiotic" nor can she, "a speaking subject in the symbolic order," be understood as being "on the side of the semiotic" (p. 124). In fact, though it might seem obvious to read maternal discourse through a Kristevan lens, Edelstein argues, "for Kristeva, a male avant-garde writer ... is as semiotic as a mother (or probably more so)" (p. 44). The bridge I am arguing that the speaker constructs in Webster's sonnets is thus a different kind of link than the ineradicable relationship between the two realms that makes poetic language possible. That relationship, which consists largely of the incursions of the semiotic into the symbolic, is not subject to control or analysis. Mother and Daughter's speaker's explorations of maternity, in contrast, are simultaneously analytical and subjective, both intellectually and emotionally reflective. She thus attempts to do deliberately what Kristeva argues artists do unconsciously.

The sonnets, therefore, might be read as putting the semiotic and the symbolic in a dialogic relationship. Meditating on how song and sense emerge together, they show the mother's poetry and the daughter's (coming to) speech to be intimately intertwined, as Webster's artist-mother explores the mutual constitution of maternal subjectivity in her lyrics. When she looks at her daughter, she sees another autonomous subject, but one who helps constitute her mother as a subject in her own right. Moreover, as this mother reflects on her daughter's preverbal experience of the world, she both relives and analyzes the experience of coming to language. She regains partial access to what Lacan would term the Imaginary or Kristeva the semiotic, but she does so without leaving the symbolic.

Jessica Benjamin has argued that the primitive dialogues between mother and child (which precede speech on the child's part) constitute an "early two-body experience [that is] crucial to the way that representation emerges intersubjectively." (16) I believe Benjamin has in mind the representations the child learns to make, but her point about intersubjectivity illuminates Webster's speaker's ability to sing as a mother: her voice is inspired by and addressed to her child, but it is also enabled by the child. Elsewhere, Benjamin put it this way: "Self-other awareness itself forms the core of 'symbolizing experiencing,' a preverbal alternative to Lacan's linguistic notion of the symbolic." (17) Again, she is referring to the child, and we can see elements of the process she describes at work in the sonnets. But the cycle shows us not one but two female speakers: the infant whose babbling gives way to language and the mother whose thoughts are expressed in her song. The ability of each speaker to symbolize her experience is shown by the sonnets to be grounded in her awareness of herself as that self is constituted in relation to an other.

Webster's speaker scrutinizes not only her daughter and their relationship, but also her own reactions to the transformations she sees her daughter undergoing. As she observes the girl's pre-linguistic existence and the process by which she comes to language, the speaker not only celebrates and seeks to understand her child, but also finds a new perspective on her own experience. The sonnet cycle shows her observing and theorizing a time which, when she first lived it, could not be theorized, since she had not yet entered the symbolic and acquired language. The speaker's relationship with her daughter thus becomes a way for her to make sense of a period that must be understood in two modalities at once; language alone cannot make sense of a pre-linguistic stage, but without language, that stage cannot be analyzed-only experienced. The melancholy tone of so many of these poems takes on new meaning when we read them as records of the speaker's retrospective response to the rupture or loss necessitated by her own "fall" into language. This response, stimulated by observation of her daughter's experience, is only possible from the vantage point of the symbolic, but the condition of possibility for the fresh sense of loss that occasions them is the mother's access, through her daughter, to that earlier, pre-symbolic time.

Critical evaluations and anthology selections of Webster's work have largely focused attention on the poet's dramatic poetry. (18) In her own day, Webster was frequently compared to Robert Browning (19) and Angela Leighton has argued that Webster's use of the dramatic monologue manifests her "concern to speak, not passionately and personally from the heart, but detachedly, from the feeling and thoughts of others." The form's detachment, continues Leighton, paves the way for a consideration of how "the heart itself is another (or several others) and ... language already mediates" the realm of the heart (p. 178). More recently, critics including Susan Brown, Patricia Rigg, and Christine Sutphin have contended that neither the concerns nor the tone of Webster's dramatic poetry comfortably fit traditional paradigms of the dramatic monologue. Rigg points out that these paradigms took shape primarily with reference to Robert Browning's poetry, (20) while Brown suggests that, in Webster's dramatic poetry, "the emphasis ... is more on the processes of social determination that engender contradiction or discontinuity in a subject than on the problems posed by the linguistic mediation of subjectivity, though the two are of course imbricated." (21)

In Mother and Daughter, Webster uses strategies she honed as a writer of dramatic poetry. Written later in her career, these sonnets temper both the assumption of distance and the emphasis on social critique that recent critics have identified in her dramatic poetry. (22) By inventing personae who are clearly differentiated from the poems' authors, dramatic poetry underscores the distance between writer and character; at the same time, as Isobel Armstrong has argued, it enables women writers to "adopt ... [a] mask," allowing them to address their own experience obliquely, rather than directly. (23) Employing the distanced perspective offered by this "mask" in her sonnet cycle, Webster yoked together two previously distinct kinds of speakers: the personae of dramatic monologues, who are clearly not to be taken for the author, and the seemingly transparent speakers of sonnet cycles, who so often appear to invite readers to identify them with the poems' authors. (24) Thus the cycle's speaker, poised between detachment and engagement, approaches motherhood as a role she can both critique from without and analyze from within; she assumes a role and analyzes her own experience of inhabiting that role. Her point of view is alternately-even sometimes simultaneously-subjective and objective, expressive and reflective.

Rather than working "to shift reader interest from the individual within a social context to the society that makes up that context," as Rigg says Webster does in her dramatic poetry ("Social Politics," p. 79), I believe that the sonnets articulate a looser and at the same time more personal analysis of motherhood, the primary institution with which they concern themselves. The mask that Armstrong finds nineteenth-century women poets using in dramatic monologues is a device that "appears to involve a displacement of feminine subjectivity, almost a travestying of femininity, in order that it can be made an object of investigation" (p. 325). Webster, whose dramatic poetry repeatedly made use of such masks, continued to draw on the distanced perspective they made possible in her sonnet cycle. But instead of adopting the detached voice and formal distance of dramatic poetry to offer a social critique, Webster's sonnet cycle invites readers to identify the speaker with the poet, an approach to motherhood that blurs the line between personal response and analytical scrutiny. The fact that her sonnet sequence was left unfinished and may not have been intended for publication leaves open the question of how successful she deemed her explorations to have been; nevertheless, these sonnets constitute an important exception to the idea that, at the end of the nineteenth century, women poets turned away from the sonnet as they turned away from silence. (25)

