Augusta Webster and the lyric muse: the Athenaeum and Webster's poetics.
Gaining insight into just how Augusta Webster did define herself as a writer has been complicated, I think, by her high profile socio-political life and by her feminist interests. Indeed, because Webster worked for the London branch of the National Committee for Women's Suffrage in the 1870s and served on the London School Board in the 1880s, we have naturally been interested in literary work that seems to us to reflect her feminist concerns. However, Webster had another profession from 1884 until her untimely death from cancer in 1894: she worked for the Athenaeum, primarily as a poetry reviewer. In this position she was able to articulate a fair[y complex system of poetics based on a balance of technical ability, innovation, and self-discipline. Significantly, this system pertains mainly to lyric rather than to dramatic poetry. In keeping with convention, her contributions to the Athenaeum were anonymous, but the marked editor's file, housed at City University London, provides an important context for a discussion of Webster's work. (2) These "review essays" are frequently comprehensive enough to allow Webster to situate poetic composition within a fairly extensive theoretical context.
In 1881, three years before she joined the Athenaeum, Webster published A Book of Rhyme, included in which is a sequence of metrically ordered, inter-rhyming poems that she originally called English Stornelli, and later, in the 1893 reprint, English Rispetti. In 1881 as well, Webster wrote the earliest dated fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet in her unfinished sonnet sequence that was published posthumously in 1895 as Mother and Daughter. Therefore, throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, Webster's poetic leanings were decidedly lyric, and the few dated sonnets suggest a continuity between the rispetti, the sonnets, and the critical reviews in the Athenaeum. I intend in this paper to study the English Rispetti, a controlled form with conventions of its own, within the context of some of the poetics Webster articulates so eloquently in the Athenaeum. While Webster's principles of poetic construction obviously evolved during her years as poetry critic, the pre-Athenaeum rispetti seem to apply all the important theoretical points relating to the balance of creative innovation and conformity to convention that she uses to measure excellence in the Athenaeum. Hence, Webster theorizes in her Athenaeum reviews the precision in language and attention to form that she demonstrates in the rispetti.
In substance, as well as in language and form, the Rispetti mark an important phase in Webster's creative life, for the sequence is an ironic presentation of the complexity of human existence in its temporal and temporary state. One might argue that the human preoccupation with the brevity of life and the inexorable march of time has been a sustained preoccupation in literature, but the Victorian sense of time, drastically transformed into an understanding of the implications of deep time by the publications of Darwin and his predecessors, finds its way into a great deal of nineteenth-century literature) Webster's presentation of human life and human love, as much as her facility with the dramatic, connects her to Browning, for the rispetti underscore the irony of a human existence that is limited and finite even as they celebrate the power and mutability of human love. Webster's Browningesque paradox emerges through the tension between her carefully composed and conventionally bound rispetti and the vital, creative, expansive insight into the human situation that informs the poetic sequence. Hence, the rispetti enclose within the finite bounds dictated by the conventions of the poetic form a sense of the infinite. (4)
The Athenaeum reviews give us some insight into a poet/critic who writes with an astute understanding of the power of rhyme and meter, as well as a keen awareness of the nature of the poet's professional responsibility. Commenting on Webster's Athenaeum reviews in general, Marysa Demoor suggests that "the central question of her reviews is whether the person producing the verses is a poet or not, whether what lies before her is genuine poetry or not." (5) Indeed, Webster is interested in the innate qualities of the poet, those qualities that cannot be learned. "A poet cannot say, 'I will not be a poet,' any more than a fish can say, 'I will not be a fish,'" she writes in a review of Gerald Massey's My Lyrical Life. (6) However, she consistently defines "genuine poetry" in terms of technical labor as well as innate talent. She chides poets who seem undisciplined and willing to compromise technique, and who, like Margaret Veley, write inferior poetry when they should be writing something else. Veley is a good novelist, says Webster, but in writing poetry she is compromising her professionalism in order to produce what she thinks will be popular. In Veley's work "the fault lies in the frequent mistake of too ambitious writers, who fancy their best poetry begins where they themselves leave off understanding it, instead of perceiving that as soon as they cease to understand their own meaning they are ceasing to have a meaning." (7) True to her disciplined approach to literary production, Webster herself abandoned novel writing after one attempt. A presentation copy to Jean Ingelow of Lesley's Guardians is inscribed as her "greatest failure." (8)
In 1882, a year after the publication of A Book of Rhyme, Edmund Clarence Stedman includes Webster in his article "Some London Poets" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. He makes the important point that Webster has "a professional rather than a popular reputation." (9) Webster's decision to abandon the dramatic form that had made her by 1870 as popular as she was to be seems to have been as equally principled as her decision to leave the novel form alone. Her perspective as a poetry reviewer is also defined by her belief that one effects change in the literary community by shaping one's art to accommodate the demands of that community. "No school in poetry can prevail for long without frustrating itself; however independent it is in its origin, it comes to be, in the hands of its minor and more numerous practitioners, a factory of copies of copies, and hence satiety among the reading public and a craving for something different, and new poets feel their impulse for song an impulse for change." (10) The problem in remaining loyal to a particular school, Webster says in another review, is that such poems "even where really of the author's own originating and without direct imitation either in treatment or idea give the reader a sort of semi-consciousness of having read them before." (11) Indeed, a prevailing subtext in Webster's Athenaeum "text" urges the poet to take the risks necessary to breath new life into the canon. I use the word "risks" deliberately, for Webster would have known, of course, that cultural, political, and economic variables affect commercial success. In fact, a second subtext in Webster's writing reflects her acute awareness of the power of the reviewer to shape the climate in which a poet might venture into new territory. Certainly, the poetry reviewer of a journal as well respected and multi-disciplined as the Athenaeum could expect to lead, as Monica Fryckstedt puts it, "the educated opinion" of the day. (12) Long before she was in a position to judge and perhaps influence the work of others, Webster was aware of the importance of the reviewer to literary success. In 1870, when Portraits was first published, Webster was asked by her friend and mentor Professor John Stuart Blackie whether a second edition might be forthcoming. She replies,
As to a 2nd edition we do not at all expect it. That would imply a sort of success which we have understood to be next to impossible in these days for a writer so entirely without literary connection. And I don't think that our publisher either--even if he and we would like "pushing"--has opportunities of making friends for a friendless book.... It will be thanks to the reviewers if ever I get anything into a 2nd edition. As it is it looks likely to be some years before any thing so surprising happens. (13)
Alexander Macmillan had written pessimistically to Thomas Webster about Portraits in April, a month earlier, "I wish I saw a chance of a new edition being required." (14) Macmillan and Webster herself were both wrong, of course, and a second edition of Portraits came out a few months later, in August. Her awareness of the effect her review might have on an author's literary life is implicit in the fact that even though she writes under the protection of anonymity, she takes great care in reading and considering the works she reviews. (15) Her Athenaeum work reflects professional thoroughness and integrity, and it indeed denotes the intersection of the reviewer and the writer.
