When literary people talk about women poets they often mention famous figures from the past. Emily Dickinson is the American poet who almost defined poetry for generations of schoolchildren as well as adults. Her name is familiar
to most readers, and a movie about her life, A Quiet Passion, impressed critics and moviegoers as recently as last year. The pale, reclusive Emily in her white dresses, scribbling her poems on little pieces of paper in her room seems the ideal poet.
Other women poets of the past are also well known. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, confined to her sickbed for years until rescued by Robert Browning, who took her to Italy and helped her become famous. Female poets are often associated with illness, delicacy and fragility. They are viewed as weak creatures, prone to suicide and early deaths. But not all women poets fit this pattern. Today I want to look back and honor the tough woman who proved that a woman could be both a writer and an active participant in worldly life—Aphra Behn.
One of the reasons Aphra Behn is not remembered, perhaps, is that we know little about her life. She was born, probably in 1640, almost two hundred years before Emily Dickinson in England. Her parents might have been a barber and a wet nurse, or perhaps not. One indisputable fact is that she learned to read and write, a rare privilege among working class women of her time. The gift of literacy made it possible for her to meet and mingle with people of all classes. Her introduction to aristocrats may have come through one of the families her mother met while acting as a wet nurse.
Coming of age during the restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, gave Aphra an opportunity to become active in the world of theater and publishing. As Oliver
Cromwell’s puritan restrictions were removed, there was an outpouring of publishing and theater. Starting out as a poet, Aphra turned to writing fiction and produced the story Oroonoko, set in Surinam, which became a long-lasting best seller. Later she turned to writing plays. She also, apparently, served as a spy for Charles II. Because she seldom discussed her background, very few facts are well established. One thing that we know for sure is that she was finally buried in Westminster Abbey—although not in the poets corner where many of her male friends and colleagues lie.
For those who would like more information about her life, I recommend a biography by Janet Todd, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life. It is long, but gives a continuously fascinating picture of a life shaped by history and secrets.
Perhaps the most important statement about Aphra Behn was made by Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of Her Own”. All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.
So as we read the poetry of the delicate women poets of the 19th century during this Poetry Month, we also ought to pay tribute to a woman who came before them. She struggled with poverty and class prejudices to make her way in a man’s world and in doing so she ensured that women’s voices would eventually be heard.
This year has been a disappointment for so many people and a disaster for some. Almost all the notes written on holiday cards from friends include some reference to being shocked and depressed by the election results last month. We are all wondering what the spring and summer will bring.
At a time like this it is a relief to take refuge in some of the books I have loved since childhood. I remember a poem by Oliver Herford that I read many years ago:
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
That poem was in a book called More Silver Pennies that my mother bought in a second-hand bookstore. It has echoed in my head every January for years.
When I was growing up, my friends and I had access to many poems that we read and reread. As a preteen I remember finding a book of Dorothy Parker’s poems at the home of one of my Girl Scout leaders. My best friend and I used to giggle over Parker’s verses when the scout meetings seemed long. We especially liked this one:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
That struck us as the most sophisticated and witty language we had ever heard. Parker gave us a glimpse of the glittering world of Manhattan just across the river from the quiet streets of Queens. We both decided that someday we would live in that world.
I know that school children today are encouraged to write their own poetry and express their feelings, but I hope they are also reading other people’s poetry. Poems, especially the old-fashioned kind that have rhythm and rhyme, linger in the mind and can be a lifelong pleasure.
Another favorite poet of my childhood was, of course, Emily Dickinson. Her works were everywhere—in schools and libraries . Teachers read them to us and we recited them back in class during Friday afternoon poetry sessions. Some of them are still with me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
At the end of this long and trying year, I am grateful I grew up with poetry. I hope children today are doing the same. Hope remains. Let’s all keep it in our hearts during the year ahead.
Today I went to the DeYoung Museum here in San Francisco to see an exhibit of paintings by J.M.W. Turner. It seemed a good way to take my mind off the painful thoughts about the terrorism in South Carolina this week. Some subjects are too painful to think about for very long, so I needed a break and joined the people eager to see the new exhibit of paintings.
Turner’s colorful paintings fill the galleries with light and the visitors crowded around each painting seemed absorbed in soaking up the color and vibrant emotion of the works. Turner was a British landscape painter, probably the best painter
England ever produced. Born in 1775, he began exhibiting his paintings early and continuing to develop and expand his talents throughout his life. His landscapes changed from being fairly straightforward presentations of natural scenes in the tradition of 18th century painters, to being explosions of color with vague outlines of buildings, people, and ships.
I walked through the galleries, stopping at each painting to admire the hazy forms and explosive colors. But as I looked at each painting, the scenes from a movie I saw a few months ago kept coming back to me—the critically acclaimed film Mr. Turner shows the artist working on some of these same paintings. As portrayed by actor Timothy Spall, Turner was a man dedicated to art but cruelly negligent about people. Despite his success as a painter, he refused to support his common law wife or his two daughters, and he sexually abused his housekeeper and treated her with contempt. He appeared to believe that his artistic talents justified his callous disregard for other people. Perhaps they did, but as I looked at his paintings, I wished that I had never seen the movie and learned the sordid details of his life. It’s too bad that that a movie once seen cannot be un-seen so that the images continue to influence any future view of the subject.