Recently, there has been a groundswell of critical interest in the sonnet cycle's resurgence as a genre in the nineteenth century. (26) Natalie Houston points out that, "for many Victorian poets and critics, the sonnet was an historically self-conscious form of poetry, because the sonnet form itself explicitly registers its long history, creating opportunities for poetic revision and critical debate" ("Towards a New History," p. 150). Webster would have had a doubly determined interest in the form, approaching it from the perspective of both a poet and a critic, as Marysa Demoor's and Patricia Rigg's careful reconstructions of her career as a reviewer at the Athenaeum have established. (27) Joseph Phelan sees the proliferation of amatory sonnet sequences as part of the "the broad cultural reaction against Victorian earnestness and Puritanism" (p. 4), and his claim that these revisionary sonnets constitute a critique is taken up by other critics with varying opinions of the critique's target. Houston argues that the mid-century (re)turn to the sonnet is motivated by the genre's "ability ... to represent or stage authentic experience," thus providing poets with "a vantage point from which to scrutinize the romantic ideals of their own modern moment" ("Affecting Authenticity," p. 119); Alison Chapman attributes it in part to the sonnet's self-consciousness, which made it an ideal vehicle for reflexive self-examination, while Antony Harrison characterizes it as part of a Victorian identification with the Middle Ages fueled by the desire both to represent and to transcend sexual desire. (28)

Mother and Daughter consciously participates in this Victorian renaissance, both by sharing Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, George Meredith's, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's, and George Eliot's focus on love-relations within the family and in following Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Eliot in substituting a female speaker for the typically male sonneteer. (29) As in Modern Love, the speaker in Mother and Daughter oscillates between the positions of engaged participant and detached observer, and there are several poems in the sequence that are entirely in the third person. Houston argues persuasively that Meredith's experiments in this vein have the effect of "deconstructing authenticity as the property of the lyric first person" ("Affecting Authenticity," p. 116), but Webster seems to make a different point: instead of calling authenticity into question, the alternations between objective analyst and subjective speaker suggest that neither perspective, alone, is sufficient. Instead, these shifts make an implicit case for oscillating between these two ways of seeing.

Webster, then, exemplifies the claim that Victorian sonneteers are "poets who are deeply preoccupied with ideas of subjectivity and temporality" (Regan, p. 17); at the same time, she was a writer for whom those interests did not-and need not--override social and political concerns. Stephen Regan has argued that the political investments of Victorian sonnets are too often overlooked:
 We need, perhaps, to broaden our conception of politics if we are
 to appreciate the full extent to which Victorian poets modified the
 sonnet form in response to their own most urgent social and
 cultural needs. What proves to be most interesting is the way in
 which the dialectical structure of the sonnet suggests to writers a
 way of confronting and exploring the controversial issues of the
 time, including problems of democracy and social class. (p. 18)


Webster's overt contributions to the social and political debates of her day have been documented; (30) but I want here to heed Regan's call to "broaden our conception of politics" to argue that Webster's analysis of motherhood is thoroughly political in the sonnets, in part because of her refusal to sacrifice either her lyrical, subjective response or her analytical, distanced response to this overdetermined institution.

The earliest of the three dated poems in Webster's cycle is from 1881, the same year that Monna Innominata appeared; (31) in that work's Preface, Christina Rossetti specifically invokes Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese as a counter text to her own, (32) and Mother and Daughter too not only marks Webster's response to the early sonnet tradition, but also to these more immediate precursors' revisions of their chosen genre. Most obviously, Webster's cycle substitutes the bond of mother and daughter for that of lover and beloved explored in both love poetry of the English and Italian Renaissance and previous Victorian sonnet cycles. While the poet follows in the footsteps of Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti in "us[ing] a female voice in a traditionally male genre," Christine Sutphin points out that Webster breaks with these recent precursors by giving precedence to maternal, not romantic, love (p. 25). "Marital love" in these sonnets, notes Chapman, "is displaced by the love between mother and daughter, which is represented as far more dynamic" than love between spouses. (p. 111).

The speaker's spouse figures in only a handful of the twenty-seven sonnets and then largely tangentially; this man not only hovers on the margins of the bonded mother-daughter pair, but figures primarily as father, not husband, further emphasizing that the speaker speaks first as a mother. For instance, in sonnet V, he worries that their daughter is calling out to them in the night, but when they hurry to her room, the girl is fast asleep; as thunder sounds, she rouses only to soothe herself back to sleep by uttering the word "mother." The moment suggests that the tender concern of this husband/father is extrinsic to the bond between mother and daughter, which is unimpeded even in sleep.

Sonnet VII opens with his rebuke: "Her father lessons me I at times am hard" (VII.1); but even as the speaker acknowledges his reproach ("True," she responds), the second quatrain of the octave explains that it is her sensitivity to her daughter, her attunement to the girl, that renders her "hard." The sestet laments this state of affairs-the paradoxical concern that is objectively unwarranted and subjectively an index of her care. The poem concludes, "I watch one treasured pearl for me and him" (VII.14, emphasis added), returning in the last line to the figure of the father, who has otherwise been absent from the sonnet. In the interim, the sonnet has shown that, while her husband's complaint may be justified, his analysis of her "hardness" is superficial, missing what is really at stake in her treatment of--and feeling for--their daughter. Although she acts in part "for him," she must ignore his lessons in order to do so; the sonnet's indulgence toward him in fact signals his peripheral relation to the mother-daughter pair.

But maternal love does not simply displace romantic or marital love, which several sonnets insist provides the template for the mother-daughter bond. In sonnet XXII, the speaker describes the interplay of marital and mother love: "But who being spouses well have learned love's most, / Being child and mother learned not nor forget" (XXII. 12-13). Spousal love provides a model, insofar as its certainty and depth of feeling also characterize the love of mother and child; the poem contrasts the "brook leap[ing] riotous with life" (XXII.1) that is new lovers' love and the "strong unthirsty tarn" (XXII.5) that stands in the sonnet for both married and mother love. But there is also an important contrast between the love of spouses and of mothers; where husband and wife "well have learned love's most," mother and child "learned not nor forget" (emphasis added); married love must be acquired, while maternal (and filial) love simply are.

