Ultimately, these books are less concered to prove literary tradition
than they are interested in the phenomenon of women's poetry as a sign
of women's culture. This is why my discussion of this tradition deals explicitly
with poetic autobiography, with the way women have expressed cultural norms
in their self-representations. This is also why history becomes so important.
One cannot ignore the fact that Anne Bradstreet saw herself as a Puritan,
that Emily Dickinson lived in the era of "the cult of true womanhood,"
that Ella Wheeler Wilcox fancied the freedom of the "new woman" in the
By the time the first volume of Emily Dickinson's poems had gone through eleven editions, that is by the end of 1892, the "gentle lady" whose "dimity convictions" Dickinson had scorned no longer presided unopposed over the social scene. The theory of separate spheres was on the wane and the "new woman" had arrived, expressing herself with a new frankness and invading traditionally masculine enclaves. Genteel magazines were beginning to publish women in great numbers. Often the poems published in Scribner's Century, and the Atlantic were unidentifiable as to gender. In this brief transitional period male and female poets were almost indistinguishable, which is why critics like George Santayana, Thomas Beer, and Fred Lewis Pattee were dissatisfied with the verse and called it effeminate, gutless, dainty.
One observer summarized the new situation in which women found themselves in the following way:
No longer were women praised for their effusiveness and men for their control of the language. In the introduction to his famous American Anthology, Edmund Clarence Stedman half-seriously called this period "the woman's age." Unlike his predecessor, Rufus Griswold, Stedman did not relegate women poets to a separate volume. Women were still not the mainstay of American verse, he felt, but at least they were competing in the same league.Their volumes, bound in creamy vellum and daintily tinted cloth, began more and more to fill the book tables, until reviewers no longer could give separate notice to them, but must consider the poets of a month in groups of ten or twelve. The quality of the feminine product was high enough to find place in most exclusive monthlies, and the quantity published was surprising. The Atlantic Monthly, for instance, during the decade from 1870 published 108 poems by Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Aldrich, and 450 other poems, and of the latter 201 were by women.
In spite of changing conditions, however, women's poems were not substantially different in attitude from their predecessors'. Birds winging their way into the ether still symbolically expressed missed or rejected opportunities. The sanctuary motif remained a constant; both Lizette Woodworth Reese and Louise Imogen Guiney -- among the most highly respected women poets of the day -- wrote poems titled "Sanctuary." Furthermore, women of the 1890s continued to use poetry to create fantasies of power, only to end by rejecting their implications. Martyrdom persisted as a haunting strain in their work. To inhabit a purely spiritualized world seemed preferable than to bid for this one.
Secret sorrow is present in the poetry also. Lizette Reese's "Reticence" and Margaret Deland's "Love's Wisdom" offer examples of two different types. The Reese poem is of the older variety, similar to Helen Hunt Jackson's, using a speaker who will hide her feelings about her dead lover.
The Deland poem, however, is peculiarly modern in spite of its Renaissance language. Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Louise Bogan, and Edna St. Vincent Millay would write many such poems. Secret sorrow here merges with Helen Hunt Jackson's theme of passionate silence.They shall not know how stripped a thing am I,
Unroofed, unharbored, clinging to a spar!
Hardly for the first time but with a new boldness, women poets took up the theme of passion. Ella Wheeler Wilcox's Poems of Passion (1883) created a scandal and became a sensation. The burning kiss, so offensive to some members of the Victorian world, grew to be a stock feature in women's poems. However, more than ever before, sexuality and romantic love in general became hyphenated with an equally old theme, death. Helen Hunt Jackson's ghostly lovers flit through the poems of many fin-de-siecle females. Death itself is eroticized and erotic love is made morbid. Emily Dickinson, with her "wild nights" and deflowering bees, could write provocatively, even frankly, about sex; one is sometimes unsure whether the experience a poem describes is love or death. But nowhere in her work does one find the morbid ecstasy of her neice, Marth Gilbert Dickinson, who wrote:So, though I worship at thy feet,
I'll be discreet--
And all my love shall not be told,
Lest thou be cold,
And, knowing I was always thine,
Scorn to be mine.
So am I dumb, to rescue thee
And by my silence, I do prove
Wisdom and Love! [Stedman]
The times seemed to inspire such poems, for men were writing them too. Richard Hovey, for instance, put these fervent lines in a poem called "Laurana's Song: For 'A Lady of Venice'":Deep down in the dusk of passion-haunted ways,
Lost in the dreaming alchemies of tone,--
Drenched in the dew no other wings frequent,
--Our thirsting hearts drank in the breath
Of violets and love in death.-- [Stedman, "Her Music"]
Perhaps some of this was due to the unacknowledged influence of poets like Swinburne, but more likely there was something in the late Victorians that coupled titillation with punishment. The pornography of the times attests to this, but at a more genteel level the poetry does, too. Death becomes at one and the same moment the final fillip in the decadents' demand for excitement and an escape from the intense psychic pressures this demand creates. Take, for instance, the opening lines of "Love's Kiss" by Helen Hay:Let him come here, and kiss me on the mouth,
And have his will!
