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Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I - The Female Voice


Foreword


This series encounters poetry from the last two centuries to consider a fundamental question: what role does poetry play in political society? Poetry’s societal duty is a study that has often been neglected in favor of poetry’s relationship to language and emotion. Poetry and Politics 101 seeks to revitalise poetry in order to engage with its capacity to act as an agent of social and political change. Can poetry affect change? Can it influence people’s opinions? Can it offer a form of guidance in uncertain political times? It will also consider how poetry’s role has changed over time. Once possessing the title of the most widely read form of literature, circulated in newspapers and periodicals, and existing as a dominant feature of cultural response and reaction, poetry’s role in society started to dwindle as new forms of media began to dominate in the late 20th century. This series will work chronologically through significant time periods to consider the evolution of poetry’s role in politics and society over time.


This series will be divided into seven chapters:


  1. Poetry and Politics 101: Romantic Poetry

  2. Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry I - The Female Voice

  3. Poetry and Politics 101: Victorian Poetry II - The Male Voice and the Vote

  4. Poetry and Politics 101: Pre-First World War Poetry

  5. Poetry and Politics 101: Post-First World War Poetry

  6. Poetry and Politics 101: Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

  7. Poetry and Politics 101: Contemporary Contexts


Even in modern literary criticism, Victorian poetry has consistently been represented by male poets, excluding most female literary endeavors, with the exception of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rosetti, and the Brontë sisters. However, the dedication of these women’s contemporaries to writing poetry was often viewed as a foolish enterprise. Poetry was deemed a male occupation – a form too elevated and grand for female intervention. Despite exclusionary attempts, women continued to write, finding solidarity together. Sourcing strength in the dialogue between each other, women overcame their literary obstacles by dedicating poems to one another and responding to each other’s poems. They were encouraging a discourse that was distinctly female. This is most evident in the exchange of poems between Christina Rosetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In conversation, Rossetti writes her poem “L.E.L.” in response to Browning’s poem “L.E.L’s Last Question”. As Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain (1999) suggest, this discussion evidences a “peculiar feminine subjectivity, sociality, and homosocial bonding” (pg. xi), that served to legitimize their writing endeavors against intense scrutiny.


Writing political poetry as a Victorian woman was a difficult feat. In order to escape criticism, women had to ensure their work aligned with the perceptions of female and domestic acceptability. As such, revolutionary or subversive themes had to be carefully aligned with societal standards of female commentary or excluded altogether. Indeed, men edited female work – heightening the need for conformity and censorship of reactive statements. This is not to say that women of the time denied political space in their poetry, but rather that the necessity of conformity made their political task significantly more difficult. Despite this difficulty, many critics attest to the political discourse created by women in the period.


Figure 1: The Song. Sophie Anderson. 1881.

It is significant to account for the fact that Victorian women’s role was necessarily domestic. As such, their intervention in the world of poetry, a public sphere, was a political transgression from the private to the public – no matter how conforming the poetry may be. As Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain (1999) argue, the Victorian era witnessed the “woman poet’s powerful intervention into the ‘public’ sphere” (pg. viii), with the “huge increase in the numbers of women writing at this time” (pg. xi) evidencing the female search for a public space located outside of their inherently domestic role. The idea of a female political discourse has been a widely supported claim. Margaret Doody (1999) explores how “women’s poetry in the eighteenth century” must be dealt with in “terms of its political statement and its moral and social awareness” (pg. 3), while Paula Alexandra Guimarães (2006) considers the poetry of the Brontë sisters to uncover how “social and political conflict… unequivocally ‘informs’ their poetry" (pg. 2). With these critical views in mind, it is clear that Victorian female poets were actively engaged in the politics of their time, navigating criticism and dismissal in a patriarchal hegemony.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) is a poem multifaceted in its political approach. It is critical to understand that Browning was not committed to a feminist interpretation of womanhood that regarded women as intellectual equals to men. According to Deidre David (2008), "Barrett Browning believed woman was the intellectual inferior of man" (pg. 114), agreeing with her husband Robert Browning when he referred to women's existence as the "softer sex" is the reason for their exclusion from parliament (David, 2008, pg. 115). Further, Dorothy Mermin (1986) attests to Browning’s inclination to “desp[ise] sentimental young women” (pg. 64), and to the fact that in her “earliest literary imaginings” (pg. 64), Browning hovered between "two mutually exclusive literary roles" (Mermin, 1986, pg. 64). - the need to express herself, and the limitations imposed by her gender.