At the same time, the speaker repeatedly employs the language of romantic love to describe her relationship with her daughter. In some sonnets, the speaker sings her love for her daughter; in others, she relishes her daughter's love for her. In sonnet II, she says, "love that finds me as her worshipper / Reveals me each best loveliness aright" (II.7-8), and the sestet offers a strikingly Petrarchan catalog of her daughter's features: "Oh goddess head! Oh innocent brave eyes! / Oh curved and parted lips where smiles are rare / And sweetness ever! Oh smooth shadowy hair / Gathered around the silence of her brow!" (II.9-12). Here, Webster seems to use the conventions of the amatory sonnet quite straightforwardly to figure her daughter as a beloved object, and Sonnet XIV reads ahnost like a parody of a Renaissance sonneteer's conventional fear of a false beloved:
 To love her as to-day is so great bliss
 I needs must think of morrows almost loth,
 Morrows wherein the flower's unclosing growth
 Shall make my darling other than she is. (XIV.1-4)


The transformation the speaker fears is the effect of her daughter's maturation, rather than the fickleness of a faithless lover. But she continues to spin out the conceit; calling herself "loth" to think of the future, because to imagine her girl older "seems like some later troth / Named in the moment of a lover's kiss" (XIV.7-8). She suggests she is unfaithful to her present love (her young daughter) in imagining the older girl that daughter will become. In another poem, the speaker notes that her daughter, "loverlike to me, / ... finds all that's best" (XVI. 9-10). The sonnets, then, adhere quite closely in some places to the conventions of the amatory sonnet sequence, retaining the stock figures of lover and beloved, but this sequence follows other recent exemplars in its emphasis on familial love.

We have seen how sonnet XXII argues that spousal love prepares a mother for the undemonstrative but powerful depths of maternal love, and sonnet XXVI builds on this raetaphor, contrasting the "monogamous" relation of mother and only child and the "polygamous" family arrangements of mothers who have more than one offspring:
 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. (XXVI.1-3)


Like the hypothetical monogamous male lover, this mother is faithful to-that is, content with-her only child. The speaker elaborates on this conceit, likening mothers with multiple children to polygamous husbands whose devotion is implicitly devalued. The sonnet states that the monogamous male lover whose love is requited
 Gains more, because of her [his love]--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. (XXVI.5-8)


The capacity for loss and for love are more intense for those whose passion is concentrated in one object; the polygamous man who "mingles his heart" also disperses its intensity-robbing not only his multiple wives, but himself of the fervor fostered by exclusivity. The octave is given over to this extended general comparison, and the sestet applies it to the speaker's case:
 Oh! Child and mother, darling! Mother and child!
 And who but we? We, darling, paired alone?
 Thou hast all thy mother; thou art all my own. (XXVI.9-11)


The repetition and the chiasmus, the exclamation points and the question marks, all indicate the pressure emotion is exerting on language. The passionate absorption in another is likened to the love of husband and wife, but it effectively excludes the husband/father from the mother-daughter couple. "Paired alone," the mother/daughter couple admits no third party. If the girl has "all [her] mother" and is "all [her mother's] own," no share of either speaker or child seems to fall to the former's spouse or the latter's father. The poem that begins by comparing maternal love to marital love ends by displacing the spouse/father.

Webster's decision to figure the bond of mother and daughter in terms borrowed from love lyrics has the effect of calling attention to the heteronormative framework of other nineteenth-century sonnets; while earlier Victorian female sonneteers question the structure or content of heterosexual love, the cycles of Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Eliot all assume desire is heterosexual, however they may challenge our understanding of the character or the parameters of such desire. Webster, in contrast, organizes her cycle around two female figures who alternately appear as lover and beloved. One consequence of this organization is that these sonnets both imagine and negotiate the threat a beloved other poses to a woman's autonomy quite differently than earlier cycles by female poets.

Each precursor imagines the power differential between speaker and addressee differently; Monna Innominata's speaker claims equality with her lover, while the speakers in Sonnets from the Portuguese and Brother and Sister each occupy a subordinate position, albeit for different reasons. In Mother and Daughter, however, no such generalizations are possible, since the relationship is described and experienced in terms that emphasize its continual flux. Indeed, Martha Vicinus makes the point that the metaphor of mother and daughter was available-and attractive-to female lovers in the nineteenth century in part because it allowed for just such reversals and fluctuations of power. (33) On the one hand, the speaker establishes her maternal authority to police her daughter's behavior, "blam[ing]" the girl and "bid[ding] her go" for committing "some fault" (VI.9, 11, 8) or "scold[ing]" (VIII.3) her. But on the other hand, she describes the girl's childhood in terms that emphasize her own (willing) subjection to her daughter:
 And I must help her frolics if she played,
 And I must feel her trouble if she cried;
 My lap was hers past right to be denied;
 She did my bidding, but I more obeyed. (XX.5-8)


The loving despotism of the reiterated "must" and the simultaneous tyranny and dependence of the girl's claim to the maternal lap testify to an interplay of command and compliance that defies any definitive account of how the power is distributed in this relationship. The speaker's description of the mutual submission of mother and daughter ("she did my bidding, but I more obeyed") registers the fluidity of the roles mother and daughter play.

This fluidity appears both at the level of syntax, in phrasing that makes it difficult to tell whether the speaker is referring to herself or her child, and in descriptions of shared consciousness that show mother and child participating in each others' thoughts and feelings. We have seen how Sonnet I opens with the blending of their voices: "Young laughters, and my music!" (I.1). The phrase conjoins mother's and daughter's sounds, suggesting both that the daughter's laugh is music for the mother and that the mother's "music"--that is, poetry--is linked to her daughter's voice. The opening line of the sestet underscores this link, apostrophizing her daughter's joyful prattle as "music of my heart." It also sets up a central tension in the cycle: the pleasure taken in the present versus the fear of inevitable change. While the octave celebrates the infant's voice, the sestet looks ahead to the fall into language that necessarily comes with loss: "Too soon the spring bird learns the later song; / Too soon a sadder sweetness slays content" (I.10-11). Though the speaker is describing her young daughter and imagining the girl's future, she also seems to be describing her own trajectory; the "later song" the girl will sing may also be read as her song, the "music" she calls her own in the first line. Thus this first sonnet prepares us for the cycle's dual focus on songs of maternal experience and childish innocence, as well as the dialogic relationship of two voices.

In sonnet XIII, the speaker addresses her own voice in terms that convey both the haunted relationships of past, present, and future selves and the interdependence of mother's and daughter's subjectivity:
 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. (9-14)


The invocation designed to stop time fits our ideas of the sonnet as a "moment's monument," but the change it is designed to ward off is ambiguous; it might be read as the physical change Time will effect in the mother (her failing voice) or the psychological change in the daughter's perception and attitude (her recognition that her mother's voice has changed) that will follow.

The complexity of the lyric inheres in the wish expressed by the speaker to retain the self her daughter cherishes above all others; however, since that self may be illusory, we must ask whether the wish expressed here is a wish about the mother's physical self/voice or about the daughter's fancy that her mother's voice is uniquely powerful. This ambiguity is further stressed by the word "self" in the line the speaker addresses to her own voice: "thou echo to the self she knows not yet." Is this self the daughter's future self, which she has yet to grow into, or the mother's future self, as she will be known by her daughter when the girl's illusions fade? The poem refuses to choose; its insistence on leaving both possibilities open works to underscore the intertwined identities of mother and daughter.

