Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson
Many vocations are discouraged by life. Able people fail to become the doctors, or writers, or mothers that we say they were “meant” to be, had it not been for institutional rigidity, or psychic inhibition, or biological infertility. The causes of a stifled poetic vocation are so multiple (from the intellectual isolation and poverty that made Gray’s village Miltons mute and inglorious to the qualities of personality that made Wordsworth’s brother John what Wordsworth called “a silent poet”) that an investigation of inhibited or difficult poetic vocation in women is evidently assailable on innumerable grounds, no matter what its virtues. Consequently, Margaret Homans’s intelligent, if rather non-literary, study of poetic identity in women writers is subject to a thousand objections. Homans chooses on the whole not to acknowledge them or defend herself against them, but to continue serenely with her argument—a serious, consistent, and close-woven one. If Homans provokes dissent, she does so as good teachers do; she has a point of view, it is her own, it issues as thought not propaganda, it is ably illustrated, and it is informed by feeling.
Homans is a twenty-eight-year-old woman teaching (and I assume trained) at Yale, and though her book bears some traces of its origin as a dissertation, it is not a book written simply to order; it rises from a painful problem painfully explored. Homans asks how women who want to be poets are likely to feel about their vocation; what interior obstacles are they likely to encounter; how does their psychological predicament differ, if it does, from that of men who wish to be poets? The book eliminates all sociological questions (“£500 a year and a room of her own”), all physiological ones (pregnancy and motherhood), even all contractual ones (marriage), by examining three women poets who never had to be gainfully employed for any length of time, who never had children, who were never even married—Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson.
The choice is somewhat odd, since Dorothy Wordsworth wrote only a very few poems (and those were wholly unremarkable); Emily Brontë, though a more successful poet than Dorothy Wordsworth, found her literary fulfillment in composing a novel, as Dorothy Wordsworth found hers in journalwriting; only Dickinson, of the three, was fully a poet, first and last. (Homans mentions, without explanation, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti as women she might have included, but did not.)
I hope I will not coarsen Homans’s argument too much in summarizing it. It is chiefly a Freudian argument, and of course some objections to it could arise from this, for example from its assumption of various Freudian axioms about female development—that the mother precedes the father as a love object for little girls, and that the female erotic drive is therefore diffused and confused as the male one is not, since the little boy can replace his first love object, the mother, directly by another love object of the same gender; the little girl, on the other hand, must repress her original love for the mother in order to take a male lover, modeled after her second love object, the father.
To this model Homans adds the pattern of relations that Harold Bloom has based on his own reading of Freud. As Bloom sees it, the son’s struggle with the father for dominance is translated in the case of male poets into the struggle with the poetic precursor. The establishment of male poetic identity, in this interpretation, depends upon the poet defining himself against an other: the other is variously the father and precursor and the maternal female, easily identified with earth and nature. Poetic creativity in men takes as its paradigm (as Coleridge said) the divine Logos, speaking its self-constituting “I AM,” and by naming nature (as Adam did) appropriates it. The identification with a paternal Creator entails, in the male, a suppression of certain female aspects of the personality. These are allowed by the male poet to return in the person of the Muse, who gives him access to unpremeditated thoughts which would, without her, remain hidden. Lyric poetry is thus, for the male poet, the voice of a speaking subjectivity which names the other (the female, nature, the precursor) and by naming it subjects it to his creative dominance; by which he achieves (in the part of this theory that seems least clear to me) a transcendence of time, space, and death.
If we allow all the above—even as an acceptable myth—Homans then takes us further. She asks, what is the female poet who inherits this myth to do? Her culture (religious and social) places her as Eve to Adam, the object for his subjectivity, the nature which he can name. She is permitted to imitate the biological “creativity” of nature, not the autonomy of Adamic naming. There is no traditional male figure for inspiration that she can invoke as the embodiment for inhibited or repressed parts of her self as the male poet can invoke the Muse. And even if she could invoke a male Muse, he would become confused with her (chiefly male) poetic precursors, with whom she must, as poet, struggle—so she could not embrace him as male poets can wholeheartedly embrace their (female) Muse while simultaneously wrestling, like Jacob, with their male precursors. If the female poet identifies with her mother and therefore with nature, how can she take a proprietary and dominating attitude toward nature, asserting the mind’s power over nature, as Romantic poetics (with which Homans is chiefly concerned) would have her do?
