Victorian women poets.
One of the major publications of last year was Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo's Broadview edition of Michael Field, The Poet: Published and Manuscript Materials. The poetry of the Michael Field has attracted much deserved attention in the last few years, exemplified by Margaret Stetz and Cheryl Wilson's edited collection of essays Michael Field and Their World (2007), as well as Thain's own "Michael Field": Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Siecle (2007). But research on, as well as classroom teaching of, the poets have been hampered by the lack of an accessible edition of the poetry until now. Thain and Vadillo have admirably plugged this gap, offering a rich selection of the poems from their published volumes--published only "to show the writers as public literary figures and to allow assessment of them within those terms" (p. 48). Selections are included from every edition published by the poets under the name Michael Field, as well as from their projected volume that was published posthumously as The Wattlefold. This edition also is very welcome for its generous inclusion of material from the diaries, which Bradley and Cooper planned to publish, and from the letters, which helped to form a public aesthetic identity. Also offered are a handful of key contemporary reviews, as well as an index of the major artistic and literary figures mentioned in the life-writing, and a chronologu and bibliography. In addition, the editors' introduction provides a welcome overview of Bradley and Cooper's invention of themselves as "Michael Field," as well as their contribution to aestheticism and Catholic poetics. Michael Field: The Poet is an outstanding achievement, a major scholarly edition that places the Fields firmly within their fin-de-siecle circle, and that will transform both teaching and scholarship by finally putting to rest the tradition of the Fields as eccentric, isolated figures. This edition will also redraw the map of late Victorian and early modernism, giving Bradley and Cooper a key position in some of the major debates of the period. It is also to be hoped that this edition will inspire renewed interest in Bradley and Cooper's drama and lead to a further accessible edition of their work in that genre.
Criticism on women poets was notable this year for its deep engagements with historical contexts. Linda Hughes's rigorous essay "Discoursing Xantippe: Amy Levy, Classical Scholarship, and Print Culture" (Philological Quarterly 88, no. 3 [Summer 2009]: 259-281) is impressive for its sophisticated examination of Amy Levy's turn to classicism, placing it within "a complex discursive network of British and German classical scholarship, higher criticism, and popular print culture" (p. 259). Julie M. Wise's essay also concerns itself with print networks, although the emphasis here is on politicizing communities ("From Langham Place to Lancashire: Poetry, Community, and the Victoria Press's Offering to Lancashire," VP 47, no. 3 [Fall 2009]: 517-532). Wise explores one of the last examples of the gift book published by the Langham Place Group, arguing that it uncomfortably associates an affective act of reading with democratic community.
The most extensive critical examination of an individual poet in her deep historical context, however, is Patricia Rigg's Julia Augusta Webster: Victorian Aestheticism and the Woman Writer (Farleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2009), a book that places Webster in her much deserved position at the center of debates on Victorian poetics and politics. This study is scrupulously researched, mining archives for important unpublished material, in particular Webster's correspondence with Macmillan and Gosse. The monograph offers a detailed, exhaustive, and systematic discussion of Webster's oeuvre, giving a sense of her generic breadth across poetry, drama, translation, children's literature, and journalism, and throwing into sharp relief her literary and political ambitions, as well as her frustrations with the suffrage movement and her lack of popular literary success. There is a wealth of new material in Rigg's account, woven into a literary biography (a critical mode about which the introduction is rather defensive). The book's argument presents the curve of Webster's career as a movement away from the dramatic and toward aestheticism. The analysis is sharpest when placing Webster specifically within the aestheticist movement, especially in chapter four which makes clear her developing poetics through reviews for the Athenaeum, but at other times "aestheticism" is used in a looser and more opaque way, as for example an appreciation for the emotional above the intellectual, death above life, and uncertainty above closure, and above all an appreciation for beauty.
While Rigg reassesses a major Victorian woman poet, Claire Broome Saunders' careful study on Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism (Palgrave, 2009) uncovers fascinating material on the little-known Louisa Stuart Costello, a poet, translator, novelist, travel writer, historian, biographer, and painter. In a chapter on war and medievalism, Saunders discusses Costello's Lay of the Stork (1856), a poem that medievalizes the Crimean War to associate "the ornamental iconization of women in Victorian society" with medieval courtly romance, in order to expose the humiliation and impotency of "passive female idols" (p. 67). Costello's Specimens of the Early Poetry of France (1835) is also key to Saunders' study as an example of how women writers translated medieval language and form into socially subversive writing (chap. 1). Women Writers and Nineteenth.Century Medievalism, which also includes analysis of poems by Hemans, Webster, and Emma Robinson, is admirable for its range and depth, but the status of poetry itself in the argument is a question overlooked, as often poems are treated in the same manner as other genres: a missed opportunity, given the recent resurgence of interest in poetic form as a historical and cultural construct.