Mother and Daughter further reinforces this notion of intersubjectivity by describing a private language, shared by mother and daughter, that is both concrete and symbolic. Here is sonnet VI's description of reconciling after a quarrel: "then comes she lip to ear and heart to heart" (VI.12). The line succinctly suggests two equal yet distinct modes of communion: verbal communication takes the form of apologetic words whispered in a sympathetic ear, while the embrace that brings two hearts close together represents the physical connection of mother and daughter. (With remarkable economy, the line also suggests both the symmetries--heart to heart--and asymmetries--lip to ear--of the relationship.)

Here, these two modes of communication are simultaneous yet discrete, but sonnet V shows that the boundary between them is permeable. I noted earlier that the sleeping daughter in V says the word "mother," unaware that her mother has hastened to her room after hearing her cry out. What her mother hears next, though, is not a summons: "She stirred in sleep, a little changed her place, / 'Mother,' she breathed, a smile grew on her face: / 'Mother,' my darling breathed, and slept content" (V.12-14). The lyric shows us that the mother's physical proximity is not needed to calm the girl; instead, her own utterance effectively creates the soothing presence she needs to fall back to sleep. This short speech functions much like a later sonnet's "petting talk" (XXI.2)--language that is notable for its materiality, its physical presence. The word "mother," once spoken, seems to belong to the realms of language and matter simultaneously; the speaker in this poem is doubly "there" for her daughter--as a body in the girl's room and as a representation. The sonnet suggests the girl is learning to internalize what she needs of her mother's presence (which she can then re-present to herself, as needed), and the mother's willing attendance at her daughter's bedside indicates the source of the girl's confidence.

Nevertheless, the communication the sonnets describe between mother and daughter is not perfect. We see the former learning this new language, for instance, in sonnet III, where the speaker first scans her daughter's face only to write what is not there; the octave records at length the meaning she fears to find:
 I watch the sweet grave face in timorous thought
 Lest I should see it dawn to some unrest
 And read that in her heart is youth's ill guest,
 The querulous young sadness, born of nought. (III.1-4)


In the sestet, the speaker calms herself by looking at her daughter's face, rather than her own "timorous thought," and recognizing that her fears are groundless. Reading more attentively, she sees her daughter as the girl is, rather than as she imagines her to be.

But the misapprehension the speaker corrects in sonnet III is displaced later in the sequence by comprehension so complete that the mother gives voice to the daughter's thoughts: "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" (XVII.2-4); the choice of words in the last line cited once again emphasizes language's materiality. Elsewhere, the sonnets portray "common" or direct language as simultaneously inadequate and unnecessary; in sonnet XXI mother and daughter are able to read each other in spite of words' imprecision. It opens: "Hardly in any common tender wise / With petting talk, light lips on her dear cheek, / The love I mean my child will bear to speak" (XXI.1-3). With the second line, the sonnet begins to dissolve the distinction between matter and meaning; "petting talk" immediately takes a literal form in the touch of the "light lips" on the cheek of the girl they address. Both "talk" and "lips" pet the addressee. At the same time, the speaker insists that this is precisely the kind of talk she eschews:
 ... liefer will it [her love for her daughter] floutingly devise,
 Using a favourite jester's mimic pique,
 Prompt, idle by-names with their sense to seek,
 And takes for language laughing ironies. (XXI.5-8)


The language she uses to address her daughter is indirect, requiring the girl to "seek" the meaning of the words, which is not immediately apparent. Her daughter, the sestet assures us, is an adept player of this game:
 But she, as when some foreign tongue is heard,
 Familiar on our lips and closely known,
 We feel the every purport of each word
 When ignorant ears reach empty sound alone,
 So knows the core within each merry gird34
 So gives back such a meaning in her own. (XXI.9-14)


The language of mother and daughter is like some "foreign tongue" only these two speak; again, the sonnet insists on the corporeality of this language. "Familiar on our lips" suggests that it is known by the body as much as by the mind, and this reading is reinforced by the insistence that both mother and daughter "feel the purport of each word" (my italics) or register meaning through sensation. Moreover, the two invest words with their own meanings, since the language they speak is not a foreign tongue, although it might as well be for the uninformed listener. The "mimic pique," the "idle by-names," the "laughing ironies," the "merry gird" all mean something close to the reverse of what an "ignorant ear" would make of them. The relation of signifier and signified, word and meaning, is shown to be truly arbitrary here, in this language that has only two native speakers, mother and daughter. But the daughter, fluent in her mother's tongue, "knows the core" of this language and speaks it in return. Meaning cannot be directly named-the mother can "hardly bear" to put her love into explicit terms, but the love that cannot be spoken is nevertheless expressed in terms that are self-enclosed and completely satisfying to speaker and addressee.

This sonnet's expression of the deep satisfaction of communion with one who understands perfectly is conspicuous in a sequence that is elsewhere haunted by the specter of past losses or the anxious anticipation of future losses. In its vision of love as a desire that cannot be satisfied, Mother and Daughter parts company with Sonnets from the Portuguese, and unlike Monna Innominata it advocates accepting-rather than transcending-the disappointments of human love. To find disappointment and dissatisfaction in a sequence notable for commemorating maternal love may seem startling, and indeed both its earliest and its most recent critics have discounted the mournful or ambivalent notes individual sonnets not infrequently strike, choosing instead to emphasize the fond tribute Mother and Daughter pays to its central relationship. William Michael Rossetti, in his introduction, describes its "theme as... uniting, in the warm clasp of the domestic affections, something of those olden favourites, The Pleasures of Memory and The Pleasures of Hope," while Alison Chapman reads Webster's sonnets as celebrations of "maternal plenitude and presence" (35) As digests, both descriptions disregard the poems' equally persistent motif of real or threatened loss. (36) Rossetti ignores the sorrow that characterizes the speaker's memories of the past and her anxiety about the future, and Chapman's point that sonnet I exemplifies a happy dynamic in which the daughter's voice "intimates the present moment and plenitude" (p. 111) elides the prospective loss anticipated in that sonnet's sestet, which casts the pleasurable present in the shadow of the future that will inevitably displace the "young spring joy" (I.14) described in the octave. And this poem's "turn" is symptomatic of the cycle as a whole; the speaker's relish in her daughter's physical and subjective presence is repeatedly tempered by the specters of change, age, and death-both her daughter's and her own.