In stressing the importance of technical detail in poetry, Webster is right in step with her peers, particularly with Theodore Watts-Dunton. It is difficult to know how much direct influence Watts-Dunton may have had on Webster as a reviewer, but he certainly seems to have influenced the reception of her literary work. He reviewed much of it for the Athenaeum, and he knew Thomas and Augusta Webster well in the early days of their marriage in Cambridge. According to his biographers, Augusta Webster was the "first friend among the women of letters that Watts-Dunton ever knew." (16) I think it is reasonable to assume that he was instrumental in the kind of sponsorship that would have been necessary for Webster's employment on the Athenaeum. Her style, like his, is digressive, yet direct in both criticism and praise. Watts-Dunton writes of their "days of literary comradeship" on the Athenaeum. "I have been a fellow contributor with her in these columns," he writes, "where I know that she never wrote a line that was not inspired by honesty and good feeling, while as a conscientious and painstaking critic ... she had no superior, scarcely an equal." (17) Demoor points out that Watts-Dunton was widely thought to be the actual poetry reviewer during Webster's tenure, an assumption that is consistent with our general understanding that to the Victorian public, the voice of reason was more likely to be a masculine than a feminine voice. (18) When Webster herself is reviewed positively, she is usually praised for the masculine quality of her work. Mackenzie Bell, for instance, writes that her poetry has "the specially masculine quality ... virility," and in his Harper's article, Stedman similarly praises her poetry, calling it "ambitious, and marked by a strength and breadth not thought to be the special traits of woman's work." (19)
Whether or not Webster deliberately emulated the general reviewing style of such Athenaeum writers as Watts-Dunton, Arthur Symons, or the earlier Geraldine Jewsbury, she was able to make the journal a professional home, and her decision to earn herself a professional rather than a popular reputation is consistent not only with her own principles of artistry but also with the principles of the journal itself as they are defined by Leslie Marchand: "The high aim which the Athenaeum set for itself was to make literature, art, and science popular without stooping to 'popularize' them." (20) In short, the Athenaeum offered Webster an opportunity to apply systematically the same standards to the community of poets that she applied to herself, and anonymity enabled her to develop her poetics freed from the constraints of gender and her very public feminist interests. Hence, Webster's feminist voice, so recognizable in her Examiner essays and in other works of the 1870s when she was also involved in the Suffrage movement, is silent in her Athenaeum reviews of the 1880s and 1890s, the years in which she served alongside men on the School Board and worked alongside men as a professional critic. Ironically, her professional androgyny was so convincing that Elizabeth Lee does not mention her Athenaeum position in her entry on Webster for the Dictionary of National Biography. (21)
The Athenaeum reviews, then, reflect not only Webster's generally principled approach to poetics, but also her extensive knowledge of the conventions of formal composition and the historical development of the literary canon. She was, of course, an accomplished classical Greek translator, although she showed very early indications of her scrupulousness and of her modest assessment of her own work to Professor Blackie. She writes that she is reluctant to send him, a Greek scholar, her own well received translations. "I do not want to carry false colours and wear the honours of a learned person when I am but a dabbler," she says. She defers to her husband's scholarship, complaining that her duties as a wife and mother have meant that she and Thomas Webster have not managed to find the time for him to give her "a sound classical education." She explains that she taught herself Greek "as a girl at home, what little I know, mysteriously in my own room and with no advisor and what might be called no books and certainly no serviceable books besides the wretched Charterhouse grammar." Yet, "I certainly do my own translating." (22) Perseverance and tenacity are obviously characteristics of the mature writer as well, for throughout her reviewing career Webster expresses dismay at the trend toward the production of more loosely constructed poetry. For example, she finds Coventry Patmore careless in punctuating The Unknown Eros, writing that he uses "the pause as a sudden dead stop in the rhythm instead of as a rhythm punctuation." (23) Similarly, referring to William Sharp's Sospiri di Roma, she asks, "Why should a poor little preposition or conjunction be left adrift at the end of a line while its necessary noun is told off to the next?" (24) William Scawen Blunt's introductory explanation of his technical compromises in A New Pilgrimage is more offensive than the compromises themselves: "A poem must be its own defence," Webster responds to Blunt's "Preface." "If it is beautiful and its form fits it well, its author has no need to argue about the model he has, or has not, chosen for it; it will be allowed to be its own model." (25) In her focus on metrics, diction, and rhyme, she is of the same mind as Watts-Dunton, and therefore, it is not surprising that in his Athenaeum review of A Book of Rhyme, Watts-Dunton praises Webster for precision in language, concluding with the pointed remark, "The detestable Della Cruscanism which makes many new volumes of verse a positive offence finds no place in Mrs. Webster's pages." (26) It is not clear whether Watts-Dunton is targeting anyone in particular when he refers to the sentimental poets known for the highly artificial, emotional associations in their work, but presumably what he likes about Webster's work is her honest and sincere emotional investment in her poetry.
Although Watts-Dunton continued throughout Webster's time on the Athenaeum to write extensive reviews himself, and Webster also competed with William Michael Rossetti, Austin Dobson, Mathilde Blind, and others, she reviewed such well-known contemporaries as Robert Bridges, Alfred Austin, Mary F. Robinson, James Russell Lowell, Stopford Brooke, William Allingham, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Thomas Gordon Hake, Coventry Patmore, William Sharp, William Butler Yeats, Michael Field, and Edith Nesbit. She also reviewed many lesser-known writers, some of them very new and very young. An impressive feature of her analysis--and indeed she does provide detailed analysis of the work under review--is that she is not in the least influenced by the fame or lack of fame of the artist. Michael Field's Sight and Song is "disappointing," for instance. It is "a catalogue--a brilliantly written catalogue, indeed; with careful details as aptly as minutely related; with masterly poetic diction; with varied rhythm, stiff, but attractive from its quaint prim dignity; with appreciative acumen--yet at its best still a catalogue." In this review, she says that Field's work lacks the "soul's breath of life" that is essential to poetry and that distinguishes it from prose. (27) In a review nine months later of Field's Underneath the Bough: A Book of Verses (a collection of lyrics, many of which had previously appeared in plays by Field) Webster obviously finds evidence of this "breath" and articulates the result in glowing praise: "The intellectual strength and originality--the acquired mannerism--the rich condensed expression--the fine intensity ... the splendid control of metre" contribute to the success of this volume just as the absence of these qualities undermined the earlier volume. (28)
Webster reviewed Rennell Rodd a number of times, and he seems more than anyone else to have raised her ire, primarily for his failure to use his natural talent to strive for technical perfection. Her reviews of his poetry reveal her own work ethic, as well as her appreciation of innate talent. Rodd has, she writes in 1888 in a review of The Unknown Madonna, "that gift of spontaneity which can never be acquired. That gift is the generic differentiation of poets, major or minor." In Webster's view, minor poets, "persons who were not born poets" and do not have the "gift," surpass poets such as Rennell Rodd because "by their skill and their command of the subtleties of rhythm and diction they have heightened the standard of poetical composition." Furthermore, these hard-working minor poets have "nearly abolished doggerel; have exterminated the conception of 'poetic licence' which assumed poetry to be the dislocation of prose, and no English sentence to be verse unless the nominative was manoeuvred into a wrong place and the participles ran away from their auxiliaries; and have compelled whoever will write rhymes to see to spellings and meanings" (p. 691). (29) By 1892, she is direct and terse: Rennel Rodd "has allowed himself to write for this volume below the level of what can justly be called poetry," she says of his Songs of England, "no matter what bright prettinesses may be found sprinkled over it." (30) Innate talent alone, then, is not enough for poetic success; in fact, to a certain extent one can compensate for lack of innate talent, Webster tells the young Gertrude Hall. Hall, writes Webster, "needs to make a careful study of metre, and accent, and true rhyme; evidently she has not received the gift of a good ear for rhythm and the music of words, and she has not trained herself to the necessary skill which should enable her to escape harshnesses and errors." (31) John Veitch, professor at the University of Glasgow, also shows evidence of a "defective ear," for his poem "On the Glenrath Heights," included in Merlin, and Other Poems, has a "halting heaviness of movement." (32) On the other hand, the technically astute Robert Bridges fails to apply principles of composition with a view to enhancing rather than working against his creative impulse. Webster laments Bridges' "want of spontaneity," in this case because he has "hampered himself with a theme which does not call out from him a full response." She suggests that "he should work untrammelled and give free scope to his own poetic impulses." (33) Hence, we see in Webster's reviews her increasing conviction that a "true" poet is defined both in terms of talent and skill, and that this poet must train himself or herself to reconcile seemingly antithetical goals--the spontaneity intrinsic to an innate, unlearned poetic impulse and the technical sensitivity arising out of self-conscious construction and careful revision.
The English Rispetti demonstrate well the balance of innate talent and hard work which Webster uses as a measure of excellence in the Athenaeum reviews, for although the rispetto originates in an oral peasant tradition of improvisation, it requires precision in maintaining conventional patterns of meter and rhyme. Webster's skill at manipulating the Tuscan form is impressive, as is her understanding of the nuances and intricacies of a form that develops complex ideas in a deceptively simple poetic pattern. It is odd that when the poems first appeared in A Book of Rhyme in 1881, Webster called them English Stornelli, renaming them English Rispetti in the 1893 Selections from the Verse. The slip is doubly surprising in that by 1873 Symonds had published in the Formightly Review his two long and comprehensive discussions of rispetti. (34) The stornello and the rispetto are, of course, related forms, but they differ significantly in length: the stornello always consists of three lines while the rispetto usually consists of eight lines, and naturally, the overall effect of length on each of the forms is significant. Watts-Dunton flagged Webster in his Athenaeum review that she had misnamed the poems. (35) At any rate, despite the misnomer, Webster scrupulously maintains the conventions of the rispetto, first written down by the Tuscan Renaissance poet Angelo Poliziano (1454-94). (36)
In length, then, the rispetto falls between the three-line epigrammatic stornello and the fourteen line sonnet. Watts-Dunton recognized the significance of the form, pointing out that "there are subjects which, though apparently adapted to be expressed in a sonnet, turn out to be in their very nature too epigrammatic for that form." He goes on to praise Webster for having the courage to take the foreign form and adapt it to the English language so that she might "sing in her own voice." (37) It may be that Watts-Dunton was not so knowledgeable about the history of the form himself, because Webster's rispetto is consistent with traditional forms of the Tuscan rispetto, particularly through its rhetorical relation to the sonnet: in both cases the rhetorical pattern is ironic and is defined largely through the rhyme scheme of the poem. Although his 1887 collection of Italian sonnets by English poets appeared well after Webster's A Book of Rhyme, William Sharp makes in his introduction to the volume a helpful comparison of the "sonetto" or sonnet to the rispetto, particularly in terms of the concluding couplet or couplets that "reflect upon the original theme." (38) The rhyming pattern has led critics to assume that Webster made significant changes to the conventional form. Watts-Dunton begins when he contrasts Webster's rhyme scheme--alternating rhymes in the first four lines, followed by two couplets--to what he understands to be the conventional pattern--alternating rhymes in the first six lines, followed by one couplet. Therefore, he concludes, Webster has more flexibility in working with diction and rhyme, and she chooses this more manageable pattern because "the mere difficulty of rhyming in English and the facility of rhyming in Italian" warrant the change (p. 229). Both Symonds, who translated a variety of rispetti, and Sharp, who incorporates Symonds' work into his own introductory remarks and who published his own rispetti, explain that such a decision to adapt the rhyming pattern of a foreign form to the language of production is sensible. (39) However, as Petra Blanchi points out, Webster actually uses the same ababccdd scheme as Poliziano (p. 168). In fact, Webster's contemporary, Rachel Busk, writes in 1888 that "the plan for their riming [sic] is seldom departed from. It is that the first four should rime alternately, and the last four in pairs. Rime baciate is the pretty Italian form of expression. These two pairs form a kind of "troll"--iperbati they are called in Italian--obtained by recasting in the second the words used in the first pair, so as to obtain a different rime with scarcely altered sense." (40) Webster's faithful return to the source of the convention is yet another example of the kind of technical care she endorses as a critic. The rhyme scheme of the Rispetti is indeed crucial to her purpose here, for it allows Webster to divide her rispetto into two parts, presenting a situation in the first four lines and pointedly dealing with it through irony in the last four lines. In this way, the rispetto balances implied spontaneity with precise and controlled rhymes that draw attention to the main idea of the line. The rhyming word is also the end word in each line, necessitating careful and specific choices in diction. When she reviews Sharp's volume of rispetti, Webster explains that finding the right word to complete the line is absolutely crucial, for as the last word the "rhyme-word ... by its natural influence, brings the fulfilment of the [sense] requirement." (41) In her English Rispetti Webster demonstrates the impact on meaning of the last word in each line, for the closing of each rhyme contributes to the overall paradox she develops.
