Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson by Margaret Homans, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson

Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson

by Margaret Homans

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How does the consciousness of being a woman affect the workings of the poetic imagination? With this question Margaret Homans introduces her study of three nineteenth-century women poets and their response to a literary tradition that defines the poet as male. Her answer suggests why there were so few great women poets in an age when most of the great novelists


How does the consciousness of being a woman affect the workings of the poetic imagination? With this question Margaret Homans introduces her study of three nineteenth-century women poets and their response to a literary tradition that defines the poet as male. Her answer suggests why there were so few great women poets in an age when most of the great novelists were women.

Originally published in 1981.

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Women Writers and Poetic Identity

Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson

By Margaret Homans


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06440-6


The Masculine Tradition

In Romantic poetry the self and the imagination are primary. During and after the Romantic period it was difficult for women who aspired to become poets to share in this tradition, not for constitutional reasons but for reasons that women readers found within the literature itself. Where the masculine self dominates and internalizes otherness, that other is frequently identified as feminine, whether she is nature, the representation of a human woman, or some phantom of desire. Although this tradition culminates in Romantic poetry, it originates in the Bible, which directly and through Milton's transmission reinforces the Romantic reading of gender. To be for so long the other and the object made it difficult for nineteenth-century women to have their own subjectivity. To become a poet, given these conditions, required nothing less than battling a valued and loved literary tradition to forge a self out of the materials of otherness. It is not surprising that so few women succeeded at this effort; very few even conceived of the possibility of trying.

This chapter will concentrate on two major ways in which women readers must have found woman's otherness reinforced: her association with nature and her exclusion from a traditional identification of the speaking subject as male. Although for the purposes of analysis these topics will be considered separately, here and in the chapters on the three individual authors, they are in fact complementary aspects of one larger problem.

William Wordsworth's feminization of nature is the most obvious example of sexual polarization in the literary tradition that would have shaped women poets' conception of poetry. When nature is Mother Nature for Wordsworth, she is valued because she is what the poet is not. She stands for a lost memory, hovering just at the edge of consciousness, of a time before the fall into self-consciousness and into subject-object relations with nature, whether that original unity took place in earliest infancy or, Actively, before birth. As the object of the poet's love, Mother Nature is the necessary complement to his imaginative project, the grounding of an imagination so powerful that it risks abstraction without her. But he views her with a son's mixture of devoted love and resistance to the constraints she would place on his imaginative freedom. She is no more than what he allows her to be. It has become customary for feminist theorists and historians to invoke the idea of a matriarchal society that predated the dualistic patriarchies of Egypt, Greece, and western culture thereafter. This matriarchy is generally described as originating in the worship of fertility, in which the earth is a mother goddess and all nature, including humanity, is her creation and her domain. Whether this matriarchal society is mythic or historical, that the memory of it should be kept alive demonstrates that some portion of the human mind likes the notion that women could be as powerful as men. But there is an important distinction to be made between women and the "feminine principle," and the myth emphasizes the latter over the former. The powers of Wordsworth's maternal nature or of this prehistoric matriarchy have no necessary bearing on the powers of real women. Whether as a cultural or political memory, or as personal myth transmitted into poetry, Mother Nature is not a helpful model for women aspiring to be poets. She is prolific biologically, not linguistically, and she is as destructive as she is creative.

There are many other models of femininity in literature, but Nature is doubly imposing. She has a special status not just as a figure of the mother but also as a mother figure in that, as the most powerful feminine figure in Romantic poetry, she dominates the consciousness of women entering the tradition as newcomers. She was there before them, as the mother precedes the daughters. For the male poets of the Romantic period, the poets of the past and the figures of the poet represented in their works constitute a father figure against whom the younger poet, picturing himself as a son, must define himself. If the figure of the powerful poet of the past is the father, in this family romance, then the mother is surely the Mother Nature represented as the object of that poet's love. Freud tells us that it is the father-son conflict that provokes growth and creativity in the son. His view of the mother-daughter relation is somewhat different, but for the women poets this is surely the major formative conflict. The women poets must cast off their image of themselves as objects, as the other, in the manner of daughters refusing to become what their mothers have been. The difficulty is that the image of Mother Nature is so appealing. The women poets do not want to dissociate themselves either from Nature or from nature even though they know they must.