The cycle's opening sonnet registers these shadows with particular clarity. In it, the speaker describes her daughter's relation to the world by considering her infant's voice:
 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. (I.1-6)


The sonnet's octave celebrates the girl's unmediated joy and the thoughtless transparence of her sounds, which express delight without symbolizing it. The sestet strikes a gloomier note, as this joy is shadowed by the threat of change. "Be thus for long," the speaker implores her child: "Too soon the spring bird learns the later song; / Too soon a sadder sweetness slays content / .... / Comes not again the young spring joy that went" (I.10-14). The shift here is stark: "the later song," one that is presumably not a transparent response to the world, seems to inaugurate the fall into meaning, since the joy in the first stanzas is so clearly tied to the fact that the child's sounds are not symbolic. And this transformation is irrevocable, as the last line indicates: once effected, this change cannot be undone.

But if the "later song" refers in part to language, that system of signifiers the child does not yet know how to use, it also must be read as the poet's performance, the sonnets' speaker's utterance. And this double meaning offers a way of reading not only this first sonnet, which mourns the child's future loss, but the entire cycle, which is far more preoccupied with the speaker's anticipated losses. The sense of loss that pervades these sonnets is of course one of the genre's longstanding motifs. But in addition to the familiar constellation of fears--encroaching age, infidelity, and death-the speaker's dismay in Mother and Daughter turns on the prospect of losing her child as the girl grows into a woman; the inevitability of the girl's growth is thus experienced as a threat by her mother, who takes mournful note of the successive stages of her development.

Lamenting the passing of the child who once was, the speaker shrinks from "Morrows wherein the flower's unclosing growth / Shall make my darling other than she is" (XIV.3-4). Mother and daughter appear here as a pair of lovers, one of whom is faithless: "Yes, I am jealous, as of one now strange / That shall instead of her possess my thought, / Of her own self made new by any change" (XIV.9-11, emphasis added). Here, the mother is jealous for her daughter--that is, she imagines adoring the older girl/woman, and feels jealousy on her present young daughter's behalf. She grudgingly admits the woman will be even more admirable than the child ("The breathing rose exceeds the bud I wis" [XIV.5]), but this future self is feared as a usurper of the present, and the last line of the poem shows that she is not reconciled to the change: "Yet, ah! my child with the child's trustful eyes!" (XIV.14). She is thus mourning not only her loss of the child, but the loss of trust the child will necessarily experience as she comes to view her mother through adult eyes. Moreover, here this fear is not tempered by the acknowledgment, made in later poems, that there are compensatory pleasures in the companionship with an older daughter, who is "closer to me [than the younger girl], since sister womanhoods meet" (XX. 10). (And even that later poem insists, "there's one I miss" [XX.1]--the lost child.)

In their desire both to return to the past and to secure the present, the poems display an urge to elegize a life that has not ended. In Sonnet XI, motherly love is one of several types of women's love that is replaced by "faith to our dead" (XI.14), where the "dead" are, metaphorically, old relationships. In Sonnet IX, the absence of dead to mourn seems only to exacerbate the suffering of mothers who are "sadder than pale sufferers by a tomb," because they have no dead to mourn in the present, but can live only in the past, "tell[ing] what's o'er" (IX.9, 11). In effect, a mother's plight, in these poems, is to be plagued by anticipated losses even before they are felt; the dear object is forever receding before her loving eyes, gone in imagination long before the adult has displaced the child. As instances of similar sentiments accumulate, the cycle as a whole begins to suggest that it is these fears that give the point to love; the sense of impending loss renders the pleasures of the moment more acute. Webster's cycle thus might be read as revising Shakespeare's concluding charge in sonnet 7 3 to read: "love that well which must leave thou erelong." (37) The poignancy of lovers who fear change or death is given a twist, as the mother foresees the inevitable transformation of infant to girl and girl to woman.

Recognizing that her situation is not unique, the speaker compares mothers generally to exiles from an Edenic idyll that corresponds to their children's youth. This conceit is most fully elaborated in sonnet IX, which compares "poor mothers that look back" to "outcasts from the vale where they were born" (IX.l-2). This vale is a utopian site where women are born into motherhood as their children are born into the world, and the logic of the comparison requires their exile, since this "vale" exists only so long as their children are children. Dependent on her child for her identity, the mother finds that identity threatened as her daughter ages. Maternal subjectivity is thus both fixed (in the lost, Edenic past of her daughter's childhood) and always slipping away. The poems, then, record a maternal subjectivity that is haunted, always vanishing, and inherently unstable. They challenge the ideal of maternal love, if only insofar as they show its price.

But it is not only the transformation of child into adult that makes for loss. At least two sonnets, X and XI, suggest that the feelings associated with that lost child will also inevitably vanish; not only is the immediate experience of mother and young child liable to disappear, but the associated emotion, too, is lost or fast evaporating. These two poems, at the heart of the cycle (at least as arranged by Rossetti), mount a rather different and sharper critique of the maternal ideal than the other lyrics; analyzing and mourning the shifting nature of identity in terms that seem to undermine the claims of the rest of the cycle, these sonnets subject first children's and then men's constructions of mother-love to keen scrutiny, ultimately displacing and correcting them with a mother's view of maternal subjectivity.

Even if X and XI were not the only sonnets accorded titles, ("Love's Counterfeit" and "Love's Mourner"), they would appear anomalous. In a cycle imbued with a sense of the plenitude, durability, and intensity of maternal love (even, or especially, when threatened by loss), these sonnets call that love into question. The cycle's tone first shifts after the volta in sonnet VIII. The octave takes much the same tone as sonnets VI and VII, which describe brief quarrels; it relates the daughter's answer to her mother's reprimand: "I know / However bad I were you'd love the same" (VIII.3-4) upon which the mother reflects, "'Twas true, and true .... each rebuke has love for its right name" (VIII.6-8). But in the sestet, the sonnet shifts focus, moving from the specifics of this relationship to the general plight of "sad mothers" (VIII.9) who watch their departing children. It concludes with a question: "Is their Love, Love, or some remembered ghost?" (VIII.14). Sonnet IX, as we have seen, elaborates on this theme of sad mothers, but the opening lines of sonnet X seem to provide a direct answer to the query that concluded VIII: "Not Love, not Love" (X.I), it begins, going on to describe the ways in which love is displaced by memory, which the title terms "love's counterfeit." Sonnet X thus seems to answer VIII's question, suggesting sad mothers feel "not love" (X.1) but "some remembered ghost" (VIII.14).

