Over the years, the female body has come to represent the symbol of sexuality and the object of glamorization for male viewers. One could easily create an analogy between a woman and a sculpt that has been stretched, molded, shrunk in some parts while filled in others to aesthetically fulfill the sculptor. Women are often on display as beautiful passive ornaments that are devoid of sexual desires. In fact, the demonetization of female sexuality as well as the societal narration that depicts its expression as an act of unspeakable audacity that wants women chained to patriarchal whims has become a major problem insofar that people refuse to acknowledge female sexuality as a part of a healthy human identity with a fear of being condemned and stigmatized by the judgmental eyes of society.
Svoloch S. Beauty of Female Body Drawing. [Digital Photograph]. Saatchi Art. (1)
Religion has also played a crucial role in dismissing women's sexuality and planted little seeds of guilt in the female psyche for experiencing their own sexual drive. The unrealistic image of “The Virgin Mary” epitomized the female form and criticized sexuality unless it was “closely linked with the idea of ‘voluntary motherhood', the idea that a woman ought to have children only when she desired them, and never as an unwanted byproduct of male lust” (Hansord). (1) The shame that has surrounded women’s sexual appetite, and the label of a sinful act that was placed on it has suppressed women’s sexual desires so that only their husband can awaken and guide them through their sexuality. Even when it came to the anatomy of the female body, men have appeared to stand as the experts on women’s physical pleasure. Mansplaining, a term that functions as a sociocultural silencer to women’s needs, reflects the value that lies inherent in men’s knowledge about issues that do not concern them, and which men have no personal experience over, as the female body (Merriam- Webster). (2)
However, poetry, an artistic device that often raises doubts and seeks to challenge the solidified foundations of institutionalized gender discrimination, has addressed the issue of female sexuality, and attempted to naturalize women’s libido. Indeed, Christopher Brennan, a famous Australian Poet born in 1870 was one of the few male poets who subscribed to feminist perspectives that were very progressive for the 19th Century (Britannica, 2021). (3) Particularly, his poem “The Shadow of Lilith” (1913) constitutes an extraordinary example of sexual representations in the female body. Moreover, Lilith, the name of the woman in Brennan’s poetic title, represents a deviation from the socially conventional female model. Lilith is the opposite of a refined and a docile woman as she symbolizes sexual energy (Charania, 2006). (4) Finding her origin in Bible, Lilith was sent out of heaven because she deemed her sexual desires to be equal with Adam, and was a goddess who wanted to release her sexual energy and bear the role of the dominant during the intercourse. In a sense, Lilith represents the concept of difference that refuses to be subordinated to the principle of identity (Hillger, 2006). (5) “The Shadow of Lilith” was a poem that became extremely popular during the 20th century, and soon Christopher Brennan’s name was associated with Lilith as well as female sexual liberation.
Collier J. (1989).Lilith. Painting. Arthive. (2)
Indeed, the poem is saturated with images that allude to sexual intercourse and the loss of purity through the imagery of flowers. For instance, the tuberose flower is known to symbolize wild pleasure and innocence, and the image of the rose alludes to the female genitalia and eroticism (Little Flower Hut 2019). (6) The mention of blood is also evident in the poem which stands as a symbol both for the menstrual cycle as well as the loss of blood that transpires during an erotic union that shatters the virgin hymen. Christopher Brennan, through the figure of Lilith, illustrates the complexity of female anatomy and how women experience their bodies in a different manner than men. Perhaps one could say that for multiple features and occasions in female body such as the menstrual cycle, the intricate nature as well as the source of multiple orgasmic pleasures, childbearing and birth:
"The tuberose thickens the air: a swoon....
some rose of rare-reveal'd delight: oh, soon! -
…. Rare ooze of odour drowns our faint delight, some spilth of love that languishes unshared, a rose that bleeds unseen, the heart of night; whose sweetness holds us, wondering, ensnared..." (Brennan 1913) (7)
Also, Brennan depicts Lilith as an equal to Adam; and although the Biblical story portrays Lilith under a monstrous and sinful light, the poet characterizes her as a woman. She is a woman that has become an outcast to paradise, a lonely figure wandering around merely because she had voiced her latent sexual desires:
"the outcast...betrayal gave her to the malefice,
that all thro' time afflicts her lonely face,
O bleeding rose, alone! O heart of night!" (7)
Lilith resembles the mystery of the night, the darkness and depth of the female soul and body. The night is an indispensable part of existence, and is necessary for the continuation of life. It draws a heavenly picture in the sky with the flickering light of the stars just like the body of a woman. The female body is complex and mysterious in its existence; it offers beauty and life as the night. Reducing women’s bodies to objects of passivity and stripping them of carnal desires is unrealistic and dehumanizing for the human species. Moreover, simplifying the female pleasure and placing men in the position of demonstrators on how the female body works clashes with the concept of human rights and female autonomy.
Taking everything into consideration, Bernan’s poetic concerns are extremely progressive for the period his poem, “The Shadow of Lilith” was written, but it also constitutes a landmark that is indicative of the change that was happening in the dynamics of gender relations. Accepting the female body as it is and allowing women to freely express their sexuality without bearing shame upon it can tremendously ameliorate the experience of being a woman and human.
Hansord, K. C.J. Brennan’s Lilith: Representations of female sexuality in Poems . Deakin University. file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/9760-25745-1-PB.pdf
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Mansplain. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved 2 November 2021 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mansplain
Britannica (2021). Christopher Brennan. In J. E. Luebering, The editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Christopher-Brennan-Australian-poet
Charania, (2006). The Power of the Seductress: Lady Lilith. The Victorian Web. https://victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/paintings/charania4.html
Hillger (2006). Not Needing All the Words. McGill-Queen's University Press.
Little Flower Hut (2019). All about Tuberose- History, Meaning, Facts, Care and More. https://www.littleflowerhut.com.sg/flower-guide/all-about-tuberose-history-meaning-facts-care-more/
Brennan (1913). "The Shadow of Lilith". Internet Poem. https://internetpoem.com/christopher-john-brennan/iii-the-shadow-of-lilith-poem/
Svoloch S. Beauty of Female Body Drawing. [Digital Photograph]. Saatchi Art. https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Drawing-beauty-of-female-body/1346507/6630209/view
Collier J. (1989).Lilith. Painting. Arthive. https://arthive.com/artists/63873~John_Collier/works/336527~Lilith