What is the value of an artist’s life compared with the value of the people (usually women and children) who suffer because of his vanity? (Of course, the genders may be reversed, but historically most artists have been men and most victims of artists have been women.) Do we really believe that all people are created equal, when people of genius are often treated
as though they are exempt from the normal moral norms of other people?
What is the value of art compared with human suffering? Do artists like Richard Wagner with his vicious anti-Semitism deserve to be honored and supported? Both Shelley and Byron, two of England’s greatest poets mistreated the women
who loved them and neglected their children. They left a legacy of beautiful poetry, but it does make me wonder whether spending a lifetime creating great art has any effect at all on the artist’s moral sense and human empathy.
What is the value of looking at great paintings, listening to fine music, and reading lovely poetry? They are produced by imperfect human beings, sometimes people we would despise if we knew them personally, but the art itself can be far better than the individual who created it. We have to accept creations made by flawed people, because we need poetry, music, and art to make our lives complete. And as Jean Cocteau once wrote: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. The artists and poets of the world create beauty despite their weaknesses, so I guess we should be grateful for what we learn from them and not ask for perfection in their lives.
Perhaps it is the long curls falling over her cheeks that makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning look like a stereotypical wan, Victorian poet. Although her love sonnets, especially “How do I love thee…” still live on in many readers’ imaginations and are sometimes quoted in wedding toasts, they have become too saccharine for many of us. Poets’ reputations veer up and down almost as quickly as those of basketball coaches or rap artists.
When she died in 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was so popular and admired that when William Wordsworth died, she had been considered as a logical successor as England’s poet laureate. Her book-length poem Aurora Leigh went through twenty editions between its publication in 1857 and 1900. With the new century the wind shifted and there were no more editions of the poem until 1978. Virginia Woolf, who never forgot Barrett Browning, wrote in 1932 that “Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.”
Now we are in another century and Elizabeth Barrett Browning is being looked at in a new light—not as a poet of love and harmony, but as a disruptive radical. She spoke out on many social issues including child labor.
The Cry of the Children
Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,
Ere the sorrow comes with years ?
They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —
And that cannot stop their tears.
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ;
The young birds are chirping in the nest ;
The young fawns are playing with the shadows ;
The young flowers are blowing toward the west—
But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly !
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.
Slavery was another favorite subject of Barrett Browning and her feelings about this were no doubt influenced by her family’s history as slave-owners in Jamaica. Elizabeth was aware, as was the rest of the family, that they had cousins and other relatives who were of mixed African and English blood. Some of the mixed-race children born to slaves on the Jamaican plantation that was home to Elizabeth’s grandfather, were acknowledged, others were not. Elizabeth and her siblings, who were dark skinned, probably had some African blood. Some critics speculate that a desire not to have more mixed-race grandchildren was the reason for Elizabeth’s father’s refusal to let his children marry. Although it’s hard to figure out why a man who did not want grandchildren would produce twelve children of his own.
The fluttering Victorian poet that many of us picture when we see some versions of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not the real EBB. She was a woman immersed in the social issues and politics of her own age. After she married Robert
Browning and moved to Italy, she became a staunch defendant of the Italian war for independence from Austria, just as her friend Margaret Fuller was. When she wrote her longest poem Aurora Leigh, she wrote about a woman’s struggle to maintain her independence from the man she loved and the marriage he proposed:
If I married him
I should not dare to call my soul my own
Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill.
Her concerns were the same ones that women struggle with today. It’s time to free her from the tyranny of being seen just as a poet of love. A good place to start is with the book Dared and Done: the Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus. It’s not a complete biography of her life, but a very readable account of her surprisingly happy marriage with another great poet. Together they faced many of the same issues that dual-career families face in the 21st century. It gives us a new picture of what those Victorians were really like.
She gave up beauty in her tender youth,
Gave all her hope and joy and pleasant ways;
She covered up her eyes lest they should gaze
On vanity, and chose the bitter truth.
Harsh towards herself, towards others full of ruth,
Servant of servants, little known to praise,
Long prayers and fasts trenched on her nights and days:
She schooled herself to sights and sounds uncouth,
That with the poor and stricken she might make
A home, until the least of all sufficed
Her wants; her own self learned she to forsake,
Counting all earthly gain but hurt and loss.
So with calm will she chose and bore the cross,
And hated all for love of Jesus Christ.
Neither her poetry nor her religious beliefs were the whole of her life, of course. Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830 and grew up in a large artistic family. Her father was a poet and a political exile from Italy, and her brothers Dante and William were among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists who strongly influenced British painting and the artistic climate of England. Both her sister Maria and William also became writers.