After defining unconditional maternal love as an ideal, the speaker goes on in Sonnet X to show the difficulty children have grasping the illusory nature of this ideal. The lyric concludes with the hopeful, quasi-rhetorical question of children who cannot allow themselves to imagine that they are not loved and insist upon taking memory for love: "'This must be love that wears his features still: / Or else when was the moment that Love went?'" (X.13-14, emphasis in original). It is children, not their mothers, who cannot see that maternal love is not inexhaustible.

While sonnet X represents the willful delusions of children who insist that mothers' memories of their childhood constitute love, sonnet XI takes on men's false perceptions of women's love: "'Tis men who say that through all hurt and pain / The woman's love, wife's, mother's, still will hold" (XI.1-2). But this perception, the poem insists, is only "that [which] men call women's love" (XI.7, my emphasis). The poem compares maternal and wifely love in order to figure both as man's self-serving creations; it then corrects what it has portrayed as an error, asserting, "they are bold, / Naming for love that grief which does remain" (XI.7-8, emphasis in original). Memory substitutes for love in sonnet X, while grief mourns love's loss in Sonnet XI.

Taken together, these two poems seek to set the record straight, debunking both children's wishful belief in a maternal love that is both boundless and absolute and men's interested idealization of women's supposed selflessness. These sonnets challenge the facile idealization of women, and the jubilance of the cycle's other poems is tempered by the analytical dismissals of sonnets IX, X, and XI. The cycle as a whole thus moves between two poles: a celebration of the immediate and joyful connection of mother and daughter and an analytical scrutiny of the bond that sometimes finds it wanting.

Indeed, part of what makes Mother and Daughter notable is precisely its refusal to reconcile the different voices in which it speaks or to privilege one such voice over the other. Neither the abstract, analytical voice that seems to speak of and for mothers generally nor the immediate, personal voice of those sonnets featuring the relationship of a mother and her daughter can claim absolute authority, and the contradictory attitudes they suggest, far from being anomalous in Webster's work, are instead a feature of her writing noted by most modern critics of this poet.

Alternating between the desire to record the slippage between past and present, perhaps in order to arrest it, and to mourn it as already a fair accompli, the poems vacillate not only between celebration and mourning, but even more strikingly between analysis and experience. The sonnets recreate through vivid detail the texture of one type of relationship and at the same time scrutinize the way it works. In doing so, they engage in apparently contradictory projects: to record the loving and nuanced relationship of mother and daughter before it has changed or vanished; to register knowledge that it will change and vanish; and to defy that knowledge by refusing its logic.

It is hardly surprising, then, that there are competing conceptions of temporality at work in this sonnet sequence, one of which may be termed linear and the other cyclical. Linear time proceeds in only one direction and ultimately ends in death, while cyclical time is made up of repetitions that have the effect of arresting time. As with so much else in this sonnet cycle, neither sort of time achieves predominance; instead, different lyrics focus on each one and in some cases the poems address directly the conflict between the kinds of interpretation each sort of time makes possible. Ultimately, however, they coexist, and the speaker shows how it is possible to apprehend each without having to choose between them.

Sonnet XIII is poised between realism and fantasy, as the speaker apostrophizes her own voice in the sestet. We have seen her acknowledging that her voice "will rasp and mar" and heard her ask it to "Sing time asleep" to prevent these depredations. The poet's voice in this lyric is clearly not immortal. We must hear "voice" and "sing" in two ways at once, indicating both the literal song the mother sings to her child and the poetry the speaker sings about her child. But though we can separate them, these meanings are not distinct; the first bleeds into the second, effectively undoing love sonnets' familiar opposition between the mortality of flesh and the immortality of poetic song. This song is inseparable from flesh; this voice is more than a metaphor. But the voice that is subject to aging is also imagined as powerful enough to arrest time, if only temporarily. The linear trajectory in which the speaker will age and die is interrupted by the fantasy in which it can "sing Time asleep."

This same movement is repeated in Sonnet XVI, as the speaker recounts in the octave her daughter's refusal to recognize her mother's encroaching age: "She will not have it that my day wanes low" (XVI.1). The mournful realism of the octave is repudiated by the sestet's joyful assertions that the daughter's refusals translate into effective action. Repeating the lyric's opening words, "She will not have it," the sonnet refigures what was denial as a declaration forceful enough to bring about what it envisions:
 Loverlike to me,
 She with her happy gaze finds all that's best,
 She sees this fair and that unfretted still,
 And her own sunshine over all the rest:
 So she half keeps me as she'd have me be,
 And I forget to age, through her sweet will. (XVI.9-14).


Refusing to see that her mother is aging, the daughter makes reality accord with her vision of it. Though sonnet XIII emphasizes the agency of the mother's voice, while XVI focuses on the power of the daughter's gaze, both imagine an alternative to linear time, and both stress mutuality. The mother uses her voice on her daughter's behalf, rather than her own: "Sing Time asleep because of her regret" (XIII.12; my emphasis); and the daughter's efforts to stop time are met halfway by her mother. The girl keeps her mother young, and the mother forgets to age, but her forgetting is itself attributable to her daughter's will, not her own. The multiple explanations offered in the last two lines of sonnet XVI have the effect of blurring the issue of agency; time stops, then, because mother and daughter act together.

Sonnets XIII and XVI imagine the mother/speaker's death via the daughter's fear and denial, and they counter these emotions by dwelling on a wish to step outside of time that is so powerful it comes true. Sonnet XV, in contrast, juxtaposes the mother's resignation at the thought of her own and her husband's death with the unthinkable notion of her daughter's death. The octave expresses calm acceptance of the speaker's mortality, even in the face of sharp losses:
 That some day Death who has us all for jest
 Shall hide me in the dark and voiceless mould,
 And him whose living hand has mine in hold,
 Where loving comes not nor the looks that rest,
 Shall make us nought where we are known the best,
 Forgotten things that leave their track untold
 As in the August night the sky's dropped gold--
 This seems no strangeness, but Death's natural hest. (XV.1-8)


The speaker tells over the things death will take from her-a voice, loving, recognition-in phases that register their value to her, yet she calls these losses "natural." She imagines her own and her husband's death in terms that seem at first prospectively to mourn their demise: Death "shall make us nought where we are known the best, / Forgotten things that leave their track untold / As in the August night the sky's dropped gold" (XV.6-7). But the logic of the simile is ultimately presented as consoling: the loss of life, voice, and love are part of a natural linear order in which silence follows song, darkness follows day, and death follows life.

However, the speaker's quiescent attitude to the inexorable logic of a natural order in which "Life is Death begun" (XV.13) is transformed when she considers her daughter; the sestet rebels against the linear timeframe in which death is the common endpoint. Instead of an orderly progression in which night sky follows sunlight, the speaker imagines a world outside of time for her daughter:
 But looking on the dawn that is her face
 To know she too is Death's seems misbelief;
 She should not find decay, but, as the sun
 Moves mightier from the veil that hides his place,
 Keep ceaseless radiance. (XV.9-13)


The sestet thus picks up the comparison of life to a day in order to create a new relation to time.

