Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)
The word 'poetess' is contentious. For some it rankles, because the diminution of 'poet' is generally considered gratuitous, patronizing and offensive. More often than not, it belittles women writers and their work. Others, however, argue that it is a useful word with which to describe poets belonging to the 'poetess tradition'. That particular tradition demands our attention, they argue, and requires detailed study. In 2003, Peggy Davis wrote that such work had only just begun but more biographical research was needed 'to establish a more prominent place for the poetess in particular and, more generally, women's poetry in literary criticism and history'.1 George Eliot, Poetess can be seen as one response to that call to fill in the gaps.
In her Introduction and five additional chapters, Williams offers interpretations of George Eliot's poems that have received little or no critical attention, namely 'Erinna', 'How Lisa Loved the King', 'Brother and Sister', '0 May I Join the Choir Invisible', 'Mid the Rich Store of Nature's Gifts to Man' and' Agatha'. She also looks in detail at the more frequently considered Armgart, and in lesser detail at some of the other, mostly overlooked, poems. And, very significantly, she urges us to see Eliot as a poetess, freer to comment on social issues in her poetry than in her novels.
In Chapter 1, 'The Poetess Tradition’, the religious atmosphere of nineteenth-century Britain is examined, specifically how women poets found limited public forums for expressing religious ideas. By the end of the eighteenth century, poetry as worship was closely associated with feminine feelings, Williams says, and by the end of the nineteenth century the notion of the 'poet as prophet' was commonplace, giving women poets a special status to pronounce on all sorts of moral issues. Eliot worked in that tradition. Consider her detailed knowledge of Christian and Judaic religions worked into her poetry: the midrashic account of Moses's last days on Earth in 'The Death of Moses' (ca 1876) and a very brief reference found in Genesis 4 as the germ for 'The Legend of Jubal' (1869-70). Consider also how poetesses used foreign settings, thereby escaping gender restrictions. As a result, we have Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy (1864-68), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856) and Christina Rossetti's Monna Innominata (1881), all set in distant lands. When looking closely at 'Erinna' (c.1873-1876), Williams encourages us to see the female narrator as someone giving voice to the idea of women overcoming societal restrictions; and Eliot does so by creating verse that enlightens, elevates and endures.