The rhyme scheme that Webster follows in the English Rispetti, then, is intrinsic to our understanding of the subtle layers of irony that will be familiar to readers of Robert Browning, for through deceptively simple, monosyllabic rhyming words Webster is able to develop and sustain complex metaphors of limitation and finitude. In a review of Arthur Symons' Silhouettes, Webster points out the challenge posed by metaphor, explaining that "metaphor and simile are worse than useless if they do not seem to be the natural, spontaneous [emphasis mine] impression that has sprung to the poet's mind, and do not, as handed on by him, carry that impression to his readers with the immediateness and certainty of a revealing light." (42) Traditionally, the "popular songs of Tuscany," points out Symonds, "are almost exclusively devoted to love." (43) Alma Strettell as well in her volume of translations of Italian poetry, including rispetti and stornelli, explains that although the speaker of the rispetto is positioned similarly to the speaker of the sonnet--he is a man speaking to his beloved--the expression of this love is often made more complex through references to nature. "The conceits and similes they employ bear witness to the great love and appreciation these people have for the beauty of Nature; indeed, it seems almost impossible that some of these delicate and subtle thoughts and expressions can have originated with an uneducated peasant." (44) In fact, points out Rachel Busk, "the name Rispetto is derived from the sensation of respect or reverence which always accompanies true love, and the essential assertion of this elevating quality is the most beautiful characteristic of the Italian Folksongs" (p. 18). Webster draws on this long, popular tradition when she shapes her rispetti sequence according to seasonal cycles in order to depict through images of nature the abstract nuances of human love. The English Rispetti is a sequence of love poems, but Webster's treatment of love is informed by her ironic, self-conscious awareness of human limitation made evident by the intersections of natural cycles, love cycles, and life cycles that make up the human condition.
The English Rispetti poignantly reveals these intersections by dramatizing the inner life of a woman. Marjory, the lyric voice, expresses with increasing intensity both the development of an infinite and immeasurable love for her husband and a corresponding awareness of the human limitations of love. The sequence traces this paradoxical "growth" through marriage, motherhood, and widowhood, and it culminates in her understanding that although each phase of her love has its own completion, each phase also signals the beginning of a different aspect of love. At the end of the sequence, although her husband is dead and the human growth of that love has ended, the speaker is left with the sense that her own pending death will signal the next phase of the love that has brought her to spiritual fruition. The passing seasons, each a harbinger of the next season, become the outward representations of this expansive movement through time, for the speaker sees herself reflected in the seasonal attributes of nature as she comes to recognize the ironic significance of the fact that the older she becomes the younger, stronger, and more vital her love for her husband becomes as well. The circular pattern of the seasons suggests to her the final conflation of the process of aging and the process of loving.
In choosing a seasonal frame to structure her rispetti sequence, Webster had successful predecessors, such as William Morris, whose The Earthly Paradise had appeared in full by 1870, and such as Tennyson, whose In Memoriam was published in 1850. (45) However, although Webster would most certainly have been familiar with both of these works, a more personal influence might have been her good friend Austin Dobson. During the 1870s, Webster and her husband were members of Dobson's reading group, and letters from Webster to Dobson that predate the publication of A Book of Rhyme survive. In 1877, for instance, Webster thanks Dobson for sending her his Proverbs in Porcelain. There are two poems in particular in this collection that seem to foreshadow some of the ideas of Webster's rispetti sequence: "A Song of the Four Seasons," which traces the growth of love in relation to the seasons, and "The Paradox of Time," which turns on the human perception of time passing when it is really we who pass. Webster writes to congratulate Dobson on these two poems that are among her favorites and calls for more like them. (46)
Nevertheless, Webster remains closer philosophically to Robert Browning than to others in her presentation of a love that is limited by human finitude but that strives nevertheless to take a transcendent form. She conveys the paradox from the outset, focusing in her spring rispetti not on rebirth and renewal but on the ironic linking of the joys of rebirth and renewal to impermanence and impending loss. That is, although spring holds out promise in blossoms that foreshadow fruit, in birds that sing after months of absence, in a river that comes to life to flow out of an unseen source toward an unseen destination, there is also inherent in the fulfilment of every promise--in the attainment of anticipated fruition--the end of the state of hope. Therefore, the rispetti of spring present renewal as highly problematic for the speaker, who is aware that anticipated joy rather than attained joy livens her human heart. However, Webster, like Browning, transforms the seemingly negative philosophical stance into a celebration of uncertainty and inconclusiveness, in this case by developing carefully the comparison of a woman's life cycles to natural cycles, and by exploring in a peasant poetic form the simplest and most basic idea that the circularity of the seasonal metaphor best depicts the human condition. Twelve years after writing the Rispetti Webster praises Katharine Tynan's Irish Love Songs in terms that seem to me to be equally applicable to the "Italian Love Songs" at hand here: "The charm of these Irish love songs lies in their homely sincerity--the way in which they seem to be written by people who are really in love, and who catch at the first words that will express their feeling." (47) The Rispetti are genuine and joyous, but they are also poignant and, at times, haunting. After all, they bespeak, as an Athenaeum reviewer of her Selections from the Verse says, Webster's "acute consciousness of the brevity of life and beauty." (48) Interestingly, in her Selections, Webster refocuses the rispetti sequence somewhat when she switches the original title and subtitle. In A Book of Rhyme, the poems are subtitled "Marjory," but when they are renamed English Rispetti, "Marjory" is the main title, perhaps in an attempt to individualize the speaker and to give her a greater dramatic presence. (49)
The titles of the five rispetti of spring focus on concrete, sensory elements of the season. For example, the flowing stream of the first rispetto is followed in the next four rispetti by references to the plants, flowers, and birds that are traditional harbingers of spring and that bring joy to the human heart. Yet, in each rispetto, joyous allusions are undermined through the tension produced during the rhetorical process of the octave. A close reading of the first rispetto, "The Rivulet," serves as an example for the pattern not only of the spring rispetti but of the whole rispetti sequence. This rispetto opens with the spondee "clear, smooth rivulet," slowing down the pace of the line as it emphasizes the qualities denoted by the adjectives to give the impression of flawless transparency and new-born purity. (50) However, the action of the river is denoted by the verb "creeping," a strange word to substitute for the more obvious "flowing" (1.1). Furthermore, the waves produced by the movement of the water are "backward waves" that "cling around the shore" (1.2). Diction indicates the joyous move forward of the water newly freed from its winter ice, all the while implying hesitation, uncertainty, and reluctance. In the next two lines the speaker draws a parallel between these natural cycles and human life cycles: the speaker, gazing in the distance to the "world beyond the dim blue ridge," wonders whether the rivulet is moving to a world "more clear than this" (ll. 3-4). The rhyming words "bridge" and "ridge" provide a contrast, the former word suggesting the possibility of closing the gap between the worlds and the latter word implying a distinct separation of the two. In like manner the "shore" that encloses the rivulet cannot keep it from moving on, and in the fourth line, the closing rhyme "more" is also the opening rhyme of the line: does the rivulet move because the far off world is "more dear than this," or does the rivulet move because the world "need[s] thee more?" (l. 4). Therefore, in the quatrain, the speaker ponders an unanswerable question about the course of nature, and in the following two couplets, she recasts that dilemma in human terms. The "lingering stream" upon a "ceaseless way" depicts a truth of human existence as well, for like all of life, the stream has no choice but to "glide to to-morrow" even though "'tis fair today" (11. 5-6). The concluding couplet underscores the paradox of the stream's inexorable movement toward the future, the unknown, away from the beauty of this young spring day. Like the backward wave motion of the first line, the rivulet seems to compromise, as it is drawn to where "tomorrows hide" (1. 7), but since "to-day is fair," the speaker advises that it "glide-lingering, ceaseless ride" (1. 8). This time, the concluding strong masculine end rhymes link the future--both teasing and threatening because "to-morrows hide"--with a symbol of earthly life, "the tide." The rhyming pattern, then, establishes an ironic juxtaposition chat will be threaded throughout the sequence: freedom and forward movement are constrained by the concrete limitations of landscape and the abstract limitations of time.