None of the poets treated here became mothers themselves. Two lost their mothers early, Dorothy Wordsworth at the age of six and Emily Bronte when she was three, and Dickinson's remarks about her shy and traditional mother suggest what the other poets might have felt about theirs had they lived. "I never had a mother" signifies for Dickinson, perhaps, her sense of distance from her mother's life and concerns. Dorothy especially suffered from being an orphan, and yet literature may have benefited from her and Bronte's not having had images of compliant femininity to love and emulate. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has shown from diaries and letters written by relatively ordinary nineteenth-century women how intensely close and untroubled relations normally were between mothers and daughters. But these daughters had no other ambition than to become what their mothers were: good wives and mothers. Contemporary women are startled at these revelations because dissonant relations between mothers and daughters are now the rule rather than the exception, if the mother is a "mother-woman" like Madame Ratignolle in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and if the daughter aspires to be anything more than that. Nineteenth-century women poets are more appropriately grouped, in this respect, with twentieth-century women than with their contemporaries. To be writers they cannot foster, as Wordsworth does, intimate relations with maternal nature. They cannot be docile daughters of Nature because they know it is all too possible to pass from continuity to identification and thence to a loss of their own identity. Lynn Sukenick uses the term "matrophobia" to refer to Martha Quest's fear of becoming too like her own mother in Doris Lessing's Children of Violence, but the term applies as well to nineteenth-century women poets' relations with Mother Nature.

According to Freudian psychology, women both reject and then masochistically imitate their mothers. Seeing the world androcentrically, Freud insists that the oedipal theory apply to women as well as it does to men. Because girls must conform to the oedipal pattern they are obliged to reject the object of their first love, the mother, in order to redirect their love to masculine objects. They must take a circuitous route through pre-oedipal and oedipal stages whereas boys follow an undeviating path: "In the course of time ... a girl has to change her erotogenic zone and her object — both of which a boy retains." Freud's assertion that the girl not only redirects her love toward her father but also actively rejects her mother is based on his questionable definition of females as castrated males. The girl, discovering her "lack," holds her mother responsible. This theory of femininity may have been and may even still be descriptively accurate, but only because women have internalized their oppressors' negative view of femininity. If women reject maternal figures it is because they have been conditioned to do so by a masculine culture that held Freud's beliefs long before Freud articulated them.

Yet insofar as the mother has feelings of inferiority, or views herself as psychically castrated, the daughter has good reason for her matrophobia. Karen Horney examines cultural factors that may better account for what Freud took to be a biological matter. Citing the "masculine character of our civilization," in which women are restricted to the narrowest of functions, Horney says that "a girl is exposed from birth onward to the suggestion — inevitable, whether conveyed brutally or delicately — of her inferiority, an experience that constantly stimulates her masculinity complex" (p. 69). The women held up as models of femininity to other women are those who, by their passivity and infantility, pose the least threat to the "superiority of the masculine principle." Clara Thompson interprets penis envy, the correlate in Freud's thinking to feminine "castration," as a symbol for women's quite rational envy of the power and privilege associated with being a man. These interpretations make sense of the girl's rejection of her mother as herself "castrated" and as responsible for the daughter's cultural castration. It is the mother's cultural powerlessness that the daughter is rejecting, not the mother herself. She denies her love for and identification with her mother only insofar as the mother stands for a situation that the daughter wishes to rectify.

Mother Nature is hardly powerless, but, enormous as her powers are, they are not the ones that her daughters want if they are to become poets. A human mother's giving birth may be an extraordinarily active event, but as a model for the daughter's vocational ambitions it is simply not applicable, because it stems from what she is, not from what she does (Horney, p. 145). Milton's Mother Earth, giving birth to herself, is passive and requires the active agency of "Main Ocean" to complete the process, in the following passage from Paradise Lost:

The Earth was form'd, but in the Womb as yet
Of Waters, Embryon immature involv'd,
Appear'd not: over all the face of Earth
Main Ocean flow'd, not idle, but with warm
Prolific humor soft'ning all her Globe,
Fermented the great Mother to conceive,
Satiate with genial moisture, ...
(VII, 276-282)

Mother Nature is also traditionally associated with death as much as with life. Even Wordsworth, who attributes to nature an active and beneficent love, retains the tradition of her amorality in his portrayal of her mixed ministries of fear and love. She has no consciousness, only materiality and an elusive presence; no center, only diffuseness. Writing poetry would seem to require of the writer everything that Mother Nature is not, and the first project of any poet who is also a daughter must be to keep herself from becoming her mother.

