Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson
by Margaret Homans
Princeton University Press, 272 pp., $14.75
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 …