The paradox of spring images that signify both fruition and transience continues throughout the rispetti of spring. "And summer rime is good," the second rispetto begins, "but at its heat / The fair poor blossoms wither for the fruit" (ll. 1-2). This time tension is produced by the verb "wither," which functions in much the same way as "creeping" of the first rispetto in that it is an unusual word to describe the usually positive idea of fruition. Even the song birds of early spring, unable to withstand the summer heat, have left by summer time, and "the boughs are mute" (1.4). In this first quatrain, the speaker looks at the glory of spring, but can only "see" the passing of it. Once again, in the first of the two couplets, the speaker begins to see herself in terms of the natural world. In the first couplet, she yearns to retain the concrete images of spring chat will be gone once summer arrives: "And I would keep the blossoms and the song, / And I would have it spring the whole year long," she says (ll. 5-6). Note the rhymes this time: the "song" of the birds would never stop if spring were all year "long." In the concluding couplet, the final rhyme "blossoming" brings together the "poor blossoms" of the second line and the "blossoms" she would like to keep of the fifth line, but this time she is speaking of herself, her youth and her "hopes" for the future. "And I would have my life a year-long spring / To never pass from hopes and blossoming," she cries (ll. 7-8). In the final couplet, enjambment specifies the same paradox of spring as we have seen in "The Rivulet" as it conflates "spring," "hopes," and "blossoming." The impossibility of a "year-long spring" suggests the futility of such longing.
The remaining three rispetti develop further the truism that one cannot have "spring" if one is to have "summer," either in the literal or in the metaphorical sense. In "The Violet and the Rose," for instance, the violet is a "sweet" flower, lying close to the ground, glorious in its promise of more to come (l. 1). The more to come is the lovely, lush rose of early summer. Transposing the adjective from rose to "red June" (italics mine), Webster neatly associates summer with marriage, not only through the traditional marriage month of June, but also through the symbolic associations of the rose with passion and married love (l. 2). The rose of summer replaces the violet of spring, and although both flowers are lovely, one must die for the other to thrive, just as the married woman will replace the sweet, young girl. The first of the two couplets fuses the transforming images of girl/woman and violet/rose: "Ah violet, ah rose, why not the two? / Why bloom not all fair flowers the whole year through?" she asks (ll. 5-6). The second couplet reinforces through rhyme the irony that the "ripe rose," which she has anticipated and which she welcomes, "blows," a word deliberately chosen to suggest a kind of brutality in the fact that "dies one sweetness" so that another can live (ll. 7-8).
In "The Primrose" the speaker picks "young primroses," the "sweet pale stars of hope and spring" (ll. 2,1), but she recognizes in the two couplets that such plucking of the blossoms for her hair is but another sign of their transitory nature. This time, the couplets indicate the speaker's awareness of the irony that she is denied the immediate pleasures of the "fairest" because it is "on the further beach" and beyond "reach" (ll. 5, 7, 8). In "The Linnet and the Lark," the speaker calls on each bird to celebrate life in the way it is most able. The "buoyant linnet" should sing, "for joy and song are one" (ll. 1-2), and the "skylark floating upwards into morn" should "pour out thy carolling music of the sun" (ll. 3-4). The first couplet begins a complex shift from the natural state of the birds, who "never knew the cage nor snare" (l. 6), to the suggestion in the second couplet that the speaker sees her own cage or snare in terms of passing rime as she has implied in the first four rispetti--the "to-morrows" that replace "todays," the "fruit" that replaces the "blossoms," the "rose" that replaces the "violet," and the "primrose" one cannot even reach. In this final spring rispetto the birds are "glad things that have no heed of by-and by," unlike she who is so terribly preoccupied with the "by and by." The final rhyming couplet juxtaposes the limits of time, the "by and by," with the seemingly unlimited expanse of "sky" (ll. 7, 8).
In the spring rispetti, then, Webster introduces, particularly through her rhymes, the nuances of diction that set the pattern of the sequence. Precision in rhyme and meter informs her poetics, for she never attains rhyme at the expense of precision in language; as she makes clear in her Athenaeum work, the word that completes the rhyme is crucial because it also completes the unit of thought that makes up the poetic sentence. "Slipshod carelessness," says Webster, prompts Rennel Rodd to use "window-ledge" to rhyme with "edge" when the simple "ledge" would serve as a synonym for "window." Of course, she says, rhymes can be difficult to achieve, but "why will Mr. Rodd never do what is difficult?" (51) She criticizes Scawen Blunt for making a similar compromise in his sonnets. Webster complains that when Blunt cannot find a word to maintain the "law that there shall for the eight lines be but two rhymes," he "has sometimes to admit a third rhyme." (52) Although at times the rhyme pattern of the rispetti depends on what seem at first to be awkward juxtapositions, such as, perhaps, "sky" and "by-and-by," within the context of the complex irony of, as Browning says, infinite aspirations contained within finite limitations, meter and rhyme express in a form emulating well-worn and simply-tuned peasant songs the irony of the human condition. (53)
The ten summer rispetti all bespeak a time of vitality, lushness, and richness, both in nature and in the speaker's own life. Nature images introduced in "Spring" link the first three summer rispetti to the spring rispetti and establish the ordering principle of the natural world--the intuitive knowledge that fruition begins the process of dying off. Therefore, in each of the three opening rispetti, those lively indicators of summer become by the end of the octave indicators as well of time passing and of winter waiting. "The Bees in the Lime," the first rispetto of "Summer," for example, continues the paradox: the bees move "amid the thousand blossoms of the lime"; they are "gossip bees" and they "go humming to and fro" (ll. 1,2). They indicate to the speaker the "busy joy of working time," and "oh," she says, "the fragrance when the lime trees blow" (11.3,4). The end rhymes again convey the speaker's mood, particularly the movement of the bees "to and fro" conflated with the power of the trees that "blow" in the breeze, this last word invoking again the image of the blooming rose of spring that "blows" to replace the violet ("The Violet and the Rose," l. 8). The mood of the quatrain is lively, industrious, and joyous. In the next four lines, however, the tone changes, beginning with the speaker's warning to the bees to "take the sweet honeys deftly" and to "store them for the later days than these" (ll. 5-6). The final couplet relies on end rhymes to convey the threat that undermines this summer glory: "Store, happy bees, these honeys for the frost, / That sweetness of the blossom be not lost" (ll. 7-8).
The next two rispetti continue to develop the same ideas of pending decay, destruction, and death through similar precision in language and through a final rhyming couplet that casts the happier images of the quatrain in a contrasting light. In "The Cornflower," the speaker touches again on the transience of flowers when she explains that she has transplanted a "field-plant" into her "sheltered garden bed" so that she may "love it dear" (ll. 1, 2). The end rhymes "garden bed" and "overhead" suggest a unity of earth and heaven that the interlocking rhymes of "dear" and "here" reinforce. Perhaps she feels a sympathy with the wild, untamed plant; perhaps, as she says, the plant will "make the livelong summer sweet" as the "green wheat passes into gold" (11.6-7). However, the closing rhyme, in associating the plant both with the heavens and with the decaying earth, underscores the idea that all living is in essence dying. These are the "skyblooms I planted in the garden-mould," she says (1.8). Similarly, the "green" incoming wave in "The Flowing Tide" is relentless and unmanageable, a metaphorical representation of the forces that drive all life. The first four lines trace the movement of the sea to convey its graceful but powerful surges. By the fifth line, the speaker can only see the erosion of the shoreline she loves, and through a reversal of the end rhymes of "The Rivulet," Webster brings us back to the unsettling evidence in nature of inevitable change. The "strong tide" is associated with the furtive tendency to "hide" the effects of passing time (ll. 7-8).
The next three rispetti mark an important transition in the sequence as the speaker moves from the natural agent of transformation, the tide, to a specifically human agent of transformation, love. "Someone has said a whispered word to me," she says, and "the whisper whispers on within my ear" (ll. 1-2). Resonating like the sound of the sea, the alliterative and repeated whispered word is "too vexing sweet to hear," the oxymoron underscoring the desirable yet threatening aspects of love (l. 4). "And, if it will not hush, what must I do?" she asks (l. 5). Indeed, she must respond to the whisper and begin the process of attaining what she has been led to believe is an ideal human state. The dilemma she faces, she has learned through communing with nature, is that this state signals a loss of innocence, of youth, and, consequently, of anticipation as well. In the sixth and the eighth lines, Webster conveys this dilemma through careful word choice. The word "perchance" refers in line 6 to the truth of the whisperer's love for her and in line 8 to the truth of her love for him. Like all of nature, she finds herself caught in a moment of transition, for now the promise of love is about to be fulfilled. In moments like these the epigrammatic nature of the rispetto serves it so well, for the images introduced in previous rispetti--images of bee hive industry and domesticity, of sheltered plants rooted in the earth, and of the inexorable movement of time-measuring tide--underpin similar comparisons in these rispetti that focus on human love. Webster's shaping of the central paradox of the rispetti is subtle but clear, and we recognize the associations that transform a woman's experience into a more universally recognizable account of the process we call love.