Some cite Browning’s thematic evocation of rape, female misery, and the struggle for female professional recognition as evidence of Aurora Leigh as a necessarily revolutionary poem and a passionate condemnation of the Victorian patriarchy. However, it is important to consider her more conservative views of women when analyzing the poem. David (2008) attests that Browning conforms to the sexual politics of her time, constructing her poem as a female poet who “performs a ‘service’ for a patriarchal vision” (pg. 113). This is perhaps her resolution for the tension between her want for self-assertion and her gender, being sure not to transgress gender boundaries by maintaining the female submissive role. Browning is fairly revolutionary in her explicit representation of the "fallen" woman that dismisses condemnation, inciting pity by placing blame on social wounds. Although, it is significant to alert to the fact that by doing so, Browning is not writing against the patriarchy. After all, in her poem, she subscribes to the Victorian patriarchal ideal of the female as a nurturing entity when her protagonist Aurora becomes a mother to the raped Marian.


Figure 2: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Michele Gordigiani. 1858.

This is not to say Browning does not respond to feminist ideology. Indeed, it must be considered that the treatment of prostitution in Aurora Leigh works directly against the virgin-whore dichotomy that dominated the Victorian discourse. Rewriting this narrative, Browning seeks to portray the fallen woman not as a fatally condemned woman, but rather as a wronged victim. At first, Browning adheres to the condemnation, constructing Aurora as a representation of idle-class values in her “initial priggish and conventional assumptions about Marian’s illegitimate pregnancy” (Thorne-Murphy, 2005, pg. 251). Aurora’s initial reaction conforms to the former figuration of the dichotomy, when she assumes Marian left her husband “to take / the hand of a seducer” (Browning, 1846, 6. 746-747). Despite this, as will be discussed later, Aurora eventually shows sympathy for Marian, aligning with a discourse that portrayed prostitutes as wronged victims rather than fallen, condemned women.


Browning cites this change in female responsibility for accountability. She believes it is the responsibility of women to nurture and protect these victims in order to eradicate sexual violence as a social wound from society. She declares, “It is exactly because pure and prosperous women choose to ignore vice, that miserable women suffer wrong by it everywhere” (Qtd in David, 2008, pg. 120). However, notice how Browning blames upper-class female ignorance for female struggle rather than patriarchal misdeeds. As such, Aurora’s nurturing of the raped, fallen woman in Aurora Leigh can be read as evidence of what women can do to heal the social wounds of society, separate from any criticism of the patriarchal structures that caused the woman to fall. The imagery of wounding is an important motif in Aurora Leigh, as David (2008) points out. “Marian is violently wounded by rape” and wounding imagery surfaces in “a hellish scene of diseased bodies swelling the aisles of the church where Romney and Marian are to be married” (David, 2008, pg. 120). The idea of wounding is raised by Browning during the Crimean War when she noted that “there are worse … wounds than the physical. What of the forty thousand wretched women in this city? The silent writhing of them is to me more appalling than the roar of the cannons” (Qtd in David, 2008, pg. 121). According to this viewpoint, Browning represents social evil as a social wound (David, 2008, p. 121), but does not place blame on patriarchy. Instead, the nurturing motif of the poem symbolizes Browning’s preoccupation with the duty of women as healers of the social wound. Her political approach is, as such, not an outward critique of patriarchal failure, but rather a recognition of female duty within patriarchal structures.


Figure 3: The Great Social Evil. John Leech. 1857.

