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.
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.