In several reviews in the Athenaeum Webster defines the function of poetry in terms of universalizing experience. In her review of William Allingham's beautiful "Flower Pieces," for instance, she explains that "it is of the nature of poetry not merely to convey to the recipient mind the poet's ideas, but to arouse in that mind an assimilative consciousness as though the ideas were its own, and also by suggestive influence to set it astir with reflex imaginings and with associations of ideas belonging to itself." (54) Later, she pays tribute to Symons' Silhouettes because the lyrics, she feels, "hold the inklings of some human story, but they do not tell it you, they help you to imagine it. It would spoil poems of their kind if they did more. (55) Such subtlety describes the way in which we are led in the Rispetti to "imagine" the speaker's sense that time is "eroding" her body, even as love acts as an instrument of spiritual growth and development. The basic paradox of love growing and deepening over time just as the body deteriorates and weakens over the same time is familiar to all of us.
The paradox is furthered in "The Heart That Lacks Room," which provides context for the rhythmic repetitions--heartbeats--that denote both containment and excess. The title itself depicts the tension central to the whole rispetti sequence. "I love him, and I love him, and I love," the speaker chants, her repetition implying the infinite and circular patterns of love that will guide her from now on (l. 1). Rhyme underscores the assault her love for "him" has been, as she depicts her heart as a vessel, and says that her love "goes welling o'er the brim" (1. 2). Rather like the tide that flows out, taking with it part of what it has brought in, her love is too vast to be contained, and she is actually redefined by the spillage taking place within her. "And what am I," she asks, "save what I am to him?" / "All will, all hope I have, to him belong" (ll. 4-5). The problem is that her heart, she says through the closing rhyme of the first couplet, is "too small for love so strong" (l. 6). In the final couplet she acknowledges that in order to accommodate herself to her new state, she must change deep down in the core of her being. Her heart must "grow large, grow deeper for his sake," or, she says, "thou wilt break!" (ll. 7, 8). Much like the birds, bees, flowers, and streams that have demonstrated to her the inevitability of cyclical movements, she joins in the natural rhythms of love in life and life in love.
The speaker's successful transition from spring romance to summer love is celebrated in "The Lovers," the third and final rispetto of this remarkable group. Repetition of "lovers" in lines one and three denotes the joy in the new relationship. The holy nature of such a state is implied in the suggestion "that angels envy" them the name "lovers" and that "God [is] to hear us call each other thus" (ll. 2,4). The first couplet harkens back to "The Rivulet" and the unknown future toward which they "float together," but the second couplet recasts this gentle movement through some very familiar, perilous images. The "river of our life," she says, may be directed by a storm, and they will need to "brunt thy tide together to that sea" (ll. 5, 7, 8). Therefore, the rispetto closes once again on a note of trepidation.
Throughout the remaining summer rispetti, the speaker moves slowly toward the profound celebration of marriage that links the final rispetto of summer, "The Bindweed," to the first rispetto of autumn, "The Heather." The "nightingale" sings a "changing lay" and is a "human-hearted" bird, she says (ll. 1, 2). However, the rispetto turns after the quatrain, and the nightingale alters its song because it is "kin to us and has our woe, / Something that's lost or something yet to know" (ll. 5, 6). Hence, the nightingale sounds the dialectic that drives the rispetti sequence, and once again the rhyming pattern of the concluding couplet emphasizes the continued sense the speaker has that she has not yet attained the ideal, and yet she is in the summer of her years and longs for it. The nightingale "sings our bliss, / Loving, to know love is yet more than this" (ll. 7-8). If love "is yet more than this"--more than the nightingale's song and the speaker's verse--then love is always so much more than can ever be articulated. "The Storm" develops the image of marriage introduced in "The Lovers," but even in the first quatrain, the moment of the storm is undermined by the "brightness" that breaks through the storm clouds (l. 4). The cloud cover is a "shroud," here given a positive connotation since it is literally torn asunder by the sun, the "freed sunbeams" that, within the context of the extended metaphor, are love (ll. 4, 6). The concluding couplet marks the disappearance of the storm and the clearing of the "air," when the sky is once again "fair" (ll.7, 8). "Baby Eyes" carries forward from "The Storm" several complex motifs. First of ail, there is the implicit suggestion of the storm of childbirth, underscored by the personification of the "sky" that "forgets" the storm, as well as the continued motif of the color "blue" with which the rispetto opens. The speaker draws a parallel between the infinite expanse of blue sky and the limitless capacity for human love reflected in the blue eyes of the baby. At the moment, these eyes "have not learned love's dear replies" and, not capable of conveying the abstract concept of love, can only react to love with "surprise" (ll. 2,4). However, the speaker finds continuity in the resemblance between these baby eyes and her husband's love-filled eyes when he looks at her. Eventually, the baby eyes will convey the same expansive and innate capacity for love that her husband's eyes convey. The final couplet celebrates the expansion of love through the birth of a child, but it also subtly indicates that yet again, the baby's love denotes a loss in some way--that there is a price to pay for this wondrous creature. The baby will "learn the look" that her husband keeps hid, and, in so doing, will move this look out of the privacy of their relationship into a worldly space (l. 6). "You'll smile, grave baby eyes," she says, "And I shall see/ The look your father keeps for only me" (ll. 7-8). The tone is wistful, and slightly elegiac, for this is a look that until now has been theirs alone.
Finally, "The Bindweed" returns to some of the images of previous rispetti to bring to a close the complex feelings the speaker has in these days of the fruition of love. The bindweed plants suggest harmony in "hues from white to mingled rose," a subtle blend of the purity of the maiden with the passion of the matron (l. 1). Their "chalice" shape is reminiscent of the cup-shaped heart brimming over (l. 3). This time "blows" refers to the power of the buds to open and bloom (l.3). In fact, the "flowers" that conclude the second line are "blooming for all minutes of the hours," and in the quatrain the speaker is again situated in the glory of a seemingly endless moment. The concluding couplets to this final rispetto of summer make an important association between nature and human life. The speaker sees the hedge "beside the trodden lane / where day by day we pass and pass again" (ll. 5, 6) as a physical mapping of "the busy mile" of their human lives (l. 7). She has not only come to speak in the first person plural, but she has come to see the significance of the fact that the bindweed offers "a flower for every step and ail the while" (l. 8). Hence, the final rhyme conflates time with distance through its partnership with "mile," a measurable, finite distance that metaphorically represents their life together. All the best of nature and of humanity--unity and strength--is celebrated here.
In "Spring" and "Summer," then, through diction, imagery, and metaphor, Webster successfully defines love in concrete terms and gives new life to a well-worked cliche--human life measured by the seasons. Her comparison is timely in that her view in these poems that we are inextricably linked to nature in elemental ways is consistent with a general nineteenth-century shift in perceptions of the connections between the natural world and the human world. Significantly, in the spring and summer rispetti, the speaker grows spiritually through nature rather than through an awareness of God, who figures little in poems that locate abstract human feeling within the context of natural science. Her focus in the rispetti must have served her well on the Athenaeum, a journal with a general commitment to bring together the sciences and the arts. She writes at length on the relation between nature and poetry in a review of Gordon Hake's The New Day: Sonnets: "It is clear enough that the earliest poets were among the earliest natural philosophers, and both in the use of myth and in metaphors and incidental allusions, and even in plain statements of physical facts and of received physical theories, they were the principal exponents to the unskilled public of the natural science of their times." Paraphrasing Hake, she writes that "science is revealing Nature anew to mankind, [and] it is for poetry to enter into the revelation and to speak with the strong inspiration of knowledge as well as of love." (56) Webster goes on to explore in the review not only the science of natural cycles but also some ways in which this science is humanized through poetic treatment of it. Although she admires Hake's sonnets, she takes issue with what Hake calls the "science-poet," not because she thinks that linking science and poetry is inappropriate, but because Hake suggests that a scientific education, such as his own, is necessary for a poet to write about nature. Webster argues that "the relation of poetry to Nature is so recognized that every poet, and almost every poetaster, is, by the necessity and instinct of his vocation, to some extent a naturalist." However, she admits, in struggling to clarify this relationship, poetic language has in the past done much to undermine the credibility of poetry, for this language "which should mean the highest expression of truths, was made a synonym for exaggeration and for sham." (57) In the rispetti, Webster writes about her world and ours, and we are well positioned, therefore, to measure her success according to the clarity and simplicity of the poetic language she uses to convey within the context of Natural Science the complex paradox of the human condition.
Through poetic language, Webster succeeds in making the inner life of one woman meaningful to a wide range of readers and in giving weight to the seemingly trivial. The latter achievement is particularly significant, for Webster demonstrates through seasonal cycles that we recognize a perspective from which we might come to terms with similar cycles over which we have no control. As we begin the autumn rispetti, we know where the cycles will take us: we know, specifically, that autumn is the time of harvest and plenty, as well as the time of fading out and dying off. "Sadness and a sense of isolation might seem almost inseparable from poetic inspiration of the higher kinds," Webster writes in a review of James Russell Lowell's Heartsease and Rue, "were it not that in the highest range of all a fresher air is reached." (58) In autumn the speaker places in a positive light aspects of nature conventionally associated with deterioration, decay, and death. She is able to achieve such a perspective, she makes clear, because she is living in a state of elevated love. Years later, when Webster writes about Violet Fane's Autumn Songs, she cites Fane's "verve" in "Life's Afternoon," remarking that Fane successfully transcends the more conventional idea of "autumnal decadence." (59) In Webster's "Autumn" the speaker moves beyond quiet acceptance of death to an elemental joy in transcendence.