Perhaps one element of the poem that diverges from this view of Browning’s political ideas is her representation of women’s struggle for professional recognition. In this way, Browning aligns the female body with an incapacity for social commentary. As Barbara Barrow (2015) recognizes, the poem's emphasis on the female body “fuels the poem’s internal dismissal of women’s poetry” (pg. 243). Barrow (2015) cites the interaction with the male antagonist Romney Leigh, who insists that women are incapable of engaging in contemporary debates because they are limited in their ability to understand beyond their own experience:


“All’s yours and you, All, coloured with your blood, or otherwise Just nothing to you” (Browning, 1890, II. 196 – 198).

In this way, the female body becomes a subject of scrutiny, raising tension in the politics that Browning struggles to resolve. If women, as she so believes, are the intellectual inferior to men, and have no direct experience in contemporary political issues, how can they legitimize their literary attempts? As Barrow (2015) suggests:

Aurora Leigh’s political poetics … turns on the conflict between two kinds of bodies: the larger social body the poet seeks to represent and the distorting presence of her own embodied, feminine sensibility” (Barrow, 2015, pg. 243).

This tension is elevated by Browning’s desire to become a “true poet-prophet” (Thorne-Murphy, 2005, pg. 242), making it clear that action was needed to eliminate sexual violence and ultimately prostitution. Aligning with the previously discussed female duty, Aurora attempts to rescue Marian and by doing so, “becomes the embodiment of Barrett Browning’s idealized vision of social amelioration” (Thorne-Murphy, 2005, pg. 242). In Book 6, Aurora exhibits extreme pity and passion for the wronged Marian, promising to protect the fallen woman. She says: “Sweet holy Marian! / … by the child, / I swear his mother shall be innocent” (Browning, 1986, 6. 778-781). It is this very passion and devotion, for Browning, that epitomizes the female duty: action against sexual violence that will heal social wounds.

Figure 4: Yes or No? Charles West Cope. 1872.

Ultimately, the depiction of the female duty to nurture and protect wronged women reveals Browning’s political ambitions for the poem. According to Thorne-Murphy, the depiction of rape resolves her doubts about the ability of female poetical ability, sourcing the advocation of female nurture towards these wronged women as the key to healing society's social wounds. While her depiction of rape and prostitution would have been shocking to modern readers, her poetry in this depiction does not seek to destabilize aspects of patriarchy. Rather, she identifies a female responsibility to heal social wounds—to assist fallen women if society is to heal. Her politics are both conformative and reactionary, evoking a sensitive social subject that must be depicted within male-acceptable boundaries. Her poem evidences the Victorian feminine desire to speak for the political, though not without expressing doubt of their ability to do so.


Emily Brontë and the ‘passion for freedom’

Ian Ward’s (2008) assertion that there is “no easy separation of the poetic and the political” (pg. 525) is significant to the understanding of the poetry of Emily Brontë. Her most famous work, Wuthering Heights, is filled with subversive political topics generally removed from the usual conversation in Victorian England such as “drunkenness, godlessness, licentiousness [and] myriad forms of delinquency” (Ward, 2008, pg. 529). As a result, it would be surprising for her poetry to be void of political commentary. Brontë’s preoccupation with politics is further enlightened by a consideration of the era in which she grew up. As Terry Eagleton (2005) suggests, she lived through a period of intense social change, which shaped "the inmost recesses of [her] personal life” (Eagleton, 2005, pg. 7). Indeed, the conditions of the Napoleonic wars, which created the "social and psychological atmosphere" (Guimarães, 2006, pg. 2) that affected a whole generation of Victorians, resulted in Brontë becoming “consumed by a passion for freedom” (Guimarães, 2006, pg. 2). The culmination of these critical views enlightens our understanding of Brontë’s political interest. The climate in which she grew up encouraged her writing to engage with a strong affiliation for political commentary, from her most famous novel to her poetry.


Figure 5: Emily Brontë. Branwell Brontë. 1833.