Love dead and dry as summer in the South
When winds are still,
And all the leafage shrivels in the heat!
Let him come here and linger at my feet
Till he grow weary with the over-sweet,
And die, or kill. [Stedman]
The life that will "quiver to an end" vibrates with both pain and pleasure. Death, the climax to life, here comes as a "sweet" terminus.Kiss me but once, and in that space supreme
My whole dark life shall quiver to an end,
Sweet Death shall see my heart and comprehend
That Life is crowned, and in an endless gleam
Will fix the color of the dying stream,
That Life and Death will meet as friend with friend.
Among male poets there were those, like Thomas Hornsby Ferril and Richard Hovey, who defied such tendencies in American poetry and wrote rugged nature poems, fierce accolades of Walt Whitman, or, like Hamlin Garland, stirring lyrics drawn from the American West. Among women, however, even a supposedly "virile" poet like Louise Imogen Guiney seems less hardy, less death-defying, than death-enamored.
In point of fact, women poets of this period were still more fully engaged in the drama of life's disappointments than were their male counterparts. Not competely at home with their recent past, they were still not quite attuned to their future. Femininity seemed too fragile, masculinity too alien to them. Their work dramatizes the development of preoccupations traditionally feminine into lyric expressions surprisingly modern. They were poets of the transition, wearing new fashions to do traditional work.
In an article entitled "The Transitional American Woman" published in the Atlantic Monthly in Decembe 1880, Kate Gannett Wells describes the woman of the day in these terms:
Women do not care for their home as they did; it is no longer the focus of all their endeavors; nor is the mother the involuntary nucleus of the adult children. Daughters must have art studios outside their home; authoresses must have a study near by; and aspirants to culture must attend classes or readings in some semi-public place. Professional women have found that, however dear the home is, they can exist without it.When we remember Emily Dickinson's feverish proclamations about her blessed home, when we recall Mary Hewitt's "Hearth of Home" and Lydia Sigourney's enthusiasm for the functions of the house-wife and mother, it seems we have come very far from them. Still, these new women could hardly be called liberated in the sense in which we understand the word today or even in the sense in which the 1920s might have used it. Poets and professional women may have been more self-sufficient than their mothers. They still lived in a world where many occupations were closed to them. Lizette Woodworth Reese had to support herself by being a schoolteacher for 48 years. Louise Guiney went from being postmistress of the Auburndale, Massachusetts, post office to becoming a cataloguer in the Boston Public Library. These were rather new jobs for women to hold but still low-paying and not nearly as glamorous as being a college professor or the editor of an important magazine, jobs held by her friends Oliver Wendell Holmes and Richard Watson Gilder. Furthermore, none of these women was sexually aggressive. They would have been horrified by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was horrified by Amy Lowell. Although she was pro-sufferage, Louise Guiney was dismayed by America's overly eager "gynaecocracy." She preferred women who were sturdier and more reticent.
In this Guiney shared with a number of other successful women a profound suspicion about "the new woman" and the social changes inevitable in her wake. To Richard Watson Gilder she wrote in 1894: "I am not in the least given to any violent interest in womankind, such as has addled the country's brains of late. Give me a man-and-woman world: 'tis good enough!"
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, for her part, took up "the woman question" with relish and published Men, Women and Emotions in 1893. In it she assaults the contemporary tendency to denigrate housekeeping as a woman's role. She says that the wife "should consider this work the sacrifice she offers on the alter of love, and compel herself to do it well, and cheerfully, if the necessity presents itself." However, Wilcox was also capable of writing, "I sometimes think that God is a woman--He is expected to forgive so much." Wilcox did not wish to have the vote herself because she felt her domestic and professional activities left her too little time to inform herself adequately about politics. Although she castigated weak men who tried to belittle women's achievements, she was always very careful to present herself in public as a "man's woman," totally devoted to her husband. She wrote: "To be a gifted poet is a glory; to be a worth-while woman is a greater glory."
The lives of Wilcox, Guiney, and Reese inform us in numerous ways that they were women of their generation. While the Atlantic, Century, and North American Review published articles like "Are Women to Blame?" "Our Foolish Virgins," "The Change in the Feminine Ideal," and "The Steel-Engraving Lady and the Gibson Girl," these women poets were themselves embodiments of the transition so interesting to the press.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the most shocking of the three to her generation, was probably the most deeply conventional. She would have agreed wholeheartedly with Lydia Sigourney that "the soul of woman lives in love." At an early age she became involved in the temperance movement and this gave her a taste for causes that lasted until the end of her life. She herself was her own greatest cause, but like many of her civic-minded female contemporaries, she extended her interests into other areas. During the first world war, Wilcox composed a famous poem as a reaction to the threat of venereal disease called "Soldiers, Come Back Clean." One cannot imagine Lydia Sigourney writing such a poem.
However, unlike many feminists of the time, Wilcox was not part of the Purity Crusade, intended in part to curb male passions in order to bring them more into line with women's supposedly moderate desires. Wilcox was a passionate woman. She wrote: "It is impossible for an absolutely passionless woman to be either just or generous in her judgments of humanity at large. It is a strange fact that she needs an admixture of the baser physical element, to broaden her spiritual vision, and quicken her sympathies" (Men, Women and Emotions, p. 298).