Structurally, "Autumn" follows the pattern established in "Spring" and "Summer" in presenting the contrasting images of fruition and decay, but now the impulse of the quatrain and the two couplets is reversed, and what seems at first to the speaker to be signs of loss are by the end of the rispetto a measure of what she has gained through her associations with nature. In the first rispetto of "Autumn," for instance, the opening quatrain presents images of invasion through "leagues of heather" and through a "purple dimness" and "red glow" (l.2). The wind keeps the "ruddy heather-bells a-blow" (l. 4). In the first couplet, one is reminded of the birds of "Spring and Summer" that have abandoned the heat-seared branches, but the speaker's tone here is very different than was the tone of the young, worried girl of spring. The speaker now chastises the "foolish birds that have no joyous lay, / With hill and moor a garden ground to-day!" (ll. 7-8). The prevailing sentiment is a celebration of the here and now rather than an ironic awareness of the limits of the here and now. The next three nature rispetti of autumn continue this pattern of celebration. The green pine tree is "my own strong pine," she says. "'Tis spring, 'tis summer, still, while thou art mine" (ll. 7-8). The "Late Roses" may be "a very child of June," but, she concludes, they are also indications that "there are more roses yet to wake" (ll. 3, 7). The concluding couplet suggests through rhyme that these roses are a continuation of the essence of summer. She is able to see the cumulative beauty of autumn, and she relishes in "The Brambles" the intermingling of the best of summer with the best of autumn: "Bud, flower, and fruit, among the mingling thorns" make a "rich tree" (ll. 5,7). Again, the rhyming pattern of the rispetti brings together natural and human cycles in the autumnal glory of a varied mingling of experience, for the "tree" of nature is conflated with the tree of life, as she exclaims, "And oh but life's a happy time for me!" (l. 8).
In autumn the uncertain, worried girl in the summer of her years has become what she once feared to be--the woman in her harvest--and she is happily surprised by the joy she feels in her marriage. In the first of two rispetti entitled "We Two," the quatrain typifies this relationship through the end rhymes "side" and "guide" to describe how they negotiate the "busy mile" of "The Bindweed" that is now transformed into the "harvest hill" (ll. 2, 4, 7). The poem concludes with a tribute to "we two [who] are we two still" (l. 8). In the couplets of the second "We Two" rispetto, the speaker is led to an acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of all life as she thinks of her children and of the implications they have for human endurance. Life is patterned by tenuous moments and accidental intersections that are of great significance, she realizes, and she muses that had she and her husband "passed each other by" and "never known," her perceptions of all life would be very different (ll. 5, 7). Together they are "we two" instead of "I not I and he not he alone" (l. 8). In this moment, she realizes, they are nearing the end of the road that has brought them so much happiness. In a world of transience and change, constancy is the real miracle of love. In the conceit at the end of this second "We Two," the speaker indicates her understanding that such human love is a paradox, for perfect earthly union underscores the fragility of the human frame. In context, this line ends with a semicolon that emphasizes the abstract, indefinable quality of love, for not only is there no object after "known," but the second part of the compound sentence points to the partnership that has made life so rich and fruitful. The images of enduring nature act also as the motifs of enduring marriage. "The Apple Orchard," the concluding rispetto of autumn, presents a fitting image of the apple tree, ripe, red, and lush with its burden of fruit. True, the tree is soon to be bare, but as the rhymes emphasize, the apples, much like her child, are the "windfall here" that will be a "ripening store for all the coming year" (ll. 7-8).
The seasonal metaphor concludes with many winter images of decay and death, yet these images, ordered by the process of the rispetti sequence, are tempered by a peaceful tone unifying this group of four "nature" rispetti, three "human" rispetti, and a concluding rispetto. "Winter" brings together natural and human cycles to celebrate continuity and to conclude the sequence on an optimistic note of anticipation. If we look at the first rispetto in detail, we see again Webster's use of connotative diction and the rispetto rhyming pattern to convey the inner peace the speaker has found in love, a peace she has sustained by communing so intimately with the world around her. "The Snows" sets the tone of optimism for "Winter" with the implicit anticipation of spring: "The green and happy world is hidden away" beneath "the ghostly snows [that] lie on its breast" (ll. 1-2). The metonymic "breast" emphasizes the enduring qualities of a world whose heart still beats, and the rhyming partner within the last phrase of the quatrain mimics the rising pattern of the life-giving sun "from east to west" (l. 4). The first word of the first couplet, "sleep," denotes the temporary state of this green world, the "chilled, barren, earth" suffering a "winter dearth" (ll. 5-6). The final couplet casts the falling snow as part of a pattern of renewal rather than a source of destruction, for the "wan snows" not only "hide the spoiled earth," but also "numb her to repose," the final rhyme of "snows" and "repose" implying the beneficial and healing state of sleep (ll. 7-8). And so the descriptions of the winter world continue: the elements that are outside this blanket of snow, such as the holly of the next rispetto, withstand the cold, oblivious to the "warring wind of January" (l. 2). The holly is a "brave tree"; it is "patient" and "green" and "strong" because it withstands the forces of winter to act as a reminder of the green world waiting to come forth (ll. 1, 5, 7). In the third rispetto, the speaker's thoughts turn to the graveyard, part of the natural world, yet containing as well her husband who mingles there with the earth. This is a "calm graveyard" where, like the green world beneath the snows, "he waits and I shall be," she says (ll. 5, 7). Hence, it is "the spot of earth most dear to me" (l. 8). So too lies the water in "The Frozen River" beneath "icy silent blocks," awaiting the moment when it will once again form "The Rivulet" of the opening rispetto (l. 1). The same temporary and healing stasis called for in "The Snows" is evident in the "fretted falls [that] hang numb" (l. 3). When the speaker addresses the "dead river," it replies, "not dead," for it anticipates its spring time renewal (ll. 4-5). The reply echoes in her heart until the "hidden strength" of the frozen river is also the hidden strength of her heart (l. 8).
The speaker turns now to the symbol of continuity in human life--her daughter. A bridal bouquet is symbolically termed "Love's rose," denoting the same passion of married love, of richness, and of life that the speaker anticipated herself in "The Violet and the Rose." In "The Daughter," the rose paradoxically suggests both re-flowering and de-flowering (l. 3). Love needs to be nurtured and tended, says the speaker to her daughter, or like a neglected garden, "it withers, dear, if lovers let it lie" (l. 4). The warning is reinforced by the rhyme of "lie" with "goodbye" to close the quatrain. The speaker gives her "own singing bird" to the groom, saying that she is "more than half as glad as [her daughter]" that the child will "fly forth and mate" like the birds, for "'Tis long life alone" (ll. 5-8). This last poetic sentence follows a full colon, thereby acting as an explanatory clause to conclude the rispetto: although her daughter will not be alone, the speaker at this moment is very alone. In the "We Two" rispetti of winter, the speaker is able to ease her loneliness by returning in the quatrain of the first of these paired rispetti to the central ideas of the sequence: existence is determined by cyclical patterns, and cycles suggest continuity. Therefore, she must "wait," she says, for "I live late" (ll. 2, 4). In the couplet the end rhymes emphasize the pain of separation: "To think we two have nothing now to share: / I wondering here, and he without me there!" (ll. 7-8). In the second "We Two" poem the speaker articulates in beautiful, reverential language that rests on the duality implicit in her use of "love" and "thou" in the couplet the spiritual reunion with him that awaits her. "Oh love past touch of lip and clasp of hand," she says, "Thou canst not be too far to understand" (ll. 7-8). The rispetto consecrates love as transcending the finite limitations of earthly life, just as nature has implied the possibility of such transcendence.
Significantly, the closing poem of the entire sequence is titled "The Flowers To Come." Those flowers of spring that she once thought fleeting and transient are beginning to push through the lingering frost and wind. They "were not for one only blossoming," she now realizes, for the perennial nature of life ensures that there is "more than one blossoming for ail fair flowers" (ll. 6-7). In the final line of the couplet, the circle is completed with mention of God's place in this pattern. She is convinced that she will indeed have her own spring again, for "God keeps [her blossoming] till spring is somewhere ours" (l. 8). Love has humanized her, but it has immortalized her as well. In "The Flowers To Come," she sees that renewal in nature is not only a material renewal of concrete elements, but also a spiritual and mysterious renewal of cyclical processes.
Thus, Webster concludes her "dramatization" of the intimate thoughts of one woman. Yet, these are the thoughts of woman--and I daresay of man--familiar to so many of us. Herein lies the power of Webster's rispetti, for they engage us in a philosophical quest of great significance, a quest best described in terms of reconciling our inexorable movement toward an unknown future with our equally inexorable grounding in the here and now. In a review of An Italian Garden, Webster criticizes Mary F. Robinson for a less practical approach to poetic expression, for in Webster's view Robinson's work is not about a real woman with real sorrows; therefore, Webster suggests, the poetry fails in an essential way:
The weary damsels of so many plaintive lyrics do not appear to be heart-stricken sufferers against their will, but young ladies making their lives more interesting to themselves by the romance of a grief they will not part with.... It is not the living workaday world of men and women. And we would have Miss Mary Robinson come into the real world--away from dreaming in enchanted gardens, Italian or other. (60)
Webster's rispetti succeed because they present a very realistic view of human life. Realism as well explains her decision to write in a poetic form that is structurally related to peasantry and to improvisation, as well as to the sustaining power of love, for such a specifically closed yet simply defined form is an appropriate poetic "vessel" to contain thoughts about the most basic and elemental process of human life--aging. The process traced by the natural cycles conflated with the speaker's life cycle is recognizable because the speaker's approaching death is the reality we all face.
