We were fortunate in our contributors, who took up the challenge to look again and look closely at the interplay between gender and genre across a number of modes: the ballad, the sonnet sequence and rispetto, the epic, the epistolary sequence, the dramatic monologue, the lyric. We believe that this collection of essays will provide fresh perspectives on poets whose achievements altered conceptions of what poetry was capable of doing to change and textually embody lives, reinventing its aesthetic parameters in the process. Our contributors address such issues by rethinking complex questions of the cultural determinants of authorship within the formal constraints and possibilities generated by the poetry itself. This issue shows that the poetry of the period was constitutive of change, rather than simply reflective of it. Our own historical moment makes such questions as challenging as they have ever been.
Isobel Armstrong opens the issue with a compelling juxtaposition of the praxis of two remarkable poets: Eliza Keary and Alice Meynell. Her essay demonstrates that the "pedantic accuracy" of the law of metrics set forth by Coventry Patmore provides the ground on which lawlessness flourishes. In tracking Keary's blend of homage to and subtle defiance of Patmore's rules, Armstrong identifies effects that are new in nineteenth-century British poetry. For Armstrong, "Christine and Mary: A Correspondence," Keary's "great unread poem," opens up "a unique sonic world and a unique thematics" that are as experimental and innovative as anything in Hopkins. Additionally, Keary makes use of rhyme in hemistichal verse--a deliberate violation of Patmore's strictures that allows her to explore "the passional forms longing takes." Drawing on the work of Yopie Prins and Meredith Martin, Armstrong then turns to Meynell's treatment of meter. Meynell's lawlessness is specifically related to Patmore's "variability of pause." In taking this feature to extremes, she opens up "an unusually violent space" in "The Shepherdess," one that exceeds "pausai lyricism." Although this writer's work sometimes "metamorphizes the regular isochronous spatial contrast of ictus and pause," framing her as a faithful devotee of Patmore, her lyrics can also become "more restless in their metrics," a shift that Armstrong links to her growing interest in politics and to her creation of a poetic zone that is "both maternal and erotic." Meynell's attitude to Patmore goes beyond "a simple model of influence"; it is a complex amalgam of respect and independence. "The woman poet," concludes Armstrong, "was never in statu pupillari to any tradition."
Both in its themes and in its methodological variety, Armstrong's essay provides a fitting prologue to this special issue. She interweaves virtuosic close readings with Hegelian theory and biographical context; moreover, her assessment of law and lawlessness echoes the ways in which many of the poets featured here--particularly the women poets--strike a delicate balance between flouting and deferring to societal conventions, between honoring and turning away from influential male contemporaries and predecessors.
Julie Casanova, writing on the ballad, takes up these concerns as she identifies Rosamund Marriott Watson's "The Quern of the Giants" as a critique of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Song in Time of Revolution, 1860." Casanova sees women's poetry as a deeply political, revisionary enterprise, "redefining the course of women's history by rewriting their origins." Female disruption, she argues, invoking New Woman politics and social Darwinism, is thus inscribed "within the DNA of history." As she deftly combines formal and thematic analysis, Casanova establishes that--although for both poets "the border ballad was a fertile ground for aesthetic experimentation and resistance against a set tradition"--Marriott Watson counters Swinburne's depiction of patriarchal power structures by granting authority to "liminal female agencies." The male poet's use of formal repetition underscores balance and stability, mirroring his tendency to situate revolution within impersonal and predetermined historical cycles. His female counterpart's less regular meters and caesurae, by contrast, call attention to the disruptive potential of marginalized individuals and of the feminine. Thus Swinburne draws on the border ballad's martial nature, but it is Marriott Watson who more fully captures this genre's investment in moments of radical rupture and transgression. Throughout the essay, Casanova employs Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the chronotope, scrutinizing the language of space-time in order to illuminate these two authors' gendered depictions of history and revolution. The next essay in the issue takes a different tack, as it tracks the striking similarities between male and female poets rather than building its argument on an account of gender-based difference.