However, the accusations of immorality that greeted the publication of Poems of Passion in 1883 were entirely unfounded; Wilcox was not a libertine. A Chicago newspaper claimed that she had written poems that "out-Swinburned Swinburne and out-Whitmaned Whitman." She quickly sold 60,000 copies. Just as the book was coming out, however, she married Robert Wilcox, a 40-year-old gentleman of established respectability to whom she seems to have been utterly faithful and fiercely loyal all her life. That a thoroughly virtuous woman should produce remarks with the most startling implications was a phenomenon not uncharacteristic of the age. In an article called "Our Foolish Virgins" published in 1901, Eliot Gregory described what he called "bouyant hoidens" who offended Victorian ideas of decorum and yet were in fact girls "of spotless respectability."' This was a time of greater titillation than explicit sexuality. Ella Wheeler Wilcox enjoyed the shocked attention she received but she was firm with the men who wrote to her. One who sought her out was bought a ticket and put back on the train.
Although unusual in some ways, Wilcox was conventional to the extent that she wanted all her life to please the majority. She played to the masses and in doing so forfeited the respect of more critically sophisticated judges of her poetry like Edmund Clarence Stedman. Her career as a successful woman in her terms, was more important to her than her art. For two years after her marriage she did not write, and when in her late fifties her husband died, she had a nervous breakdown. Ella Wheeler Wilcox died of cancer in 1919, having realized too late that instead of lifting the level of the general taste she had sunk to conforming to its dictates and thus reinforced mediocrity. However, her life was an inspiration to other women who saw her as an independent female who had managed marriage and a career without undue strain. As a matter of fact, from that point of view, she was quite unusual for her time, a professional woman who tried to play a conventional wifely role as well.
At the turn of the century America was producing a growing number of
professional women. Between 1880 and 1900 women in tile labor force doubled,
and between 1890 and 1910 female enrollment in college tripled. In contrast
to co-ed institutions, women's colleges in this period emphasized rigorous
intellectual training for their female graduates, and a growing number
of these did not marry. In 1903 a sampling of Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley
graduates between the ages
of 26 and 37 showed that only 25% were married as opposed to the large majority of women married at similar ages in the rest of the population. In interviews women from this class of intellectuals admitted that they saw marriage and a career as mutually exclusive. Not always without regret, they accepted their role as outsiders to domestic culture.
Although neither Lizette Reese nor Louise Guiney attended college, they shared many of the same values as these professional women. Like them, neither Reese nor Guiney married. Theirs were lives of intellectual companionship with other women and with close male friends. Reese devoted her energies to reading and to teaching in the Baltimore school system. When one encounters her statement "that the pupils were in school to do their duty, and I was there to do mine," one is almost tempted to feel that the age of the "new woman" had passed her by. After all, Margaret Deland described one of the changes in the feminine ideal as the transformation of the nineteenth-century concept of duty into a new sense of duty to oneself. Yet, although Reese was still Victorian enough to assume she had a duty to others, she was hardly an old-fashioned "steel-engraving lady. From 1877 to 1881 she taught in a black high school in Baltimore, and she is said to have considered these some of the happiest years of her life. Furthermore, Reese was one of the founders of the Women's Literary Club in Baltimore. At a time when there was an enormous upsurge of women's clubs and societies, Reese became active in creating one devoted to literature. In 1931 she was named poet laureate of the state.
Lizette Reese's career spans a series of years in which great changes took place. She was born in 1856 and died in 1935. Her first book was A Branch of May published in 1887. The last book of her poems to be published during her lifetime was Pastures (1933). Throughout this period she maintained her own point of view with regard to literary fashions. During the heyday of the free verse movement, she wrote little. Later she commented: "The term free verse was untenable, for verse, like all Art, is under the law; its only liberty comes from that. But the movement, when it had spent its initial force, had succeeded in shaking up and revigorating the traditionalists; this was worth every blow struck in the battle."
In the 1920s when women in great numbers were again publishing her kind of poetry, Reese began to re-emerge as a poet. Robert Hariss claims that both Teasdale and Millay were "deeply indebted" to her. It is curiously suggestive that there are prophetic echoes of Wylie, Teasdale, and Millay in the 1890s' poetry of all three of these women, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Lizette Woodworth Reese, and Louise Imogen Guiney. Obviously, the 1920s' revolution in manners and morals that fostered the flapper poets had begun in the 1890s with the "bachelor woman" and "the Gibson Girl."
Caroline Ticknor, writing in 1901, characterized the Gibson Girl as wearing "a short skirt and heavy square toed shoes, a mannish collar, cravat, and vest, and a broad-brimmed felt hat tipped jauntily upon one side." She imagined her saying: "I can do everything my brothers do; and do it rather better, I fancy. I am an athlete and a college graduate, with a wide, universal outlook. My point of view is free from narrow influences, and quite outside of the home boundaries."