Through the rhetorical process of the conventional rispetti sequence, Webster is well positioned to cast in a positive light the paradox of the human condition, for the rispetto--epigrammatic in nature, concise in meter, and developed through specific rhyming patterns--is well suited to demonstrate the circularity and paradox of the human condition. Rhyme is intrinsic to Webster's poetic representation of expansive and indeterminate ideas. When she reviews William Sharp's rispetti, Webster offers her longest and most complete discussion of the importance of managing rhyme and meter properly to achieve the desired relation between poetic sentence grammar and the ideas expressed through figurative language. Sharp's rispetti fail to achieve this relation and, consequently, she says, they "sigh but little. And they bear no great burden of thought. They are descriptive reveries, minutely detailed word-pictures suffused with poetic mist, more than they are interpretations of ideas or emotions." (61) In contrast, Webster's English Rispetti effectively and affectively represents the complexity of life defined by the conflation of the process of living and the process of dying.
Webster wrote the Rispetti before she became a professional reviewer, and it is unrealistic to suggest that she worked out in one sequence of poetry a system of poetics that was to focus her commentary for the ten years of her professional reviewing life. Undoubtedly, her poetics emerged as she reviewed, and for all we know, she may well have been at work at poetry other than the sonnets during the remaining thirteen years of her life when she was so involved in the professional writing I have only touched on in this paper. I mean here to suggest that in the pre-Athenaeum English Rispetti, we find a striking example of the successful balance of metrical skill and innovation that Webster consistently holds up as a standard of excellence in the Athenaeum. In this respect, the Athenaeum reviews and the English Rispetti offer us an opportunity to see where the professional critic and the professional poet meet.
(1) The ground-breaking work in terms of gender and genre is Cynthia Scheinberg's study of Amy Levy. Susan Brown, Marysa Demoor, Christine Sutphin, and I have all published articles on Augusta Webster, and we have all focused on her dramatic poetry. See Susan Brown, "Economic Representations: Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Jenny,' Augusta Webster's 'A Castaway,' and the Campaign Against the Contagious Diseases Acts," VRev 17, no. 1 (1991): 78-95; Susan Brown, "Determined Heroines: George Eliot, Augusta Webster, and Closet Drama by Victorian Women," VP 33, no.1 (1995): 89-109; 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 (Liege, Belgium: Language and Literature for the Belgian Association of Anglists, 1997), pp. 133-140; Christine 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; Christine Sutphin, "Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster's 'A Castaway' and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women's Sexuality," VP 38, no. 4 (2000): 511-531; Patricia Rigg, "Augusta Webster: The Social Politics of Monodrama," VRev 26, no. 2 (2000): 75-107.
(2) According to Marysa Demoor, Webster reviewed in total 228 books in her Athenaeum career, and she reviewed over forty books each year throughout the early 1890s. Marysa Demoor, Their Fair Share (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 114. I have identified at least eighty-seven individual reviews. Often multiple works are discussed in one review and many of the reviews are several pages long. As well as lyric poetry, Webster reviewed dramatic poetry, literary drama, stage drama, and the occasional biography.
(3) Consider, for example, Matthew Arnold's mournful "Dover Beach" and the poignant later passages in Tennyson's In Memoriam that trace the poet's channelling of his grief through his awareness of time measured on a scale beyond that of human life.
(4) I have identified Browning's particular ironic vision as consistent with that of the Romantic Ironist, at least in his long poem The Ring and the Book. See Patricia Rigg, Robert Browning's Romantic Irony in "The Ring and the Book" (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1999). While I do not think that Webster's Rispetti trace as clearly as Browning's long poem the simultaneous patterns of creative and de-creative activities specific to the philosophical irony of Friedrich Schlegel, the sequence does conclude with a final endorsement of a limitless, transcendent love that moves the speaker into the realm of the infinite.
(5) Demoor, Their Fair Share, p. 115.
(6) Augusta Webster, review of My Lyrical Life: Poems Old and New, by Gerald Massey, Athenaeum, November 9, 1889, p. 630.
(7) Augusta Webster, review of A Marriage of Shadows and other Poems, by Margaret Veley, Athenaeum, September 22, 1888, p. 377.
(8) Augusta Webster, Lesley's Guardians (London, 1864).
(9) Edmund Clarence Stedman, "Some London Poets," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 64 (May 1882): 885.
(10) Augusta Webster, review of Lachrymae Musarum, and other Poems, by William Watson, Athenaeum, February 8, 1893, p. 212.
(11) Augusta Webster, review of Days and Nights, by Arthur Symons, Athenaeum, June 22, 1889, p. 788.
(12) Monica Correa Fryckstedt, "Geraldine Jewsbury's Athenaeum Reviews: A Mirror of Mid-Victorian Attitudes to Fiction," VPR 23, no.1 (Spring 1990): 14.
(13) Augusta Webster to John Stuart Blackie, May 30, 1870, Blackie Archives, National Library of Scotland, MS 2629ff, 205-208. Twenty years later Webster was to review Blackie's A Song of Heroes; the review is not particularly flattering (Augusta Webster, review of A Song of Heroes, by John Stuart Blackie, Athenaeum, May 17, 1890, p. 639).
(14) Alexander Macmillan to Thomas Webster, March 21, 1870, Macmillan Archives, British Library, ADD MS 55390.
(15) In fact, even when she "reviews" informally for friends she hints at the time and effort she gives to her reading. For example, she writes to John Bryne Leicester Warren, "I presume that it is to your courtesy I owe the receipt of a copy of Philoctetes which came to me some days ago. I have now read it more than once and can therefore thank you for it the better" (Augusta Webster to John Bryne Leicester Warren, October 1, 1870, The Tabley Papers, Box 4, The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester). To Austin Dobson she writes, "I wanted to read it [Proverbs in Porcelain] again before writing to you as I felt sure from my experience of Vignettes in Rhyme, that instead of appreciating it less on a second reading, as one so often does with verse that has pleased the first time, I should find all I had found and find besides delicate touches and finished workmanship that had escaped me in the first haste of a reader's curiosity. So I have waited to get back my book and have been spending a couple of hours over it picking out favourites, and I can thank you the more heartily" (Augusta Webster to Austin Dobson, June 14, 1877, University of London Library, MS810/111-74).
(16) Thomas Hake and Arthur Compton-Rickett, The Life and Letters of Theodore Watts-Dunton (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1916), 2:16.
(17) Watts-Dunton, "Mrs Augusta Webster," Athenaeum, September 15, 1894, p. 355.
(18) Demoor, "Power in Petticoats," p. 138.
(19) Mackenzie Bell, "Augusta Webster 1840-1894, The Victorian Poets: The Bio-Critical Introductions to the Victorian Poets from A. H. Miles's "The Poets and the Poetry of the Nineteenth Century," vol. 3, ed. William E. Fredeman (New York: Garland, 1986), p. 106; Stedman, "Some London Poets," p. 884.
(20) Leslie Marchand, "The Athenaeum": A Mirror of Victorian Culture (New York: Octagon, 1971), p. 67.
(21) Elizabeth Lee, "Augusta Webster," Dictionary of National Biography, 1917, vol. 20, ed. Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 38.
(22) Augusta Webster to John Stuart Blackie, May 30, 1870, pp. 205-208.
(23) Augusta Webster, review of The Unknown Eros, by Coventry Patmore, Athenaeum, November 22, 1890, p. 693.
(24) Augusta Webster, review of Sospiri di Roma, by William Sharp, Athenaeum, October 3, 1891, p. 444.
(25) Augusta Webster, review of A New Pilgrimage, and Other Poems, by William Scawen Blunt, Athenaeum, March 1, 1890, p. 271.
(26) Theodore Watts-Dunton, review of A Book of Rhyme, by Augusta Webster, Athenaeum, August 20, 1881, p. 230.
(27) Augusta Webster, review of Sight and Song, by Michael Field, Athenaeum, January 7, 1893, p. 14.
(28) Augusta Webster, review of Underneath the Bough, by Michael Field, Athenaeum, September 9, 1893, p. 345.
(29) Augusta Webster, review of The Unknown Madonna and Other Poems, by Rennell Rodd, Athenaeum, June 2, 1888, p. 691. Although Webster is generalizing here, she is obviously targeting the same Della Cruscan-like writing style that Watts-Dunton finds so offensive.
(30) Augusta Webster, review of The Violet Crown, and Songs of England, by Rennell Rodd, Athenaeum, August 6, 1892, p. 190.
(31) Augusta Webster, review of Verses, by Gertrude Hall, Athenaeum, February 14, 1891, p. 216. This advice is an interesting echo of that offered to Webster herself by Geraldine Jewsbury in an 1866 review of Dramatic Studies: "It is a pity that such high capacity as the book evinces should be so often marred by a loose and diffuse style, which a little patient revision might have cured. Making every allowance for the colloquial reality which is often proper and effective in dramatic composition, it is hard to tell the distinction between poetry and prose.... [Webster] has evidently a future before her if she cares to win it" (Geraldine Jewsbury, review of Dramatic Studies, by Augusta Webster, Athenaeum, August 11, 1866, p. 175).