Patricia Rigg presents the sonnet sequence as a paradoxical mode that intertwines revelation and disguise. Sequencing both sonnets and rispetti, she argues, is part of a shift in the nature of the lyric in the nineteenth century, "repositioning the subjective T of lyrical poetry as the objective narrator of fiction." Rigg richly complicates the intensely personal nature of poetic love by situating it between Charles Baudelaire's repudiation of social institutions and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's celebration of them. This tactic allows for "gendered discourse on what was conventionally unsayable," particularly concerning thorny questions of love and sexual desire. Although Barrett Browning's idealization of married love positions Sonnets from the Portuguese within the realm of the sacred, both men and women who sequence sonnets in the latter half of the nineteenth century are more likely to depict the profane, using the sequence's generic hybridity to temper the confessional nature of their work. For example, George Meredith's Modern Love exposes the gendered double standard that enables the male narrator to blame his wife for their failed marriage, and the quasi-autobiographical nature of this sequence draws readers both into and out of sympathy with this narrator. The second half of Rigg's essay juxtaposes Wilfrid Scawen Blunt's "The Love Sonnets of Proteus"--which includes the sequence "A Woman's Sonnets," written by Blunt's lover Lady Augusta Gregory--with John Addington Symonds's "Stella Maris" and A. Mary F. Robinson's rispetti sequence "Tuscan Cypress." Blunt revises Gregory's sonnets in order to align them with his speaker's narrative of male self-discovery through infidelity. Symonds and Robinson also both exploit the ability of sonnet and rispetti sequences to combine autobiographical openness with fictive self-concealment: Symonds simultaneously expresses and denies his love for Angelo Fusato by using the grammatical disguise of feminine pronouns; Robinson creates an androgynous persona, avoiding gendered pronouns in her exploration of the nature of her feelings for Vernon Lee.
While Casanova emphasizes significant points of contrast between a male-authored and a female-authored ballad, and while Rigg depicts male and female poets employing similar strategies in their sonnet sequences, Eleanor Reeds demonstrates that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic Aurora Leigh "absorbs and expands upon its male-authored precedents"--particularly upon William Wordsworth's The Prelude. In the process, Reeds highlights both intersections and divergences between the two writers. Her essay persuasively argues that Barrett Browning and Wordsworth developed a new form of epic poetry by re-imagining "the T that may speak to 'you.'" The epic poet's indebtedness to his or her reader produces, Reeds argues, a better poetic self, a circumstance that renders the nineteenth-century epic "radically transformative." The speaker of The Prelude addresses a fictionalized version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; this apostrophic mode, because it permits Wordsworth to summon an absent friend (and to anticipate that friend's praise) through the power of imagination, ensures that he can confidently inhabit the male-coded roles of the bard and the epic poet. Aurora Leigh, however, lacks such masculine privilege and chooses to combine apostrophe with a more dialogic and novelistic approach. While she does at times speak directly to her beloved cousin Romney, she also learns to integrate others' voices into her verse, "struggling to claim vocal authority within her own poem without silencing" either Romney or Marian Erie. Ironically, this ostensible display of feminine modesty helps Barrett Browning establish herself as a powerful cultural critic as she completes her politicized epic. Reeds concludes that both writers invoke private intrapoetic audiences in order to model the responses of future reading publics, attempting to embed the reception of their work within the work itself.
Beginning with an apparent disparity between male and female writers of dramatic monologue--women are often seen as "more sympathetic, more concerned with the social, and more interested in the particular and personal rather than the abstract and universal"--Helen Luu goes on to argue that literary scholars have exaggerated this gendered difference by consistently giving pride of place to men's monologues with male speakers and women's monologues with female speakers. She believes that considering women's male-spoken monologues reveals both unexpected continuities and undertheorized contrasts between the work of male and female writers; like Reeds, then, she examines gendered intersections as well as gendered divergences. Luu compares the dramatic monologues of Augusta Webster to those of Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson. On the one hand, Webster's monologues with male speakers are just as densely abstract as those written by men. On the other hand, there are marked differences between Webster's male and female monologists: why, Luu asks, does this poet oblige her women to grapple with questions of explicitly gendered subjectivity, while enabling her men to meditate on apparently ungendered intellectual topics? In Luu's detailed and persuasive readings, Webster shows her male speakers to be "not only blind to their own faults and failures but also blind to their own blindness." For these male speakers, as Webster imagines them, blindness is misrecognized as "superior sight," a weakness that becomes a devastatingly effective political weapon. The heavily ironic and self-critical form of the dramatic monologue itself allows Webster both to re-enact and to denounce men's habit of relegating gendered experience to silenced female others while positioning themselves as "authoritative, enlightened, and even omniscient subjects."