Louise Guiney was not a Gibson Girl. None of the innocent impishness of this person could have been hers, and yet she was in her own way a rebel against Victorian prudery. Her contempt for Victoria was violent:
That money-saving, gillie-adoring, etiquette-blinded, pudgy, plodding, unspiritual, unliterary, mercantile, dowdy, sparkless, befogged, continuous Teuton lady is not, in one's line of life, a Necessary. How could Van Dyke have posed her? What could Falkland have said to her which would have been comprehended? [Letters I, pp. xiv-xv]Fuming over Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, she wrote to a friend: "As the godly Mr. Wilfrid Meynell said in his pious paper . . . when reviewing a bookful of virtuous gentlewoman circa 1670, who were of a punless cast of mind--'O for an hour of Nell Gwynne!'" [Letters, I, p. 174].
Like the Gibson Girl, Guiney had a healthy taste for outdoor activities,
particularly for brisk walking. She once remarked: "If ever I get to Paradise,
I have a stipulation: that I shall play games in the open air, for ever
and ever" (Letters, 1, p. 140). In 1895 she took a walking tour
of England and Wales with her friend Alice Brown. They were unchaperoned
and they dressed unconventionally, in gaiters. She wrote: "Divided skirts
are my horror. Gimme kilts to the knee, or trousers outright." Most women
were still wearing dresses that swept the ground. Encountering bewildered
Englishmen, the strangely clad Guiney and Brown would inquire with perfectly
straight faces if the gentleman had seen ten other women dressed just
as they were.
In spite of her proclaimed lack of interest in womankind, Guiney spent a great deal of her time with women. Among her female literary friends were Louise Chandler Moulton, Sarah Orne Jewett, Annie Fields, and Alice Brown. She corresponded with Lizette Reese. Long before the advent of current interest in Katherine Phillips, she wrote a book about the "Matchless Orinda," which she published in 1904. Although her assessment of Phillips mixed praise and blame she was particularly sympathetic with the independence of this seventeenth-century woman poet. In essence, Guiney (and many others like her) did not wish to be lumped together with what Thomas Beer called "the Titaness," a stern, aggressive female reformer who abhorred strong passions and strong drink and whose power was clearly being felt in the 1890s. Nevertheless, Guiney favored women's suffrage and she admired other women poets. To Herbert E. Clarke she wrote enthusiastically in 1896: "There is a new volume coming from Miss Reese, Lizette Woodworth Reese, whom I have always 'ighly hadmired. The women over here are regular Atlantas in the poetic race" (Letters, I, p. 143). To her credit, she did not resent other women on their way up.
With all Guiney's adventurous spirit and hard-headedness, it comes as something of a shock to find her as deeply attracted to martyrs as her early nineteenth-century sister poets like Elizabeth Oakes-Smith. She once wrote: "Thwarted growths always have an attraction for me, and the might-have-beens are more interesting than Sarah Lynches" (Letters, II, pp. 44-45). Her elegy to Thomas Parsons could have been written by any nineteenth-century woman poet early or late.
The renunciation of ambition and worldly power in favor of peace, and ultimately death, is all too familiar among women of this tradition. Her sense of her own failure at the end of her life was intense. She wrote: "I am a rounded and perfect Failure, so far as getting on in this world is concerned" (Letters, I, p. 235). Two years before her death, she complained in a letter:Look not on fame, but Peace; and in a bower
Receive at last her fulness and her power:
Not wholly, pure of heart!
Forget thy few, who would be where thou art."
I've been heading up against the wind very unnaturally for some six years now. Some sort of break-up is imminent, for I'm not getting any younger. I'm like a galvanized corpse kept alive by [others]; but in myself I have no weapon to fight the world with. And my mind is like the "walking-stick" insect, so infernally sensitive that if touched or breathed upon, it can only hang lifeless, instead of scuttling away. [Letters, II, pp. 243-44].For a woman who had "hungered for a largeness like the sea, / For space, for freedom, scope, infinity," this is a sad confession, though a familiar one.
Although much had changed for women poets, underneath the bravado much had remained the same. This is particularly obvious if we analyze the poems of these women. They may have allowed themselves a new frankness in using the language of passion, but behind this bold display lay many of the same fears and hesitations we recognize earlier in the century.
One might look, for instance, at a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox entitled "The Tiger."
At first glance this seems like a very modern-spirited poem for the 1880s. It can stand up to Santayana's attack on genteel American poetry as "simple, sweet, humane, Protestant literature, grand-motherly in that sedate spectacled wonder with which it gazed at this terrible world and said how beautiful and how interesting it all was." Yet one immediately notices how fearfully sex is presented here. It is a "savage hunter" predicting the death of the hunter. Once awakened, sexual appetite becomes unappeasable (it "will not sleep again"), and it threatens more than the single hunter. One remernbers Emily Dickinson's "In Winter in my Room" (P. 1670) in which a harmless worm ("pink, lank and warm") becomes a threatening snake from which the speaker flees in terror. Poems in which sex, or passion, appear threatening are rare among men, even in this relatively androgynous period. Women, on the other hand, have often written such poems. Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" stands as the paradigm.In the still jungle of the senses lay
A tiger soundly sleeping, till one day
A bold young hunter chanced to come that way.