The men in the family were not particularly religious, but Christina’s mother and sister became deeply devout members of the Church of England. When Christina was fourteen she suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, perhaps caused by the stress of having to transform herself from a lively child into a modest Victorian young lady. It was at this time that she turned to religion as a source of comfort and inspiration. As her brothers moved into manhood and went out into the world, Christina, like other women of her generation, led the limited life of middle-class English girls, socializing only with family and friends and seldom moving into a wider circle. All her life she suffered from recurring bouts of melancholy, although these episodes did not keep her from writing her poetry and publishing it.
As an attractive young woman, Christina was not without admirers. She became engaged to a friend of her brothers, James Collinson, but when he reverted to Catholicism, she decided their religious beliefs were too incompatible to allow her to marry him. Later she had a warm relationship with Charles Cayley, a friend of her brothers, who asked her to marry him. But he too was unacceptable because their religious beliefs were incompatible. Finally she appears to have rejected an offer of marriage from John Brett, another friend of her brothers, and a painter. Once again it appears that religion was the obstacle, although evidence is difficult to find. After that, Christina’s life was devoted to her poetry, her family and friends, and a few social causes including humane treatment for animals and the rescue of “fallen” women.
Even as her poetry became widely known, Christina led a quiet life. She continued to suffer from periods of melancholy and her health became poor as she grew older. When she was about 60, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though the tumor was removed, the cancer recurred and she endured a long and painful illness. Her brother William and others tended her with loving care, but her last months were filled with depression and pain. A neighbor reported hearing her shrieking and crying hysterically, whether from pain or despair it is impossible to know.
Was she perhaps regretting how many chances for happiness she had given up in her pursuit of devotion? Did it sometimes seem that the God she had served for so many years had turned against her? We will never know what thoughts went through Christina Rossetti’s mind as she died in 1894, although you can learn more about her entire life by reading a biography such as Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life by Jan Marsh, which gives a thorough account of her achievements as well as her sorrows.
I like to remember Christina Rossetti as the author of one of the loveliest expressions of exuberant joy I have ever read. This poem tells me that she had some moments of happiness and knew the feeling of joy:
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these,
Because my love is come to me.
When St. Patrick’s Day comes around, Americans burst out with a flood of t-shirts, shamrocks, and parades. This year we even have a story about snakes in Ireland as the NY Times writes about how prosperity made snakes a favorite pet for a few years. Snakes are not the most cuddly of pets, so many of them have been set free, bringing snakes to Ireland after all the centuries of being free of them, courtesy of the legendary saint himself.
Few of stories and celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day have anything to do with the culture or history of Ireland and many of the heroes of the country, as well as most of the heroines are unknown today. One of the most unlikely lovers of Irish culture was Charlotte Brooke, born in County Cavan in 1740 to an Anglo-Irish family. Her father, Henry Brooke was a well-known playwright of the time, so Charlotte was raised in a cultured, literary family. Many Anglo-Irish people were fond of Ireland and enjoyed living there, but they thought of themselves as quite separate from the Irish peasants who lived around them. Very few learned the Irish language or knew the native Irish people except as servants. In fact the English did their best to stamp out all traces of Irish Roman Catholicism, the Irish language, and all of Irish culture. Charlotte was an exception. She learned the Irish language and appreciated the beauty of Irish poetry and legends and she became determined to preserve the legacy from extinction.
While her father was alive, Charlotte, like a dutiful 18th century daughter, devoted herself to helping him in his writing of now long-forgotten plays. When he died, she took on the task of collecting his plays and poetry and preparing them for publication. It was only after she had accomplished all this that she felt justified in turning to translating some of the Irish poetry she had found. Like most writers of the time, she had to find sponsors to provide money for publication and find them she did. Finally her book Reliques of Irish Poetry was published in 1789. She published not only her translations but the original Irish texts that she had used. The importance of this work is confirmed by a listing on the Cavan County Libraries site which points out that this book “confirms her place in the history of Irish literature and acclaims her as a forerunner of the literary movement for the revival of Irish in the nineteenth century and the formation of the Gaelic League. This was the first time that a wide selection of Irish verse appeared in print.”
Despite the importance of her contribution to the study of Irish literature and the influence that she had on poets of the 19th and 20th centuries, Charlotte Brooke is almost forgotten today. Her translations sound old-fashioned, written as they are in the style of the 18th century, but some of them capture the vitality of the Irish originals and can be enjoyed by modern readers. My favorite is this touching elegy written by a young man for his wife:
Sad the bird that sings alone,
Flies to wilds, unseen to languish,
Pours, unheard, the ceaseless moan,
And wastes on desert air its anguish!
Mine, o hapless bird! Thy fate!
The plunder’d nest, the lonely sorrow!
The lost—lov’d—harmonious mate!
The wailing night, the cheerless morrow!
O thou dear hoard of treasur’d love!
Though these fond arms should ne’er possess thee,
Still—still my heart its faith shall prove,
And its last sighs shall breathe to bless thee!