(32) In fairness, Webster does go on to say that the poems in this volume should nevertheless be read with respect because they are "the unpretentious record of an elevated joy" (Augusta Webster, review of Merlin, and Other Poems, by John Veitch, Athenaeum, September 21, 1889, p. 382).
(33) Augusta Webster, review of Eros and Psyche: A Poem in Twelve Measures, by Robert Bridges, Athenaeum, April 3, 1886, p. 451.
(34) Arthur Symonds, "Poliziano's Italian Poetry," Fortnightly Review 14 (1873): 165-188; "Popular Songs of Tuscany," Fortnightly Review 14 (1873): 596-613.
(35) Watts-Dunton, review of A Book of Rhyme, p. 229.
(36) Petra Bianchi includes a discussion of Poliziano in her unpublished dissertation. Bianchi points out that Poliziano was introduced to the literary world in 1863 by the poet and scholar Giosue Carducci (Petra Bianchi, "'Hidden Strength': The Poetry and Plays of Augusta Webster," Diss. University of Oxford, 1999, p. 168). Frances Hays evidently interviewed Webster in the early 1880s and reports that as a young woman Webster spent "a little over a year on the Continent, under the care of an aunt, in order to 'finish' her education" (Frances Hays, Women of the Day: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Contemporaries [Philadelphia, 1885], p. 210). The Websters honeymooned in Italy where Webster had her portrait painted by Canevari in January 1864. Given the timing of this last trip and her probable fluency in Italian and French, it seems reasonable to assume that Webster would have known the work of Carducci.
(37) Watts-Dunton, review of A Book of Rhyme, pp. 229-230. Not all of Webster's contemporaries were as supportive of Webster as Watts-Dunton. E. C. Stedman found A Book of Rhyme to be less inspiring: "A Book of Rhyme adds to the impression that, with all her uncommon gifts, she is too versatile and facile; most of her poetry is good, but she has yet to write a poem or drama of the highest class" (E. C. Stedman, Victorian Poets [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1903], pp. 443-444). More recently, in her Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on Webster, Florence Boos suggests that the epigrammatic quality of the rispetto contributes to its failure to achieve "the conclusive force of the sonnet form's sestets" (Florence S. Boos, "Augusta Webster," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, ed. William E. Fredeman and Ira B. Nadel [Detroit: Gale, 1985], p. 283).
(38) William Sharp, "The Sonnet: Its Characteristics and History," in Sonnets of This Century, ed. William Sharp (London, 1887), p. xxvii. Sharp includes in this volume of exemplary sonnets Webster's "The Brook Rhine." A decade earlier, Webster began her correspondence with Christina Rossetti. See Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography (London: Jonathan Cape 1994), and William Michael Rossetti, ed., The Family Letters of Christina Georgina Rossetti With Some Supplementary Letters and Appendices (1908; New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1968). They corresponded about matters of suffrage, but also about literary matters. Rossetti and Webster exchanged volumes of poetry in 1881, Rossetti providing A Pageant, and Webster "her latest volume" (Marsh, p. 490). Presumably, this was A Book of Rhyme.
(39) In his discussion of Tuscan rhymes, for instance, Symonds makes the point that even the Tuscan poet "allows himself the utmost licence." The English poet should indeed "preserve, with some exceptions, such accuracy as the English ear requires" (J.A Symonds, "The Popular Songs of Tuscany," p. 602). See also William Sharp, "The Sonnet: Its Characteristics and History," p. xxvii.
(40) Rachel Busk, The Folk-Songs of Italy (1887; New York: Arno Press, 1977), p. 21.
(41) Webster, review of Sospiri di Roma, p. 444.
(42) Webster, review of Silhouettes, by Arthur Symons, Athenaeum, March 4, 1893, p. 275.
(43) Symonds, "The Popular Songs of Tuscany," p. 596.
(44) Alma Strettell, Spanish and Italian Folk Songs (London: Macmillan, 1887), p. xviii.
(45) Morris uses the seasonal frame in a more deliberate way: twenty-four verse tales, twelve told by one group and twelve by another, are paired in contrasts, each pair given context by a poem devoted to one month. The months mark off the time it takes the tale-tellers to tell their stories, and during this process the storytellers, Roderick Marshall explains, decide that each of us must "realize that his own life--and death--repeat a precious, universal pattern which it would be cowardly, were it possible, to evade" (Roderick Marshall, William Morris and his Earthly Paradise [Tisbury, Wiltshire: Compton Press, 1979], p. 117). Tennyson also measures the poet's spiritual growth in terms of the seasons, specifically the three Christmas seasons in the poem. One is reminded as well, perhaps, of Walter Pater's "Conclusion" to the The Renaissance, prefaced by a quotation from Plato's Cratylus that Pater translated in 1893, "Heraclitus says, 'All things give way: nothing remaineth'" (Plato and Platonism, Works [London: Macmillan, 1910], 6:14).
(46) Augusta Webster, Letter to Austin Dobson, June 14, 1877, University of London, MS810/111-74. See also Austin Dobson, "A Song of the Four Seasons" (1871) and "The Paradox of Time" (1875), in Complete Works of Austin Dobson, ed. Humphrey Milford (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1923), pp. 115-116, 117. As a reviewer, Webster was particularly harsh when she thought poets trivialized the relationship between nature and the human world. Reviewing William Allingham's Flower Pieces and other poems, she takes him to task because his "metaphors and similes are not images but merely conceits," and concludes that "there is nothing new in likening some poet, or any other sort of artist, to some flower, by way of expressing the sort of sensation he produces; and the fancy is scarcely worth even a schoolgirl writer's elaboration in poem after poem" (Augusta Webster, review of Flower Pieces and Other Poems, by William Allingham, Athenaeum, May 18, 1889, pp. 623, 624).
(47) Augusta Webster, review of Irish Love Songs, by Katharine Tynan, Athenaeum, July 15, 1893, p. 94.
(48) Review of Selections from the Verse of Augusta Webster, by Augusta Webster, Athenaeum, August 26, 1893, p. 277. Whether Webster's state of health was generally known at this time is not clear. Her death certificate lists the cause of death as a "recurrent malignant post nasal growth" and states that she had suffered from the growth for "two or three years."
(49) The name "Marjory" is an interesting conflation of herb and woman's name. It is also a diminutive of Margaret, the name of Webster's daughter.
(50) Augusta Webster, "English Stornelli," A Book of Rhyme (London, 1881), 1. 1. All further references to the poem appear parenthetically by line number in the text of the essay. I have adopted the accurate term "rispetti" that Webster uses in her 1893 Selections from the Verse.
(51) Webster, review of The Violet Crown, and Songs of England, p. 190.
(52) Webster, review of A New Pilgrimage, and Other Poems, p. 271.
(53) The well-known phrase that life is a putting of "the infinite within the finite" occurs in a letter from Browning to Ruskin in December 1855 (The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn [London: George Allen, 1909], 36:xxxiv).
(54) Webster, review of Flower Pieces, and Other Poems, p. 623.
(55) Webster, review of Silhouettes, p. 275. Not all reviewers were as sympathetic as Webster to the subtlety of this volume. Replying to negative reviews of the book, Symons remarked, "There is no necessary difference in artistic value between a good poem about a flower in the hedge and a good poem about the scent in a sachet," a comment that seems to have further irritated readers who objected to the more nuanced and elliptical verse that was to become the trademark of the moderns. Quoted in Priscilla Thouless, Modern Poetic Drama (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1934), p. 127.
(56) Augusta Webster, review of The New Day: Sonnets, by Thomas Gordon Hake, Athenaeum, July 12, 1890, p. 57.
(57) Webster, review of The New Day: Sonnets, p. 57. Perhaps this is yet another allusion to what she and Watts-Dunton found to be so unfortunate a return to the principles of the Della Cruscan school.
(58) Augusta Webster, review of Heartsease and Rue, by James Russell Lowell, Athenaeum, May 12, 1888, p. 593.
(59) Augusta Webster, review of Autumn Songs, by Violet Fane, Athenaeum, March 29, 1890, p. 402.
(60) Augusta Webster, review of An Italian Garden: A Book of Songs, by A. Mary F. Robinson, Athenaeum, April 17, 1886, p. 517. Webster is not consistent in her praise of Robinson, who was also an Athenaeum colleague. For example, of Lyrics Selected, part of Fisher Unwin's "Cameo Series," Webster writes that these poems represent her "most successful work, with its characteristics of vague tender melancholy, deep and yet somewhat artificial passion for beauty, grace both natural and skilled, subtle lightness of touch, and refined use of a special gift of melody" (Augusta Webster, review of Lyrics Selected, by A. Mary F. Robinson, Athenaeum, April 18, 1891, p. 503). Of Retrospect and Other Poems, she is more critical: "It shows less than might have been hoped for of the spontaneous yet skilled grace so frequent in her lyrics" (Augusta Webster, review of Retrospect and Other Poems, by A. Mary F. Robinson, Athenaeum, September 30, 1893, p. 451).
(61) Augusta Webster, review of Sospiri di Roma, p. 445.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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