The figures here are strong but contradictory, and both this strength and this confusion signal the turmoil of the speaker's feelings. Calling her face "the dawn" seems to include the girl in the same diurnal simile used to describe the speaker's and her husband's lives, but the sonnet no sooner makes this comparison than it rejects its consequences. Dawn's light is engulfed by night as surely if not as quickly as "dropped gold," so the strong metaphor that opens the sestet is revised in the simile that likens the girl to a sun that "keep[s] ceaseless radiance." Yet this image does not fully escape the earlier simile's logic; it is the ceaselessly shining sun, not the girl's death, that is unnatural. The conditional should ("she should not find decay") demonstrates that the speaker cannot persuade herself that her daughter is exempt from linear logic, but the poem mounts a passionate plea for her exemption, which takes the form of a retreat from diachrony; rather than rising and setting, the daughter/sun shines forever, freed from the threat of mortality (when this sun disappears, it is not because night has fallen, but because clouds have veiled it).

Sonnet XV stages a struggle between denial and acceptance that plays out elsewhere in the sequence; in the sonnets that immediately precede and follow it, the speaker's daughter will not recognize that her mother will die; here, the mother struggles against her knowledge, which she cannot finally reject, only disavow. The knowledge that the girl "is Death's seems mis-belief"--the speaker knows better, but refuses to say so; the insistence that "she should not find decay" constitutes a recognition that she will.

As if in response to these sonnets that doubt, hesitate, and correct themselves, Sonnet XVII gives itself over entirely to wish fulfillment, imagining that mother and daughter together can stop time; the octave concludes with a question--"could I grow older while my child's so young?"--that the sestet answers in its concluding lines: "Were my years twice spent, / Not burdening Age, with her, could make me chilled" (XVII.13-14). Sonnets XVIII and XIX share XVII's certainty, but contradict its assertion, pragmatically insisting that "some time since youth went" (XVIII.14) and that the mother's "life [is] on the wane" (XIX. 1). These clear-eyed assessments, in which the mother/speaker gently puts off her wish to meet her daughter's desire are unsparing: the first words of XVIII, "'Tis hard," also open the sestet. In the octave, they are part of a longer thought: "'Tis hard that the full summer of our round / Is but the turn where winter's sign-post's writ" (XVIII.1-2); in the sestet's echo, they stand alone: "'Tis hard." And this repetition with a difference underscores for us the difficulty the speaker experiences in facing up to her impending old age. The period forces us to stop, to register that her experience "is hard" before moving on. (38)

The dialectic we see in sonnet XV is a fair representation of the sequence's overarching approach to one of its central themes, telling and remembering. In this poem, the speaker pauses to consider that her own existence will be made "nought," that she will become a "forgotten thing" whose story, left "untold," will be extinguished. Yet the lyric's insistence on loss is countered-if not finally undone-by the octave's last line, which we have already seen undercut what now seems an assumed anguish with tranquil acceptance: "This seems no strangeness, but Death's natural hest" (1. 8). Song is inevitably followed by silence but, in these sonnets, that prospective loss of voice is no reason not to sing.

Notes

(1) Augusta Webster, "Poets and Personal Pronouns," Portraits and Other Poems, ed. Christine Sutphin (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000), p. 371. Hereafter cited as Portraits.

(2) William Michael Rossetti, Introductory Note, Mother and Daughter: An Uncompleted Sonnet Sequence, Portraits and Other Poems, by Augusta Webster, ed. Christine Sutphin (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2000), p. 336.

(3) Natalie Houston, "Affecting Authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love," Studies in the Literary Imagination 35 no. 2 (Fall 2002): 104.

(4) Patricia Rigg, "Augusta Webster and the Lyric Muse: The Athenaeum and Webster's Poetics," VP 42 (2004): 150.

(5) Rigg describes Webster's work as enacting "a poetic compromise ... which allows both the self-conscious, primarily lyrical determination of the inner self and the objective dramatization of that self to reflect a growing social reality" ("Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama," Victorian Review 26,m no. 2 [2001]: p. 80).

(6) Amy Christine Billone, Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 155-156.

(7) Marianne Van Remoortel provides one of the few extended analyses of Mother and Daughter in an essay that traces Webster's debts to and revisions of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life, paying particular attention to Webster's critique of Rossetti's use of maternal metaphors ("Metaphor and Maternity: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life and Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter," VP 46, no. 4 [2008]: 467-486).

(8) Jessica Benjamin, Shadow of the Other: Intersubjectivity and Gender in Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 40.

(9) Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy, Narrating Mothers: Theorizing Maternal Subjectivities (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1991), p. 2.

(10) In an article on the sonnet sequence, Laura Linker argues, "Webster's sonnets significantly alter the traditional poet muse relationship by imagining the muse both as a child and a lover" ("Mother and Daughter: Augusta Webster and the Maternal Production of Art," Papers on Language and Literature, 44 no. 1 [Winter 2008]: 52). Her analysis focuses on affinities between Webster's and Schiller's views of poetry and suggests the sequence has more than one addressee.

(11) Julia Kristeva, "Woman's Time," trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986), p. 199.

(12) Kristeva does concede that, "Far from contradicting creativity (as the existentialist myth would still have us believe), maternity as such can favour a certain kind of female creation, provided the economic constraints are not too heavy" ("A New Type of Intellectual: The Dissident," trans. Sean Hand, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986], p. 298).

(13) Marilyn Edelstein, "Metaphor, Meta-Narrative, and Mater-narrative in 'Stabat Mater,'" in Body/Text in Julia Kristeva: Religion, Women, and Psychoanalysis, ed. David Crownfield (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1992), p. 44.

(14) Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), p. 124.

(15) Julia Kristeva, "Revolution in Poetic Language," trans. Margaret Waller, in The Kristeva Reader, p. 92.

(16) Benjamin, Shadow of the Other, p. 27. She argues that these dialogues can effectively take the place of Lacan's "third term" (which intervenes to separate the mother-child dyad, allowing entry to the symbolic and acquisition of language); in Benjamin's model, the dialogues themselves create an intersubjective space that is itself essentially a third intervening party.

(17) Jessica Benjamin, Like Subject, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1995), p. 95.