"How calm," he said, "that splendid creature lies,
I long to rouse him into swift surprise!"
The well-aimed arrow shot from amorous eyes.
And lo! the tiger rouses up and turns,
A coal of fire his glowing eyeball burns,
His mighty frame with savage hunger yearns.
He crouches for a spring; his eyes dilate--
Alas! bold hunter, what shall be thy fate?
Thou canst not fly, it is too late, too late.
Once having tasted human flesh, ah! then,
Woe, woe unto the whole rash world of men,
The wakened tiger will not sleep again. [Poems of Passion]
In "As By Fire" Wilcox gives a more balanced view of the senses, without,
however, allowing them a legitimate claim.
The senses burn because the body is healthy not because it is diseased. But the speaker tells us she is striving for "a wholly spiritual existence'' Her perspective on the struggle remains the traditionally feminine, quasi-religious one:Sometimes I feel so passionate a yearning
For spiritual perfection here below,
This vigorous frame with healthful fervor burning,
Seems my determined foe.
Although Wilcox was "intensely religious by temperament, she subscribed to no fixed religion" (Ballou, p. 23). Still we find here the Puritan echoes so typical of these women poets, Deeds, works, the world--all are rejected in favor of self-control, abnegation, the spiritual life. Or, as Dickinson wrote in poem 745:Ah! when in the immortal ranks enlisted,
I sometimes wonder if we shall not find
That not by deeds, but by what we've resisted,
Our places are assigned.
Nowhere does one find the pure sensual joy of dominating nature evident in many male poems of the period. Nor does one recognize in women's poems the optimistic bravado of Richard Hovey's "Unmanifest Destiny":Renunciation - is the Choosing
Against itself -
Itself to justify
Probably the most Dickinsonian poem Wilcox ever wrote is "The Voluptuary":I do not know beneath what sky
Nor on what seas shall be my fate - ate,
I only know it shall be high
I only know it shall be great. [Stedman]
For some reason the prospect of satisfaction and self-indulgence filled these women with horror, and this at a time when essayists in the magazines were writing about "the general idleness and self-centeredness of the average American woman." Quite possibly, at a subconscious level, guilt was still associated in their minds with ambition. The common wisdom of the day was that the past ethic of self-sacrifice had been replaced by women with a new ethic of self-fulfillment. "Formerly," wrote Kate Wells, "to be a good housekeeper, an anxious mother, an obedient wife, was the ne plus ultra of female endeavor,--to be all this for others' sakes. Now, it is to be more than one is, for one's own sake" (her emphasis; Wells, p. 821).Oh, blest is he who has some aim defeated,
Some mighty loss to balance all his gain.
For him there is a hope not yet completed:
For him hath life yet draughts of joy and pain.
But cursed is he who has no balked ambition,
No hopeless hope, no loss beyond repair
But sick and sated with complete fruition,
Keeps not the pleasure even of despair. [Ballou, p. 74]
However, at a deeper level the ideal of renunciation and self-sacrifice did not lose its appeal for women so quickly. Much of the poignancy of Lizette Reese's poetry depends upon our recognition of woman's presumed need to serve. "Rachel" is a characteristic example in which we find not only "an anxious mother" but also the familiar notion that a woman's children are her wealth, her standard of success.
In Reese's "Renunciation" a woman sends her lover away in order that he may be happy.No days that dawn can match for her
The days before her house was bare;
Sweet was the whole year with the stir
Of small feet on the stair.
Once was she wealthy with small cares,
And small hands clinging to her knees;
Now is she poor, and, weeping, bears
Her strange, new hours of case. [Selected Poems]
This poem was published first in A Handful of Lavender in 1892, but its theme became a standard for women poets in the twenties, especially for Teasdale and Millay. Renouncing the lover seems somehow the only way of gaining control and attesting to one's own power.Seek her and find her; I do grudge her naught.
Love, after daylight, dark; so there is left
This season stripped of you; but yet I know,
Remembering the old, I cannot make
These new days bitter or myself bereft.
I know, 0 love, that I do love you so,
While peace is yours my true heart cannot break!
For a good deal of this poetry one could use as a summary Mme. de Vionnet's comment to Lambert Strether in Henry James' novel The Ambassadors: "The wretched self is always there, always making us somehow a fresh anxiety What it comes to is that it's not, that it's never, a happiness, any happiness at all, to take. The only safe thing is to give. It's what plays you least false." James was sensitive enough to realize that this was in essence a woman's view, which is why Strether (and many another Jamesian hero) is more at home with women than with men.
Sometimes one can hear in the heart of this self-denial a hint of masochism, "the pleasure of despair" as Wilcox calls it. Elinor Wylie was to become an expert at it. Lizette Reese suggests it in "To Life":
Obviously this conjunction of pain and pleasure has something to do with the ecstatic rendering of love as an image of death or of death as love. "Cruel and sweet," Louise Guiney's pairing, make up the quintessential 1890s' expression of deathly lust or lustful death. Guiney is probably the most interesting of the turn-of-the-century poets, less of a hack than Wilcox and more vibrant than Reese, but even she is not immune to the love/death union, as we can see by this poem called "Borderlands":Unpetal the flower of me,
And cast it to the gust;
Betray me if you will;
Trample me to dust.