And here Homans asks us to share yet one more assumption; we are to see the Romantic poetics of asserted subjectivity, godlike imagination, dominated nature, and visionary transcendence as the chief source for the creation of lyric poetry, at least as a poetics which would have been internalized by Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. (We are to forget that they also read other poets from Shakespeare to Pope, who embody other implied poetics. Christina Rossetti, with a poetics deriving chiefly from devotional verse, would considerably complicate the argument here.) And of course to see the “Romantic poetic” only in this way is itself a skewing of evidence. A poetic derived from Wordsworth will not do for Keats or Clare. Homans says as much in a footnote on Keats, not quite realizing I think how much it damages her argument.
If we grant Homans all her postulates, we can proceed to her three individual cases. In her view, Dorothy Wordsworth accepted William Wordsworth’s identification of her with nature, and so she subordinated her mind utterly to natural fact, dispersing herself into the natural scene, letting herself reflect it in her journals, avoiding a center of subjective organization or commentary (not to speak of dominance). Though this method made the journals memorable, it made for a feeble “decentered” form of lyric.
Emily Brontë invented two strategies to deal with her femaleness. The first was to attribute a voice to nature (especially to the wind), hoping by identification with nature thereby to have a mode of speech; the second was to locate poetic power in the voice of a “God of Visions” who, like a male Muse, visited her unpredictably, and who seemed sometimes outside herself, sometimes within her. Both of these strategies, because they are projections of the poetic voice outside the poetic self, seem dead ends to Homans.
Emily Dickinson, after some initial flirtation with the classic identifying of self with nature, decided to see herself as alien to nature. (We are asked to accept that Dickinson’s “American predecessors are not so prolifically enamored of nature as are their British counterparts.”) Dickinson then attempted a language questioning received dualistic ideas and polarities (of subject and object, primary and secondary, higher and lower, masculine and feminine). In scorning—or at least taking an ironic view of—these structures of thought, Dickinson liberated her voice, according to Homans, in ways Dorothy Wordsworth’s self-abnegation and Brontë’s projection of voice onto nature or a male Muse could not achieve.
Though Homans rightly says that “poetry requires a theory of its own” and that “literary experience is the poet’s equivalent to the novelist’s societal experience,” she takes a narrow view of what a theory of poetry might include, and an even narrower view of what “literary experience” is. She wishes, she says, unlike the feminist critics who write on female novelists and take up chiefly thematic and sociological questions, to look chiefly at “literary tradition.” But her view of “literary tradition” in this book is almost wholly thematic, deriving as it does from the Freudian narrative (of mother, father, child, ego, and id) and from the themes of Nature (Mother Nature, the dominated female) and religion (the creative Logos, the naming Adam, the derivative Eve). And even Homans’s view of the Romantic poetic is wholly thematic—embodied in the myth by which the masculine imagination, threatened by a powerful maternal or neutral Nature, asserts its autonomy and transcendence of matter, and defeats its male precursors as well.
These myths—whether Freudian, Judaeo-Christian, or Coleridgian—are by no means all that is to be found in “literary tradition,” and they are not the only basis for that “theory of its own” required by lyric poetry. Literary experience consists of course partly in our exposure to cultural archetypes. (I am still leaving aside the question of the validity of those presented by Homans.) But for the lyric poet especially, literary experience consists equally, or perhaps primarily, in exposure, odd as it may sound, to words. “For years,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “my Lexicon was my only companion.” In Arnold’s famous list of poetic “touchstones” we see a poet’s internalizing of the best lines of other poets—some of them, it’s true, valued as much for moral sentiment as for lexical brilliance, but others, like “Absent thee from felicity awhile,” isolated in pure poetic envy and admiration. What it means to be a poet (for a young woman poet as for a young man poet) is to have a fiendishly intense lexicon in one’s memory, to run through and draw on in striking ways. Most would-be poets haven’t the neurological capacity for such a lexicon (as most of us haven’t the capacity for the corresponding musical lexicon found in composers); they have a limited lexical repertoire, a dull sonic reserve. There is absolutely no sign in Dorothy Wordsworth’s verse that she had an obsession with words—her journals show rather an obsession with sights.