Joseph Bristow concludes the issue with an intriguing account of the ways in which the figure of the beautiful boy allows late-century lyricists to express unorthodox amatory desires. This figure's chameleonic sexuality can locate his appeal "in his male homoerotic, his lesbian, or his transmasculine qualities"; Bristow is therefore able to uncover both correspondences and dissimilarities in depictions of what he names the "Sapphic boy" in the poetry of Natalie Clifford Barney, Renee Vivien, Olive Custance, and Alfred Douglas. In Douglas's work, for instance, boyishness tends to confirm the superiority of male beauty. In the work of women who desire other women, it tends to blur conventional gender lines, folding ephebic masculine traits into the allure of femininity. Yet male and female poets alike, Bristow points out, often rely on "lyric opacity" to keep the gender of their poetic speakers--and of their intrapoetic characters--ambiguous. Such opacity shields queer writers from a judgmental society, ensuring that their poetry can simultaneously blend discreetly into depictions of heterosexual love and give voice to a variety of dissident longings. (Bristow's perspective is usefully juxtaposed with that of Rigg, who emphasizes that lyric's strategic vagueness can at times be hybridized with novelistic specificity.) Both the figure of the seductive boy and the genre of the lyric permit Bristow's poets to establish "their indebtedness to as well as difference from classical and English poetic traditions." Ranging across literary history from Sappho to Keats to George Meredith, incorporating analyses of novels and visual art as well as verse, and extending its purview both beyond England and into the twentieth century, this essay establishes that Victorian concerns surrounding gender and genre continue to resonate widely.
Our experience of editing this issue was one of generosity and intellectual engagement of a high order, not only with the writers who made the cut, but also with those whose essays we were forced to reject. Many, we hope, will appear in other issues. We thank all those potential contributors for the pleasure and instruction we had in reading their work.
For those who appear here: we were delighted by your hard work, so willingly offered, and by your readiness to push your arguments into increasingly challenging areas. We learned a great deal about the breadth of ideas that criticism of Victorian poetry fosters and about a collegiality that crosses international borders. It has been a privilege to take part in exchanges that ranged from sentence-level detail to broad issues of theoretical approach and ideological interrogation. In the most stimulating ways, our contributors tackled a prominent theoretical crux in feminist literary scholarship: is it best to turn away from biography, letting female-authored texts stand on their own as aesthetic objects rather than marking them as women's work? Or does such ahistorical interpretation fail because it fails to account for women's lived experiences, for the fact that their gender inevitably affected the circumstances in which they wrote? As these essays so ably demonstrate by their cross-gender praxis, critique is enriched when it explicitly acknowledges how deeply male poets, no less than female, are shaped by their gender. Yet Armstrong's exploration of an interplay between law and lawlessness that fuses gender and genre and Bristow's interest in "desires that refuse to settle on one side or the other of the gender binary" remind us that the opposition between masculinity and femininity is a limiting one; it is also crucial to attend to the ways in which this restrictive binary can be challenged, crossed, blurred, even erased. Similarly, all our contributors, in their remarkably various ways, celebrate the play of genre, analyzing its openness to disruption within boundaries that are as recognizable as they are unstable.
We ask John Lamb to accept our heartfelt thanks for his support and encouragement from the very earliest stages of this project. We hope readers will find that his confidence in our endeavor was justified, and be as inspired as we are by this special issue.
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|Author:||O'Brien, Lee; Alfano, Veronica|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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