But that I should go bare,
But that I should go free
Of any hurt at all--
Do not this thing to me! [Selected Poems]
This poem seems to me intentionally ambiguous. Are we meant to conclude that the terrifying yet longed-for figure is God? Whoever the "Thee" is, the "too divine alluring" is a threat to the "virginal long evening." We recognize the diction of sexual desire here but it is a passion "keen as the ancient drift of sleep on dying faces blown." Is the valley, the valley of the shadow of death? Fear and desire combine to make this "first and final Fair" a haunting presence seemingly amoral, certainly not traditionally Christian. Yet even when Guiney is at her most vibrant and militaristic, as in "The Knight Errant," death is presented invitingly:Through all the evening,
All the virginal long evening,
Down the blossomed aisle of April it is dread to walk alone;
For there the intangible is nigh, the lost is ever-during;
And who would suffer again beneath a too divine alluring,
Keen as the ancient drift of sleep on dying faces blown?
Yet in the valley,
At a turn of the orchard alley,
When a wild aroma touched me in the moist and moveless air,
Like a breath indeed from out Thee, or as airy vesture round Thee,
Then was it I went faintly, for fear I had nearly found Thee,
O Hidden, O Perfect, O Desired! O first and final Fair!
Although she did not reprint it in later editions, Guiney wrote one extraordinary ballad that must be of interest to those concerned with women's poetry as female expression. "Tarpeia" has unfortunately been omitted from women's anthologies. Though its subject is overtly classical, and part of the revival of classicism in which Guiney participated with male poets like Trumbull Stickney and William Vaughn Moody, the handling of the theme is characteristically feminine.The passion for perfection
Redeem my failing way!
The arrows of the upper slope
From sudden ambush cast,
Rain quick and true, with one to ope
My Paradise at last! [Happy Ending]
Woe: lightly to part with one's soul as the sea with its foam!At the heart of this poem, so thrilling and yet so disturbing, is an unresolved tension between the judgment expressed against Tarpeia and the injustice at a human level of her fate. If we assume, for a moment, that the poem is about what it claims to be about, that is, the betrayal of a great city, then Tarpeia is a villain deserving of her fate. Yet the poem refuses to consider the assault of the city seriously. It leaves off where the battle begins, and the refrain informs us that the real issue is lightly parting with one's soul. Of primary importance is not the betrayal of the city but the betrayal of the self. To make us despise Tarpeia, the poet need only have dwelt on the havoc she created or the defects of her character. Clues in terms of the imagery associated with her might have convinced us. However, her mercenary desires seem utterly childish rather than deeply wicked. She is characterized at the beginning of the poem as "innocent." She strays into the tent like a young animal who has lost her way. The Sabini are "pleased, as one meshing a bird." In the actual accomplishment of her traitorous act, the only description given is of her "nostril upraised, like a fawn's on the arrowy air." Why did the poet choose such a simile? The fawn is a young animal, relatively helpless, concerned merely with self-preservation in a dangerous environment, "the arrowy air." What's more, Guiney intensifies the description of Tarpeia's death to make the Sabine warriors seem far more barbaric than she. Theirs is a vengeful, adult destructiveness; hers merely a short-sighted, puerile selfishness. If we take her "woman's desire" to be one of mercenary self-interest, we might consider Guiney's warning in light of the endless reprimands of women for marrying for money which were published in the magazines, usually by women themselves. Commentators often described such marriages as a betrayal of the citadel, the home, resulting from women's immature and selfish desires. In suggesting such an interpretation, we have already stepped outside the intentional boundaries of the poem, but to deal adequately with it, it seems we must do so.
Woe to Tarpeia, Tarpeia, daughter of Rome!
Lo, now it was night, with the moon looking chill as she went:
It was morn when the innocent stranger strayed into the tent.
The hostile Sabini were pleased, as one meshing a bird;
She sang for them there in the ambush: they smiled as they heard.
Her sombre hair purpled in gleams, as she leaned to the light;
All day she had idled and feasted, and now it was night.
The chief sat apart, heavy-browed, brooding elbow on knee;
The armlets he wore were thrice royal, and wondrous to see:
Exquisite artifice, whorls of barbaric design,
Frost's fixed mimicry; orbic imaginings fine
In sevenfold coils: and in orient glimmer from them,
The variform voluble swinging of gem upon gem.
And the glory thereof sent fever and fire to her eye.
'I had never such trinkets!' she sighed,--like a lute was her sigh.
'Were they mine at the plea, were they mine for the token, all told,
Now the citadel sleeps, now my father the keeper is old,
'If I go by the way that I know, and thou followest hard,
If yet at the touch of Tarpeia the gates be unbarred?