If it was surprising for contemporary readers to read a gothic-style poem written by a woman featuring prison, chains, and captives, it would be perhaps even more surprising that the captive was in fact, a woman. Brontë immediately subverts the image of the male captor, depicting a female captive “as soft and mild / as sculptured marble saint”(Brontë, 1846, lines 16-17). While this poem follows a Petrarchan-style portrayal of the female as pure, innocent, and alluring, it trivializes her position as a prisoner. Figuring a prisoner as a woman, and in the terms of historical figurations of the beautiful, virtuous woman, immediately casts doubt on her reason for being contained. It is clear her intentions are political for the poem – a reflection of the tyranny Brontë recognized within her age, with its revolutions and turmoil. The figuration of a female captive also suggests a female-centric approach, with a prison-scene reflecting the position of women in Victorian England. Bound by patriarchal limitations, the female captive expresses a desire for freedom, for the ability to express both her desire and her rationality free of patriarchal restraint. In the poem, the captive raises notions of freedom, in which “a soundless calm descends; the struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends” (Brontë, 1846, lines 44-45) thus suggesting a liberation from the boundaries of patriarchal social freedoms imposed on women.


Towards the end of the poem, the woman speaks of the “Invisible; the Unseen … truth” (Brontë, 1846, line 49) that reveals itself, a winged essence that is “almost free” (line 51). Freedom engulfs the poem, becoming a sign of strength for the women captive. Indeed, even though the captive’s realignment with her senses, and with her own rationality, when "the eye begins to see … the brain to think again” (Brontë, 1946, line 55 - 56), is “agony” (line 54), she finds strength in her perception. She admits she would “lose no sting, would wish no torture less / The more that anguish racks, the earlier it will bless” (line 58-59). In this sense, it appears the captive is empowered by her subversion of the patriarchy. Indeed, the evocation of “heavenly shine” (line 61) and an unseen truth permits a reading that the captive finds no struggle in her chains, both literal and metaphorical, because she knows that there is hope in the heavenly. Earlier in the poem, the captive relays that a “messenger of Hope comes every night to me” (line 38), suggesting a biblical element to the poem. In reward for a “short life” (line 39) the messenger offers her “eternal liberty” (line 39). The strength in her conviction, that chains and binds hold little effect on her – clearly stemming from her knowledge that one day she will be rewarded in heaven. The poem’s meaning is enlightened by this biblical evocation, suggesting a message of hope for her readers when all hope seems lost.


Figure 6: Past and Present, No. 1. Augustus Leopold Egg. 1858.

This motif of freedom in the poem follows Guimarães’s (2006) perception of Brontë’s life as an ongoing expression of her “passion for freedom” (pg. 2), suggesting a disparity between Browning, whose literary expressions conformed to the patriarchy, and Brontë, who wishes to express disdain for patriarchal confinement. Indeed, this view is strengthened by Cecil Day Lewis’s perception that “the source of her proud recalcitrance, her preoccupation with themes of captivity, exile, and freedom was her sex; the limitation of not being a man”. (Qtd in Chichester, 1991, pg. 1). This critical view strengthens the reading of the poem as a commentary on female limitation, in which themes of captivity and imprisonment, and the subsequent hope for freedom, are inextricably bound to her own sexual limitations. Significantly, as has been previously explored, Brontë is still operating within the literary confines of the patriarchy, where both editing, publication, and criticism are dominated by men and masculine perception.


Indeed, the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne wrote under male pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in order to evade criticism. Still, her political purpose must be, to at least some extent, hidden. Writing in an era still in the wake of tyranny and revolution, her evocation of dungeons, prisoners, and tyranny would not have been a subversive approach for the poem. Further, Brontë constructs careful imagery that could be interpreted as teetering on the edge of fantasy. With her sister Anne, Emily Brontë constructed the fantasy world of Gondal, an imaginary construct that allowed her to comment on contemporary events without direct reference. The events of the Gondal world feature the protagonist Augusta, who takes lover after lover. This is clearly a world where Emily turned to imaginative endeavors to depict her hopes for female freedom and empowerment. Indeed, in her poem “Cold in the Earth”, the speaker exhibits the same ideas of freedom contained within “The Prisoner”:

“From those brown hills have melted into spring – Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers After such years of change and suffering!” (Brontë, 1846, lines 9-12)

Figure 7: Women in the Prison. Ottó Baditz. 1899.