One of the most inventive studies of the year is Jason Rudy's Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Ohio Univ. Press), which puts the body, and bodily sensations, into metrics. Rudy works within a cultural neoforrealist approach, reading the impact of discourses on electricity on meter, rhythm, and sound. The book mainly works with lyric, that supremely mediated form in the nineteenth century, exploring poetic experiments that have political ends. The electric lyric, Rudy argues, carry a sense of interpersonal community between readers and between poems: "Through the 'shock' of a felicitously placed word, a compelling linguistic friction, or a moving rhythmic pressure, poetry transmits, lightening-like, new truths to its readers" (p. 5). The first chapter deals with "the electric poetess" and approaches Hemans in terms of "communities formed through affective experience" or "a network of feeling" (p. 19), arguing intriguingly that Hemans resists a full poetics of the body and instead "keep[s] physiological experience firmly at the level of the discursive" (p. 21). For Hemans, as opposed to Mary Robinson and the Della Cruscans, sensation is "a more theoretical space of reflection" (p. 35), although at times Hemans emerges as a conflicted poet who longs for the passion of Robinson. Rudy offers a compelling reading of Hemans in terms of a reworking of physiological poetics: as an important precursor of Victorian poets such as the Spasmodics, "she transforms electricity from a literal shock to a figurative impulse: an impulse to inspire a communal conscience. Poetry for Hemans thereby enacts a transition from body to spirit, from individual to community, and electricity offers an ideal figure for this movement" (p. 39). Rudy's book thus transforms Hemans from her traditional position within the affective lyric modality of the poetess into a politicized anti-materialist who transformed emotion into an intellectual exercise. One other chapter in the book concerns Mathilde Blind in relation to Swinburne. Rather than Hemans' intellectual remove from physiological poetics, Blind represents a poetics engaged with "a world of chaotic flux, a space of colliding energies and rhythmic forces" as substitution for religious belief(p. 140). Working with Faraday's, Maxwell's, and Darwin's discourse of unseen forces, rhythms, and energies, Blind is positioned as a key poet for whom "human life is necessarily a metrical experience" (p. 159). But, for Blind, a rapturous poetics that would connect the individual to the universal is, Rudy contends, aspirational, and Blind plays out this hard lesson in the Ascent of Man and her Dramas in Miniature. In particular, for Blind, women's lives tragically cannot fit into her ideal: "the poet seems at a loss to accommodate in regulated meter the spasmodic fluctuations of women in the modern world" (p. 162). Rudy's book is wide ranging and innovative, and although Victorian women poets other than Barrett Browning occupy only a partial section of his interests, his argument compellingly suggests a new kind of female lineage based on a complex response to materialist poetics. But one of the book's strengths is its integration of women's poetry so deeply within the story of "electric meters," which positions the poetry as responsive to a rich interplay of contexts and poetics not all of which solely relate to gender issues.
Another study that integrates women's poetry seamlessly into its rich analysis is Linda H. Peterson's magisterial Becoming A Woman of Letters: Myths and Facts of the Victorian Marketplace (Princeton Univ. Press). Peterson's book will genuinely change the direction of scholarship of women's writing and the literary marketplace, a crucial emerging interest in Victorian studies in the last few years. In her chapter on Alice Meynell, Peterson crosses genre boundaries to compare Meynell's poetry to her career as an essayist, arguing "that to become a modern poet Meynell had to become more comprehensively a woman of letters" (p. 173). Her success in the development of the reflective essay allowed her, Peterson argues in a fine historicist reading, eventually to return to poetry, for in that mode Meynell worked through problems that postdated her first poetry volume Preludes, especially her place within nineteenth-century lyric traditions such as Romantic nature poetry and Sapphic verse. Peterson gives compelling close analyses of Meynell's lyrics, with an impressive ear for the history of lyric. The chapter ends with a turn to Meynell's reputation, forged by the hands of the modernists, as a conventionally Victorian rather than avant-garde essayist. Peterson reads her poetry against the grain of this assessment, returning Meynell to a deserved prominence in the history of women of letters. But she also wryly follows Meynell's second makeover as a conventional poetess in the 1890s as her own choice and astutely calls attention to the crisis of her publisher John Lane following Oscar Wilde's arrest, something that, as a backlash, caused Meynell to refashion herself as a chaste, pure, and Catholic poet in such poems as "The Shepherdess."
Another welcome examination of women's poetry in the literary marketplace is Katherine Ledbetter's British Women's Victorian Periodicals: Beauty, Civilization and Poetry (Palgrave), which augments her other excellent study of Tennyson and the periodical market. Ledbetter's new book examines the status of poetry--and specifically women's periodical poetry--in Victorian culture and is especially welcome for its discussion of what is at stake with the category of women's poetry. British Women's Victorian Periodicals places women's verse in relation to the popular print market, radically re-fashioning the canon of Victorian poetry, and calling attention to issues of taste, value, and fashion. She focuses not just on women's poetry but on poetry for women that was often anonymous. The introduction argues closely for the importance of women's periodicals, for what they tell us about Victorian ideology and the power of domesticity, as well as the cultural value placed on poetry itself and its commodification. Poetry, Ledbetter argues (following the work of Margaret Linley), was seen to civilize the Victorian home with a moral force in the time of industrialization (pp. 9-10). Simultaneously, Ledbetter keeps in view the vast spectrum of periodical poetry, especially in the sentimental and affective mode. Chapter one of the study focuses on the contemporary view that poetry was a feminine realm, and Ledbetter terms women's periodicals as "material containers" within which to examine the feminization process. Chapter two turns to religious periodical poetry that articulates feminine power within the prescribed domestic ideology. The following chapter considers the associations between poetry and beauty, reading poetry alongside fashion plates, for example, to unravel the association between poetry and affective sentiment. The final chapter concentrates on the relationship between male and female editors and the female contributors, looking in particular at the correspondence pages that trace the editorial mentoring and instruction of women poets and aspiring women poets. Ledbetter pays welcome attention to the materiality of the poem in the periodical and the richness of its contexts; her discussion of an impressively diverse and extensive range of periodicals also deserves credit. British Women's Victorian Periodicals issues a challenge to the Victorian poetry canon, inviting attention to sentimental poetry in popular print, and suggesting a fundamental revision of the history of poetry in the period. It is an engaging, important study and should inspire other investigations of women's poetry in relation to print culture.
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|Title Annotation:||Guide to the Year's Work|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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