The chief trembled sharply for joy, then drew rein on his soul:
'Of all this arm beareth I swear I will cede thee the whole,'
And up from the nooks of the camp, with hoarse plaudit outdealt,
The bearded Sabini glanced hotly, and vowed as they knelt,
Bare-stretching the wrists that bore also the glowing great boon:
'Yea! surely as over us shineth the lurid low moon,
'Not alone of our lord, but of each of us take what he hath!
Too poor is the guerdon, if thou wilt but show us the path.'
Her nostril upraised, like a fawn's on the arrowy air,
She sped; in a serpentine gleam to the precipice stair,
They climbed in her traces, they closed on their evil swift star:
She bent to the latches, and swung the huge portal ajar.
Repulsed where they passed her, half-tearful for wounded belief,
'The bracelets!' she pleaded. Then faced her the leonine chief,
And answered her: 'Even as I promised, maid-merchant, I do.'
Down from his dark shoulder the baubles he sullenly drew.
'This left arm shall nothing begrudge thee. Accept. Find it sweet.
Give, too, O my brothers!' The jewels he flung at her feet,
The jewels hard, heavy; she stooped to them, flushing with dread,
But the shield he flung after: it clanged on her beautiful head.
Like the Apennine bells when the villagers' warnings begin,
Athwart the first lull broke the ominous din upon din;
With a 'Hail, benefactress!' upon her they heaped in their zeal
Death: agate and iron; death: chrysoprase, beryl and steel.
'Neath the outcry of scorn, 'neath the sinewy tension and hurl,
The moaning died slowly, and still they massed over the girl
A mountain of shields! and the gemmy bright tangle in links,
A torrent-like gush, pouring out on the grass from the chinks,
Pyramidical gold! the sumptuous monument won
By the deed they had loved her for, doing, and loathed her for, done.
Such was the wage that they paid her, such the acclaim:
All Rome was aroused with the thunder that buried her shame.
On surged the Sabini to battle. O you that aspire!
Tarpeia the traitor had fill of her woman's desire.
Woe: lightly to part with one's soul as the sea with its foam!
Woe to Tarpeia, Tarpeia, daughter of Rome!
At a deeper level the poem is not about treason but prostitution; it is about sexual rather than national politics. It is useful to remember that prostitution was a live issue in this period, and one over which women were divided between feeling that prostitutes were utterly degraded and that they were innocent victims of male lust. Some of this conflict of attitudes is evoked in us by the poem's handling of Tarpeia. How are we to see her as a sexual figure?
To begin with, the image of a lone maiden in a campful of soldiers immediately suggests sexual danger. The structure of the bargain is further suggestive: the girl agrees to sell her favors for a material reward. The moon is "lurid," the men glance "hotly." However, the unmistakable clue that we are concerned with lust comes at the point where the Sabini take revenge on Tarpeia for "the deed they had loved her for, doing, and loathed her for, done." At this point her betrayal seems secondary to the betrayal of human trust that she suffers. Furthermore, the city is roused to action by the noise of her murder. Guiney's final words are deeply ambiguous: "O you that aspire! / Tarpeia the traitor had fill of her woman's desire."
It is probable that Louise Imogen Guiney was not fully aware of the issues she was raising. Consciously she seems to have had a healthy appreciation for sexual life. In the Tudor Exposition she found herself dissatisfied because the paintings so completely avoided what she called "the mystery of sex." However, at a deeper level she was as unnerved by woman's sexual vulnerability in a patriarchal society as her less liberated, earlier nineteenth-century sisters. The clear message is that what men will love you for doing at the moment, they will hate you for afterward. (One might compare Emily Dickinson's poems 213 and 1339.) In "Tarpeia" passion and death merge, with the gravest implications. Aspiration itself is guilty and must be punished. The traitor Tarpeia becomes through a curious inversion one of Guiney's martyrs.
Perhaps the unresolved tension in this poem was what led Guiney not to reprint it. Among serious women poets at the turn of the century, it is hard to find a poem that celebrates a woman for her aggressiveness or her success at doing "unwomanly" things. One mourns the fact that the feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman did not give more time to her poetry for she was a talented writer, and her refusal to accept the terms of the patriarchy, particularly her refusal to find renunciation a virtue, makes refreshing reading. Ironically, a male poet--William Vaughn Moody--could celebrate feminine defiance more readily than a Louise Guiney. In "I am the Woman" he created a female speaker who is defiant and yet admirable. In "The Death of Eve" Moody made Eve, the breaker of the covenant, into the instrument of human redemption. She returns to God at the end of her life, seeking reconciliation but unrepentant:
Women were not absent from male poems. Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote beautifully in "Eros Turannos" of a wealthy spinster whose love for a heartless opportunist destroys her. She is aware of his faults,Thine ample, tameless creature,--
Against thy will and word, behold, Lord, this is She!