A second indispensable ingredient in the literary experience of the would-be lyric poet is the experience of syntax and rhythm; yet another is the experience of genre and form. The young poet reads aubades, sonnets, elegies, feast-day poems, villanelles, litanies, psalms, hymns, satires, topographical poems, odes, birthday poems, patriotic poems, ballads, epitaphs—and on and on. Many talented young poets do a lot of imitating of genres and forms. The oddest thing about Emily Dickinson is her inhuman self-constriction in form and even in genre, a constriction prompted, I would guess, not by timidity but by a harsh experiment in constants and variables (where the variables are syntax and lexicon). Emily Brontë’s relatively narrow limits in poetic genre, form, and lexicon contrast strikingly with the generic and formal originality of Wuthering Heights. No theory of poetic vocation in women can well afford a neglect of lexical, generic, and formal tradition in favor of a generalized psychology of acceptable or unacceptable archetypes.
Nor can a theory of poetry neglect, in favor of the question of self-representation, the question of the representation of the larger world—not “Nature,” but the world. While lyric poetry does not undertake a mimetic representation of the social order as some novels do, it borrows from that social world for its metaphors. All three of the women poets of Homans’s book suffered from an abysmal lack of exposure to the social and sexual world. They suffer from this lack at least as much as they may be presumed to have suffered from doubts about the legitimacy of assertion of self for females or from identification with nature and the mother. These poets went to no university; they knew scarcely any houses but familial ones; they moved for the most part in none but intimate circles; they had no sexual experience; they had no worldly sophistication; the only work of a practical sort that they were permitted to do was domestic work, which carries its own stultification. A theory of literary experience, even for lyric poetry, must include the experiences that yield metaphors for verse (we recall Shakespeare’s wide-ranging metaphors from the practical arts, courtly occupations, law, battle, medicine, statecraft, religion, etc.).
None of these three aspects of literary experience gets its due in Homans’s book. She is convincing, though, when she argues, at the end of her book, against feminist theorists who think that the function of female poets is to tell the literal truths of female life, physiological, erotic, and psychological. To their rallying cry “No more masks!” Homans rightly says that “language is inherently fictive and creates masks whether or not the speaker or writer wishes it…. This aim [of ripping away masks] is fundamentally antithetical to the aims of poetry [previously named as abstraction and transcendence] and it dooms itself by denying itself the power that poetry genuinely offers.” Restricting the poetic “I” to the literal self is an impoverishment: “Wordsworth, egotist though he is, does not name himself Wordsworth; ‘creative soul’ and ‘Poet’ are names that enlarge the self, where explicit naming would diminish it.”
In calling on female poets to speak as representative human minds rather than as private and literal transcribers of restricted individual experience, Homans aims to right a balance. It is regrettable that the modern woman poet who comes closest to her ideal, Elizabeth Bishop, is not once mentioned in the closing chapter, which, perhaps deliberately, chooses to speak only of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich, all poets who have experienced marriage and motherhood.
If women poets read this book, as I hope they will, they can test its assertions against their own sense of vocation. It seems much harder nowadays to remain a virginal spinster writing in one’s father’s or brother’s house. Whether women’s wider social, educational, and sexual experience will improve their poetry is impossible to say with certainty. In the meantime, our young women poets, however loyal their interest in the work of their female predecessors and contemporaries, are still finding the best poetry available to them in the pages of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and Wordsworth. I am not convinced that this array of male predecessors is as inhibiting as Homans believes it to be; but no woman can fail to hope for the appearance of a woman poet of Shakespearian or Keatsian power.