Just as the female captive refuses to give up hope in the face of suffering, the speaker of "Cold in the Earth" alludes to an impending change, from which hope against suffering and tyranny can be derived. Indeed, “The Prisoner” has been sourced as an early installment of the Gondal series, with the speaker being the son of a King in the realm of Gondal. As such, some element of fantasy seeps into “The Prisoner”, strengthened by the spirit of the captive which becomes almost mystical. The strength endowed to the captive seems to transcend the capability of the contemporary woman, and her out-of-body experience in her visions also raises a fanciful element. As such, Brontë succeeds in depicting a subversive political theme, of female empowerment, and hope for female strength, by lacing it with elements of fantasy that allow her to escape censorship.


From these two poetical readings, one gains the impression that female Victorian poetry was a multifaceted and diverse political endeavor. While women found solidarity in their connections with each other, their political approaches significantly differed. Both poets succeeded in depicting their respective political themes by focusing on women, though their regard of the patriarchy was certainly disparate. While Browning adhered to patriarchal views of women and their writing expectations, presenting a theme of female struggle that sourced women as both the blame and the cure, Brontë's political preoccupations were more subversive. Brontë sourced hope in a female empowerment that operated against patriarchy in her representations of themes of captivity and freedom, carefully constructed in a world removed from reality to avoid censorship or refusal of publication. Either way, it is clear that women of the Victorian period were preoccupied with politics. The poems in this article evidence the female dedication to writing poetry in an age of revolution, gender criticism, and political turmoil, each with their own vibrant, attentive, and nuanced ways of responding to the political at a time when the political was still considered an unsuitable topic for female commentary.


Bibliographical References

Armstrong, I. and Blain, V. (1999). “Preface”. Women’s Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820.

Barrow, B. (2015). Gender, Language, and the Politics of Disembodiment in “Aurora Leigh.” Victorian Poetry, 53(3), 243–262. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26160163.

Brontë, E. (1846). “Cold in the Earth”. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

Brontë, E. (1846). “The Prisoner”. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

Browning, E. B. (1890). Aurora Leigh, a poem. New York, Worthington co.

Chichester, T. (1991). “Evading ‘Earth’s Dungeon Tomb’: Emily Brontë, A.G.A., and the Fatally Feminine”. Victorian Poetry, 29(1), pp. 1- 15.

David, D. (2008). “Art’s a Service’: Social Wound, Sexual Politics, and Aurora Leigh”. Victorian Literature and Culture, pp. 113-121.

Doody, M. (1999). “Sensuousness in the Poetry of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets”. Women’s Poetry in the Enlightenment, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 3-32.


Eagleton, T. (2005). Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. Palgrave Macmillan.

Guimarães, P. (2006). “The Political Dimension of the Poetry Written by the Brontës: Dramatizing the Constructions of Class, Nation, Religion and Gender”. Poetry and Politics Conference.

Mermin, D. (1986). “The Damsel, the Knight, and the Victorian Woman Poet”. Critical Inquiry, 13(1).

Thorne-Murphy, L. (2005). “Prostitute rescue, rape, and poetic inspiration in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh”. Women’s Writing, 12(2), pp. 241-258.

Ward, I. (2008). “Emily Brontë and the Terrorist Imagination”. English Studies, 89(5), pp. 524-551.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Anderson, S. (1881). The Song [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/victorian-women-artists-in-public-collections-the-case-of-sophie-anderson


Figure 2: Gordigiani, M. (1858). Elizabeth Barrett Browning [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/feb/15/what-we-can-learn-from-elizabeth-barrett-brownings-years-in-lockdown


Figure 3: Leech, J. (1853). The Great Social Evil [Cartoon]. Retrieved from: https://victorianweb.org/periodicals/punch/49.html


Figure 4: Cope, C. W. (1872). Yes or No? [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.mimimatthews.com/2017/04/24/twelve-victorian-era-tips-on-the-etiquette-of-ladylike-letter-writing/


Figure 5: Brontë, B. (1833). Emily Brontë [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Emily-Bronte/images-videos


Figure 6: Egg, A. L. (1858). Past and Present, No. 1 [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/past-and-present-no-1-117705