What women's poetry of the period shows, however, is a growing female interest in women's sexual role. As with Guiney, one senses a certain ambivalence in the portrayals of women assuming nontraditional roles. In "The Death Potion" Lizette Reese makes her speaker contrive the death of her rival. She is openly unrepentant about her sexual liaison with her lover: "Though we had shame, yet had we bliss." And all that is provided in the way of a negative judgment of her is the refrain, "(Hear, Lord Jesus!)" as though Jesus were being made aware that here was a woman who certainly did not subscribe to his ethic of forgiving one's enemies. Nevertheless, this speaker is obviously not intended as a positive model. What Agnes Repplier described as "the repeal of reticence" was only beginning to occur in the 1890s. "Sex o'clock in America," as William Marion Reedy would call it in 1913, had not yet chimed."But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.
In general, women poets at the turn of the century sounded a mournful
note, as non-controversial as Ina Coolbrith's "Fruitionless":
Ah, little flower, upspringing, azure-eyed,
Living and blooming thy brief summer-day:
So, wiser far than I,
That only dream and sigh,
And, sighing, dream my listless life away. [Stedman]
The mournful note might have been sounded for the passing away of a world in which women at least had well-defined roles. Yet, beneath the listlessness of the 1890s was a restless hunger which surfaced at moments only to be subsumed under a philosophy of renunciation. As Louise Guiney wrote of Pascal in Happy Ending:
Ambivalence continued to be for women poets their primary attitude toward engaging in the struggle for power--sexual, literary, or political.Spirit so abstinent, in thy deeps lay
What passion of possession?
When Reese's authoritarian father died, her mother became the autocrat of the neighborhood. Reese, musing upon the transformation wondered in A Victorian Village if her mother had not always desired power. The question of the legitimacy of women's self-interested demands--for the vote, for jobs, for time away from the children--was endlessly debated in magazines like the Atlantic, with women often attacking each other for what they considered feminine selfishness. In order to circumvent the opposition of the patriarchy and those who supported its claims, many educated, intellectual women did not marry. Yet this was not enough. What the poetry of women like Guiney and Reese shows is that aspiration and success still made them uneasy. Even the feminists suffered from doubts; Christopher Lasch refers to "the suspicion that obsessed the feminist imagination: that in pursuing a masculine ideal she had betrayed her own femininity." Despite her bravado, the Gibson Girl's self-confidence was only skin-deep.
In "Astraea" Louise Guiney's speaker asks of the men she is leaving behind:
Are ye unwise, who would not let me love you?
Or must too bold desires be quieted?
Only to ease you, never to reprove you,
I will go back to heaven with heart unfed:
Yet sisterly I turn, I bend above you,
To kiss (ah, with what sorrow!) all my dead. [Happy Ending]
In 1900 the question still hung in the air: Must too bold desires be quieted? Those like Victoria Woodhull, advocate of free love, who answered "no" were outcasts. Most tried in the best way they could to negotiate their own peace. In this atmosphere of compromise and self-denial, it is no wonder that the most highly respected women poets like Guiney and Reese were attracted to an aesthetic of self-restraint. In "Planting the Poplar" Guiney describes her sense of her own craft.
Reese, for her part, added:In loneliness, in quaint
In gallant poverty,
A girt and hooded tree,
See if against the gale
Our leafage can avail. [Happy Ending]
Both poets shared an eerie sense of martyrdom about their professions. "Bargain," from Reese's last book Pastures, expresses it most directly:If you dig a well,
If you sing a song,
By what you do without,
You make it strong. ["Scarcity"]
Wilcox, Reese, and Guiney all shared a high degree of popularity in their time, although they are mostly forgotten today. Wilcox remained a poet of fireside sentiment, the author of "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone." William Randolph Hearst was her champion. H. L. Mencken thought Reese had written some of the greatest sonnets in the language and he continued to praise her work after her death. Willa Cather remarked that during her time at McClure's Magazine no verse "passed from hand to hand with so much excitement" as Guiney's (Fairbanks, p. ix).A rose will cost you more
Than its gathering;
A song be such a price
You dare not sing,
What must you pay for each,
Else loveliness fare amiss?
Yourself nailed to a Tree
Still, these women ended their lives feeling unfulfilled. Wilcox and Guiney both had nervous breakdowns in their last years. Reese's poem is eloquent concerning the "bargain" she felt she had made. They had gained a certain degree of recognition and independence but at a great price. Wilcox's comments in "An Open Letter to Literary Aspirants" may serve as a characteristically ambivalent summary for them all:
Seen from a distance, fame may seem to a woman like a sea bathed in tropical suns, where in she longs to sail. Let fame once be hers, she finds it a prairie fire consuming or scorching all that is dearest in life to her. Be careful before you light these fires with your own hands. [Men, Women and Emotions, p. 291]
In her description of the emerging leaders of the "new poetry" movement, Lowell emphasized discontinuity with the nineteenth century in a way that marked her as one of the new breed. She wrote:
(Later, in an ironic turnabout, Ella Wheeler Wilcox would attack Amy Lowell's poetry on the grounds of obscenity, the grounds upon which she herself had once been attacked.)This little handful of disconnected souls, all unobtrusively born into that American which sighed with Richard Watson Gilder, wept with Ella Wheeler Wilcox, permitted itself to dance delicately with Celia Thaxter, and occasionally to blow a graceful blast on the beribboned trumpet of Louise Imogen Guiney, was destined to startle its progenitors.