One critic of Freud, Luce Irigaray, finds that this somewhat involuntary rejection of the mother may be responsible for depriving the daughter of a strong sense of identity and therefore of subjectivity. Without subjectivity, women are incapable of self-representation, the fundamental of masculine creativity. Irigaray suggests that a new feminine creativity, and a renovation of culture, would result from women's recovering the maternal origins from which masculine culture separates them. Returning to her proper origins, a woman will acquire so strong a sense of identity that she will not need to search for self in everything she sees; creativity will begin with an acknowledgment that the rest of the world is not to be possessed. (Cixous also praises women's potentially greater respect for otherness.) This original creativity would be free from the masculine trait of domination by the central self. But Freud's theory of femininity describes almost the same position, if negatively, since Freud uses it to deny creativity to women: cut off from origins, a woman has no central self by means of which to subjugate the objective world. But although Irigaray's formula would seem the more positive, the feminine self in the Wordsworthian tradition finds herself in a peculiar dilemma. To identify with the mother in this case would be to identify with nature, and to identify with nature would be to put an end to writing about nature.

The traditions surrounding Mother Nature in Romantic poetry affect Dorothy and Bronte more than Dickinson, because the British writers are more concerned with nature than are the Americans. The literary tradition in which Dickinson finds herself, as defined largely by Emerson, transcends Wordsworth's respectful view of nature. Emerson is as much or more self-centered than the British Romantics, but his exaggeration of this mode is helpful to Dickinson, his female successor. Because his self is so inclusive, he cares less for the specific characteristics of the "NOT ME," so that Dickinson is not confronted with the same relentless myth of female nature and female objects of desire that Bronte and Dorothy Wordsworth face. Enormous as Emerson's egotism is, it is more easily adapted by a woman, because it has no sexually defined objects. Dickinson's sense of her femininity is more evident in reference to rhetoric than to maternal nature, and this chapter will return to questions of rhetoric later on. But the two matters are not entirely separable, and Dickinson does write about Mother Nature, just as Dorothy and Bronte also encounter rhetorical problems.

Wordsworth's major characterizations of nature as maternal occur in The Prelude, published in 1850, two years after Bronte's death. But several poems by Wordsworth available to all early nineteenth-century readers characterize nature as maternal or feminine, most notably two central formulations of poetic project, the verse Prospectus to The Excursion and "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." In the Prospectus to The Excursion Wordsworth's "spousal verse" for the marriage between the intellect and nature assumes a masculine "Mind of Man" for the poetic psyche, and it assumes the traditional feminine characterization of nature for his counterpart.

Paradise, and groves
Elysian, Fortunate Fields — like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic Main — why should they be
A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?
For the discerning intellect of Man,
When wedded to this goodly universe
In love and holy passion, shall find these
A simple produce of the common day.
— I, long before the blissful hour arrives,
Would chant, in lonely peace, the spousal verse
Of this great consummation.

By invoking the idea of pagan paradises in this context, the poet images the communion between the mind and nature in the manner of Plato's primordial androgyne, so that the fall is like the separation of the sexes. Through the reference to Milton, here and elsewhere in the Preface, the poet relates his bridal "external world" to Milton's maternal nature of Book VII of Paradise Lost. First the "great Mother" emerges from the womb of waters; later,

the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn'd,
Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad
Her Universal Face with pleasant green,
Then Herbs of every leaf, that sudden flow'r'd
Op'ning thir various colors, and made gay
Her bosom smelling sweet.
(VII, 313-319)

Wordsworth's image of the universal marriage is beautiful and convincing in itself and because it exalts as it typifies the rest of his project. But it depends on identifying matter and otherness as female and subjectivity as male.

Maternal nature in the Intimations Ode is less exalted than the bridal universe of the Prospectus to The Excursion. Man is here the child of heaven, but the foster-child of Earth, who is explicitly opposed to the memory of a primordial heaven.

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother's mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

Self-involved, Mother Earth has no capacity for understanding her foster-child's infinite desires, and opposes transcendence. Only by transforming nature into a reminder of "What was so fugitive" — the infant's unconscious communion with heavenly things — does the poet cease to feel threatened by natural objects and find a renewed intimacy with them. Maternal nature is depersonalized into "ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves," and the new relation that the poet prescribes means a shift from living "beneath your more habitual sway" to a less hierarchical love. The poet learns that he can still love nature without submitting to her control and without being like her. Similarly in "Tintern Abbey" the two stages of youth that the speaker has now passed are both characterized by a likeness between youth and nature. The "glad animal movements" "of my boyish days" give way only to the time "when like a roe /1 bounded o'er the mountains." Growing up depends on being able to have a separate identity and to "look on nature" rather than seeing nature from within.


Excerpted from Women Writers and Poetic Identity by Margaret Homans. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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