(18) Patricia Rigg terms these works "monodramas" (p. 77) and Christine Sutphin points out that many of Webster's works "are often called 'dramatic monologues,' [though they] do not follow the strict criteria for this form" (Portraits, p. 15). For other assessments of Webster's dramatic poetry, see Susan Brown, "Determined Heroines: George Eliot, Augusta Webster and Closet Drama by Victorian Women," VP 33 no. 1 (1995): 89-109; Glennis Byron, "Rethinking the Dramatic Monologue: Victorian Women Poets and Social Critique" in Victorian Women Poets, ed. Alison Chapman (Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer, 2003), pp. 79-98; Marysa Demoor, "Power in Petticoats: Augusta Webster's Poetry, Political Pamphlets, and Poetry Reviews" in Voices of Power: Cooperation and Conflict in English Language and Literature, ed. Marc Maufort and Jean-Pierre van Noppen (Liege, Belgium: Belgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education, 1997), pp. 133-140; Robert P. Fletcher, "'Convent Thoughts': Augusta Webster and the Body Politics of the Victorian Cloister," Victorian Literature and Culture 31 no. 1 (2003): 295-313; Angela Leighton, Victorian Woman Poets: Writing Against the Heart (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1992); Patricia Rigg, "'Present in the Drama': The Literary Drama of Augusta Webster," Australasian Victorian Studies Journal 10 (2004): 110-127; Rigg, "Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama," Victorian Review 26, no. 2 (2000): 75-107; E. Warwick Slinn, "Webster's Castaway Courtesan: Living on the (Cultural) Margin," in Victorian Poetry as Cultural Critique: The Politics of Performative Language (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2003), pp. 158-184; Christine Sutphin, "Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster's A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women's Sexuality," VP 38 (2000): 511-53l; and Sutphin, "The Representation of Women's Heterosexual Desire in Augusta Webster's 'Circe' and 'Medea in Athens,' Women's Writing 5 no. 3 (1998): 373-392.

(19) See "Appendix B: Contemporary Reviews" in Portraits, pp. 403-423.

(20) Patricia Rigg, "Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama," p. 75.

(21) Brown, "Determined Heroines," p. 101. The argument that Webster's dramatic poetry is notable for its pointed critique of social arrangements and institutions is also made by Leighton and Christine Sutphin (see Introduction, p. 16).

(22) See Rigg, "Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama," and Sutphin, Introduction, Portraits.

(23) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 325.

(24) This paradoxical double vision is anticipated in Modern Love; as Stephen Regan points out, Meredith uses "both third-person and first-person voices, sometimes within the same sonnet.... The omniscient mode is suddenly transposed into an insistent first-person presence" ("The Victorian Sonnet, from Meredith to Gerard Manley Hopkins," Yearbook of English Studies 36 no. 2 [2006]: 24).

(25) Billone's glancing reference to Webster notes that she helped to "carr[y] the sonnet from the end of the nineteenth century into the next" (Billone, Little Songs, p. 159), but does not explore why the form worked for Webster even as other female poets rejected it.

(26) See for instance Alison Chapman, "Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence," in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), pp. 99-114; Antony Harrison, Christina Rossetti in Context (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988); Natalie Houston, "Towards a New History: Fin-de-Siecle Women Poets and the Sonnet," Victorian Women Poets, ed. Alison Chapman (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 2003), pp. 145-164; Houston, "Affecting Authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modern Love," Studies in the Literary Imagination, 35 no. 2 (Fall 2002): 99-120; Houston, "Valuable by Design: Material Features and Cultural Value in Nineteenth-Century Sonnet Anthologies," VP 37 no. 2 (Summer 1999): 243-272; Joseph Phelan, The Nineteenth. Century Sonnet (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Stephen Regan, "The Victorian Sonnet"; and Jennifer Ann Wagner, A Moment's Monument: Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth-Century English Sonnet (London: Associated Univ. Presses, 1996).

(27) Demoor, "Power in Petticoats," and Rigg, "Augusta Webster and the Lyric Muse."

(28) Alison Chapman, "Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence" in A Companion to Victorian Poetry, pp. 99-114; Antony Harrison, Christina Rossetti in Context (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988).

(29) I am, of course, thinking of Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), Meredith's Modern Love (1862), Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life (1870), Eliot's Brother and Sister (1874), and Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata (1881).

(30) See Rigg, "Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama"; Demoor, "Power in Petticoats."

(31) This sonnet also appears first in the sequence as it was published, but it is impossible to know whether or how Webster herself ordered the posthumously published sonnets.

(32) "Had the Great Poetess of our own day and nation only been unhappy instead of happy, her circumstances would have invited her to bequeath to us, in lieu of the 'Portuguese Sonnets' an inimitable 'monna innominata' drawn not from fancy but from feeling, and worthy to occupy a niche beside Beatrice and Laura" (Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, ed. R. W. Crump, 3 vols. [Baton Rouge: Louisiana Univ. Press, 1979-90], 1:86).

(33) Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women who Loved Women 1778-1928 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 109.

(34) Editor's note: "Gird: here, a sharp or biting comment" (Sutphin, Portrait, p. 348)

(35) Rossetti, "Introductory Note," p. 336; Chapman, "Sonnet and Sonnet Sequence," p. 111.

(36) Laura Linker does attend to Webster's ambiguity, but she disregards the critique of motherhood as institution, focusing exclusively on the poems' analyses of personal experience (Linker, pp. 52-66).

(37) Shakespeare's Sonnets; And a Lover's Complaint, ed. Stanley W. Wells (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985).

(38) Significantly, the sonnet that imagines the speaker as able to escape the depredations of age grounds this ability in the relationship of mother and daughter, while the two subsequent sonnets, which dwell on the reality of encroaching death, are notably more abstract, making no mention of the daughter. XVII speaks of 'T' and "she," but the pronouns that pervade XVIII are "we" and "our," which together appear eight times. XIX reverts to "I," but omits any reference to "her"; instead, it applies the grim recognition that death is coming to the speaker: "I watch that slow advance Time makes" (XIX.4). Rather than lamenting the generalized loss of "our ripe flush, the heyday of our prime" (XVIII.10), X1X lists specific worries: "will my eyes see dim? Will vacant sense / Forget the lark, the surges on the beach? / Shall I step wearily and wish 'twere done?" (XlX.10-12). Imagining herself in terms that seem to have little to do with maternity, the speaker finally achieves a resignation that seems to owe as much to her spouse as to her daughter: "Well," the sonnet concludes, "if it be love will not too go hence, / Love will have new glad secrets yet to teach" (XIX.13-14).
COPYRIGHT 2011 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Fluhr, Nicole
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Date:Mar 22, 2011
Words:13522
Previous Article:Augusta Webster writing motherhood in the dramatic monologue and the sonnet sequence.
Next Article:"Almost unmade": Hopkins and the body apocalyptic.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |